The Gilded Cage - Chapter 2
The End of a Reign (1.2)
The Empress Dowager and the Prince of Qin had taken over Taiji Palace. It was not difficult to predict what would happen next.
Xiao Yu had been in conflict with the Empress Dowager for many years. Right when he was about to get the upper hand, he was unexpectedly defeated by the Prince of Qin.
“Dang… Dang… Dang…”
It was the sounding of the gong in Taiji Palace. The sound resonated like thunder on a quiet autumn night. The gong sounded continuously, causing everyone to shiver in fear and hold their breath in trepidation.
A maid was bent over the floor, quietly picking up shards of the broken cup. She was shocked by the gong, causing her hands to slip and scatter the gathered shards all over the floor.
“Get out!” Xiao Yu sat up violently and yelled at the maid.
After a long while, the sound of the gong finally ceased, and silence returned to Azure Hall.
“Twenty-seven strike.” Chu Ning looked down at the dried blood streak on her fingertip and whispered, “Your Highness, the Emperor has passed away.”
Immediately after, the attendants outside the Azure Hall seemed to wake up suddenly. They all kneeled on the ground and lamented towards the hall, “Your Highness, the Emperor has passed!”
Suddenly, cries could be heard all over the East Palace. The cries hung in the air for a long time.
Chu Ning lifted up her eyes and looked at the profiles of the people gathered outside the hall. She felt a shiver down her spine.
There was not a single person here grieving for the Emperor. What they were all concerned about was what would happen to them in the future.
Even she, the Crown Princess, was no different from them.
She did not care for the Emperor, the Empress Dowager, or even the Crown Prince. She cared only for herself.
It had not been easy for her to survive to this day. She did not want to throw her life away.
“Your highness, a message from Taiji Palace!”
Outside the hall, an eunuch dashed in through the Splendid Blessings Gate and prostrated himself at the door. His flustered face was covered with sweat.
“The Empress Dowager… And the Prince of Qin announced that the late Emperor, in his testamentary edict, declared Kezhi, the Prince of Qin, to be his successor. Your… Your Highness, please be present at Taiji Palace tomorrow to attend the late Emperor’s funeral and to prepare for the coronation of the new Emperor…”
The announcement was followed by a dead silence.
Everyone had expected this when the Prince of Qin marched into the capital. However, when it became reality, it was still something difficult to come to terms with.
Xiao Yu’s face was so pale that his veins were visible. He leaned against the bed in silence, but his chest rose and fell with growing intensity. In the end, he couldn’t bear it anymore and spurted out a mouthful of blood.
The attendants cried out in unison as they gathered outside the door.
Chu Ning was standing by the bed, so a splatter of red was added to her blood stained gown.
She ignored the bloodstains and went to get a few pills from the head of the bed. She fed the pills to Xiao Yu with a practiced hand and took a handkerchief to wipe the bloodstain from his face.
Xiao Yu swallowed the pills and calmed down instantly. His breathing became much less labored.
He tilted her head slowly and reached out to caress Chu Ning’s face. However, his gaze was a little listless. “Chu Ning, you should leave first. I have something to say to them.”
She turned gently from his caress and put down the silk handkerchief. Then she led the maids out of the room and walked along a long corridor towards her room.
“Madam.” It was her maid, Cui He. She had come to her side with a lantern after sending the other maids away. “Did the Crown Prince really… Have no other plans?”
Although Cui He’s question was vague, Chu Ning knew what she was really asking. With the upheaval in Taiji Palace, if the Crown Prince did not become the new Emperor, then everyone in the East Palace would be doomed.
Chu Ning paused in mid-step and turned to glance in the direction of the Crown Prince’s bedchamber.
The door to the chamber was completely closed. It was not possible to see what was happening inside. So, she turned to glance at the few people who stood guard outside and could roughly guess who had gone in for discussion with Xiao Yu.
“Whether he has a plan or not, they are still working hard on it.” Her voice was unexpectedly calm, as though she was not the Crown Princess but a mere bystander of the threat looming over the East Palace.
Cui He was slightly relieved. In her mind, she consoled herself that as long as there was still a chance, they could not give up, just like how they managed to survive three years ago.
“Cui He, do you remember why we fought to survive three years ago? Do you remember why I married the Crown Prince?”
Chu Ning raised her wounded index finger and held it by the dim lantern. She pressed her thumb on the wound.
The wound split open again, causing drops of fresh blood to ooze through the scab.
“Madam, when did you injure your hand?” Cui He was shocked and reached out to tend to Chu Ning’s wound.
“I am fine.” Chu Ning moved her thumb. She sucked on her index finger until there was a faint metallic taste before removing it from her mouth.
Chu Ning didn’t understand why, but the way Cui He looked at her reminded her of an incident from three years ago.
Three years ago, when Chu Ning had just turned fifteen, she stood in her damaged home, bracing against the winter chill. Her body shivered as she clenched her teeth and swore on an oath. As long as she was alive, she must clear her father’s name.
Cui He felt a strong urge to cry.
Chu Ning turned around and smiled at her. Under the dim light, her lovely face was partially concealed by a shadow. Only her bright eyes remained shining in the dim light.
“Back then, I was determined to live so that I could clear my father’s name and restore his reputation. As I have not achieved it yet, I can’t let myself die so easily. Most of all, I can’t let him be the cause of my death.”
Cui He stared at her dazedly. Her fear reduced.
She couldn’t explain why. Somehow, she felt that the ‘him’ Chu Ning spoke of was Xiao Yu, the Crown Prince.
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