Jiang Yanchi left the capital in plain clothes and arrived at the old post station that Xu Chunmu had mentioned. This place used to be an official relay station, but the official road had been relocated, and it had been abandoned for about ten years.
Very few people passed by here.
Even though it wasn’t early autumn yet, a thin mist began to rise among the mountains and forests, shrouding the path ahead. Jiang Yanchi’s heart felt increasingly uneasy as the carriage rattled along.
Chu Xie had split into two personalities, one good and one evil, one loyal and one treacherous.
He had harmed people recklessly, yet he had also tried desperately to save them.
In this remote place, would there be any trace of his mother, Duan Se?
The door of the post station was covered in dust. When Jiang Yanchi entered, he saw a delicate and elegant handprint on it, much smaller than his own hand.
He remembered Duan Se holding his hand when he was a child, imprinting a smile on her palm and saying, “Ah Yu, when will your little hand be bigger than your mother’s? That will be when you’re all grown up.”
Jiang Yanchi took a deep breath and slowly pushed the door open.
The old wooden stairs were covered in dust, and there were delicate footprints imprinted on them. He put his foot on one of the footprints, it was much smaller than his own.
Jiang Yanchi ascended to the second floor, and from a distance, he saw a figure in goose-yellow robe by the window.
Four years had passed, but Duan Se still looked the same. She didn’t like to dress up, her hair was tied up in plain fabric, and her simple hair accessories couldn’t conceal the natural charm in her brows and eyes.
Jiang Yanchi took two stumbling steps, almost tripping over his own feet.
Duan Se’s eyes turned red, and she called out in a hoarse voice, “Ah Yu, you’ve grown so tall.”
After speaking, she walked over. Jiang Yanchi was still one step away from the landing, but Duan Se’s height only reached his nose and mouth. She threw herself into his arms and hugged him tightly. “You’ve become quite thin. Is the food in the Eastern Palace not good? Ah Yu should grow tall….”
The tone of her words made it seem like she still regarded him as a twelve or thirteen-year-old child.
Jiang Yanchi’s heart swelled with a bitter sweetness, and his nose turned red. He hugged Duan Se tightly.
“Mmm, what’s wrong with you?”
Duan Se patted his back. “You know to hug me when we meet, but you didn’t reply to a single one of my letters.”
There was a hint of grievance in Duan Se’s voice.
“I thought my child had become successful and didn’t want his embarrassing mother anymore.”
Jiang Yanchi held her even tighter.
How could he not want her? How could he?
“Where has Mother been all these years?”
“Where else could I go? I’ve been in the Southern Frontier.”
Jiang Yanchi was slightly taken aback.
“I missed you so much.” Jiang Yanchi bent his knees slightly and buried his head in her neck. Duan Se felt a dampness on her neck and paused. “Have we made you suffer, Ah Yu? No, it’s the crown prince now. Who could make Ah Yu suffer?”
“Yeah, I’m the crown prince, I’m not suffering.”
Jiang Yanchi wiped away the tears in his eyes and spoke softly, “Mother isn’t suffering either. From now on, I’ll take care of Mother and protect her.”
Duan Se smiled softly and replied with a “good.” Then, as if she remembered something, she ran to a corner and picked up a bundle wrapped in cloth. She opened it and found several small wooden boxes inside. Although they were packed crudely and didn’t look very nice, they were all meticulously sealed with wax.
She counted them while fiddling with them and said, “This is dried apricot, this is dried plum, and oh, I also brought some new varieties of oranges. Unfortunately, they are too sour. I don’t know if you and Little Mr. Chu will like them. Your mother is so clumsy and can’t grow anything delicious. I always wanted to send you some, but Little Mr. Chu told me not to. I guess he knows that the fruits I grow are not tasty…”
Jiang Yanchi’s face turned pale.
As he looked at Duan Se’s back, he suddenly felt like he couldn’t breathe, and he reached out to steady himself against the wall before finally stepping onto the last flight of stairs.
“Four years ago… was it Chu Xie who saved you?”
