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The second year of the Linde era1, the Empress contributed medicine to cure the Crown Prince, the Crown Prince poisoning case which astonished all levels of society thus ended like this.
The great bells shook up Chongren Hall, and then left for distant parts, crossing over the nine gates, to resound around the high and beautiful Daming Palace as it continued forever into the distance.
Three rings sounded, winding and uninterrupted, reverberating for a long time in the blue dome of the heavens overhead Chang'an.
It was night, and the Emperor had descended to Chongren Hall to visit the Crown Prince. The dragon heart greatly pleased, he thus ordered a banquet to be arranged at Qingning Palace to celebrate.
The inside of Qingning Palace was a display of fireworks and lanterns, as people drank their fill, and the pink and gold-woven skirts of dancing girls fluttered under the flowing lights, and the extravagant strings and woodwinds of the musicians drifted in the bright hall, and both Emperor and Empress took the chief seats, and outside the dancing stage the imperial relatives and favoured concubines sat surrounding them. Outside this circle towards the far ends of the hall were the favoured ministers gathered under one roof; and in the south side of the bright hall there stood a flower-engraved marble screen, which part.i.tioned out a comparatively secluded s.p.a.ce, where a small table and seats were arranged, and there sat facing each other only two people.
—Xie Yun and Shan Chao.
Xie Yun seemed to be in high spirits, sampling a bit of every dish which came up to the table, but when he was about to pour himself a cup of wine, he was stopped by Shan Chao raising a hand: "You're injured, it is not appropriate to drink wine."
The abrasion by Xie Yun's temples had already been treated with medicine, and the bandage hidden in his hair, and there seemed to be an indistinct bloodstain under close scrutiny—Shan Chao subconsciously wanted to reach out to touch it, but hesitated when he realised what he was doing, stiffly taking his hand back in mid-air: "…what happened, how did you get injured?"
"I b.u.mped. I was not paying attention when walking in Qingning Palace, and b.u.mped into the door frame right before the Empress."
Shan Chao asked: "Did you b.u.mp in order to save my life?"
"……" Xie Yun put down his wine cup, and asked with a curl of his lips: "How could you have such a ridiculous and silly idea, what does your life have to do with me?"
His lazy voice deliberately dragged out, and sounded full of mockery, yet Shan Chao's gaze on him was steady and unmoved: "Because the Empress wants me to die."
Looking out from this small banquet, through the openwork screen, it could cover with a single glance everyone at the banquet above, but the people outside could only vaguely make out two people inside sitting face-to-face, and could not see the exact situation, only treating it as Imperial Guards on shift taking a break.
Xie Yun's gaze retreated from outside, and carelessly said: "Do you know why does the Empress want to eliminate the Crown Prince?"
Shan Chao hesitated, and said: "Because… of the Fengshan sacrifices at Mt Tai?"
Xie Yun started to laugh.
"The Exalted One decided to set out to conduct the Fengshan sacrifices at Mt Tai, and according to the rules the Emperor should host the first sacrifice, and the chancellors host the second, yet this year the Empress proposed herself to replace the chancellors to ascend the platform and host the second sacrifice, and announce to all under the heavens with the Exalted One, and jointly name themselves the 'Two Holy Ones', and formally partic.i.p.ate in policy-making in Court after returning to the capital."
"The Exalted One did not directly veto this proposal, yet it met with the intense opposition of the Eastern Palace faction, for very simple reasons: for women to meddle in politics, has been unpleasant news since the dawn of time. The current Exalted One is frail in health and has difficulties with his vision, yet the Empress has always been healthy. If she would seriously begin to hold Court and listen to politics, someday when the Emperor departs this world, would you say that the Empress would smoothly return authority to the Crown Prince?"
"Thus the Empress made a drastic decision, rather than let the Eastern Palace faction dominate, why not directly change for a new Eastern Palace—thus came about the sour fruit soup with strong poison in Ci'en Temple. And Pavilion Elder Liu was enmeshed in a trap of his own devising, as the Empress beat him at his own game, and the Crown Prince's life would have been taken; this perfect plan was ruined only at one person's hand, that is, you."
Xie Yun raised a hand to cut through the air and point at Shan Chao, and sneered: "You… washing club… who inexplicably ran out to mess things up."
Shan Chao was pushed back with this finger.
This was originally a move with malicious intent, yet for some reason, Xie Yun's seemingly smiling eyes glistened like pearls in the candlelight, and pink lips due to having drunk tea, seemed extremely moist and soft, thus an expression which was clearly filled with ridicule, still managed to shake hearts.
Shan Chao hurriedly looked away: "…and now?"
Xie Yun blurted out his ridicule: "Sparing your life is already pretty good, and you still want a reward?"
