Consort Xi had just returned at this moment.
In the afternoon, she specifically went to pay her respects to the Empress, but she was unable to extract even a bit of information about the Eldest Prince. She now wore a troubled expression on her face.
Upon hearing that Xue Yao requested an audience, Consort Xi hurriedly arrived at the reception hall, dismissed the attendants, and had the little prince brought out by the nursemaid.
“Has Your Highness heard about the Emperor confining the Eldest Prince?” Xue Yao inquired eagerly.
Consort Xi replied nervously, “I heard about it last night. Today, I went to Chuxiu Palace to pay respects to the Empress and inquire about the situation. However, the Empress didn’t reveal any information. The only tidbit I have is from a eunuch in the inner palace. According to the eunuch, the Director of Astronomy, Master Qin, recently advised against the construction of the Road to Shu, but later it was confirmed that the divination results were incorrect. As a result, he was punished with twenty strokes of the cane. Yesterday, the Eldest Prince interceded on behalf of Master Qin with the Emperor and received a stern reprimand, leading to his confinement.”
“Master Qin?” Xue Yao immediately recalled the name he heard when the Whitewashing Points were deducted yesterday, Qin Zhaoxuan.
It turned out that he was an official in the Directorate of Astronomy.
“This Master Qin must be the person that the Eldest Prince arranged for us.” Consort Xi had figured it out last night. “According to that eunuch, Master Qin mentioned a prophecy called ‘heavenly stones of retribution.’ It’s probably another rumor arranged by the Eldest Prince, and we don’t know when it will come true. I heard that the auspicious date for construction has already been submitted to the Imperial Cabinet by the newly appointed Director of Astronomy. What can we do about it? The imperial edict will be issued soon!”
Xue Yao furrowed his brow in unease.
“What’s the matter?” Consort Xi asked, growing even more nervous at his expression.
“I’m afraid it won’t work,” Xue Yao said in a hushed tone. “The Eldest Prince might want Master Qin to buy time, waiting for the right moment to fulfill the ominous omen. Now, with Master Qin’s survey results overturned and the Eldest Prince confined, even if the ominous signs eventually reach the palace, they won’t be able to clear their names.”
“Why?” Consort Xi’s eyes widened.
“Because the Emperor never makes mistakes,” Xue Yao said with disappointment, looking at Consort Xi. “If things had gone smoothly and the Emperor had the patience to wait for the signs to come true, the project might have been postponed. But now, the Emperor has already concluded that Master Qin was derelict in his duty. If the ominous signs are mentioned again, the Emperor might become angry, dismissing them as rumors. His Majesty might even order a thorough investigation to uncover the instigators. That would put Eldest Prince in great trouble.”
Consort Xi’s vision darkened.
Xue Yao had initially only wanted to help Consort Xi and her son avoid the imminent danger. However, he not only failed to do that but also jeopardized the Eldest Prince’s position, turning his clever plan into a blunder.
Anxious and full of self-blame, Xue Yao quietly asked Consort Xi, “Regardless, the Emperor should still consider the Empress, right?”
“The Empress doesn’t have the kind of influential support that Consort Tong had. How much can the Emperor care for the affection between a young couple?”
“The Empress doesn’t have influential support?” Xue Yao was puzzled. “The Emperor was the Crown Prince before ascending to the throne. How could he marry someone…”
“You, born and raised in Great Qi, how could you not know the unspoken rules of the imperial family?” Consort Xi explained with surprise, “It’s a well-known fact that the founding Emperor of Great Qi was concerned about the interference of powerful relatives in court affairs. Therefore, throughout history, the consorts of the Crown Princes have come from common backgrounds, without any significant family influence.”
Xue Yao’s brows furrowed even deeper.
No wonder the novel’s Empress hadn’t played a significant role. Her family, it seemed, lacked any significant backing.
Xue Yao felt even more remorseful for the Eldest Prince.
In the novel, the Eldest Prince had intervened to halt the construction of the Road to Shu. Xue Yao thought the Eldest Prince had the confidence to do so, which was why he had brought him into the plan early.
Looking back now, when the Eldest Prince had advocated for stopping the project in the novel, the Emperor had already been demoralized by public discontent. At that time, the Eldest Prince had chosen a suitable moment to help the Emperor save face. It was entirely different from the current situation.
Trying to obstruct it now was completely contrary to the Emperor’s stance!
“It’s my fault.” Xue Yao felt a surge of self-blame and dizziness in an instant.
He staggered over to a nearby table, muttering as if no one was around. “There’s no escaping this, and it’s all my fault, involving the Eldest Prince. That… that Master Qin, how’s his condition? I should be the one to take the blame!”
“Xue Yao?” Alarmed by the boy’s pale face, Consort Xi hurriedly approached to console him. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. That eunuch said, no one must die before the project starts, and Master Qin only suffered minor injuries.”
Xue Yao didn’t respond, seemingly lost in complete despair and self-blame. He hunched his back and covered his face, his small body curled up like a shrimp.
Consort Xi’s expression filled with compassion as she stepped forward to console him. “Xue Yao, I’ve always considered you a resilient young boy. I can’t stand to see you wallow in self-pity. There are no perfectly lucky individuals in this world. You did your best, and I witnessed it. The outcome is beyond our control. I won’t allow you to be so easily defeated! We’re not destined to lose our heads. You even told me you’ll climb onto the table to face any challenge that comes our way in the future.”
Xue Yao remained silent, still covering his face.
Consort Xi sat down beside him, feeling helpless.
“Do you still believe in me?” After a long pause, Xue Yao slowly lifted his head, his eyes reddened as he looked at Consort Xi, and he spoke with a fragile determination. “Give me one more chance.”
