The Seventh Prince quickly rushed to his Mother Consort, bouncing anxiously, begging for a hug, fearing that Third Brother would catch up and grab him.
On the side, Yiqiu hurriedly picked up the Seventh Prince to prevent the child from affecting Consort Xi’s fighting spirit.
The Third Prince adjusted his attire, turned with a haughty expression, bowed to Consort Xi, and then arrogantly raised his chin, complaining first, “Your Highness, you arrived late and missed what just happened. I wanted to take my younger brothers to the field to practice, but Old Seventh refused and suddenly knocked me, his elder brother, to the ground. Sigh, I got quite a fall.”
“I didn’t arrive late.” Consort Xi took a couple of steps forward, coldly staring at Third Prince. “I saw everything just now. You were arguing with your little brothers. I couldn’t interfere directly, but what happened just now, I saw it, and so did these servants. Your three younger brothers also saw it.”
The Third Prince’s face briefly showed resentment, but he ultimately couldn’t be disrespectful to his elders. He had to swallow his anger and craftily argue, “It’s good that Your Highness witnessed it. I did indeed come to invite them to practice with me. You see, Old Sixth rejected my offer, unwilling to practice with me. Old Seventh completely ignored me, which was fine, but then, in a fit of temper, he knocked me down, his elder brother! Oh, how he made me tumble…”
The Third Prince clutched his stomach, gasping for air.
Consort Xi sneered. “It sseems I have been too lenient with Old Seventh. From now on, even if I see the Third Prince beat an attendant to death, I will not interfere. Even if someone dies, I can only seek justice from the Emperor. However, I don’t quite understand why the Third Prince accused Old Seventh of being a barbaric mongrel. Is it because he doubts the blood that flows in his veins, whether it’s the Emperor’s, or…”
The Third Prince’s face turned pale, his gaze shifting, and then he started smiling again. “Your Highness, there’s a misunderstanding. I was just knocked down by Old Seventh, and I got worked up in the heat of the moment. I thought about our uncle fighting the Wokou pirates on the coast, and it crossed my mind that we, as brothers, should cooperate against external threats. How could I know that Old Seventh would turn on me! In my anger, I said he was acting like those barbaric mongrels. It turned into a family feud, unintentionally!”
Consort Xi, seeing him attempt to turn the tables and even invoking his uncle as a backing, felt a mixture of anger and resentment. She considered just openly confronting the situation, bringing all the witnesses to Yangxin Hall to seek the Emperor’s judgment!
However, in the end, a trace of reason still advised her to stay calm.
Amidst ongoing conflicts, the Emperor couldn’t afford to be embroiled in the grievances of the harem, especially those related to the Tong family.
If things escalated, it would likely result in a scolding and a punishment of book copying for the Third Prince, at most, an additional half-month of confinement.
If she were to openly confront Consort Tong, it would be no different to declaring a formal war.
Consort Xi understood her own position. She was merely a nineteen-year-old dancer. Her past sisters had always supported each other and focused on dance. Throughout her life, she had never schemed against anyone. How could she possibly compete with Consort Tong?
If she couldn’t contend with Consort Tong and ended up falling victim to a plot, how would her little son survive to adulthood?
Yiqiu, seeing Consort Xi’s prolonged silence, was becoming increasingly anxious.
So many people had heard the Third Prince directly insult the Seventh Prince as a “mongrel.” This was essentially an affront to the Emperor himself. Why not seize this opportunity to escalate the situation?
The Third Prince, sensing that Consort Xi wouldn’t dare create a scene, secretly smiled and clasped his hands, bowing to Consort Xi. “If Your Highness has no other instructions, I shall take my leave. Old Seventh really gave me a thorough beating this time. I’m in considerable pain and should see the imperial physician.”
Consort Xi, provoked by the disdain in his eyes, turned to look at the Seventh Prince in Yiqiu’s arms and mockingly scolded, “Old Seventh, how could you injure your older brother, who is nine years your senior, like this? Sibling conflicts may occur occasionally, but as the younger one at three years old, you should show restraint and not resort to such harsh measures.”
