Prince Qi rambled on about the renowned sideshow troupe he had specially prepared. At the same time, Fang Minghe's army was calling for the palace gate to be opened.
"Burn it, burn it hard!" Meng Fuyao ran about, calling for the guards of the Xin Palace. She kicked open a door and pulled the quilt away from a sleeping guard, exposing his naked bum and shouting, "Sleeping at this time? Go light some fire, 32 of them. I want all of you to burn this place down, or I'll personally kick all your asses out the door."
More than 3,000 enemy troops were waiting outside the Qianan Palace for a signal from the Xin Palace to proceed with the plan. The Xin Palace's guards were aware that there was going to be a huge change that night. Despite it being a life and death matter, none resisted against her absurdly rebellious order. Instead, they speedily gathered whatever flammable substance and vegetable oil they could to prepare the fire torches...
The imperial concubines and palace maids of the Xin Palace were brought into empty rooms within the Sixth East Palace to hide. The number of empty rooms exceeded the number of concubines, so Meng Fuyao sent a batch of guards over to set all unused rooms on fire before seeking for shelter.
"Alright, that's all we can do for now." Meng Fuyao clapped and smiled. "As long as the crown prince comes out, he'll have the upper hand since his troops are already within the city, unlike Qi Xunyi's, who would have to rush over from the outskirts. That way, when a battle really breaks out, Qi Xunyi's bound to be disadvantaged."
"Or he might not make it out," Yun Hen remarked, worry evident in his eyes.
Meng Fuyao shook her head, smiling. "We've come this far. If he's unable to sense the crisis and take the chance to flee, he might just be better off dead."
Yun Hen kept quiet, light flickering within his cold eyes.
A red light flashed across the screen window behind him, and at the next moment, flames shot up in every corner. Since it was an arson attack, all it took was one second for everything within the Xin Palace's perimeters to be thrown into chaos.
The windows were instantly misshapen, and the corridor pillars gradually started twisting. The bright, red flames rose to the clouds, adding a red hue to the ashen sky above the Imperial City.
Vague, alarmed cries could be heard from the imperial guards standing outside the Xin Palace. Upon a signaling call, the main entrance was kicked open.
Meng Fuyao pulled Yun Hen into the underground passage before jumping in and closing the floor door shut. It happened half a second before the imperial guards barged in, which led to Meng Fuyao happily pulling out a V sign.
After making an appearance at the feast, the emperor had left the princes to enjoy by themselves. Due to his illness, he had returned to the Qianan Palace's pavilion to rest his royal body.
Qi Xunyi clapped, signaling for the sideshow troupe to enter the hall. The leading lady had a slender, snake-like waist, and her fair underbelly was exposed. She had on flowy, golden pants and a deep red tube top with embedded pearls, which enhanced the plumpness of her snow-white boobs. The proportion between her gorgeous chest and her waist was so perfect that she exuded an alluring wildness.
The princes were used to seeing reputable, conventionally-dressed upper-class women, so this refreshing sight had them putting down their wine cups. Even the crown prince's attention was caught.
Every member of the troupe moved skillfully during their performance. Halfway through it, more than 10 performers stacked themselves up, one atop another and each slanting outward at a greater angle, to form a diagonal human tower. The audience watched on, so engrossed in admiring the artists' strength and flexibility that they hadn't noticed the human tower slowly inching toward the crown prince. They were just another head away from him.
The crown prince, too, had failed to notice because Qi Xunyi had taken something out from his sleeves, effectively robbing his attention. It was a diagram belonging to Xuanji Nation, with 36 rows and columns of Chinese characters. Reading them forward, backward, diagonally and vertically created different sentences, but what the sentences formed weren't poetry but military strategies.
"Isn't this the legendary betrothal gift that the crown prince of Wuji Nation had presented to his wife-to-be when he was 13 years old? It was said that there are 32 amazing strategies within, and it has been kept deep within the palace. How did you obtain it?"
"This is a replica of course." Qi Xunyi grinned slightly. "I know you're into the art of war and have spent a painstaking amount of effort to get it for you."
"Wow, what a treasure!" exclaimed the crown prince, taking and studying it seriously.
Qi Xunyi raised his head, his eyes flashing across the hall.
The coquettish lady immediately made a flip, her ample breasts rising like waves and her toes dotting the air consecutively. Her golden jewels sparkled and danced with the wind as she made her way up the human tower within a few seconds.