Consort Xi was taken aback, her long lashes lowered as she silently met the boy’s eyes.
“Of course, I believe in you,” Consort Xi said with a bitter smile. “Efforts can result in failure, but it’s better than giving up and waiting for our fate. You and the Eldest Prince are both benefactors to me and Old Seventh. Does this mean that just because our plan didn’t succeed, I should forget our gratitude and turn against you?”
Xue Yao stared at Consort Xi with a serious expression. “I have another plan, a last-ditch effort that might make the Emperor change his mind, but it requires your personal involvement.”
A hint of trepidation flashed in Consort Xi’s eyes. “Go on.”
Xue Yao fixed his eyes on her. “I’ve heard that, on every one of your birthdays, you set up a sacrificial altar and perform a ritual with a divine shaman. Is that divine shaman someone you brought from your own country?”
Consort Xi was surprised. “How do you know about this? She’s not called a divine shaman. We call them ‘blessing practitioners.’ The birthday ritual isn’t a spell. It’s a blessing ceremony, a tradition from our hometown.”
Xue Yao nodded.
Indeed, in the novel, when Consort Xi became the Empress Dowager, Lu Qian had specifically arranged for the most renowned ‘blessing practitioner’ from her hometown to perform a ceremony before her birthday celebration.
Xue Yao remembered this part of the plot in great detail but didn’t know what special abilities this blessing practitioner possessed.
“The blessing practitioner you brought with you, can she perform divinations?”
“What are you planning?” Consort Xi seemed to have figured out Xue Yao’s intentions. “You don’t want me to conspire with the blessing practitioner to deceive the Emperor, do you? Even the Directorate of Astronomy’s divinations are not believed by the Emperor. How could he possibly take our small country’s sorcery seriously? Besides… the blessing practitioner doesn’t have any real divination skills. If she could foresee the future, why would I have ended up in this situation?”
Xue Yao suddenly smiled with a hint of mischief and replied calmly, “No need to deceive the Emperor, but to convey the true divine will. The blessing practitioner may not have the gift of foresight, but I do. I only need to speak through her.”
Consort Xi stood up in shock. “You can’t take such a desperate gamble! Deceiving the Emperor is a capital offense. You’re just a little boy. How could you possibly have the ability to foresee the future?”
“On the day of the Hungry Ghost Festival, approximately the eighteenth day after the start of the road construction, the laborers from Mount Liang who are working on the road will encounter a mudslide, resulting in seven deaths and twenty-three injuries. This is the prophecy. Your Highness, please quickly present this information as the blessing practitioner’s prediction to the Emperor. Afterward, make sure that the ‘heavenly stones of retribution’ from the Directorate of Astronomy confirms it. The Emperor will surely take heed..”
It took a while for Consort Xi to comprehend. She furrowed her brow while gazing at Xue Yao. “How could that work? A mudslide is a natural disaster. Even if the Eldest Prince has extraordinary abilities, he can’t create such an accident, especially one that involves loss of life. Are you suggesting the Eldest Prince should kill people? The lives of the common people are just as valuable. How can we threaten the Emperor by taking their lives for the sake of my son and me? Don’t act recklessly. You must be tired. Rest in the palace tonight.”
“Your Highness just said you’re willing to trust me.” Xue Yao raised his voice, his gaze unwaveringly fixed on Consort Xi. “On the day of the Hungry Ghost Festival, a real disaster will indeed occur. This is a prediction from a knowledgeable person. However, I can’t reveal the identity of this person. It’s true that some common people will lose their lives because of it. I had originally planned to prevent this from happening before the imperial decree for the road construction was issued, but it seems impossible now.
“I can’t save the first group of people who will be affected, but I can only try to limit the damage by stopping further casualties. A natural disaster occurring on the Hungry Ghost Festival can be presented as a warning from the heavens. It’s much more believable than the Directorate of Astronomy’s heavenly stones of retribution. Please, Your Highness, reconsider this approach.”
Consort Xi looked perplexed, increasingly suspecting that this boy had gone mad.
What knowledgeable person could predict a mudslide on a specific mountain road in Bashu? This was simply absurd!
At this moment, Xue Yao had fully committed himself. Predicting the future in front of Consort Xi could lead to him being branded as a practitioner of the dark arts, putting his life at risk.
But now, with things having reached this point, he had no choice but to take a leap of faith.
In the novel, the Eldest Prince’s memorial, which recommended the temporary suspension of the road construction project, recorded that within the three years from the commencement of the construction of the Road to Shu to the local uprisings, there were a total of eleven natural disasters, including various sizes of landslides and mudflows. As a result, more than a thousand road construction workers lost their lives.
Presenting these disasters as divine warnings from above was much more believable than suggesting they were artificially created.
Being able to predict the exact locations and casualties in advance would undoubtedly have a profound impact on the Emperor.
Xue Yao’s initial intention was to resolve the matter before the construction began. He could never have planned to allow the common people to suffer casualties first and then use the situation to his advantage.
However, he now deeply realized that the Emperor was truly unyielding. Fabricating rumors wouldn’t be enough to deceive him.
As the imperial edict to repair the Road to Shu was unstoppable, and the Eldest Prince was also implicated, Xue Yao could only face reality. It was impossible to protect all the victims and Consort Xi and her son without any harm. Being able to halt the road repair project within a month was already a stroke of luck.
Therefore, he could only use the first genuine natural disaster to prevent future calamities, simultaneously reinstating Master Qin. This might help the Eldest Prince regain the Emperor’s trust.
However, after hearing Xue Yao’s words, Consort Xi’s face clearly bore the words “Have you gone mad?” It was evident that she couldn’t believe he could predict a natural disaster.
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