The matter of the second prince was spreading like wildfire in court.
It seemed to become more and more excessive, with some officials even directly arguing in court. The crown prince’s faction was on the side of tradition and naturally pointed out the second prince’s violation of the ancestors’ decree, not leaving for his vassal state after coming of age. The second prince’s faction remained quiet until the crown prince’s side became more and more overbearing before raising objections.
They generally used the second prince’s recent marriage as an excuse. Regulations were important, but they couldn’t have his majesty toss his newly married son out of the capital. How would outsiders view his majesty? The love between father and son was what should be proper. Of course, this reasoning was preposterous, but there were quite a lot of people who agreed with it.
Actually, the so called debate was just a performance for Emperor Xi. As long as he didn’t express his opinion, the officials wouldn’t quiet down.
On this day, Emperor Xi finally gave a response.
His general opinion was that with the third prince’s marriage approaching, his older brother was going to attend before leaving the capital. Furthermore, the second prince’s vassal state was being chosen and the results should be out soon.
Emperor Xi’s words served to put an end to the matter.
The crown prince’s side was naturally smug and overjoyed. The second prince’s side was dejected and disappointed.
However, this outcome was to be expected. Emperor Xi was currently in his prime. How could he pick a side so early? He wasn’t too satisfied with the crown prince, but ultimately it wasn’t easy to switch out the successor. The second prince’s side wanting to overturn the crown prince’s stable position with this pretext wasn’t really rational.
Xu Xiang Rong naturally hadn’t been the one to encourage the officials to argue on behalf of the second prince.
In his opinion, they should have remained silent. The more arrogant and overbearing the crown prince’s side was, the more Emperor Xi would be biased towards the second prince. This sort of bias wouldn’t be apparent in the short term, but there were boundless benefits to be had in the future.
Wasn’t this the strategy Senior Concubine Xu’s faction had employed all along?
However, they now had the second prince’s old father-in-law, the Chengguo Duke, who always loved jumping out and making a fuss!
The issue was that he couldn’t be cast aside. This was an alliance by marriage. Although there were benefits, the drawbacks were something that needed to be dealt with as well.
After Xu Xiang Rong met the Chengguo Duke a couple of times, he no longer bothered with him much. Regarding the Chengguo Duke jumping around making a fuss, he merely watched without commenting.
Every faction had its leader. The Chengguo Duke wasn’t satisfied after seeing Senior Concubine Xu’s younger brother. He felt there wasn’t anything good about Xu Xiang Rong, who didn’t even hold a proper posting. How could he lead the officials who sided with the second prince to greatness? Therefore, using his identity as the second prince’s father-in-law, the Chengguo Duke often made decisions on the second prince’s behalf outside.
When the crown prince’s faction used the matter of the vassal state to attack the second prince, Xu Xiang Rong’s initial strategy was to remain steady like a mountain. Unexpectedly, there was a lot of dissent towards the end. They were all from the Chengguo Duke’s party. Since the Chengguo Duke was willing to make a fuss, Xu Xiang Rong decided to let him do so. Now, he finally stopped fussing.
Afterwards, Xu Xiang Rong made a trip into the palace. It wasn’t clear what the siblings discussed. Regardless, Senior Concubine Xu called the second prince over and thoroughly cursed out the Chengguo Duke. She told the second prince to have him mind his own business more in the future.
The second prince naturally understood. To be honest, due to this matter, he was a little disappointed with this father-in-law of his. He completely lacked the ability to see the greater picture. No wonder he was thoroughly suppressed by the Zhenguo Duke for so many decades.
The two of them subconsciously forgot the fact that they had indulged the Chengguo Duke’s actions. To put it plainly, it wasn’t just the officials who wanted to know Emperor Xi’s thoughts. This mother and son pair was the same way. Unfortunately, the results left them disappointed.
Since Xu Xiang Rong let the Chengguo Duke do as he pleased previously, he now had to deal with the aftermath. This was something that required experience. Often times you weren’t just competing with people on the outside, but also with your own people as well. No one was willing to be subordinate to someone else after all.
At the same time, another matter occurred.
One of Xu Xiang Rong’s small pavilions in the suburbs was actually ransacked by soldiers using the excuse of looking for bandits. The soldiers responsible were part of the capital’s troops. It was said one of the captains encountered a suspicious person while on patrol. That person’s actions were extremely fishy, and he had fled at the sight of the soldiers.
Therefore, the soldiers had followed this person to this remote pavilion.
All this was naturally just an excuse. However, those soldiers truly ended up finding something. They actually found quite a lot of regulated weapons. Weapons like hard bows and crossbows were strictly regulated by the authorities. Private citizens weren’t allowed to possess them. Of course there were some noble descendants who loved horseback archery, so it was still allowed for some households to have a couple of good bows. However, such a large number of them was definitely food for thought.
