When Xiao Jingyan said these words, his voice was not loud but its tone penetrated with a strong force, their meaning loud and clear. The Emperor’s drooping eyebrows suddenly trembled, and he slowly lifted his cloudy eyes into a squint. Suddenly his eyes flashed with a sharp gleam of light, and fixed their gaze on Prince Jing’s face.
“You…what objections do you have?” The Emperor of Great Liang dragged out his words, his tone showing neither pleasure nor displeasure, but neither was there much goodwill.
Prince Yu who was seated on his left immediately respectfully adjusted his sitting position. The corners of his lips twitched upwards into a smug smile, but he was conscious of it and immediately suppressed it.
Prince Jing noticed this but did not look at Prince Yu, only bowed his head and replied: “Your son thought that no matter the outcome of that past case, it had caused great sorrow to the royal family. Such damage to the imperial dynasty was a calamity that cannot be misconstrued as luck, nor should it be brought up and discussed so enthusiastically in this manner, without the least bit of heaviness in one’s heart. Director Xia has always been known to handle matters with an iron fist, strict and fierce, really to be admired. But the kingdom is not in chaos now. Proposing such a severe punishment is easy, but as for how to reinvigorate the country or how to bring a country to ruin, the rulers of past generations have long since written books about this. In the presence of Father Emperor’s great wisdom, how dare I answer when Director Xia asks me if his reasoning is correct?”
Such high level words coming from Prince Jing, who had never been known for his eloquence, shocked his enemies.
Prince Yu straightened his back and was just about to say a few words to counter this when Xia Jiang stood up, chuckling, “When official business is being discussed in His Majesty’s presence, it is normal for political views to differ. If Your Highness does not approve of my proposal, just say it as it is, why be so angry? Could it be that the words I said just now offended you, making you unhappy? If so then let this old minister be the first to admit my mistake.”
“Yes. Jingyan, you….” Prince Yu chimed in to lend his support, but caught a quick glance from Xia Jiang and immediately kept quiet.
He was a smart man. In a flash, he understood that Xia Jiang didn’t want the two of them to appear to be cooperating too excessively, in order not to arouse the Emperor’s suspicions. Fortunately, he was able to quickly take back the words at the tip of his tongue and modify them. “….what Jingyan says is not wrong, just that he has a bit of a temper. But Director Xia is too oversensitive. You know Jingyan’s temperament is like this but he didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Whether Your Highness Prince Jing had any intention or not, this old minister cannot discern. Regardless, what you said just now about the past case I didn’t really understand. This case was personally examined and decided by the Emperor, every thread and every strand examined in detail without discrepancy. Could it be that till today, Your Highness is still unclear about the evidence?”
Actually, at this time, all Prince Jing needed to say was a few words such as “I didn’t mean that” or “It’s not an objection to the past case”, and the issue would have dissolved. No matter the circumstances, Xia Jiang was a senior minister, a vassal of the court, and Prince Jing could not keep striking at him indiscriminately. However, when all was said and done, Prince Jing was Prince Jing. Thirteen years of stubbornness cannot be polished away in a such a short span of half a year. One might even say that this further fanned his outrage following his recent discovery of some of the actual facts concerning the case (Xie Yu’s confession). Which is why, at this moment, even though he knew fully well that the Emperor was only pretending to not pay any attention, but was in actual fact waiting to evaluate his response, Prince Jing could not ignore his innermost self to say such ingratiating words. Xiao Jingyan really could not do it.
“What happened that year, I really do not know. I only know that I received imperial orders to leave the capital for Dong Hai on a diplomatic mission. Then, the wise Prince Qi was still a highly revered prince, the loyal Commander Lin was still outstanding in meritorious deeds, the mighty Chiyan Army was still protecting the northern borders of Great Liang, but when I returned, I was informed that they were rebels, traitors, sinners, all dead. Apart from the mass graves and the memorial tablets, I didn’t see a single corpse, so how could I have clear proof?”
“So that’s how it is,” Xia Jiang nodded, his tone of voice remaining unchanged. “It turns out that in Your Highness’s heart, as long as there are wise princes, outstanding individuals with meritorious deeds, mighty armies with soldiers as numerous as clouds, then they can rebel (without punishment)?”
After Xia Jiang’s malicious question, Meng Zhi tried his best to make eye contact with Prince Jing, to signal to him to calm down.
However, his blood had boiled over to such an extent that it was difficult to extinguish in a flash. In that moment, 32 year old Xiao Jingyan was really unable to allow himself to patiently endure having someone crush his deepest and most painful wound underfoot. “This so-called rebellion, there is no real basis. I looked into it and only found the case report Director Xia presented.”
