In mid-March, the curfew was implemented in the capital. The evening drums sounded at the first watch, and the entire city was placed under strict guard. Only after the pre-dawn drums of the fifth watch could the restrictions be lifted for passage.
Amidst the uncertain political situation and ominous rumors, even the ordinary citizens of the capital sensed an extraordinary air of impending change. Everyone knew that turmoil was imminent in the city.
On the twenty-ninth day of March, Crown Prince Li Yuanqian committed suicide in Zhao Prison. The news spread like wildfire. In front of the imperial palace, a crowd of officials from the Crown Prince’s faction knelt in lament. The officials cursed and accused Sima father and son of conspiracy. The cries echoed through the heavens, and even an extremist imperial censor slammed into a stone pillar, seeking the right path.
Commander Wang Yi of the Imperial Guards dared not make any reckless moves, only leading his troops in a tense standoff.
At the hour of the dragon, the entire palace was surrounded by troops. When Ni Lie appeared before this group of civil officials, they were all startled. Two generals under the Crown Prince, Wu Qi of Qingzhou Army, had already defected. However, the commander-in-chief of the Two rivers and Three Provinces had switched allegiance to the Sima father and son at this critical moment. The Left Prime Minister Zhao Guo was shocked and furious. He stumbled forward, pointing at Ni Lie and berating him vehemently. However, he was immediately dragged away, and then over a thousand soldiers ushered in a crowd of nobles and their families. A commotion arose in the crowd.
Ni Lie’s gaze was sharp and piercing. His aura was invisible, and he walked forward solemnly. “Anyone who wants to die, I won’t let you be lonely. Step forward and announce your name!”
He waved his hand and shouted, “Listen carefully, anyone who commits suicide, their families members will be killed!”
The soldiers all shouted in unison, “Yes!”
“Anyone causing a disturbance here before noon, will also be killed!”
The sound wave pierced through the sky, startling the birds as they scattered away.
Ni Lie’s eyes narrowed suddenly. He looked at each person one by one until each civil official lowered their head. The uproar in the hall gradually quieted down, leaving only the sound of women and children crying.
Meanwhile, at the Marquis Zhenbei’s residence, there was an air of tranquility. In the conference room, three people were silently sipping tea.
When the sun was directly overhead, a person on a fast horse hurriedly arrived at the Marquis Zhenbei’s residence. After a few steps, he entered the conference room.
“Marquis, the Crown Prince’s faction has surrendered.”
Sima Ji laughed loudly, his chest shaking. He was already of an age that knew his destiny well. The slightly graying temples couldn’t hide the satisfaction on his face.
“Well done, General Ni.”
Seeing this, Li Yuanmin stood up and respectfully bowed his head. “Congratulations, Marquis.”
Sima Ji stopped laughing, but a smile remained at the corner of his mouth. He seemed to appreciate Li Yuanmin’s cautious attitude. He narrowed his eyes slightly and said with a meaningful tone, “Congratulations to you too, Third Prince.”
Li Yuanmin smiled knowingly, filling the empty teacup in front of him.
Within the time it took for an incense stick to burn, Sima Yu left Zhenbei Marquis’s residence with Li Yuanmin. The two of them walked out of the conference room.
Sima Yu glanced at Li Yuanmin’s profile and a smile played on his lips. “Finally, everything went smoothly.”
“Yes, it’s great.” Li Yuanmin smiled, lowering his gaze.
A light breeze passed by, and peach blossom petals fell, landing on Li Yuanmin’s shoulder. Sima Yu’s heart skipped a beat as he picked up a petal, gently twirling it in his palm.
“Would you like to play a game of chess with me?” Sima Yu asked.
Li Yuanmin smiled again. “Sure.”
Sima Yu’s throat moved. The scene before him was beautiful under the spring sun. The person in front of him stood there, alive and vibrant, just like many moments in their past life. However, at that time, he didn’t know anything.
He suddenly remembered the shock and heartache he felt when he saw Li Yuanmin’s bloodied body in his past life. His throat trembled involuntarily. If this was a rebirth, he wouldn’t miss out again. He would hold onto anything he wanted tightly.