"No, about the Fengshan at Mt Tai—"
In actual fact Shan Chao had continued the conversation out of a subconscious will, as if only by speaking could he alleviate the inexplicable tightening of his throat, and conceal his slightly hot cheeks, which were presumably caused by proximity to the lanterns.
Yet Xie Yun did not pay attention, his gaze pa.s.sed through the openwork screen, cast towards the imperial couple at the banquet—
The Emperor was personally pouring out a cup of wine, smiling as he handed it to the Empress Wu.
"The Fengshan…" Xie Yun murmured.
"Two days ago the Crown Prince was ill, and Our heart was depressed, and we did not come find the Empress to speak." Amidst the splendid light surrounding the main seat of the banquet, the Emperor was earnestly smiling, with a thread of subconscious apology in his voice: "Thinking about it now the Empress must not have had a good time these two days, it is truly…"
Empress Wu smiled slightly, taking the wine cup: "What is the Exalted One saying."
"Who would know that in the end, it was still the Empress who sought out this panacea to cure Hong'er." The Emperor sighed: "The hearts of mother and son are joined—"
"The hearts of mother and son are joined, the Crown Prince was a ma.s.s of flesh dropped from my body, how could I not hope for his wellness?"
"Yes, We have wrongly blamed the Empress!"
The Emperor reached out to press a hand on the Empress's dazzling nail protectors, and murmured: "After the Mid-Autumn Festival, We plan to set out to the Fengshan at Mt Tai, the matter of acting for the second sacrifice that you have mentioned before, We have carefully considered…"
The Empress's smiling expression did not change.
The Emperor drew a breath, about to continue speaking, when suddenly beside him there sounded a voice of coquettish anger: "Your Majesty, this dance is not attractive, please let them withdraw!"
A thread of chill crossed Empress Wu's eyes.
—the Madame of the Kingdom of Wei.
Sure enough the Emperor turned his head immediately to welcome her, the Lady Helan of eighteen or nineteen years wrapped in a soft green palace silks, as fresh and beautiful as a newly sprouted spring onion, that even her complaints were like nightingales and swallows: "The Palace dances are still the same old stuff, Your Majesty! It's tiresome, please do let them withdraw!"
The moment the Emperor saw Lady Helan, his entire person seemed to have softened by a few levels, and he immediately used soft words to coax her. Yet the Lady Helan had been accustomed to the Emperor's indulgence, and did not want to see the Palace performances, and surrounding ministers followed her will to flatter her, until the Emperor did not know how to solve it: "This is undoubtedly a newly composed tune, why doesn't Yue'er like it?"
Lady Helan spoke in annoyance: "It's continually soft and weak, how could anyone raise interest in it!"
The Emperor busily coaxed: "Then what do you want to watch?"
Lady Helan glanced around the banquet surroundings—that glance was actually very deliberate, and then she asked seemingly by accident: "Today we have a banquet, why is it that Commander Xie is not amongst the Imperial Guards?"
The Emperor did not notice Xie Yun's lack of presence, and immediately started.
"I hear that Commander Xie is an expert at sword-play, and possesses a divine weapon from antiquity." Lady Helan paused, and seemed not to have sensed Empress Wu's ice-cold gaze, as she coquettishly pulled the Emperor's sleeve-cuff: "Your Majesty, I have never seen what a divine weapon from ancient times looks like, why don't you summon Commander Xie to do a sword dance, what do you think?"
Translator's Notes Chapter 21: Empress vs Crown Prince - Factionalism vs Family Issues
Xie Yun gives an outline of the situation between the differing factions - the war between the factions is not exactly mother vs son, but mother vs the son's courtiers and those behind the Crown Prince.
As for why: the Chinese have a special term 'consort kin' to address the problem of relatives of Inner Palace members in politics. The Tang court had once seen this problem with former chancellor Zhangsun Wuji (whose younger sister was empress to Taizong, and thus he was uncle to Gaozong), so in such cases most courtiers to a future emperor would note such powerful maternal relatives as a political threat.
What is rare in this case is that the Empress Wu wasn't a symbol of a powerful family contesting the imperial clan - the Wu clan was all in all fairly minor, despite producing an empress, as compared to the Guanlong clans that Wu Zetian had already pruned out early in her reign with the deposal of the previous Empress w.a.n.g. Therefore the opponent of the Crown Prince faction is honestly the Empress herself and her agents in Court, which is honestly a rare sight - because if Li Hong takes the throne, Wu Zetian as both legal and birth mother would still be t.i.tled as Empress Dowager, with decent influence as the emperor's mother. Of course, if Empress Wu chose otherwise she wouldn't have made it to be the only female emperor of China, so that's a moot point…
1 665 CE approximately.