In the capital, the sunlight illuminated the earth after the rain. Spring had already arrived and it should have been a season of vibrant colours. However, due to the extraordinary and prolonged rainfall, it was rather dull. The rain seemed not to cleanse everything as expected but instead had brought countless calamities.
The city gates remained tightly closed and outside the city, there was widespread sorrow and a shroud of gloomy mist. Each day, corpses were carried out from the refugee camps below the city, causing even the guards defending the city to go from empathy to numbness, and eventually having a sense of despair.
If they did not find an effective method to treat this plague soon, death would be imminent for them.
Within the imperial palace, there was also an air of solemnity with the absence of the usual merriment. Only a haunting silence filled the air.
A loud “clang” shattered the tranquillity of the southern study room. The numerous palace attendants trembled with fear, afraid that any accidental sounds would make them scapegoats, subject to the wrath of the emperor.
“What use is there in sustaining all of you gluttons!” Emperor Jing flicked his sleeves and swept aside the table, even throwing away the paperweight on it. He was so exasperated that all his grace and composure had vanished.
Each report from the various departments requested funds or provisions. Each of the countless petitions from various regions all sought his aid.
It was true that he was the emperor, but he was not a god! Where could he possibly find such vast sums of money and provisions, or discover a prescription for the plague?
“Physician Sun, speak! Isn’t your Imperial Institute of Medicine working day and night to develop an effective remedy? Have you developed it?” Emperor Jing pointed angrily at one of the many ministers kneeling before him.
Physician Sun, the one being called out, was terrified and nearly threw himself to the ground. He replied with a trembling voice, “Reporting to Your Majesty, us ministers are indeed working on it. Please grant us ministers a bit more time.”
“You want even more time?” Emperor Jing stood up with his hands behind his back, pacing back and forth in front of the dragon throne. “How much more time do you want?! It’s been nearly 20 days since the plague began and countless lives have been lost! Do you want all my subjects to die before you figure it out? Even if you do manage to develop a cure by then, what good will it be?!”
“Your Majesty, please rest assured. This minister will go right away,” Physician Sun’s face turned pale from being shouted at. He kowtowed shakily and prostrated himself on the ground, not daring to lift his head.
“Get out of here!” Emperor Jing shouted.
“Yes, yes, yes, Your Majesty, this minister will leave immediately.” Physician Sun hurriedly kowtowed and was about to leave. Before he could rise, a eunuch rushed in, “Reporting to Your Majesty, His Highness Prince An has sent an urgent message from Jiangxia City, 400 li away.”
“Jiangxia City?” Emperor Jing frowned. “From Xiao Qi? What are the contents?”
The young eunuch handed over the letter and presented it to the chief eunuch. After taking it, the chief eunuch did not hand it directly into Emperor Jing’s hands. Instead, following Emperor Jing’s instructions, he gave it a quick glance before smiling and saying to the emperor, “Your Majesty, this is wonderful news! His Highness Prince An has sent a prescription for treating the plague, and he claims it cured His Highness Prince An’s own illness as well.”
“A prescription!” Emperor Jing’s brow was furrowed at first, but as he heard the end of the message, his eyes lit up, “Quickly, summon Physician Sun back! Let him examine this prescription.”
Physician Sun had barely made it halfway before he was brought back. Hearing that the prescription had arrived from Jiangxia City, he rushed toward the study. He stumbled at the doorstep, almost tripping over, and eventually reached the chief eunuch who handed him the prescription attached to the letter.
“Examine it quickly,” Emperor Jing finally took his seat on the dragon throne again. After so many days of bad news, he had been anxiously awaiting some good news and finally Xiao Qi had given him some. He fixed his gaze on Physician Sun, hoping for confirmation of the effectiveness of this prescription.
Physician Sun carefully examined the prescription. Most of the medicinal ingredients were similar to what they had been researching at the Imperial Institute of Medicine. However, one ingredient caught his attention, the Fadeleaf herb, which had not been considered by the Imperial Institute of Medicine.
As if awakening from a dream, Physician Sun suddenly felt enlightened as if a bolt of lightning had struck him. He slapped his thigh and exclaimed, “Brilliant! Why didn’t we think of this missing ingredient before?!” After his outburst, he realised he had acted impulsively and quickly bowed deeply to the aloof Emperor Jing, saying, “Your Majesty, this prescription should work!” His old face lit up with joy, and he continued, “Your Majesty, I will conduct experiments right away.”