A glint appeared in Sima Yu’s handsome face.
Amidst the rising wisps of smoke from the elegant incense burner, the two sat facing each other in the study. One was extraordinarily handsome, the other strikingly splendid, like celestial beings engaged in a game of chess.
Sima Yu shook his head and sighed, “It’s been eight years since we last met, and your chess skills have improved significantly.”
Li Yuanmin smiled and remained silent.
Seeing his relaxed demeanor, Sima Yu also felt more at ease. Thinking of something, he placed a piece on the board and whispered, “The day after tomorrow… you need to be prepared.”
His expression turned serious. Li Yuanmin’s hand holding the piece faltered for a moment, then let go.
The day after tomorrow would be the day of Emperor Mingde’s passing, as well as the day when Sima father and son would support him in ascending the throne.
Li Yuanmin remained silent for a while, then suddenly said, “I want to enter the palace and see him.”
Sima Yu frowned, “A Min, don’t be overly concerned about trivial matters.”
Li Yuanmin shook his head, sighing, “I must see that face.”
He looked up at him, “It’s my only condition.”
Sima Yu’s eyes deepened, a touch of displeasure in his heart, but he still spoke gently in the end, “Alright.”
Li Yuanmin smiled faintly at him.
Seeing this, Sima Yu’s heart stirred. He grasped Li Yuanmin’s delicate, fair hand, gazing at him with his attractive, affectionate phoenix-like eyes. “A Min, you need to look forward.”
You need to look forward.
This phrase had been spoken by someone else to him before, but unlike the bitter resentment of that time, his heart was now filled with a piercing cold smile. However, he simply lowered his head silently, then after a while, he answered earnestly, “I know.”
As they exited the study, Sima Yu caught up and handed Li Yuanmin a book, the travelogue he had loved so much in his previous life.
“Take it with you,” he said softly.
Li Yuanmin seemed pleasantly surprised and touched the book carefully, saying, “Thank you.”
With Ni Ying’s assistance, Li Yuanmin entered the carriage. As the curtain fell, he casually discarded the book he held.
A cold smile formed at the corner of his mouth, and he closed his eyes.
In recent days, he had received information. Sima Yu had finally dealt with the Lin clan’s woman discreetly. In the previous life, their relationship had not ended well, but in this life, it could be considered that the love found its way.
In the previous life, Sima Ji had been afraid that his only son might be affected by romantic entanglements. He had used Li Yuanmin to eliminate that Lin clan woman. Because of that incident, Sima Yu’s emotions had fluctuated for several years, and Li Yuanmin had suffered with him. There were times when Sima Yu had acted like he was willing to let go, yet he would then suddenly turn cold and distant. During those times, Li Yuanmin had been torn between happiness and uncertainty, as if he was in heaven one moment and hell the next.
Li Yuanmin self-mockingly chuckled. Even in the previous life, despite his detachment from worldly matters and his being tamed, how could he not see through Sima Yu’s thoughts? It was just that he lacked love so much that even a bit of warmth could make him give everything, like a moth drawn to a flame. Therefore, he deceived his own heart and continued to live in lies. Otherwise, he wouldn’t even have found a reason to exist in this world.
And now, Sima Yu was once again putting on a display of deep affection. His tactics were even more skillful than in the previous life. If Li Yuanmin hadn’t seen through his true nature a long time ago, how could he remain unmoved?
Thinking of this, the face of a person with clear features suddenly flashed in his mind. That person had presented him with evidence collected by numerous spies, saying with a tinge of sarcasm, “Look, this guy’s heart is still not dead. Not only is he keeping an eye on you, but he’s also thinking about that woman. I really don’t know what you saw in him in the previous life!”
Looking at the evidence, Li Yuanmin could only smile and touch his own face, saying, “He only treats me as a tool to be used. How could there be true affection? Rest assured, I won’t fall for his schemes.”
Upon hearing this, Ni Lie, whose emotions were often indecipherable to Li Yuanmin, just muttered these two words. He gently embraced Li Yuanmin.
Li Yuanmin also held onto his formidable lover tightly.
