By the time he had thoroughly cleaned his hand, Chu Xie was still shivering and his voice was tinged with a hint of crying. “I can’t get it clean… What should I do? Quickly, fetch some more water…”
Jiang Yanchi furrowed his brow and held him from behind. “It’s clean, you’ve cleaned it. Don’t wash anymore.”
Outside, there was a storm with strong winds and heavy rain. The wind once again blew the window shut, and the distant thunder rumbled.
These sounds overlapped with the rainy night from his deep-seated memories and occupied all his thoughts.
“Host! Your emotional fluctuations are too severe. Please adjust… Your empathy level is too high, host, calm down your emotions, or this excessive empathy…”
His heart felt as if it were suddenly clutched by a large hand, tightening, causing sharp pain that stole his breath.
Jiang Yanchi quickly opened the window again.
But it was futile. Chu Xie seemed to be trapped in a deeper nightmare, and no matter how much he was called, there was no way to wake him.
He crouched, holding his chest and gasping for breath, like a drowning man who had forgotten how to breathe.
Jiang Yanchi pulled Chu Xie up, wrapped his slender waist, and pressed him closely. He leaned down to connect their lips, forcibly opening his tightly closed mouth. Their lips and teeth grinded together as he pushed breath into Chu Xie’s mouth, helping him find his interrupted breathing.
The friction at the corners of their mouths stung.
Tears welled up in their eyes.
The rain splattered on the windowsill with a pattering sound, and that noise finally brought some awareness to the long-suffocating Chu Xie.
The hazy scenes from his memory once again receded into the distance.
His consciousness gradually began to clear.
The rain poured down, and the brown horses galloped through the rugged mountain road, their straw raincoats rustling as the raindrops hit them.
After rounding a few bends, they approached the city gates.
After showing the token to the guards, they lowered the city gates halfway and let them pass.
The news of the death of Lingcheng Wang in Puyang County had reached the County Prince’s residence in less than two hours. As night fell, the mansion was in chaos, and no one could sleep.
“Father, wouldn’t it be better to transfer the case to the provincial government?”
Shizi Jiang Silan suggested carefully.
“No,” Yubei County Prince immediately rejected the idea. “It seems that the noble from the capital, Lord Chu, has come here for a reason.”
The capital is only a hundred miles away from here, and any trouble there would eventually involve Puyang County.
“Silan, are you sure the handwriting on that letter is indeed from the young marquis of the Xu family?”
Jiang Silan nodded. “The handwriting is identical, and it even has his seal…”
“If the Xu family is clearly supporting the Crown Prince, we must not report this case to the provincial government. It must be suppressed.”
“They want to kill Jiang Jingan, aiming to exterminate the entire Ningyuan Wang lineage. Their methods are ruthless, and it’s not a situation we should be involved with… Now, they have the Changming Army backing them up. With defense both near and far, Jiang Yanchi’s position as the Crown Prince is as solid as a rock. Even if there are hidden schemes, we can’t afford to become the scapegoats and be targeted.”
The more the Yubei Country Prince thought about it, the more he felt that something was amiss.
Why didn’t Chu Xie return to the mansion tonight?
It felt like a probing, as if they were testing the waters.
“Keep it quiet for now, we’ll suppress it. If we still don’t see Lord Chu tomorrow morning, I’ll go to the capital and inquire… Prepare a carriage.”
“My lord, there’s someone outside to see you.”
At this hour, who could it be?
The Yubei Country Prince had a terrible headache and ordered the visitor to be brought in.
The visitor turned out to be none other than the enigmatic author of the letter, Xu Chunmu, who had come on this rainy night.
“Chunmu!” The Shizi was astonished to see the arrival of the young Marquis, “Why have you come to Puyang County?”
Before he could finish speaking, a carriage stopped outside. Servants helped an elderly Marquis down from the carriage.
In the current situation, with the Northern Border and Northern Xiong in a standoff, military conflicts were escalating. Why had the elderly Marquis and Young Marquis Xu Chunmu, who commanded 300,000 troops, come to the inconspicuous Puyang County in the central region?
Xu Chunmu removed his raincoat and followed the elderly Marquis into the room.
“Marquis, you’ve traveled a long way. Is there something you wish to discuss?”
There were many things to say, but seeing the unrest in the mansion, he walked around to the back and saw Jiang Jingan’s lifeless body.
Lingcheng Wang was actually dead.
No wonder the entire Yubei County Prince’s mansion had its lights burning through the night.
The Crown Prince truly used ruthless methods, uprooting everything without any hesitation.
Dark shadows deepened in Xu Yi’s eyes.
“Chunmu, have you ever written a letter to that Lord Chu from the capital city?” The Shizi took out the letter from his arms. “Is the Xu family really trying to secure the Crown Prince’s ascension?”