“Go quickly,” Emperor Jing waved his hand dismissively. In truth, this prescription had already been tested by Prince An himself so Emperor Jing had most of his concerns alleviated. As long as the Imperial Institute of Medicine confirmed its effectiveness, everything would be resolved.
A smile finally appeared on Emperor Jing’s previously tense face, “Xiao Qi has done a great job this time. He suffered from the plague himself and endured so much in such a place. When Xiao Qi returns, he will be richly rewarded!”
Once he spoke these words, Yun Yi secretly sighed with relief. He had mixed feelings about this matter. He was relieved that Xiao Qi had not died and even found a cure for the plague, but he was concerned that he had not sent any inquiries or greetings while Xiao Qi was ill. It may have chilled his heart. However, he quickly realised that it was not a major issue and he could make up for it now.
“By the way, did Prince An mention how he discovered this prescription?” Emperor Jing asked curiously. How had Xiao Qi managed to find something that the entire Imperial Institute of Medicine could not after researching day and night? This child was not simple. He had been trapped alone in an epidemic-stricken area and had contracted the disease himself, but had turned danger into good luck. It seemed this child had a lucky star shining on him.
“Your Highness, it was discovered by a girl,” the chief eunuch replied, his expression somewhat peculiar.
“A girl?” Emperor Jing laughed, “There truly are extraordinary girls in this world. Tell me, what’s her name?”
“Your Majesty, it was a young girl named Gu Yu Qi who discovered it while researching ancient texts,” the chief eunuch replied, bowing respectfully.
The name Gu Yu Qi immediately rang a bell for some of the ministers in attendance, while others cast strange glances toward Gu Huai Zhong, who was kneeling among the military officers. Even Gu Huai Zhong’s heart skipped a beat as he raised his head in confusion. He could not have misheard, it was indeed her, the rebellious girl!
“Gu Yu Qi?” Emperor Jing furrowed his brows when he heard this. This name was so familiar, where had he heard it before? “I should certainly reward her well.”
Gu Huai Zhong turned pale and did not dare to speak. He could only lower his head even further.
This was bad. That rebellious girl had managed to escape, but why did she have to meddle in this matter here? Instead of heading to Jiangnan, she had gone north to Jiangxia? The people Gu Huai Zhong had sent to find her and her mother had gone in the wrong direction all along, which explained why they had not located them for so many days. He felt a mixture of resentment and turmoil in his heart.
There were many people with the same name in the world, but this could not be just a coincidence, could it?
“By the way, who is Gu Yu Qi? Did Prince An mention her?” Emperor Jing asked again.
“Your Majesty is actually familiar with Gu Yu Qi,” the chief eunuch continued. Her name had become well-known throughout the city in recent days, reaching every corner from the palace to the taverns.
Emperor Jing was utterly bewildered, then a spark of recognition flashed in his mind, “Could it be that Gu Yu Qi?” he asked in astonishment.
“Yes, Your Majesty, exactly,” the chief eunuch nodded, “Prince An’s letter made it clear. Miss Gu, from the Gu family, accompanied by her mother, headed north and was stranded in Jiangxia City. After the plague broke out, she took excellent care of His Highness Prince An, fearlessly confronting the plague. She stayed up all night studying ancient texts and various medical arts and eventually found a prescription. Not only did she save Prince An’s life, but she could also save the lives of countless people in the Qi dynasty.”
The chief eunuch’s words left Emperor Jing twitching at the corner of his mouth. How could it be that Gu Yu Qi again…
He had even harboured murderous intent towards her before. This… He had just said that he would generously reward the person who discovered the prescription. He was the emperor and his words carried weight so he could not go back on them. Yet, wait a minute, she brought her mother north? Was her mother not the wife of the Ding Yuan Marquis whose whereabouts were unknown? Was it not reported that Gu Yu Qi had burned her to death in the marquis’ residence? Where did she find a second mother? Emperor Jing was not yet senile. He remembered that Ding Yuan Marquis Gu Huai Zhong had once cried and complained bitterly about how unfilial his daughter was, saying that she had not only burned down the marquis’ residence but had also possibly killed her mother in the process, among other things.
“Her mother…?” Emperor Jing looked at the Ding Yuan Marquis Gu Huai Zhong with suspicion. “My dear Gu, didn’t you say your wife died in the fire?” His voice grew sombre and his face darkened. What was really going on here?
Gu Huai Zhong’s heart sank. That was a sore subject for him, something he avoided talking about. Yet now it was being brought up in the southern study in front of civil and military ministers.
His face alternated between red and black. Thankfully, he was kneeling with his head bowed low, so not many people noticed the changing colours on his face.