Especially since this location was very mysterious. A mere merchant dared to keep such a large number of bows and crossbows. What was he trying to do with them under the nose of the son of heaven? It was easy to accuse him of plotting a rebellion!
Since the soldiers ended up discovering something fishy, who would dare accuse them of improper conduct? Those soldiers were responsible for protecting the capital’s peace to begin with. No one would dare say anything about their unconventional methods. The matter was naturally handed over to the Ministry of War and the capital’s administrative office. It no longer had anything to do with the troops.
Xu Xiang Rong knew this was the Zhenguo Duke Estate’s revenge. It was the capital troops who rescued Shen Yi Yao, and now they were the ones who conducted the raid. They fell just short of telling him outright that they knew this matter had something to do with him, and were settling the scores.
Shen Yi Yao had lost a lot of her guards and now Xu Xiang Rong had suffered a tragic loss as well. Along with those weapons, they discovered around twenty or thirty strong men. Xu Xiang Rong was lucky he was cautious enough to store his secrets in different locations. Otherwise, the loss this time would be larger than he dared imagine.
The remote pavilion was under the name of a merchant household. That merchant was naturally one of Xu Xiang Rong’s people. That merchant’s entire family was imprisoned, and a beheading was probably one of the lighter punishments that awaited them.
The money, the goods and the people were all lost. This made Senior Concubine Xu and the second prince’s heart ache incessantly. They merely assumed the crown prince’s faction had managed to discover this place and seized the opportunity to strike at them. They didn’t associate this matter with the Zhenguo Duke. Xu Xiang Rong knew the truth but he couldn’t say anything about it.
Having to suffer in silence put Xu Xiang Rong in a bad mood for several days.
However, the Zhenguo Duke’s overt display of retaliation also made Xu Xiang Rong feel at ease. If the Shen household had remained silent, he would have to worry if there was some hidden plot. This display meant that the matter had been written off. The Zhenguo Duke would remain uninvolved in the future.
It wasn’t clear if this was a blessing or a calamity.
He had yet to finish wiping the Chengguo Duke’s butt and now another matter needed to be cleaned up. Xu Xiang Rong had spent several nights with only a few hours of sleep.
It was at this time that something happened to Yan Ting.
Whenever the Zhenguo Duke Estate made a move, it would always be a bolt from the blue.
Swift, ruthless and extremely accurate.
Ever since Yan Ting argued with Xu Xiang Rong that day, he hadn’t gone to the private residence again. If this were in the past, Xu Xiang Rong would come up with different excuses to call him over. This time he didn’t show any signs of movement.
On this day, Liu Xi made plans with Yan Ting to go to the hot spring manor in the outskirts to play. Yan Ting had been feeling gloomy these days. Ever since Shen Yi Yao returned to the Weiyuan Marquis Estate, she never mentioned the matter of her being ambushed. Although Yan Ting didn’t meet with her, he also didn’t feel like remaining in the estate. After getting off work that evening, he went straight to the outskirts.
It was early spring so the weather was still rather cold in the evening.
Yan Ting wore a dark green overcoat as he galloped on the roads of the capital. Behind him were three of his subordinates: Wang Meng, Wang Qin and Liu Ju.
The sky had turned dark quite early. Yan Ting’s group had just left the city gates when the light faded. The night was pitch black. There was no moon and even the starts were hiding behind the clouds. Luckily, Yan Ting’s group had ridden in the night before and didn’t feel it was a big deal. The way to the hot spring manor was familiar.
Suddenly, there was a rumbling as though people were heading over on horses. It seemed like quite a few people, at least twenty or thirty.
Yan Ting was puzzled. Why would there be such a large group in the wilderness at this hour? He heard a cry of “not good, lord marquis, run” from behind him.
He turned back. The dark night made it impossible to clearly see who had come. Not far from his position, Liu Hu seemed to have been shot by an arrow. Along with Liu Ju’s voice, the swish of arrows sounded out.
Yan Ting cried loudly “take cover” before spurring his horse forward. Although his followers had already been shot, they also staggered after him.
The ambushers remained behind them like ants infested into bone.
The night made it hard to see the surroundings. In his panic, Yan Ting had already lost his sense of direction. He only knew to run straight ahead continuously. Otherwise, their group was probably going to end up dead.
Wang Qin finally fell behind due to his heavy injuries. His brother Wang Meng saw this and hurriedly turned back to save him. Unfortunately, the other side had too many people. Before he could get close, Wang Qin was shot full of holes. Wang Meng’s eyes were split open wide. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to escape, he stopped trying and prepared to duke it out with these despicable ambushers.
Liu Ju had been the first to get injured, and his injuries were also the heaviest. He was already unable to hold on.
