Nighttime in the imperial palace was so quiet that there was barely any sound. Emperor Chongde removed his layers of clothing, with the exception of an inner garment, with the service of the palace maids. He slowly lay down on the dragon bed. The bed curtains were lowered, the candles were extinguished, and the inside of the room became shrouded in darkness.
As Emperor Chongde lay on his back with his gaze focused at the roof of the bed, he unwittingly recalled the note that had been extracted from the rabbit meat. He couldn’t erase the words that were written on it from his mind.
Chongde dies, the crown prince is elated! This was obviously written deliberately for him to see, foreshadowing his impending end. Moreover, his crown prince, Murong Cheng, intended to overthrow him and emerge as the new emperor!
When he thought of this, Emperor Chongde shut his eyes, but his insides wouldn’t quiet down. The hustle and bustle during the day was making his body feel terribly drained. In addition, his body had been harmed by drugs a couple of days ago, and he wasn’t able to sleep for long before waking up.
However, even when he was asleep, his dreams were extremely chaotic. Without warning, the crown prince’s face materialised in front of him. One time, he walked towards him, and something beneath his feet caused him to trip and his entire person to stumble onto the ground. A number of imperial guards came over to hold him down, so he couldn’t move at all.
“Cheng’er, what are you doing?” Emperor Chongde raised his head to glance at Murong Cheng before him. He saw the latter’s expression gradually turn solemn. Murong Cheng strode up to him and squatted down before reaching out with his hand to tilt up the emperor’s chin.
“Father, now that matters have reached this stage, you still don’t understand?” Murong Cheng gave a weird smile. He slowly exerted force and gave Emperor Chongde’s lower jaw a squeeze with his fingers until it bruised. Witnessing his brows furrow in pain, Murong Cheng’s disposition perked up. “This Prince has waited for so many years, and finally this moment has come. What do you suppose I want to do?”
Once Emperor Chongde heard the words, he’d realised that been wasting his life all these years. He stared at Murong Cheng’s eyes, his tone thickening and deepening, “Murong Cheng, I’ve raised you until now to no avail, yet you still bite the hand that feeds you. Do you still have any scruples?”
As soon as the words fell, Murong Cheng raised his head and laughed loudly until tears were streaming from the corners of his eyes. After a while, he stood up and said coldly: “You’re at the end of your rope, and you’re still attempting to prevail upon me with sentiment. Imperial Father, o’ Imperial Father! You’re really growing more muddled as you age.” He continued with a chilly laugh as he saw Emperor Chongde’s expression change: “Has it slipped your mind how you acquired the throne all those years ago? Er Chen is merely following in your footsteps.”
When he finished speaking, Emperor Chongde shook all over. All of a sudden, his past came to mind. How had he acquired the throne? Of course, by murdering his father and his mother and eliminating all his brothers by his side until he was the only one left. Aside from him, who else could the throne fall to?
He also recalled standing before the late emperor’s corpse. Beside it lay the body of Empress Lin. She was still gasping for her last breath, but he raised the sword in his hand without hesitation and ruthlessly thrust it into the centre of Empress Lin’s delicate body. He saw her body abruptly shudder before hearing her shout out. After that, there was no breath left.
To this day, he still remembers what Empress Lin said before her death. She said, “Murong De, you’re deranged. You will die a terrible death. You will get your retribution!” Back then, he didn’t believe in cause and effect, so he naturally took no notice of her.
Not too far away lay the corpses of his brothers, having either died in a miserable state or been stabbed to death by a sword. The entire hall was awash with blood, filling every nook like a river. Emperor Chongde cast down the sword he was holding and released a repressed breath.
From then on, he no longer had any family members in this world.
Emperor Chongde’s eyes flew wide open, and his gaze was filled with terror after returning to his senses from his reminiscences. Was it possible that his son, Murong Cheng, also wanted to massacre everyone? Ho, it was as Empress Lin said, retribution is coming…
“Imperial Father can rest assured and hand over your kingdom to Er Chen.” Murong Cheng kneeled down again, acting tenderly as he stretched out his hand to stroke Emperor Chongde’s face. Then he raised his sword and slashed at the emperor’s neck.