“That is not possible. Did you only see the case report Director Xia presented?” Prince Yu interjected in a mild tone. “Jingyan, don’t tell me you didn’t see Father Emperor’s personally issued imperial edict?”
Hearing this, the Emperor who was reclining pushed himself off the pillow and finally lowered the hand from his forehead. Sitting upright, he slowly stared into Prince Jing’s eyes and said, “Jingyan, about how I handled the Chiyan case…..are you dissatisfied?”
Even though this question sounded unextraordinary, it was a delicate one and in actual fact, extremely critical. Prince Jing immediately rose and knelt before the Emperor, bending forward to lie prostrate in obeisance, but when he raised his head, it would appear that he was still unwilling to concede.
“Your son really doesn’t harbour any dissatisfaction towards Father Emperor. Your son simply believes that Prince Qi has always…..”
“It’s Xiao Jingyu the commoner!” The Emperor suddenly erupted in unrestrained anger, his voice loud. “What Commander Lin, that’s Lin Xie the rebel! Haven’t you learnt how to use the right appellation?”
Prince Jing bit down firmly on his lower lips, leaving deep teeth marks, and composed himself to relax the throbbing muscle on his face.
Meng Zhi immediately knelt down and said softly, “Your Majesty, the New Year is almost here. Please hold back the anger of the Son of Heaven for now to reassure the people of your benevolence.”
“Jingyan, you should at least also say a few words,” Prince Yu urged him softly. “How can you contradict Father Emperor in the presence of myself and a court official?”
Actually, since the beginning of the debate, Prince Jing had only said a few words to the Emperor, and these words didn’t contain the slightest hint of contradiction, but Prince Yu’s accusation seemed to imply that Jingyan’s words were deliberately directed against the Emperor. It was a truly impressive underhanded tactic.
Meng Zhi’s forehead broke out into sweat, but he wasn’t as quick of mind, and couldn’t find a way out of the current situation. He could only worry in silence.
“Your Majesty….” Gao Zhan, who had been kneeling continuously at the corner of the hall waiting on his Emperor, quietly crawled over and moved close to the Emperor’s ears, saying softly, “May your servant boldly remind Your Majesty that it will soon be time for your daily herbal foot bath and massage. Zhiluo Palace has sent a letter over to inform that Concubine Jing has already made the necessary preparations.”
The Emperor’s chest was heaving obviously. All those looking at his change in expression…..the worried and uneasy Meng Zhi, the apparently submissive and placid Prince Yu, the expressionless Xia Jiang, and the one kneeling there neither defending himself nor apologizing, Prince Jing.
The old emperor who had lived past 60 years suddenly felt discouraged. He closed his eyes and waved his hands saying, “Leave, all of you leave….”
Prince Yu was somewhat disappointed, and wanted to say a few more words, but the expression in Xia Jiang’s eyes stopped him. Forced to exercise patience, he offered his salutations and left with everyone else.
Outside, Jingyan walked hurriedly away without looking at either of his peers, his face taut.
Prince Yu and the Crown Prince had practised the skill of keeping a harmonious façade for many years. Regarding this new opponent, this cold person who did not give any face and completely no response, Prince Yu stared dully at his departing back for a while before stamping his foot and turning his head to say, “Director Xia, look at him, this manner of person….”
“Turn him upside down and he won’t lose any blood (fig. of speech). Your Highness, keep calm and don’t be impatient. I will take my leave first.” Xia Jiang briefly clasped his hands in obeisance. Prince Yu understood that he was being cautious. He glanced left and right, then returned the courtesy without saying much and they both went on their separate ways.
Not long after the three left, the Emperor’s palanquin arrived at the front of Wuying Hall. Gao Zhan carefully helped the Emperor out and onto the carriage, which then swayed its way towards Zhiluo Palace.
In recent months, the Emperor’s foot often suffered from a wind attack (rheumatism?), and the pain was difficult to bear. The medicine prescribed by the physicians were not very effective, but the medicinal foot bath and massage prepared by Concubine Jing for him alleviated the symptoms considerably. This was why he went to Zhiluo Palace everyday at this time. Gao Zhan’s reminder just now was not devised but the fortunate timing was coincidental only, nothing more.
As far as the disturbance in Wuying Hall was concerned, Concubine Jing was as yet still unaware. Even if she knew, it was hard to say if her calm and peaceful manner would change because of this.
After welcoming the Emperor into the palace, apart from making the appropriate responses according to etiquette, she didn’t say much else. She busied herself waiting on the Emperor, who was half reclining, half seated on a soft chair, first removing his shoes and socks, then massaging his foot in a steam bath.
Normally, at this time, the Emperor would engage her in small talk to distract himself, but today he was in extremely low spirits. As soon as he arrived, he closed his eyes as if to fall asleep, but the three creases that furrowed between his eyebrows expressed his unhappiness.
