Si Tian Guan Chapter 177

Chapter 177: The Empress Dowager

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The sound of cicadas suddenly rang out overhead, causing Qu Chenzhou to stop in his tracks.

He hadn’t yet found where that little thing was hiding when two young eunuchs hurriedly brought a ladder over. They knelt and kowtowed to him before setting up the ladder and climbing the tree.

Qu Chenzhou watched the young eunuchs climb down and waved his hand. A small creature with black body and thin wings was presented before him; it was already dead.

Seeing his somewhat disappointed expression, the young eunuch hurriedly said in a pleasing manner, “Qu Sitian, if you like, I can catch a live one another day and make a cage for it to play in, and then I’ll send it to you.”

He smiled and nodded, watching the person walk away.

A long, long time ago, he had kept one.

Back in the Qisheng Building, when he was washing clothes by the well, it had flown into his arm and then into the washing basin.

Panicked, he quickly used the corner of his clothes to clean the wet cicada.

The thing was still moving, its legs clung to his hand. He couldn’t bear to let it go and secretly plucked a few strips of bamboo from a basket, making a small cage to put it in. He then hid it in his chest.

With something beside his heart, this happiness had him excited for half a day, his cheeks turning red.

But it only lasted half a day. When the cicada’s chirping came from within him, he had just been brought into the bedroom to meet guests.

His blood had dripped onto the flattened cage, staining it all over, to the point that he had always thought cicada blood was also red.

Around this time last year, Liu Zhongming saw him lost in thought while listening to the cicadas’ chirping. He immediately rolled up his sleeves, climbed the sycamore tree, and caught several cicadas to play with him.

Before dawn, they went to dig up the immature cicadas under the tree, placing them on a gauze curtain. The two squeezed together and watched the cicadas split open their backs as the dawn first emerged.

Freshly emerged cicadas had tender, transparent wings. They had transformed into creatures capable of soaring through the skies.

“Chenzhou, look,” Zhongming turned his face toward him: “No matter how long one is trapped underground, there will always come a day when they fly to the treetops.”

Qu Chenzhou withdrew his gaze, smiled faintly, and descended from the stepping path.

Now that he was in command of the Valiant Camp, he naturally no longer needed to be confined to the small garden for walks like before. In addition to divination, he now had numerous official affairs to handle every day.

Given that the deputy officers couldn’t conveniently enter the palace all the time, he would leave the palace every other day at noon and before sunset to visit the Valiant Camp’s residence. Returning at this time, he arrived just in time for dinner.

A group of Jinwu Guards patrolled the stepping path ahead. They halted their steps, standing at attention as he approached, “Qu Sitian!”

Qu Chenzhou nodded in acknowledgment and signaled for them to continue.

He didn’t pay attention to the Jinwu Guards, but those thirty-five people who had been absent that day had been force-fed alcohol for seven days in a row. In the end, half of them were so drunk that they vomited blood, including Ding Lekang. The voices of everyone who spoke to him had dropped by two degrees, as if they were afraid of scaring him.

After passing through this gate, the Star Gazing Pavillion lay ahead.

He had already stepped over the threshold when he stopped and drew back. From the corner of his eye, someone turned around the corner, less than a hundred steps away—timing his return so precisely.

With his current status, he only paid homage to the Emperor. Even when he saw the Empress, he only needed to bow and perform a hand salute. However, when he saw the incoming person, he knelt down.

“Official Qu Chenzhou, paying respects to the Empress Dowager.”

The Empress Dowager leaned on a crutch with one hand and was supported by Xi Gonggong with the other. She smiled and nodded at him, slowly entering the Star Gazing Pavillion.

He dusted his robe and also stood up, following behind.

The Empress Dowager had already taken her seat at the table. Xi Gonggong led the others out, closing the door behind them.

Qu Chenzhou stood by the table, hands at his sides. He glanced at the closed door and whispered, “Not long ago, I disturbed Your Majesty in the middle of the night. Thank you for offering shelter and protection. I have not had a chance to thank you in person. I hope Your Majesty can forgive me.”