Duan Se was still busy counting dried fruits and didn’t react at first. Jiang Yanchi repeated the question, and she smiled and said, “Why are you asking such a strange question? Wasn’t it Little Mr. Chu who rescued us from the Cold Palace back then? Have you forgotten?”
She continued, “You can’t forget such a favor, Ah Yu. These dried peaches are the sweetest. You have to try one first. You’ve always loved sweet things… I made so many for you.”
“No, that’s not it… What I meant was, on the Lantern Festival that year…”
Duan Se paused in her actions. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t accompany you to see the lantern festival. But the lantern you sent me, Little Mr. Chu sent it to me. I hung it by my bedside every day… I often looked at that lantern and thought, how tall has our Ah Yu grown, are you sleeping well every day, are you studying hard, and when you become the crown prince, will people mock you for coming from the Cold Palace… Ah Yu, do you also think of your mother like your mother thinks of you? I thought and thought, and then I fell asleep.”
“No, Chu Xie didn’t… He didn’t give you a vial of poison… I saw you fall to the ground…” Jiang Yanchi began to panic, and his words became jumbled. “I saw you…”
“Ah Yu, I’m sorry. Your mother is a Yue Clan person…” Duan Se clenched the dried peach in her hand, hesitating. “Little Mr. Chu said that as long as I’m your mother and as long as I’m still alive in the eyes of the world, you will never become the crown prince. I thought about it, and it makes sense. Giving birth to my child has caused you so much suffering… Indeed, without me, our Ah Yu will have a bright future and no worries in this lifetime…”
Seeing that Jiang Yanchi was getting anxious and about to say something else, Duan Se smiled gently. “Did you see it? Did it make you worry? Actually, it didn’t hurt much. I just spat out some blood and quickly passed out. Little Mr. Chu said that someone like me was not suitable for the capital. He said he wanted to send me far away, and when you ascended to the throne, gained power, and became a real emperor, then we could meet again…”
“I don’t understand all this… but now that I’ve seen you, Ah Yu, are you going to become the emperor?”
Duan Se asked.
Then she looked around and said, “Where’s Little Mr. Chu? Why didn’t he come with you?”
Jiang Yanchi’s throat tightened, and he couldn’t catch his breath for a long time. He thought of the feeling of Chu Xie gradually losing warmth in his arms, and the sight of blood pouring out from his hands.
He looked at his own hands.
“Ah Yu has made a big mistake…”
Jiang Yanchi’s hands trembled slightly, and he leaned against the wall, his voice quiet. “A huge, huge mistake… Mother, what should I do…”
Little by little, he crouched down completely, feeling like he was being pulled into a cold abyss.
It suffocated him, and his back was soaked with sweat. He couldn’t even cry out, just stuttered, “This time, it’s real… there’s really no way…”
“Ah Yu, what’s wrong? Are you cold?”
Duan Se saw him trembling and rushed to hug him. Her warm embrace couldn’t reach the depths of the child’s heart. She rubbed his head gently with her hands, trying to comfort him. “It’s okay, it’s okay… it doesn’t matter, Ah Yu, don’t worry. No matter what happens, we can overcome it, we can find a solution…”
Duan Se didn’t seem to think there was anything to worry about.
She smiled and said, “If we can’t find a solution, we can still go to Little Mr. Chu.”
“He’s so capable and kind-hearted. He will definitely help us. Ah Yu, don’t be afraid.”
Jiang Yanchi lifted his chin from Duan Se’s embrace, his eyes were bloodshot, devoid of any light.
Duan Se was startled by such a look in his eyes.
“Mother, it’s over… there’s no Chu Xie…”
“He… is dead.”
Duan Se was stunned. How could this vibrant person just be gone like that? Little Mr. Chu was still so young; how could he suddenly die?
“The imperial physician tried for three days, exhausting all possible methods, but couldn’t save him. He’s gone. This person… is no more…”
Duan Se didn’t understand the intricacies of the situation, she just looked desolate and glanced at the dried fruits she had brought with her. “How could this happen?”
“Ah Yu, let’s not cry.”
Duan Se hugged Jiang Yanchi tightly. “Don’t be sad. Mother is here, Mother is with you.”