Emperor Chongde half-knelt on the ground and looked on helplessly as the crown prince drew out the sword. It was then followed by an excruciating pain at his neck, and warm blood spewed out from the wound, dyeing his garments red. He sagged slowly to the ground and watched his own blood saturate the carpet, much like that day when the blood of the late emperor, the late empress, and his own brothers had completely dyed the palace hall red.
He’d never expected that retribution would arrive so quickly…… But, he doesn’t want to die yet! Emperor Chongde slowly stretched open his eyes and struggled hard to get up. As Murong Cheng’s loud laugh echoed in his ears, he sensed his body gradually losing energy. All at once, he exhausted his strength and yelled, “No!”
Having been startled awake by the nightmare, Emperor Chongde sat up on the bed. He glanced around and realised that Murong Cheng wasn’t there, nor was there any blood on his body. Only then did he recognise that it was actually a nightmare.
But the dream was so real, as if it had actually happened before. Emperor Chongde immediately flung open the quilt, casually draped on a piece of clothing, and dashed out into the imperial garden. Outside, the night was as chilly as water, and he let out a sneeze as soon as he stepped out.
When he reached the pavilion, Emperor Chongde sat down on a stone chair, gasping for breath. It appeared as if he’d escaped and arrived at this place. The tranquility of the surroundings made his emotions calm down. After lingering for a while, he felt somewhat lightheaded, so he got up and returned to the palace.
Unexpectedly, Emperor Chongde came down with a cold after that one night out. He was already advanced in years, and once he gave morning court a miss, he took to his bed and never rose. He was disoriented throughout the day, and whenever he slept, it would last several hours. But once night fell, his eyes would be wide open, and he was unable to fall asleep. The moment he closed his eyes, he saw Murong Cheng standing in front of him, holding a sword, wanting to kill him.
Once Crown Prince Murong Cheng found out, he ordered someone to prepare a good-quality incense, hoping that it would allow Emperor Chongde to sleep a little better at night. He never could have imagined that the incense had already been secretly swapped before he obtained it.
In the meantime, Emperor Chongde was finally feeling a little tired after all this time. He shut his eyes and lay down on the bed to rest. Just then, the door of the palace was pushed open, and Crown Prince Murong Cheng walked in to stop at his bedside. He could sense that Murong Cheng was standing beside his bed, but he was too weary to crack his eyes open.
From Murong Cheng’s observations, Emperor Chongde didn’t seem like he was about to wake up, so he merely allowed the imperial palace attendant behind him to bring over an exquisite-looking box. He took out a few sticks of incense, lit them, and then withdrew.
As for the drowsy Emperor Chongde, who was on the bed, he sensed that the person had already left, so he fell asleep without worry. The next time he awoke, he shifted himself around, but there wasn’t any strength in his body. He assumed it was due to having slept for too long and didn’t take much notice of it.
At this very moment, Fifth Prince Murong Chong entered the bedroom. Upon hearing that Emperor Chongde had fallen sick and was confined to his bed, he specially ordered someone to make a good-quality soup to rejuvenate Emperor Chongde’s body.
When he arrived in the hall, his keen sense of smell detected the scent of incense. Uncertainty filled his heart upon seeing Emperor Chongde lying lethargically on the bed, he suddenly felt suspicious. After leaving the bedroom, he cautiously breathed in the incense again and found nothing amiss.
Just after he got outside, Murong Chong walked ahead and suddenly spotted a familiar figure in the imperial garden. Wasn’t that his Fourth Imperial Brother Murong Yu? He released a bitter laugh, walked over and said, “Fourth Imperial Brother truly has a cheerful state of mind. Imperial Father has fallen sick, yet you still have the mood to enjoy the flowers.”
“Fifth Imperial Brother!” Murong Yu turned around upon hearing the sound and hurriedly lowered his head. He weaved his fingers, not knowing what to say. Seeing his weak demeanour prompted Murong Chong to give a sneer before walking past him.
After he’d gone, Murong Yu gradually straightened his posture. The corners of his mouth curled into what could barely be considered a smile. It appeared like a smile but also resembled a scoff, and it swiftly vanished into nothing, like it had never existed.
Meanwhile, Murong Heng arrived at Shen Ci’s mansion from the palace. He saw Shen Ci sunning himself in the courtyard, and his mood immediately improved. He walked over and said, “Gentleman Shen is in such good spirits.”
