“Master, I have asked around. Even though most people aren’t very clear about it, I still learned a clue or two. It seemed that the Empress was involved in Prince Xiang’s attempted assassination of the Emperor. That was why the Emperor died so easily. Honored Consort Shu happened to be guarding the door that night, so she discovered this and exposed the matter.”
“Prince Xiang’s men didn’t manage to get out in time. When they were detained, the Empress was still inside the Emperor’s room. Then, Prince Xiang’s men accused the Empress of killing the Emperor and vice versa. Both sides turned on each other to no avail. Prince Xiang and the Empress are currently imprisoned to be punished after the Emperor’s funeral,” Lanning said.
Ning Xueyan’s shapely eyebrows wrinkled as she sank into contemplation. The Empress’ intention to kill the Emperor was apparent from the moment she summoned Commandery Princess Xianyun to the palace. It was Ao Mingyu’s assassination of the Emperor that caught her by surprise. The Emperor regarded Ao Chenyi as his opponent and repeatedly tried to assassinate him.
But he was a decent father to Ao Mingyu and Ao Mingwan. He was especially kind to Ao Mingyu. He must have acknowledged Ao Mingyu as his successor to educate him so painstakingly. It was a surprise that Ao Mingyu would assassinate the Emperor, a father who had always doted on him. Ao Mingyu was worse than a beast.
What followed was the state funeral where the entire nation mourned, and Ao Chenyi’s coronation. The ministers and officers kowtowed to Ao Chenyi right before the Emperor’s coffin.
The Emperor had personally appointed Ao Chenyi as the Crown Prince while he was alive. Therefore, there was no dissent despite the lack of an imperial decree. Moreover, Annan had just waged war on them. The nation would be in a mess without a strong Emperor. Under such circumstances, Ao Chenyi was the best candidate to be the Emperor.
Thus, Ao Chenyi’s coronation followed the state funeral. The late Emperor was in such ill health that the ministers were ready for the coronation of a new Emperor. It might have been sudden but the basics of the ceremony were well-prepared and the war against the three feudal princes of Annan was in stalemate.
Ao Chenyi was the first to take charge of the war and continued to do so. Therefore, changes were minimal and the Emperor’s death had little impact on the frontlines. Ao Chenyi was also a great military man in his own right, so he boosted the morale of the soldiers considerably.
Thanks to him, the war became even more intense.
Ning Xueyan’s coronation ceremony as the Empress was held at the same time as Ao Chenyi’s coronation as the Emperor. The reason was simple. Ao Chenyi said, “The country is at war. We don’t have time to hold another coronation ceremony. Besides, there will only be chaos if we let the harem be without a master.”
With that, all the ministers gave their approval.
Since Ning Xueyan had become the Empress, it was only fair for her to move from Prince Yi’s Manor to the Main Palace. She had never spent much time in the Eastern Palace anyway, so it was a swift move for her.
Ao Chenyi didn’t bring other women to the palace with him. During a war, austerity was key. His concubines continued to stay in Prince Yi’s Manor. When he sent away those concubines in the past, he kept only those who were his subordinates in the first place. Those women were there to trick the Emperor but they were of no use anymore. They had left Prince Yi’s Manor a long time ago, even though the public thought that they were still there.
Commandery Princess Xianyun was still living in the Eastern Palace, with her injured leg making it inconvenient for her to mourn at the funeral. She was being confined in the Eastern Palace with the very same excuse. She wasn’t allowed to go anywhere except her courtyard.
Aside from the ongoing war against Annan, it felt as if the curtains had been drawn on a show. That was until Ning Xueyan received a letter from the Empress. She changed into simple clothing and visited her at the prison at the Ministry of Justice. The Empress had been convicted of murder and would be beheaded in autumn.
“You’re here!” Inside the cell, the sallow-looking Empress was dressed in plain white clothes. She watched Ning Xueyan walking toward her with a calm expression, her face void of both happiness and sorrow.
Ning Xueyan nodded without saying anything.
“Do you find it strange that I wanted to kill the Emperor?” A wry smile appeared on the Empress’ face.
“No. Hadn’t you already conspired with Commandery Princess Xianyun in the first place?” Ning Xueyan shook her head emotionlessly.
Both the Empress and Commandery Princess Xianyun must have conspired against their husbands to gain benefit from the crisis.
“Do you know how the Empress Dowager died? The Emperor had someone strangle her to death with a white slip of silk. He had her strangled right before my eyes. I begged him to let her go. I begged him to consider her painstaking efforts in helping him get the throne and let her go but he still took her life.”
The Empress’ voice was trembling as if she was staring at the Empress Dowager’s distorted face and eyes widened with resentment when the latter died. All she could do at that time was weeping on the floor and hugging the Emperor’s thigh. She pleaded with him but could only watch helplessly as the Empress Dowager died in his hands. She was taken there on his orders to watch the execution.
It was his warning to her not to develop any ideas.
Ning Xueyan didn’t respond. She waited quietly for the Empress to continue. She had already known that there was something wrong with the Empress Dowager’s death. The Empress Dowager was still young when she died and the Emperor had just recently ascended the throne. How could she die all of a sudden? The Lord Peace’s Manor dwindled in influence shortly after. Did their influence really weaken because of the Empress Dowager?