“No need for polite words,” the Empress Dowager looked at him with a smile: “Come, sit down. Our time is limited.”

She had made her intentions clear. Qu Chenzhou brought over a cup of tea and sat down at the table.

The Empress Dowager gazed at him and chuckled lightly, “Qu Sitian has such self-restraint that he didn’t speak up on his own initiative. I now hold you in higher regard, nearly believing your previous words.”

“So the Empress Dowager didn’t believe me,” Qu Chenzhou stood up to pour tea for the Empress Dowager, asking softly, “Why did the Empress Dowager come to find me today?”

“Does Qu Sitian remember what he said to me that day?” The Empress Dowager didn’t respond to his question and asked, “If I were to tell the Emperor those words, what do you think would happen to you?” 

“It’s just death, but Empress Dowager didn’t tell the Emperor,” Qu Chenzhou calmly reminded, “You should know, our time is limited, and yours even more so.” 

The Empress Dowager fell silent for a moment. Her former vigor seemed to have dissipated, as if this statement had brought her back to reality. She sighed softly, “I’ve grown old; I can’t wait any longer.” 

She glanced at the door; it was only slightly ajar, allowing a sliver of sunlight to pierce through, casting a needle-like ray onto the floor. It felt as if this sunlight, like something alive, was trying to crawl up their feet.

“That year, Consort Tang De’s death had nothing to do with me. At that time, I was pregnant with Yuan Er and didn’t have much strength to manage the harem. The late Emperor appointed Consort Tang De to assist me.”

The Empress Dowager sighed softly, “Consort Tang De suddenly died of a sudden illness. The Tang family wouldn’t let it rest and the late Emperor also punished the culprit. I never expected that they would redirect their resentment towards me.”

Qu Chenzhou slightly adjusted her words, “It’s not redirecting resentment, but rather they believe you orchestrated it behind the scenes. At that time, Consort Tang De’s status was only below yours, and if we’re talking about who gained from it, it would only be you.”

“Consort Tang De had no sons. I had no interest in competing with her. As for the events of the past, the truth is unknown now.”

The Empress Dowager lifted the tea bowl, her thoughts muddled, unable to take a sip, “The late Emperor was compassionate towards the Tang family. He kept Tang Xilan in the palace, intending to bestow her as a legitimate wife to the prince. But it turned out to be nurturing a threat.”

She glanced at Qu Chenzhou, “You said Tang Xilan used her frequent presence in the palace to harm Yuan Er? Who told you that?”

“Empress Dowager, I rely on my own eyes to see the truth.” 

Qu Chenzhou replied with certainty despite the doubt in the Empress Dowager’s gaze, “The Tang family is skilled in insidious schemes. Tang Xilan is already ten years old. What doesn’t she understand? Yet in the eyes of others, she’s still a child. No one would expect her to do anything.”

“Empress Dowager, think back. You’ve guarded his highness day and night, wary of both open and hidden threats. But have you ever guarded against Tang Xilan? Both are children. When Tang Xilan played with his highness, did anyone keep a constant watch on what he ate?”

“If it were a single instance of poisoning, it would be uncovered. You wouldn’t let it rest. But if the doses introduced each time weren’t significant, over time, the prince’s health would deteriorate gradually, and no one would be able to trace the cause.”

The Empress Dowager’s hand holding the teacup trembled.

Qu Chenzhou lowered his voice, carefully breaking down those shattered suspicions.

“Empress Dowager, the Tang family has done these things not once or twice, not involving just one or two people, not even limited to one or two generations.”

“Even if you were to ignore external affairs, haven’t you noticed what the Empress has been doing in the palace all these years?”

“Do you still remember Tan Hanlin’s second daughter? She died suddenly before marrying into the Lin family because the Empress didn’t want to see the Tan and Lin families united.”

“And more recently, Consort Xian… can’t you see it?”

The Empress Dowager’s breath became rapid, “Why?”

In fact, she could guess the reason, because Tang Xilan and Yuan Er had a significant age difference. It was impossible for Tang Xilan to wait until Yuan Er grew up and could select a consort. She would have to leave the palace and marry someone else.