Xu Yi’s gaze fell on the letter and then turned to his grandson. “Mu Er?”
“I’ve never written any letters…” Xu Chunmu was puzzled when he received the letter, which was identical to his own writing and even had the imitation of the Xu family seal. It was almost impossible to tell the real from the fake.
It was Chu Xie.
He had managed to make the letter look so convincing.
Why would he create a forgery like this for the Yubei County Prince’s mansion?
“What a cunning eunuch!”
Xu Yi saw the bewildered look in his grandson’s eyes and immediately understood everything.
“This is a scheme! Yubei County Prince must not fall for this deceptive plan!”
Xu Yi tossed the letter aside, and it landed on the ground, covered in dust. “The Xu family has always remained neutral. We are still in a state of war, so how could we support any Crown Prince? This is nothing but a concoction by Chu Xie to make you, the Yubei County Prince, the instrument of his murderous scheme, all without reason!”
Shizi Jiang Silan was shocked.
He thought of Chu Xie’s gentle demeanor and couldn’t imagine that his honeyed words were deceitful.
Was everyone from the capital city so crafty and deceptive?
“But what is his real purpose?” The Shizi still found it hard to believe. “Why would he go to such lengths to make us believe that the Xu family is protecting the Crown Prince? The Crown Prince’s position is already secure, isn’t it…?”
“He’s afraid that Jiang Jingan will return to the Western Border and regain military power, causing more trouble,” Xu Yi furrowed his brow. “So he is determined to eliminate the threat. However, he doesn’t dare to get his hands dirty, fearing that he’ll become a target in the capital city. That’s why he plotted to assassinate Jiang Jingan in Puyang County, making your Yubei County Prince’s Mansion the scapegoat… He will use the Crown Prince’s authority to secure your glory as the Yubei County Prince, and in this way, you will be compelled to serve him as his subjects.”
The convoluted story left Xu Chunmu and the shizi, Jiang Silan, baffled even after hearing it for a while.
But the cautious Yubei County Prince understood.
He looked shakily at the letter. “The Crown Prince is so young, yet he is skilled in these political maneuvers. Is this a blessing or a curse for our Great Wèi…”
Xu Yi sighed, “In the end, this child was groomed by Chu Xie himself. To expect him to be upright is a futile hope. I sensed it back when he instigated the Hu soldiers in the Western Border. This Crown Prince isn’t a good person; he’s cunning and daring. He has grand ambitions and deep scheming. At such a young age, he holds people’s hearts tightly.”
The more he listened, the more the Yubei County Prince grew uneasy.
“But…,” he began to say, and just then, a thunderclap broke the silence.
“Do you not think that this Crown Prince bears a striking resemblance to someone from the past?”
“Resembles… resembles whom?”
“To your uncle, the former Emperor Xuanhe, who was sent into exile on the border but later seized the throne in the chaos of the Hu invasion.”
Back then, it was the Xu family and the Yubei County Prince who had played a key role in helping Emperor Xuanhe ascend to the throne.
But, that was something Xu Yi regretted profoundly.
He thought that Emperor Xuanhe, who was shrewd and astute, understood human nature better than the mild-tempered Crown Prince, making him a more suitable heir. He believed that he would firmly secure the throne, becoming a formidable and wise ruler.
However, the events that followed—like the Changye War and the Yong’an Rebellion—were all instigated by him.
The cost of those bloody battles was too high.
Great Wei could not afford another round of such bloodshed.
“We cannot allow the second Xuanhe Emperor to come to power,” Xu Yi declared, directing his gaze toward the son of the Yubei County Prince, Jiang Silan. “What we need now is a wise and benevolent monarch.”
Xu Chunmu was shocked. “Grandfather, this is treason!”
Xu Yi placed a hand on Jiang Silan’s shoulder. “The Xuanhe Emperor back then was someone I supported. Now, this is his only grandson. He is capable of patricide and fratricide, just like his grandfather. The look in his eyes… it’s too similar. I won’t make the same mistake twice.”
“Silan is someone I’ve watched grow up, and I know his character and disposition better than anyone. He’s just as virtuous as Chunmu,” Xu Yi emphasized. “I’m not trying to preserve the Emperor’s legitimacy; I want to protect your son, Jiang Shizi.”
“The Crown Prince is acting this way because he is surely in league with Chu Xie, attempting to control the entire capital city. If this continues, even our Xu family on the border might be ensnared in his designs, just like what happened years ago… Forget it, forget it. I advise you, if Chu Xie returns tomorrow, you should eliminate him.”
Xu Chunmu paled.
“But he is the Imperial Zhangyin!”
The Yubei County Prince stared wide-eyed and shook his head. “He cannot be killed. He cannot be killed….”