Indeed, now he understood that Ni Lie’s intelligence network had infiltrated every corner.
In the previous life, after the Red Tiger King ascended the throne, he had to arrange the officials of the former dynasty. As he thoroughly investigated, he acquired a great deal of confidential information about the officials in the court. As a result, many officials had already been constrained by Ni Lie outside the view of the Sima father and son.
Even the Grand Internal Manager Wang Xi, who was under the command of Empress Sima on the surface, was under Ni Lie’s control.
It was because of this that Ni Lie learned the true secret behind the downfall of the Crown Prince.
The man who had an illicit affair with Zhao Shufei for more than twenty years was not General Du Yan of the Patrol Camp, but the Marquis Zhenbei, Sima Ji.
Before Zhao Shufei entered the palace, she had a mutual affection with the young Sima Ji. Later, to balance the court, Emperor Mingde married her into the royal family. But in the end, with the assistance of Empress Sima, Zhao Shufei became the crucial factor in Sima Ji’s plan to bring down the Crown Prince. It was unknown when Sima Ji had made this decision, and it was even more uncertain whether Zhao Shufei knew the true identity of the man she had been entangled with for more than two decades when she met her end.
Truly like father like son.
Li Yuanmin remembered this father and son pair, and a cold, sticky feeling rose in his heart, making him uncomfortable.
He took a long breath and closed his eyes again.
In these two days, there have been four or five bloody incidents in the capital city. Despite the shocking secrets behind them, the incidents were quickly suppressed and calmed down without a trace.
The Imperial Guards changed their commander, there were frequent personnel changes in the court. In appearance, the capital city had become a realm where the father and son, Sima, held absolute power.
On the first day of April, just like in the previous life, the weather was gloomy.
Li Yuanmin, dressed in a white python robe with arrow sleeves, adorned with a jade belt and a purple-gold crown, looked solemn. Ni Ying draped a large cape over him.
The door creaked, and Ni Lie walked in with heavy steps.
Seeing this, Ni Ying found an excuse and retreated.
Ni Lie’s gaze had never left him, and after a while, he slowly walked over, embracing Li Yuanmin in his arms.
Li Yuanmin muttered, “Am I being too impulsive?”
Ni Lie smiled and didn’t answer directly. He just whispered, “Wang Xi has replaced the people in the Qianyuan Hall with mine. Everything in the palace has been arranged by me. You just need to do what you want.”
Ni Lie patted his back reassuringly. “Go ahead, finish what you need to do.”
He already knew everything. Li Yuanmin closed his eyes and buried his face deep in Ni Lie’s neck.
The majestic Qianyuan Hall, against the gray sky, seemed a bit obscure. Li Yuanmin looked at the majestic plaque with dragons and phoenixes and thought that he hadn’t seen his biological father for many years.
He took a deep breath and, led by the Court Eunuch, stepped into the grand hall.
The palace door was pushed open, the hall was quiet. The silver charcoal in the golden beast-headed bronze censer emitted a faint hissing sound. The scent of ambergris lingered around. Everything was so bright and vivid. But Li Yuanmin smelled a hint of decay in it.
He hesitated for a moment before stepping into the inner hall.
The inner hall was devoid of any palace attendants, except for a person lying on the bright yellow dragon bed.
The once mighty emperor now lacked his former majesty. He resembled an ordinary elderly person in his twilight years. His throat emitted a strange wheezing sound, “Water… someone… water…”
Li Yuanmin stood there for a moment, then poured a cup of water and handed it over to him.
The complexion of Emperor Mingde was ash gray, and his cheeks were deeply sunken. With Li Yuanmin’s help, he managed to drink a few sips of water. Just as he was about to scold Li Yuanmin for not being respectful enough, his clouded eyes froze as he saw Li Yuanmin’s face. His dry, pale lips trembled, “Jiang… Jiang Ji…”
Note: he meant to call Li Yuanmin’s mother.
Li Yuanmin gazed silently back at him.
Soon, the confusion in Emperor Mingde’s eyes faded away. His gaze turned cold, familiar to Li Yuanmin as one of disgust and resentment.
“So, it’s you…b*stard!”