As long as Yuan Er was alive, Tang Xilan could never become Empress.

“The Emperor… Where is the Emperor?” She struggled to make her voice sound less tremulous, “Does the Emperor know? When I lost Yuan Er and the Emperor lost his birth mother… isn’t it a coincidence…”

“I’m sorry,” Qu Chenzhou lowered his gaze, “I can’t know everything.”

The Empress Dowager rephrased her question, “After you entered the palace, was it the Emperor who prevented you from seeing me?”

Qu Chenzhou corrected, “The Emperor didn’t prevent me from seeing you.”

The Empress Dowager closed her eyes, unable to conceal her exhaustion.

“Over the years, I gradually grew weak and feeble. Initially, I attributed it to aging, but when Little Xizi seemed to care about me, I noticed something wasn’t right.”

“I can’t drink the Empress’s soup in excess, yet if I don’t drink it, I become excessively weak.”

“The things the Emperor honors me with seem like an attempt to let me live a little longer.”

She abandoned all resistance, as if she had finally found a place to unburden herself after years of suppressing her words.

“Even if you didn’t say it, I’ve long suspected that Yuan Er’s death was mostly related to the Tang family.”

“Now I understand. Regardless of whether the Emperor was involved back then, he must have been aware, which is why he didn’t dare let you see me.”

“He keeps me alive because of what Tang Xilan did. I am a leverage he can use against her, isn’t that so…”

Qu Chenzhou pursed his lips, observing the old woman’s wavering eyes, and whispered, “Empress Dowager, please accept my condolences.”

Suddenly, the Empress Dowager drank half a cup of tea in one gulp, dabbing her eye corner with a handkerchief. She raised her head and asked, “Qu Chenzhou, whose side are you on? Why did you deliberately come to see me and talk about these matters? For whom?”

“Empress Dowager, our time is short,” Qu Chenzhou reiterated, “When I speak these words, for me, it’s for myself. For you, it’s also the truth you’ve always wanted to know.”

“I don’t want to do anything. I only want to remind you of the current situation. Qi Wang can’t possibly return. Jing Wang pushed me to see you. The Emperor has already stopped considering him. Huai Wang stays low-profile and doesn’t cause trouble, but he holds some silver coins.”

The Empress Dowager’s throat tightened, “Are you saying…”

“Empress Dowager, you’ve long resided in the palace, and with your frail health, you might not know the events of the previous dynasty well. But since you’ve focused on the Empress, don’t you know that the Emperor has already transferred control of the Ten Li Pavilion’s troops to Ning Wang?”

“The deeper meaning within, I can’t think of a second possibility.”

And within this deeper meaning was the shift in the Emperor’s favor.

The Empress Dowager fell silent, her fingers restlessly twisting her handkerchief. When she spoke again, her voice carried a slight tremor.

“Qu Sitian, is this what the Emperor thinks when you’re by his side?”

“The Emperor’s intentions are unfathomable. I’m sorry, I’m not sure either. I’ve just heard that Ning Wang has encountered some troubles while reorganizing the troops at Ten Li Pavilion, and the Emperor is standing on his side.”

The Empress Dowager stood up, watching as the sunlight stretched longer on the ground, climbing up to her knees. She made a sudden decision and asked directly, “What do you want me to do? What should I do to prevent that wretched Mu Jingzhao from ascending the throne?”

Qu Chenzhou also stood up, and softly replied, “How could I dare to instruct the Empress Dowager? Moreover, I’m really not sure what the Empress Dowager can do, and to what extent. I only wanted to tell you…”

He took a step closer.

“Since you entered, I’ve been casting divinations for you, but there’s no way—no matter which path you take, it’s still a death divination.”

“As you just said, the time left for you is not much.”

The Empress Dowager’s reaction wasn’t as surprised as expected; her expression remained calm. “Who was behind this?”

“I can’t tell, I’m not sure. This means that anyone could be responsible. The only constant is that from the moment you set out to meet me, your fate was sealed.”