The Seventh Prince, still in a state of shock, didn’t comprehend his Mother Consort’s admonishment. His eyes brimmed with tears as he nibbled on his tiny hand.
The young readers-in-waiting surrounding them were oblivious to propriety and couldn’t contain their laughter at Consort Xi’s taunting.
Some of them couldn’t help it and burst into laughter, covering their mouths while their shoulders shook.
The Third Prince from the Tong family had been beaten up by his three-year-old brother!
The Third Prince’s face shifted between shades of pale and green from anger. He contemplated a retort but was overwhelmed by the surrounding laughter. He shot a deadly look around the group.
Seeing that the people around them had fallen into stunned silence, the Third Prince, seething with humiliation, couldn’t bear to stay any longer. He made a respectful bow to Consort Xi, then turned and left with gritted teeth.
You’ll pay for this in the future!
As the Third Prince left, the Sixth Prince choked with sobs and threw himself into the arms of the Fifth Prince.
The Seventh Prince, influenced by the crying, clung to Yiqiu’s shoulder and started sobbing as well.
Consort Xi approached, picked up the Sixth Prince, and patted his back to soothe him. She then walked over to Xue Yao, freeing a hand to gently touch the side of his head. In a soft voice, she asked, “Does it hurt?”
Xue Yao’s head still felt a bit heavy, but he nonchalantly smiled. “Thank you for your concern, Your Highness. It doesn’t hurt anymore. The Third Prince didn’t use much force.”
Consort Xi sighed. “Don’t be too proud. When the Third Prince slapped you, I could hear it from quite a distance. Come with me to Qingqiong Hall for the night to rest. Tomorrow, I have something to discuss with you. I’ll have someone inform your residence.”
That night, Xue Yao rested alone in the western chamber of Qingqiong Hall. He didn’t see Consort Xi or the Seventh Prince.
In the middle of the night, his mind replayed the slow-motion scene of the chubby cub knocking the Third Prince down.
The old father’s heart was so moved it felt like it might burst!
How did this cowardly baby who always said “protect Your Highness” suddenly become so capable?
He had actually knocked down the Third Prince for him.
Tomorrow, let’s just feed both cartons of Want Want milk to the chubby little dumpling!
Consort Xi’s sudden appearance also took Xue Yao by surprise.
He had no idea what Consort Xi intended to discuss with him tomorrow. Could it be related to changing the Seventh Prince’s reader-in-waiting?
After handing the plush toy to Consort Xi, the Fourth Prince went to Chunxi Hall to inform Noble Lady Yi.
As he looked at the modest furnishings in his mother’s sleeping chamber, the Fourth Prince laughed softly. “Honors come with their own troubles. Even if we live in simplicity, it’s better than being secretly stabbed in the back by others.”
Noble Lady Yi asked him why he was saying this.
The Fourth Prince wore a mysterious smile and leaned in close to whisper in Noble Lady Yi’s ear, “Let me tell you something interesting, but please, never let it leak.”
He told Noble Lady Yi about Consort Tong planting a spy near Consort Xi.
Early the next day, Xue Yao was attended to by palace maids for his morning routine. After breakfast, he went to see Consort Xi.
“Did the Empress instruct you to remind me about the poisoned scented pouch?” Consort Xi got straight to the point.
“In response to Your Highness, I have never met the Empress,” Xue Yao replied firmly.
Consort Xi stared at him for a while. “I really want to believe you, Xue Yao.”
Xue Yao looked up at Consort Xi.
“Even if all your previous innocence and ignorance were just an act, I still want to believe in you despite everything.” Consort Xi’s eyes welled up with sadness. “I had hoped there would still be people in this world who would stand up for justice, sympathize with my poisoning, and protect my innocent son. Is this idea too foolish?”
Fixing a steady gaze on Consort Xi, Xue Yao, after a long pause, calmly replied, “If someone were truly willing to disregard their own safety, stand up for justice, and help the innocent, that person would indeed be a fool in the harem.”