Concubine Jing did not ask for the reason, but when she saw him close his eyes, she took out a soft, warm and fragrant smelling towel. She heated it up and folded it into a narrow strip, before lightly putting it over the Emperor’s eyes, changing it every half an hour.
After a long while, when the treatment was ended, Concubine Jing took an old pair of white cotton socks and put it on the Emperor. Lifting both his legs, she put them evenly on a stool that the palace maid brought over, suspending his ankles. Then she began to massage his thighs by beating them with her fists.
As she was busy doing that, the Emperor suddenly removed the fragrant smelling cloth on his eyes, leaned forward and grabbed hold of Concubine Jing’s wrist, pulling her before him, exclaiming, “Concubine Jing!”
“Yes,” Concubine Jing let him pull her over without any resistance. “What instructions does Your Majesty have?”
“Tell me, the past event concerning the Chiyan case, what is your opinion of it?”
Faced with this sudden question, there was a ripple in Concubine Jing’s normally tranquil eyes, and she hesitated before asking, “Why is Your Majesty asking this….”
“Just answer me. Your view of it, I want the truth.”
Concubine Jing slowly withdrew the hand that was massaging his leg, took a step back, knelt down with her head bowed and asked, “Your Majesty, this question you asked, your servant doesn’t dare to not answer. It’s just that no matter how your servant replies, it will inevitably make Your Majesty sad, so I will start off by asking for your forgiveness in advance. Your Majesty, please forgive me.”
The Emperor was somewhat moved, and sitting up, he said, “Why do you say this?”
“Your servant was born in the Lin mansion, and had a very close relationship with Concubine Chen. Your Majesty has always known this. If your servant only criticizes and speaks malicious words, wouldn’t Your Majesty be sad that Concubine Chen never had an intimate friend to remember her after death? But Your Majesty personally handled the details of the Chiyan case according to your wisdom in order to stabilize the imperial court. If I think about my relationship with Concubine Chen, it would seem to exonerate someone at the heart of Chiyan. Your Majesty would inevitably think your servant does not understand the pains you go through to maintain the peace…..Your servant is only a very minor concubine in the palace. No matter how I view the Chiyan case, it is trifle and not worth mentioning, but if my reply makes Your Majesty feel sad, that would be your servant’s biggest offence, so your servant boldly requests Your Majesty in advance to make allowance for it.” Concubine Jing bowed again and lay prostrate, tears escaping her eyes.
With regard to Concubine Chen, Lin Yue Yao, the Emperor had also mourned her in secret all these years. So when Concubine Jing spoke of her old friendship, it hit a soft spot in the Emperor’s heart. Not only did he not get angry, on the contrary, he harboured similar feelings that agreed with her meaning. He stretched out his hand to beckon Concubine Jing to come close and said with a sigh, “Let it be. You are as gentle and kind as Concubine Chen. I won’t make things difficult for you. You were both by my side, do you think I still don’t understand the both of you? In the end, you are both different from the Empress and Concubine Yue. Matters outside the palace shouldn’t involve the both of you, it’s only that….”
Seeing the Emperor shed tears of sadness, Concubine Jing quickly picked up a handkerchief to wipe his face, saying with a soft voice, “Your servant understands that all those years ago, Your Majesty left a way out for Concubine Chen. But you also know that although her temperament was gentle and kind, she was, after all, related by blood to the General’s family. Confronted with such circumstances, she was naturally unwilling to be the sole survivor. Because your servant understands her, rather than say she committed suicide because of fear of punishment, it would be better to say she felt unworthy of you, Your Majesty, and felt there was nothing left to live for. That is all.”
These words of Concubine Jing comforted the Emperor, and he cannot help but nod his head repeatedly (in agreement). It would be inaccurate to say that the Emperor wasn’t cruel towards Concubine Chen at the time. While alive, she was stripped of her position, and after her death simply buried in a small coffin, a lonely tomb, no monument erected, no sacrifices offered. The only exception was that was no imperial decree for her to take her own life. The cold and despicable acts he was capable of were not insignificant, and all of them had been carried out. It’s just that now that he was reminiscing in his old age, he chose only to remember that he treated her with generosity, in order to comfort himself.
“So many years have passed by in a flash. These days, the only person in the palace who dares to talk to me about Concubine Chen is you.” The Emperor stroked the back of Concubine Jing’s hand, sighing with sorrow. “Less than a year after Jingyu was born, you entered the palace. You are obviously aware of how well I treated both mother and son…… The day before yesterday, at the temple festival, I caught sight of Yan Que. He so seldom appears before me all year round, I had almost forgotten all about him, but in the end, when I met him the day before yesterday, I realized that some matters cannot be forgotten…..”