Seeing this, he cried loudly: “Lord marquis, hurry and run. Your three subordinates will cover your retreat….”
Yan Ting stopped when he heard Wang Meng’s roar. He was just about to turn back and join the fight when Liu Ju’s blade fell on his horse’s rear. The horse neighed and ran forwards.
The wind was very heavy and penetrated everywhere.
Yan Ting’s guts were splitting. He knew the other side had too many people and that if he turned around, he would only be throwing his life away. He lowered himself and urged his horse forward with all his might.
The hoof beats behind him refused to be shaken off. Several tragic cries sounded in the distance.
Yan Ting felt grief and anger, and also extremely sullen.
He hadn’t even been able to see the enemies before losing three followers who had been with him for over a decade!
The sound an arrow rang out. Yan Ting’s hairs stiffened. Based on his years of experience, he knew this arrow wasn’t ordinary. If he was hit, he would die for sure. He did his best to lower himself to his horse, hoping to avoid it.
Seeming to have been caught off-guard, his horse suddenly fell. Yan Ting was thrown out, flying several meters before hitting a tree.
A gust of wind blew over and the moon in the sky had revealed itself at some point.
The moonlight was like water, scattering quietly across the wilderness.
Yan Ting felt like he was in a dream. However, the rumbling ground told him this wasn’t the case. He shook his head in a daze and didn’t even wipe the blood from his mouth before pulling himself up and running into the trees.
His chest hurt, his arms hurt, his legs hurt, his head hurt. Everything hurt. Yan Ting spat a mouthful of blood as he staggered along.
Who was it? Who was making such a vicious move against him?
For some reason, the domineering old face of the Zhenguo Duke appeared in front of his eyes.
Not far behind him, the group of people got off their horses.
“Second lord, that guy is running up the mountain.”
Torches were lit, lighting up the surroundings.
This was a group of masked men wearing black. Only their leader was different, with a full beard and fierce eyes. It was actually Shen Ding.
Shen Ding gave the order and the group of over twenty men in black surrounded the mountain and pursued.
At this moment, in a private residence in the capital.
The steward hurriedly entered the study without even time to salute before saying: “This subordinate has something to report.”
Xu Xiang Rong was in the middle of discussing things with his trusted aide. Seeing the steward’s urgency, he waved his hand and had the aide leave.
“What is it? Speak.”
The stewards urgently said: “Something has happened with Lord Yan. Lord Liu invited him to the hot spring manor today outside the city. Lord Yan and his three subordinates were ambushed on the way there. The other side had many people with impressive skills. They seem to belong to the Shen household.”
With a crash, Xu Xiang Rong knocked his teacup to the floor.
His gaze was inexplicably gloomy: “What’s his current status?”
The steward paused and said: “You previously ordered some deathsworn warriors to follow lord Yan. Two of them went after him while another came back to report. From what he says, the situation is extremely bad. Lord Yan’s three followers have all died and he himself is heavily injured. He escaped up Jiming1 Mountain.”
Xu Xiang Rong stood up with a swish, “Gather the men, head towards Jiming Mountain.”
Before long, a group of people left the capital under the cover of the night.
At this time, the city gates were already closed. The person in the lead received a token from the black carriage in the middle, and handed it to the guards at the gate.
The large gates slowly opened and the people filed out.
Yan Ting could feel he wasn’t able to endure any longer.
His mind was already shutting down. Only his survival instincts made his body continue running forward.
If there had been light, it would be possible to see how wretched Yan Ting appeared. His black hair was scattered and his face was bloodied. His robes had long since been ruined, stained with blood and dirt, no longer its previous magnificent color.
Every breath made his lungs burn. His eyes were gradually obscured by the color of blood, making him unable to see the road ahead.
He staggered along the entire way, running for his life. However, he no longer had anywhere left to go.
Yan Ting looked at the cliff in front of him and laughed coldly. He no longer ran, turning around and sitting on the ground.
Soon, the footsteps behind him grew louder and torches lit up the entire night sky.
Yan Ting brushed his hair aside and glared at his pursuers like a demon.
The group parted and a person walked out.
That person had his hands behind his back and walked with vigor. He wasn’t out of breath at all, as though the mountain and the forest had been even ground. He was tall and sturdy with a full beard. It was Shen Ding.
Yan Ting’s pupils suddenly dilated as he glared at him.
“It was really you!”
His voice was hoarse and muffled, no longer as bright and clear as before.
Shen Ding nodded: “It’s me!”
Yan Ting laughed mournfully: “Everyone knows the Shen household’s second lord is a noble and benevolent character. The open and honest Shen Ding would actually ambush his own brother-in-law in the night?”
Shen Ding smile, his white teeth dazzling under the torchlight.
“Don’t put me on a pedestal! Yan Ting, this daddy has wanted to pinch you to death a long time ago. If it weren’t for Ah Yao’s sake, do you think you could have survived for so long? You’ve had countless chances, but you took them for granted!”