He stared fixedly at Li Yuanmin’s striking face, his chest heaving more violently. He coughed, producing a wheezing sound akin to a broken bellows. The noxious air pushed aside the scent of amergris.
Li Yuanmin let out a sigh and let him go. Dusting off his clothes, he stood up, looking at the struggling figure on the bed expressionlessly.
Emperor Mingde struggled for a long while before managing to sit half upright with the help of the curtains. He shouted hoarsely, “Someone! Someone!”
His voice echoed in the empty hall, but there was no response.
Li Yuanmin said, “What does Your Majesty want to do? Why not let me take care of it? I’m willing to assist.”
Emperor Mingde gritted his teeth in fury, “Get out!”
He took a deep breath, as if exerting all his strength, and yelled loudly, “Someone!”
The response was still the same empty echoes within the silent hall.
Emperor Mingde couldn’t hold on any longer and slumped weakly.
Watching his frantic appearance, Li Yuanmin no longer felt the fear he once had. He took a few steps closer, a glint of coldness in his eyes. “Does Your Majesty want someone to bring you a chastity belt?”
Emperor Mingde shuddered, looking at him incredulously.
Li Yuanmin’s eyes grew colder, and he took a deep breath. “Unfortunately, it’s too late.”
His emotions surged, and he took a few steps forward abruptly, grabbing Emperor Mingde’s thin hand and pressing it against his slightly protruding abdomen without any hesitation.
“I have already conceived a royal heir.”
Emperor Mingde’s hazy eyes widened suddenly. As he tried to push Li Yuanmin away in madness, Li Yuanmin had already let go. Emperor Mingde fell onto the bed.
“….Whose is it? Sima Yu… or Sima Ji?!”
His eyes were bloodshot, his face grotesquely contorted, and his intense gasps sounded like a broken bellows: “Whose…”
“You don’t need to worry about that. Just understand that this child won’t be like me, without a father or mother.” Li Yuanmin calmly sat in front of the bed. His face had regained its calmness, and he sighed lightly. “But you see, I, without a father or mother, how could I be born into this world? Yet, I am clearly fatherless and motherless.”
He often felt like a fleeting existence in this world, like a duckweed without roots, like water without a source. In this vast world, he couldn’t find his place.
Fortunately, he had finally found another lonely creature… he had finally found his place.
Emperor Mingde was so enraged that his face was turning a purplish-black color, on the verge of bursting.
Li Yuanmin sighed deeply, his emotions completely settled. He spoke calmly:
“Li Shengyan, you will never know what you owe me.”
“However, I won’t ask you to repay.”
“I disdain it.”
“I will use this body you’ve given me to take it for myself.”
Emperor Mingde’s throat made a strange gurgling sound, the last glimmer of light in his eyes disappeared. He froze in a grotesque posture, immobile. After a long while, his hand dropped heavily, and he slumped onto the bed.
Li Yuanmin sat for a long time, then finally stood up. Without even sparing a glance at the person on the bed, he staggered out of the palace.
As he pushed open the palace gates, the setting sun broke free from the shackles of the dark clouds and shone brilliantly on Li Yuanmin’s face. In the boundless brightness of the sunlight, Li Yuanmin’s body swayed.
His throat moved slightly: ‘Ugh…'”
The piercing sunlight made tears well up in his eyes. It was as if Li Yuanmin finally found an excuse, and large teardrops began to fall.
He knelt on the ground, crying heartrendingly, Wang Xi led a group of attendants hurriedly rushing over, anxiously calling out to him.
“Your Highness! Your Highness!”
“He’s dead.” Li Yuanmin wailed and sobbed loudly, “He’s dead!”
Wang Xi’s expression tightened, suddenly standing up. He hastily gave a few instructions to the people behind him, and around ten attendants split up with orderly steps.
Under the lingering glow of the setting sun, a person remained prostrate in front of Dao Yuan Hall, their figure stretched long by the crimson sunlight.
On the first day of April in the twenty-ninth year of Chu Wu, Emperor Mingde passed away. This emperor, who had reigned for over twenty years with neither significant accomplishments nor failures, had finally completed his last moments.
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