Consort Xi’s eyes dimmed, and she self-mockingly said, “You’re right. Where in the palace can you find such a fool? I was foolish to hold onto such a hope.”
Xue Yao continued, “But I’m not one of the harem’s people. I have a sense of justice but lack the courage to match it. I understand the need to protect oneself. So, I feigned foolishness in front of Your Highness, pretending to casually drop hints, hoping you would replace the scented pouch.”
Consort Xi’s eyes sparked with renewed determination as she stared at Xue Yao in astonishment. “Who told you to do this?”
“I’m afraid you’ll find it ridiculous, but it was your notion of justice that prompted me. I had no ulterior motive and sought no reward.”
Xue Yao continued with conviction, “I know that as an adolescent, I couldn’t have known about the poisoned scented pouch without someone’s guidance. I can offer you a hundred explanations, like overhearing Consort Tong’s conspiracy while attending the Third Prince, but it’s not the truth. Since you’ve said you want to believe in me despite everything, I don’t want to lie to you anymore.
“But this matter concerns my life, so I can’t disclose the real reason. I can only say this plainly: I exposed the scented pouch conspiracy for your safety. I accompanied the Seventh Prince in his studies because I wholeheartedly wish for his safe and healthy upbringing. No one taught me to do this, and I ended up offending Consort Tong.
“The day I delivered the scented pouch to the palace, Consort Tong interrogated me. Why does Consort Tong seem to know everything happening in your palace? That might be the real issue you need to be wary of. And who whispered in your ear that I had any connection with the Empress? This person might be acting on Consort Tong’s orders.”
Yiqiu’s face shifted, and she hastily defended Chunfang, “If you have no involvement with the Empress, then explain your visits to Chuxiu Palace! Why are you sowing discord in our relationship as mistress and servant? I suspect that the one Her Highness should be cautious of is you. The play you staged yesterday to defend His Highness – that was also an act you put on, wasn’t it?”
Xue Yao looked at Yiqiu. “Where is Chuxiu Palace located? To be honest, I’ve only accompanied the Third Prince to the school and Linyou Palace before. I still don’t know the location of Chuxiu Palace. Perhaps Aunt has mistaken me for someone else?”
“It wasn’t me!” Yiqiu, in a state of panic, effectively sold out Chunfang in front of Xue Yao. “Chunfang, was it really him you saw?”
Xue Yao’s eyes lit up like a blade, scanning the row of palace maids beside him, waiting for the individual named Chunfang, the spy, to step forward.
When Chunfang stepped forward, she cried and knelt on the ground, “Aunt! This servant did not make a mistake. This young master from the Xue family is too crafty! His every word and action don’t resemble that of an innocent child at all. He even turned it around to defame this servant! In the past, for the safety of Her Highness, I risked being punished by the Empress and didn’t mind losing my life. I only ask Her Highness not to doubt my loyalty!”
Yiqiu quickly spoke up for Chunfang, “Your Highness, this child is truly extremely cunning. Please don’t trust him!”
“That’s enough.” Consort Xi closed her eyes and massaged her temples. “I won’t wrong an innocent person. Until we have evidence, everything remains as it was. Xue Yao, Old Seventh is still in your charge.”
Xue Yao nodded and requested, “I have one more matter to discuss privately with Your Highness. May I ask Aunt Yiqiu and Sister Chunfang to step aside for a moment?”
“You!” Yiqiu was furious.
“Very well.” Consort Xi dismissed everyone and looked steadily at Xue Yao. “I assume you want to talk about the Emperor’s upcoming tour?”
“Your Highness is as perceptive as ever,” Xue Yao replied. “Regarding the invitation for the Emperor’s tour, Your Highness must not accept it.”
Consort Xi smiled bitterly. “Your request does sound like that of an informant. If I were to decline the Emperor’s favor, all the glory and splendor would crumble in an instant. Since you’re so clever, aren’t you aware that the Emperor’s favor is the foundation of both Old Seventh and me?”
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