“Who could have imagined that the Emperor who had always made himself to look so filial would take the Empress Dowager’s life that way? It was also his warning for me not to entertain any ideas unless it’s a son that I’ve raised since young. He was telling me that any prince I chose wouldn’t favor me even if I help him get the throne!”
The Empress could still remember that afternoon. That day, she huddled into a corner in the Empress Dowager’s Palace and quietly stared at the Empress Dowager’s malevolent corpse as she trembled in fear. No one came in because the Emperor ordered her to serve the Empress Dowager who had suddenly developed a severe illness.
It wasn’t until the evening that news spread that the Empress Dowager had succumbed to her illness and died.
During that time, she was filled with fear and then panic. Toward the end, she felt a calmness that was brought on by despair.
She swore not to repeat the Empress Dowager’s mistakes. She wanted to live. Not only that, she wanted to hold power firmly in her hands. She was the Empress and the Mother of the Nation. That would make her the future Empress Dowager, and an authoritative Empress Dowager at that.
She refused to scheme and plot just to benefit other people.
Ning Xueyan contemplated for a minute before asking, “So, after that, you found a chance to lobby Lord Peace’s Manor and Commandery Princess Xianyun?”
Everyone knew that the Empress came from a powerless family but she was a relative of the Empress Dowager. If the Empress Dowager died in the Emperor’s hands, that meant there was enmity between the Emperor and Lord Peace’s Manor. It wouldn’t be hard for the Empress to use this to lobby Lord Peace’s Manor.
“Yes. I told Lord Peace’s Manor about Empress Dowager’s death so that they would take my side. Unfortunately, they lost a lot of men because of the Emperor’s coronation and the Emperor had also secretly killed a few of their people since. They weren’t as powerful as before and couldn’t push me to the same position as the late Empress Dowager.”
The Empress closed her eyes and suppressed the resentment and rage inside her. She felt nothing but hatred for the Emperor. How could other women give birth to their children when she couldn’t? It wasn’t because of accidents. She had never been pregnant even once. For this, she once sneaked out of the palace.
Lord Peace’s Manor found her a well-known physician and got her diagnosed. The physician said that she couldn’t give birth at all. Her body had been made infertile a long time ago. She wanted so desperately to strangle the Emperor to death at that moment. The Emperor, having orchestrated the Empress Dowager’s fate, wanted to see her repeat history.
She refused to. Never in a million years would she do so.
Therefore, she thought of raising other imperial concubines’ sons. But the Emperor ruthlessly turned her down as soon as she mentioned it.
The Emperor seemed determined to push her down the same path as the Empress Dowager. She couldn’t accept this. She refused to succumb to fate without doing anything. That made her turn her attention to Commandery Princess Xianyun. Commandery Princess Xianyun was just as ambitious as she was, so they became immediate allies.
“So, you killed the Emperor?” Ning Xueyan asked, looking conflicted. She didn’t know what she thought about the Empress. The Empress might have been helpless but she was ruthless too. It seemed that the Emperor had forced her hand but at the end of the day, she still conspired with Commandery Princess Xianyun to harm her.
Still, she was confused as to why the Empress would kill the Emperor at this time. The timing didn’t benefit them whatsoever. Commandery Princess Xianyun couldn’t even leave, so it was useless for the Empress to kill the Emperor.
“Yes, I killed him. That devil woke up. He woke up! When he woke up, he tried to strangle me to death. I… I hate him. I wanted to strangle him… I wanted to kill him!”
The Empress became agitated and grabbed onto the railing. Her eyes were wide open as she screamed.
She hated the Emperor. She wanted nothing more than to see him die before her eyes. When she sat beside him as he laid unconscious, the thought of reaching for his neck and killing him came to her numerous times. His death would end everything. But every time the thought came to her, she would stop and tell herself that it wasn’t time yet. She had to wait. Perhaps there would be a chance soon.
She didn’t expect the Emperor to wake up all of a sudden. Her hands happened to be on his neck at that time. The Emperor seemed stunned to see her hands around him at first. Then, he subconsciously grabbed her hands to drag her down and place his own hands around her neck.
Thus, the two began to wrestle with each other without another word. They fell from the Emperor’s bed together. The Emperor, weakened by his illness, was pressed under a quilt by the mad Empress until he suffocated to death. When the Empress sat in a corner and gasped for breath, Prince Xiang’s men appeared and hacked the Emperor…
“So, it was all an accident?” Ning Xueyan asked softly. It wasn’t until after hearing the Empress’ explanation that she understood why the meticulous Empress would fail at the very last minute. It was all because of an unexpected accident. No wonder people say that the Empress and Ao Mingyu were conspiring to kill the Emperor.
The Emperor’s dead body had strangulation marks left by the Empress and sword wounds left by Ao Mingyu’s men. Both injuries were life-threatening.
Of course, this wasn’t why the Empress wanted to meet Ning Xueyan. There was something else she wanted to tell Ning Xueyan.