“Your servant was wondering why Your Majesty was feeling so sorrowful today. As it turns out, it was because Your Majesty saw Marquis Yan….”
“No, that’s not why. The reason I recalled these matters is because Xia Jiang came to the palace today to inform me that he has finally managed to arrest a Chiyan traitor who managed to escape capture during that time….”
Concubine Jing was taken aback, using all her energy to stop her hand from trembling, but she could not control her facial expression, and quickly lowered her head, steadying her state of mind. After a long while, she said, “It has been more than ten years…..I don’t know which traitor?”
“You don’t know him. He was Xiao Shu’s…..er..…he was one of Chiyu Battalion’s central deputy generals, named Wei Zheng or something.”
Concubine Jing who had only just composed herself, silently exhaled, saying, “How could it be? Didn’t the past report say that the entire Chiyu Battalion was annihilated by fire, so there shouldn’t have been any survivors?”
“I thought so too, which is why I specifically asked Xia Jiang. He said that that Wei Zheng was very lucky to have escaped with his life. He was originally Chiyu’s lead deputy general, and really should have been at Meiling’s northern gorge, but that day he so happened to have received orders to go to the main camp in the southern gorge on official assignment, so that gave him the opportunity to escape with his life. If he had still been in the northern gorge, there wouldn’t even be any bones left.”
Speaking about Wei Zheng, the Emperor did not have the same tender feelings as when he spoke about Concubine Chen earlier. His words were cold and ruthless.
Listening to him, Concubine Jing felt her whole body tremble. She had to rely on her many years of self-cultivation to exercise profound self-control in order not to display any inappropriate expression. Why the massacre facing the Chiyu Battalion in the northern gorge was more cruel, more ruthless compared to the main camp, the fire wiping them out so completely, Concubine Jing actually understood in her heart.
The chief commander of Chiyu Battalion, Lin Shu, that heroic spirit that soared to the skies, who was favoured by the gods, was the only son of Chiyan’s Supreme Commander Lin Xie and Princess Jinyang, and had always been most treasured* by the Grand Empress Dowager. *He was her “flesh of the heart and mind”!
When the Chiyan case first broke out, this old lady who had lived through 3 generations of rulers and never interfered in any of the court affairs went barefoot with her hair hanging loose over her shoulders, lying prostrate (as if she was kissing the floor) in Wuying Hall, her face covered in tears, begging the Emperor to remove Lin Shu’s name from the criminal name list.
It was impossible for the heartbroken and inconsolable Grand Dowager Empress to save the Chiyan Army, but she hoped at least to be able to save her young 17-year-old great grandson’s life. What she didn’t realize was that once the Emperor had made his decision to dispose of the Chiyan Army, there was no way he would leave alive that Lin Shu who had been on the battlefield since he was 13 years of age to scheme and raise army to take him by surprise. And so to prevent any (future) schemes or hidden threats against him, the Emperor could not allow this undefeated young general famed for his military exploits to go free.
So even though he had no choice but to make his promise to the Grand Empress Dowager, he did not remove Lin Shu from the criminal list. He still secretly gave orders to Xie Yu to ensure that Lin Shu did not have the slightest chance of escaping with his life. Later, the Chiyu Battalion resisted fiercely, and the situation got out of control. In the end, the news of this indiscriminate destruction was reported back to the Grand Empress Dowager.
And Grand Princess Jinyang, who had been waiting calmly for news, upon hearing about her husband’s death, carried a sword with her into the palace, to Chaoyang Hall, and in the presence of everyone, drew it across her throat, her blood splattering across the jade steps.
However, the Grand Empress Dowager’s serious illness and the blood of Grand Princess Jinyang did not prevent the Emperor from re-establishing the supremacy of his sovereign power with an iron fist. Three days later, Xiao Jingyu was forced to commit suicide by Imperial Order. Concubine Chen committed suicide on the same day.
In that moment, Prince Qi’s Mansion, once full of vigour and vitality, with its many people of outstanding talent, vanished like smoke and dispersed like clouds, leaving behind only the sounds of its past lingering in the court. From that moment, deep in the palace, Concubine Jing carved the cruelty of the imperial family deep into her marrow. At the heart of all those who died were Lin Xie who saved her life and regarded her as his own sister, Grand Princess Jinyang with whom she had shared an intimate friendship and mutual admiration, Concubine Chen with whom she had a relationship that went beyond sisterly affection, having supported and kept each other company in the palace. But she had no choice but to hide her tears for them, conceal her innermost anger and resentment, keep away her knowledge and emotions, be just like an invisible person in a corner of the palace, waiting for an unknown ending.