“How much time do I have left?”

“Within three months.”

“That’s long enough,” she smiled with a tinge of sorrow, “I’ve lived in a muddle for these years; I’ve lived long enough.”

Adjusting her demeanor, the solemn bearing she commanded during her reign over the harem in her youth returned to her cheeks. She nodded slightly to Qu Chenzhou, then turned and walked towards the wooden door, disappearing into the fading light that slipped through the door’s crack.

As the door closed, Qu Chenzhou let out a soft sigh. 

With the Empress Dowager’s departure, there would undoubtedly be significant waves within the palace sooner or later. He was at the center of the vortex—how would he protect himself?

“Did the Empress Dowager only ask you these questions?” Emperor Yu raised an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Qu Chenzhou knelt at the steps.

Not long after the Empress Dowager left, he had just lifted the lid of his dinner bowl when he was hurriedly summoned.

“What did you say?”

“Your Majesty, please forgive my straightforwardness. The Empress Dowager might have been driven by her longing for her son and acted impulsively, thus seeking me out for answers.” Qu Chenzhou lowered his head and answered candidly, “I can only divine fortunes; I can glimpse only a fragment of the unknown. I have no knowledge of past events. The Empress Dowager didn’t believe me and repeatedly questioned me. She left when she saw that I genuinely had no knowledge.”

Emperor Yu made a noise of acknowledgment.

Qu Chenzhou bowed his head again, “There’s another matter. Before the Empress Dowager left, she asked me to divine something. Please forgive me, Your Majesty.”

“What divination?”

“A death divination,” he whispered, “There’s nothing else. Just a death divination.”

The room fell silent. After a long while, Emperor Yu waved his hand, “You may leave.”

Qu Chenzhou rose to his feet and slowly retreated. He softly inquired, “Your Majesty, if the Empress Dowager seeks me out again in the future, how should I…”


He could only exit the room. He let out a sigh of relief just as he turned the corner, but before he knew it, someone had grabbed him.

“Little Chenzhou!”

His heart skipped a beat as he was pushed by that person into a corner, his back against the wall. He managed to respond, “Greetings, Ning Wang. Is Wangye planning to leave the palace?” 

“Quick, lock the door. I will leave the palace shortly,” Mu Jingzhao held his wrist against the wall, leaning in to nuzzle his neck. “Little Chenzhou, it’s been a while since we’ve met. I’ve missed you so much.”

Qu Chenzhou pulled one of his hands away, creating a bit of distance between them, and said softly, “Someone will pass by here soon. It wouldn’t be good if they saw us. I’ll come to visit you at your residence another day.”

Ning Wang stepped back with a delighted smile.

Qu Chenzhou glanced at him and asked, “Did you get scolded by the Empress again during your visit today?”

As soon as this topic came up, Mu Jingzhao’s entire demeanor collapsed.

“Don’t mention it. Those people at Ten Li Pavilion don’t listen to me, especially that surname Song. He says one thing to my face and another behind my back, and I can’t get them to follow my orders. Leading soldiers is too difficult. Royal Mother knows nothing, she only scolds me. She doesn’t even consider that this is the first time…”

“The tail is too big to drop, leading soldiers is not easy. Your Highness, you could find some time to ask General Bai and Commander Bo for advice; they surely have better solutions.”

Suddenly, his eyes lit up, and he pulled Qu Chenzhou over.

“Little Chenzhou, you’re also dealing with that bunch for the first time. I heard that you’ve straightened out those rascals from the Valiant Camp. Teach me how!”

Qu Chenzhou pursed his lips and smiled, “What good ideas could I have? I just relied on the Emperor’s favor and the determination to be ruthless.”

“Ruthless?” Mu Jingzhao was puzzled, “What’s the ruthless way?”

“If my subordinates don’t listen, dare to go against my orders secretly,” Qu Chenzhou’s enchanting eyes curved like a crescent moon, accompanied by a devilishly enticing tone, “Kill them. Replace them with a new batch.”

Author’s note: Their separate lives are coming to an end; this part was really challenging to write.

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