“Those who scheme for great deeds must not hesitate,” Xu Yi said. “Do you know his true identity, Chunmu? Do you know why he must kill Chen Lianzhou?”
He knew. His grandfather knew about Chu Xie’s identity. Xu Chunmu stumbled a few steps, realizing the situation was dire.
“He is the abandoned child of the Shen family from back then. Yubei Wang, you’re the one who opened the northwest border and let the Yue Clan people directly enter the capital, who doesn’t know that you helped Emperor Xuanhe back then? Do you think Chu Xie will spare you?”
“He’s here for revenge.”
Xu Yi pondered.
“If he doesn’t die, there will never be peace in the capital.”
When he woke up again, he saw Jiang Yanchi sitting by the bedside with deep, secretive eyes.
The rain had stopped, and it was already dawn. Due to this small incident, neither of them had managed to fall asleep again. In the early morning, Jiang Yanchi gave Chu Xie his only horse, instructing him to be careful when he arrived at the County Prince’s mansion.
After helping Chu Xie onto the horse, he seemed somewhat concerned. “How about I go with you?”
“No need. I can handle these matters. You should go back to the capital,” Chu Xie replied with an uncharacteristically cheerful tone, quite different from the person he had been last night.
As he was about to leave, Jiang Yanchi reached out and held Chu Xie’s cold fingers.
The gesture was very gentle, even carrying a hint of intimacy.
Chu Xie turned to look at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Ah Xie, once this is done, let’s get married.”
Chu Xie was taken aback.
“If I become the true Crown Prince, you can forever be the carefree and undisturbed Lord Chu. Will you wait for me? Is that alright?”
He smiled slightly, offering no verbal response.
Jiang Yanchi watched his receding figure on the mountain path and fell into deep thought. Chu Xie’s condition was much worse than he had imagined.
He himself seemed to have forgotten, but last night, Chu Xie, clutching his chest, had said, “I should have died with them.”
This reminded Jiang Yanchi of the time when the Shen family was annihilated, and he was the sole survivor.
He went to the post station and bought another horse, then rode back to the capital city as fast as he could.
Straight to the residence of Grand Tutor Su.
He had too many questions that needed answers.
Meanwhile, as Chu Xie had just reached the gate of the County Prince’s mansion, before he could enter, he heard a whistle that startled his otherwise docile horse, causing it to abruptly turn and gallop northwest.
After a hundred or so steps, he spotted a familiar figure under a tree’s shade.
It was Xu Chunmu.
“Ah Xie, how’s your injury… feeling better?”
Xu Chunmu approached, took hold of his reins, and reached out a hand as if to help him dismount.
But Chu Xie didn’t dismount; he simply gazed at Xu Chunmu. “Why are you here in Puyang County?”
“Do not enter the city,” Xu Chunmu said. “They’ll kill you.”
Chu Xie had an inkling that something was wrong.
They— who were they?
Had the Xu family sent people to Puyang County?
If that were the case, then this entire plot to use someone as a scapegoat had been exposed.
If the death of Jiang Jingan was reported to the provincial authorities, would Jiang Yanchi’s position as the Crown Prince be threatened? Chu Xie abruptly pulled on the reins. “No, I need to find the Yubei County Prince….”
“Ah Xie, don’t go!”
Xu Chunmu stepped in front of him, blocking his way. “Don’t get involved. You really will lose your life. My grandfather… My grandfather is in the city. Even if you have the ability to persuade the Yubei County Prince, my grandfather will not let you live to see him. Please escape, Ah Xie. Let me take you with me. We don’t need to go back to the capital city or the northern border. We…”
Him following Xu Chunmu to flee.
What about Jiang Yanchi?
It was because of him that Jiang Yanchi had been dragged into this situation. If he followed Xu Chunmu and fled at this moment, what would that make him look like?
It would be as though he was helping the Xu family set up a chain of events against the Crown Prince, leaving Jiang Yanchi, who had initially been in a winning position, completely isolated and without support.
He couldn’t run.
“Even if it’s difficult, I have to try. Xu Chunmu, if Xu Yi dares to act rashly, it’s tantamount to rebellion! Jiang Yanchi is the emperor’s only son, and he’s the only legitimate heir!”
“My grandfather has rebelled once before. Twenty-three years ago, he successfully…,” Xu Chunmu choked up and said, “Twenty-three years ago, he supported Emperor Xuanhe and led to the deaths of the rightful emperor and crown prince… Ah Xie, there’s no way out, really no way out… the crown prince is still of imperial blood. At most, he’ll be imprisoned, but if you get involved, you will die without a doubt.”
Xu Chunmu stubbornly blocked Chu Xie’s path. “The world is already in chaos, just like twenty-three years ago, completely chaotic… when the nest is overturned, where can there be unbroken eggs? Ah Xie, please don’t get involved anymore.”