“Chances? You’ve given me countless chances? What chances did you give me?” Yan Ting laughed and choked, his tone full of mockery: “Your Shen household is always so lofty, your actions appearing so honest. But you’ve always looked down on others. Everyone talks about my dumb luck in managing to marry the Shen household’s precious pearl. They say that my days will definitely be smooth in the future and that I’ll experience a meteoric rise. Everyone is jealous of me, but in reality? This so-called glorious son-in-law of the Shen household isn’t even worth as much as one of your dogs!”
Yan Ting didn’t give Shen Ding a chance to speak as he continued: “When you bother with me, you give me a smile. When you don’t, you give me the cold shoulder. Ever since I married Shen Yi Yao, how many faces has your Shen household given me? Shen Ding, do you know?”
These sullen words had been buried in Yan Ting’s heart for far too long, so long he had thought he would never speak them in this life. Unexpectedly, under these circumstances, everything was revealed.
His expression was reckless with some hints of malevolence: “I behaved, acted with caution, and kissed your asses for several years before your household’s old man finally gave me a decent expression. I toiled diligently at the border for several years, and was finally about to get some results. However, due to momentarily displeasing your estate, all my hard work was destroyed overnight. I was brought back to the capital to continue being your Shen household’s caged bird. You shun me, hinder me, and make things difficult for me as the Shen household’s son-in-law. Does it make your household’s people feel good? I am very regretful. I regret being blind back then and marrying Shen Yi Yao….”
Under the orange light, Shen Ding’s expression was very complicated. This sort of complicated expression became complete disdain in the end. It was absolute disdain, as though he were looking at a pile of excrement.
He took a deep breath and said: “It wasn’t a mistake to call you narrow-minded, ambitious with little ability, someone biting off more than you can chew, someone with a despicable and twisted nature! You dare say your thoughts were innocent when you first approached Ah Yao?” He laughed disdainfully and continued: “Don’t take everyone else as fools. Do you think no one knew the thoughts you and that sickly dad of yours had? Our entire family didn’t approve of Ah Yao marrying you, but Ah Yao was foolish. She stubbornly wanted to marry a beast like you. She even went on a hunger strike to threaten us. Otherwise, do you think someone like you could have married my sister?”
“Your actions were shameful but you won’t allow others to look at you with misgivings? Your position was unstable to begin with, so what right do you have to demand everyone accept you without reservations? The truth has proven that your truly are a twisted person. You acted as if you treated Ah Yao well while allowing your conniving family to bully my innocent sister. Also, aren’t you ashamed to say you’ve toiled diligently at the border? You’ve always wanted to reap without sowing, and will never understand how much effort others have put in for you! Hard work? You wouldn’t have forgotten the “Broad Justice Band”, would you? You should know very well what you did. Are you aware that you almost caused everyone surnamed Yan to die? Do you know who helped cover for you? It’s no big deal if you die, but don’t implicate my pitiful sister and my niece and nephew!”
Yan Ting’s pupils had shrunk to the size of a rice grain. The memories buried deep in his mind suddenly popped up.
Broad Justice Band?
How did the Shen household find out about this? Did everything he had done get discovered?
“Not only did you not repent, you even mixed together with Senior Concubine Xu’s faction after returning to the capital. There are so many nobles and major clans in the capital. Do you think you’re the only smart one under the heavens, and everyone else are fools? The struggle for the throne was always something that brought calamity to the whole family with the slightest inattention. Do you think the Xiao household never made a move against your Yan household? Yan Ting, you don’t seem to be a stupid person. Why are you unable to understand such simple reasoning? However, it doesn’t matter whether you understand or not. Just based on your unscrupulous and cruel actions against my sister, you were destined to die without a proper burial! After you die, everyone can rest easy!”
The air seemed to have frozen at that moment. Yan Ting’s expression had turned rigid.
After a long while, he roared with laughter. He laughed so hard his body rocked back and forth.
The blood flowed from his lips, and bloody tears seemed to be flowing from his eyes.
His voice was very low, so low it was almost inaudible. It was like a whisper.
“You are right, I should have died long ago! It’s really fucking exhausting to live in such a filthy world! You don’t need to make a move, I’ll do it myself….”
Before he finished speaking, Yan Ting staggered up and threw himself off the cliff behind him head first.
The moon hung above them, illuminating the earth in an unchangeable cycle.
Shen Ding took a deep breath and slowly let it out.
One of the men walked up to the edge and looked over for a while before walking in front of Shen Ding.
“Second lord, this….”
“Who knows what wretched place is down there. However, it shouldn’t be possible to survive such a fall. We’ll set up camp here. Once the morning comes, send someone to search. We must find him, alive or dead!”