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The Great Interior, Chongren Palace.
Although the autumn sun shone brightly outside, the inner hall was tightly closed off, and the bed placed in shadows cast into the dark corners. A thick medicinal scent pervaded the air, so thick it seemed that the bitterness was soaked into every inch of paulownia, and every crevice in the floor tiles, which seemed to suffocate people.
The Crown Prince lay within layers of gauze curtains, his face suffused with a wan and sallow ash, yet the areas around his eyes were a frightening black, and practically no undulation of the chest could be sighted under the bedclothes.
Empress Wu stood next to the bed, her gaze fixed on the Crown Prince's sleeping face, and she seemed so intent on scrutinising something that she did not speak for a while.
Behind her the eunuchs and palace maids had already knelt all around, and the hall was so quiet that the silence was suffocating. After a while Empress Wu finally asked: "—what did the imperial physicians say?"
"Replying to Your Highness, the imperial physicians check in three times a day, ever since the last time the lord gentleman threw up blood in the middle of the night we have switched to strong medicine according to Commander Xie's method, though we could keep him by a breath, yet it extremely taxes the body's foundation, now we are just barely… barely…"
The attendant maid was trembling slightly, clearly unable to keep speaking.
Empress Wu asked: "Who has come to visit these few days?"
"Replying to the Empress, the Exalted One has decreed for the Eastern Palace to be sealed off, and yesterday he had personally visited. Besides that only Miss Pei was led in by a wet nurse, coming over once a day."
Empress Wu's red lips crooked up as she sneered: "…the Hedong Pei clan."
She did not say any more, turning around to take from Xie Yun's red sandalwood tray behind her a Snow Lotus which was entirely snow-white from calyx to pistil, with remnants of dried blood on the petals, and gently threw it in water. A light hiss resounded, and the blossom dissolved on contact with water, and a strange fresh and clean scent immediately drifted through the empty and s.p.a.cious inner hall.
"The hearts of mother and son are joined, and share the same woes. After the Crown Prince was poisoned this palace1 was burning with anxiety, and ordered Commander Xie to go out of the capital to search for thousands of li, to track down this flower which had fallen into the common world, the Snow Lotus which is said to decide life and death."
Everyone in the Eastern Palace gave a deep kowtow, and Empress Wu raised the cup to walk to the side of the Crown Prince's bed, gently supporting him in her chest and about to feed him.
Yet who knew if the Crown Prince was truly unconscious or not, but his jaw was tightly closed and could not be fed. Empress Wu attempted twice to no result, and her face sneered: "Xie Yun, you try."
Xie Yun took the porcelain cup, and without demur one hand pinched the Crown Prince's jaw bone, and seemingly not using too much force, forcibly pried apart the Crown Prince's mouth.
—thus at this time the Crown Prince had no choice but to wake up.
"… ah…" The Crown Prince began to struggle, powerlessly waving both hands and shifting his head: "Your, Your Ladyship… don't…"
Empress Wu warmly said: "The Crown Prince must be good. This is the miraculous medicine that can cure your illness, Commander Xie obtained it with great difficulty, after drinking you can live."
Yet the Crown Prince's shivering gaze shifted from Empress Wu to Xie Yun, and then continued to the clear water before him emitting a strange fragrance, and a look of terror gradually floated up in his eyes.
"Hong'er?" Empress Wu said.
The Crown Prince suddenly turned his head.
Empress Wu asked: "Hong'er, do you not trust your mother?"
n.o.body in the surroundings dared to speak, and a silence which caused the heart to palpitate continued for a long time.
"… Commander Xie…" The Crown Prince hoa.r.s.ely spat out a weak sentence.
Xie Yun said: "Your subject is here."
"That day in Ci'en Temple… where is Master Xin Chao of Ci'en Temple?"
Empress Wu's face abruptly changed colour, and Xie Yun was also somewhat taken aback, yet the mood on his face was quickly covered by an even calmer silence: "The monk Xin Chao is currently waiting outside the Eastern Palace, should the Crown Prince wish to see him, your subject shall order someone to bring him in."
The Crown Prince said: "Go call him."
Xie Yun paused before the Empress Wu's shining gaze, and then turned towards a palace maid on the ground: "…as the Crown Prince says, pa.s.s down an order for the monk Xin Chao to have an audience."
As he said these words he felt the Empress Wu's gaze fix upon his nape bones, that even in his marrow, there seem to have been suffused with cold—yet Empress Wu did not say anything. In this situation and circ.u.mstances, with so many people watching, she could not say anything.
As expected the palace maid left in compliance, and a moment later a sound sounded from the bedroom door, and the attendant palace maid murmured: "Your Highness, the monk Xin Chao has come."
Xie Yun's knuckles on the cup walls abruptly changed colour slightly.
The hall doors opened, and light streamed in from the cracks to spread out into the hall, where a belt of light gradually formed on the golden bricks. A man's silhouette was cast on the belt of light, with thick and broad shoulders, a long stature, and his face was unclear in the backlight, but his figure was wrapped in masculine strength, towering at the hall doors like a silent rock.
Empress Wu stared unwavering at him, her expression complicated and her face slightly white, her fingertips shaking slightly on the red-gold palace silks.
The attendant palace maid whispered: "You need to pay your respects to Her Highness the Empress…"
And Xie Yun cut her off without even turning his head, raising his eyes towards the golden-yellow ta.s.sels of the gauze curtains, but his words were directed to behind him: "—come pay your respects to Her Ladyship."
Rarely could anyone deduce within this situation the great difference behind such a detail as a style of address, even so much that Shan Chao who had entered the Palace for the first time did not know, yet Empress Wu abruptly got to her feet: "No need to pay respects."
She strode away from the bed, speaking with her back turned: "The Crown Prince wishes to see you before he takes his medicine, you shall feed him then."
Shan Chao did not understand, and entered the Eastern Palace with everyone's eyes on him.
The Crown Prince had long ago struggled to a sitting position, and Shan Chao walked to his bedside, and took over the porcelain cup from Xie Yun. At this moment he and Xie Yun sat on both left and right sides of the bed, yet the Crown Prince only watched Shan Chao, and his pale face slowly showed a smile as if relieved of a huge burden: "I knew, that Master would come and save me."
For some reason Shan Chao felt his heart warm, and mildly said: "Your Highness, take your medicine."
The Crown Prince nodded and said: "En, I believe you—my life, is entrusted to my beloved subject2." And then he took the porcelain cup and drained the Snow Lotus water in one gulp!
Everyone held their breath in an instant, to see the Crown Prince's hand relax, and the cup soundlessly fall onto the bed.
And then the Crown Prince's ashen cheek strangely turn white, and then blush, and the black under his eyes turned lighter, and with a cry he threw up a spurt of thick black blood. The Palace servants hurried forward, yet to even cry out to their highness, when they saw a clear light as if receiving a breath of new life appear in the Crown Prince's eyes.
Xie Yun's finger connected with the Crown Prince's wrist pulse, and he got up to raise his voice to instruct outside of the hall: "Men, ring the bells to inform the Three Palaces—"
"The Eastern Palace's Crown Prince has recovered, the foundation of the state is in good health!"
1 ZH: 本宫 - first-person p.r.o.noun used by Court ladies when faced with an inferior.
2 ZH: 卿 - old term, used from Tang dynasty onwards by an emperor when addressing his subjects directly, usually for ministers or generals.