Shen Ci stood up from the recliner when he heard his voice. It was still early in the spring season. The warm sunlight diffused onto him, its beams making him languid. He walked in Murong Heng’s direction, waited until he was walking alongside him, then entered the house together with him.
Once they were inside the house, Murong Heng lowered his voice and told him the news that Emperor Chongde had fallen ill. He also mentioned the matter that he’d done something with the incense that the crown prince presented to Emperor Chongde. After speaking, he stared fixedly at the expression of the person in front of him.
After a long silence, Shen Ci said softly, “Then it’s time to expose the truth.” Swapping the packet of incense would deepen Emperor Chongde’s suspicion of the crown prince, compelling him to assume that the crown prince is attempting to poison him with the incense.
“This Prince thinks so too.” He would reveal the truth after a few days and reignite Emperor Chongde’s suspicions of the crown prince. He didn’t believe that Emperor Chongde would forgive the crown prince over and over again. There would definitely be a day when he would erupt.
Both of them fell silent for some time. Ever since their return from enjoying the flowers in Qingzhou that day, Murong Heng hadn’t seen Shen Ci for a few days. Having met up with him today, he didn’t know what else he could talk about aside from the monumental revenge strategy.
That day after the bodyguard’s return and his report on the outcome of the investigation abruptly came to mind. When he thought of the Shen family massacre that had occurred more than ten years ago, he couldn’t help but ask, “Why did you agree to work together with This Prince?” He wanted to see if Shen Ci would disclose it to him himself.
But he didn’t. Shen Ci remained silent and didn’t respond. He lowered his head and didn’t say anything, but when Murong Heng uttered the next sentence, his head instantly shot up.
“It’s because of the Shen family massacre, right?” Murong Heng acted as if he didn’t see his shocked expression and continued to speak, “It’s because Emperor Chongde had Prime Minister Shen killed, and you want to avenge your parents. That’s why you agreed to work together with me, isn’t it?”
“I……” Shen Ci was stunned. He was taken aback at how he’d known about this matter. But after pondering it, he is a prince. How could there be something he didn’t know? Yes, he must have had him investigated. Did he truly still not trust him?
“Don’t misunderstand.” Murong Heng gave a slight smile, as if he’d surmised what he was thinking. He relayed each word earnestly: “This Prince isn’t doubting you. Since we’re already working together, I’ll certainly exercise all my power to kill Emperor Chongde. This Prince will definitely make this loathed enemy pay.” Murong Heng gritted his teeth. He couldn’t stop thinking of his mother’s look of reluctance when she died, and it became more intolerable inside. He observed Shen Ci’s anguished expression, and couldn’t resist stepping forward to grab hold of his shoulders. He spoke in a low voice: “Be at ease. This Prince will definitely reestablish Prime Minister Shen’s innocence!”
Shen Ci opened his mouth but couldn’t come out with anything. After a long while, he closed his eyes. Murong Heng’s palms were very warm. Despite being separated by clothing, he could sense the warm body temperature. His lips moved to speak, and his voice was choked with sobs: “Thank you, Your Highness.” Apart from a word of thanks, he didn’t know what else to say.
“This isn’t necessary.” Murong Heng’s palms tightened when he detected the body beneath them trembling slightly. He couldn’t stop himself from taking a step forward and drawing nearer to Shen Ci before him. After contemplating, he continued: “Gentleman Shen ought to be younger than This Prince, right?”
Shen Ci angled his head when he heard the words, before saying his age in a soft tone: “Third year of Chongde.”
“Indeed.” Murong Heng smiled a little upon hearing the words. It was now the twenty-fifth year of Chongde, which meant that Shen Ci would be twenty-two this year and was three years younger than him. “Since you’re younger than This Prince, This Prince shall treat you as a younger brother. Is it alright if I call you ‘Ah Ci’? You also don’t have to be formal. It is good if you can call me ‘Murong’ or ‘Da Ge’*.”
(*TN: big bro / elder bro)
Shen Ci opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn’t bring himself to call out such an intimate address as “Murong”, so he could only whisper, “Da Ge.”
“Aai.” Murong Heng smiled. He took another step forward to hug Shen Ci and pat him on the back. For some reason, he felt terribly happy on the inside when he heard the words “Da Ge”.
As for Shen Ci in his embrace, his body had frozen into stone, and he didn’t dare move.