“Your Majesty, it’s true that my wife went missing that day and in my anger, I thought she had perished in the fire,” Gu Huai Zhong tried to keep his voice calm.
“Nonsense!” Emperor Jing was getting dissatisfied, “When someone dies, you need to see the body. You hastily made a judgement without even seeing your wife’s body. What a mess! Go back and sort out the mess in your mansion before coming to see me again. Is your wife divorced from you or deceased?! Think it through before you answer me. And regarding your daughter, did she really set the fire that killed her own mother? You better have a clear answer when you return!”
Gu Huai Zhong’s back was drenched in cold sweat as he hastily expressed his gratitude for the emperor’s mercy and left the southern study.
Outside, a chilling wind blew and Gu Huai Zhong felt an icy sensation engulfing him, as if he had fallen into an ice cellar.
Walking in a daze towards the palace gates, he could not help but feel resentful. He loathed the cunningness of Gu Yu Qi, who had somehow managed to travel north with Liang Huai Yu. Why had they gone north? Had this mother and daughter not intended on returning to Jiangnan?
In his understanding, Liang Huai Yu, as a member of the Liang family, would undoubtedly bring Gu Yu Qi back to their ancestral home in Jiangnan. Otherwise, where would these two women, who had no protection or means, go to settle down?
So he had sent people to search southwards for all these years and they had brought no results.
Admittedly, he had been ruthless. If Liang Huai Yu had not perished, how could he resolve the humiliation from back then?! Then there was the divorce letter. He had managed to set fire to the storehouses of the capital mayor to destroy the incriminating evidence. If the contents of that divorce letter were to be revealed, his reputation as the Ding Yuan Marquis would be irreparably damaged. Not to mention his reputation, if the emperor ordered an investigation, his title as the Ding Yuan Marquis would be at risk. Therefore, the divorce letter had to be destroyed, the capital mayor had to die, and the same fate awaited Liang Huai Yu to keep her silent.
In any case, he had already spread the news that Liang Huai Yu had perished in the great fire. Since this kind of information had been released, he might as well turn her feigned death into a real one.
If he still had a glimmer of goodwill towards Liang Huai Yu back then, it had now turned into resentment.
He had not captured Liang Huai Yu at the time, and after returning to the capital, he could not shake the feeling that something was amiss. If Liang Huai Yu and Gu Yu Qi had truly escaped, what would he do in the future? Almost no one knew that he had taken a concubine and hid the matter from his father-in-law and wife. After he became the marquis and came to the capital, he brought Liu Yue from the border region. Others assumed that Liu Yue, his concubine, had received recognition from the Liang family and General Liang. Although taking a concubine during wartime was a severe offence, it could be mitigated when approved by a commanding general.
However, the divorce letter between Gu Huai Zhong and Liang Huai Yu explicitly stated that he had concealed this from General Liang and Liang Huai Yu. If this divorce letter were to be discovered by someone, that would create a much larger problem. If it fell into the wrong hands, he feared it could reach the emperor, and he was not sure how he would handle that situation.
The capital mayor had contracted the plague due to resettling refugees for several days and coming into contact with many of them. Even Gu Huai Zhong felt that it was a stroke of good fortune and that the heavens were taking pity on him. He did not even need to think of a way to eliminate the capital mayor, fate had sent him a significant gift.
After all, the capital mayor was still an official and getting rid of him was not that simple.
As soon as the capital mayor died, he would send people to find Liang Huai Yu’s copy of the divorce letter, then kill her so he could sit back and relax.
However, unexpectedly, Gu Yu Qi emerged halfway through the plan. She not only discovered a cure for the plague but also gained recognition in front of the emperor, earning significant merits. Gu Huai Zhong felt like there was a lump in his chest that he could not swallow.
He returned home in a daze, where he was greeted by a smiling Liu Yue. “Marquis has returned?” she asked warmly as she approached.
Gu Huai Zhong cast a deep glance at her, causing Liu Yue to feel a chill all over her body and her smile froze on her face.
“What’s wrong? Marquis, is there something in the imperial court that’s troubling you?” Liu Yue asked gently.
“If it were just court matters, I wouldn’t be bothered,” Gu Huai Zhong sneered, “What I’m worried about is what’s happening in this house!”
Liu Yue was taken aback. There had not been any unusual incidents at home recently, except for the shortage of food due and the plague outside. Moreover, the entire city was suffering from food shortage and the plague was affecting everyone, not just the Ding Yuan Marquis’ residence. What could possibly be going on? Was there something wrong… Liu Yue’s heart sank. Could he have noticed something about what she had done…?