But when he heard this,
Jiang Yanchi’s dark eyes became even gloomier.
Lingcheng Wang Shizi, Jiang Jingan, entered the capital once again, this time without Chu Xie blocking his way, and he arrived in great style.
Even before Duke Rongguo’s Mansion was embroiled in the controversy surrounding the poisoning of the Eastern Palace, his aunt had taken the initiative to urge him to hurry back. Little did she know that she was right. Although he didn’t have time to save his uncle, he coincidentally ran into the fierce rivalry between Chu Xie and Jiang Yanchi.
In the end, it was Chu Xie who died.
It was as if even the heavens were helping him.
It was said that the Crown Prince killed Chu Xie with a single blow in the Eastern Palace. If it weren’t for Young Marquis Xu going to retrieve the body, they might not have been able to preserve his remains.
It seemed that those who came out of the Cold Palace were really out of touch with the current situation.
He deliberately took a detour to the Chu residence, where he saw the white flowers and white lanterns hanging above, which were just put up. While feeling a bit of schadenfreude, he couldn’t help but reflect on how this living beauty had to get involved in such convoluted struggles. If it weren’t for those sharp claws, one might want to keep him as a pet, like a songbird.
In the capital city, there wouldn’t be anyone more envious of that stunning appearance.
Inside, he indeed saw Young Marquis Xu guarding the coffin, and upon seeing his mournful expression as if he had lost a close relative, Jiang Jingan couldn’t help but find it amusing. It seemed that Xu Chunmu had lost his wits over someone who wasn’t even a relative.
“Ah, that’s why they say, what’s the use of being in the limelight for a while? Life is too short, and that’s also a source of sorrow,” Jiang Jingan said as he walked over to the coffin.
Chu Xie had already changed into fresh clothes and laid peacefully in the coffin. His skin was pale without any color, but it lacked the grayness and spots of a dead person.
Jiang Jingan had also been in battles alongside his father, and he couldn’t help but feel that this didn’t look like a dead person.
With doubts in his heart, he wanted to undo Chu Xie’s clothing to see the fatal wound inflicted by that single strike.
But Xu Chunmu immediately caught his hand. “What are you doing?”
“Why is Young Young Marquis Xu so concerned?”
Jiang Jingan smiled and said, “Do you still think you can become the Crown Prince Consort?”
“Chu Xie is dead, how can Jiang Yanchi secure the position of Crown Prince? Duke Rongguo’s Mansion must have made a miscalculation, eagerly sending a beauty like him over… Today, I’d like to hear a clear explanation from your Xu family. What are your intentions, constantly changing alliances and mixing a eunuch and the son of a criminal?”
After he finished speaking, he laughed again.
Jiang Jingan had been holding in his anger for a year because of the Xu family’s estrangement from Ningyuan Wang. When he heard that Duke Rongguo’s Mansion was in trouble, he thought he had completely lost any chance of ascending to the throne.
Suppressing his emotions, he came to the capital, thinking that even if his heart was dead, he had to end it all. Little did he know that his heart was still alive, and Chu Xie had died first.
This sudden change had come too quickly, making it impossible for him to contain his rising arrogance. His words were lacking in restraint.
“Could it be that the Xu family is all useless and can’t hold on to their military power? Are you forced to rely on political connections?”
Xu Chunmu stood up and said, word by word, “I am not the Crown Prince Consort.”
“Now you want to distance yourself, but it’s too late.”
Jiang Jingan looked at Chu Xie again. He didn’t know if it was an illusion, but he felt that Chu Xie’s complexion didn’t seem as pale as before.
His heart skipped a beat. Could something unexpected have happened?
Taking advantage of Xu Chunmu’s momentary weakness, he took a step closer and said, “I’ll give you a chance. Since Chu Xie is already dead, if you cut off his head and display it on the city wall for half a month, I’ll forget about the fact that Duke Rongguo’s Mansion has betrayed us and sided with that eunuch and that despicable plaything. In the future, if I ascend to the throne as emperor, I won’t hold this against you.”
“What do you say?”