The tower was so tall that she could easily reach out to touch the ceiling, but upon reaching the top, the tower collapsed.
Cries filled the palace hall, and the human tower abruptly came to a stop.
Those performers had real skills and did not scatter from that intense movement. Instead, they fell toward the ground in a steep angle and caught themselves right before touching it. The lady, balancing right at the edge, had her body upside down and her face right in front of the crown prince. Her black hair hung down like a waterfall, successfully blocking the view of a palace hall guard who was stationed in the middle, while her mild, tender dimples and flame-red lips landed beneath the crown prince's eyes. Throwing a charming smile his way, it was as if she was waiting for him to reach out to touch her.
She was so close. Her slim and long fingers could touch his throat with a simple stretch.
There was a chaotic mess outside of the Xin Palace, where over 3,000 guards had gathered, attempting to charge into the hall and rooms while subduing the fire.
Fang Minghe's main force, on the other hand, had met with an obstacle. They were about to open the city gate when they got disrupted by the sudden emergence of a team of soldiers. Its leader, dressed in a snow-white robe and had cherry-red lips, declared that Fang Minghe was pretending to act on an imperial order and that the palace gate mustn't be opened. Without further interaction, the team consecutively killed a few spies who were in charge of opening the doors, causing the army of 50,000 people to be stuck outside the city gate.
Qi Xunyi turned his body eagerly toward the crown prince, to discuss the listed strategies and to block him in the process. At that moment, he threw the lady dancer a signaling glance.
The lady dancer raised both hands swiftly.
A high cry threw off the perfect moment.
"The Xin Palace's on fire!"
The crown prince's head jerked up, along with the withdrawal of the lady's hands.
The rest of the audience did the same. When they looked out from the Qianan Water Pavilion, they spotted countless red dots blossoming within the palace grounds. Flames were dancing wildly, gradually forming a sea of red and expanding outward. As for the Xin Palace that was located the furthest away, it was basically wrapped in galloping red waves. The rising smoke resembled clouds that were tinged with sunset hues, illuminating the whole of the northwestern skies.
Outside of the Xin Palace and its surroundings the flames looked like small heads that marched inward like migrating ants. The sight left the witnessing princes in shock.
After taking into consideration the desolate location of the Xin Palace and the abruptness of the fire, it did not make sense for the imperial guards to arrive so quickly, unless... they had been there all along.
What did that signify? A horrific possibility immediately came to the minds of the princes, who had been born into respective royal families and raised to study palace politics and tactics.
The audience turned their gaze toward the crown prince, who appeared calm and deep in thought. Only the observant ones noticed that he was gripping the diagram so tightly that his fingers had turned white.
He turned toward Qi Xunyi, whose face was void of colors. Without waiting for any response, the crown prince put the map aside and flung his sleeve downward.
The lady dancer, who was in midair, slammed onto the ground and slid a meter forward, a mouthful of fresh blood spurting out from her mouth.
"The palace's on fire, and this girl's still swaying about, how annoying," the crown prince commented, lifting his sleeve and ordering, "Guards, bring me there."
"Crown Prince!" Qi Xunyi called out before standing up. "It's His Majesty's birthday, and according to Taiyuan customs, the emperor's son must remain here. You're not going to act against it, are you? I'll go."
"Third younger brother," the crown prince responded with a warm smile. "It's an urgent matter, so I'm sure Father will not blame me. You did remind me, though, that you're the second oldest. I'll leave you to take care of the younger brothers we have here today."
At that, without waiting for an answer, he hurried down the steps and was quickly escorted out of the east palace.
Qi Xunyi fell into a daze, clenching his teeth in silence. A long time later he shot a meaningful glance to someone outside the pavilion, who then rushed off to inform Yan Lie and Fang Minghe.
Qi Xunyi pondered over the unexpected situation again and again, not understanding how a fire could've started and even alarming the crown prince. He felt something wasn't right, and hence, he excused himself from the crowd.
Amid his frustration, a trusted aide approached and whispered something.
Qi Xunyi's eyes lit up, and he turned around, forcing a smile. "I'll go get changed. Please make yourselves at home."
He walked toward a side hall at the backmost part of the Qianan Palace, which was heavily guarded.
Qi Xunyi sped into the hall, and the doors behind him closed shut. The courtyard was extremely quiet since no one was allowed to enter his secret territory.
He stopped before a quiet room and let out a deliberate cough.
Inside the room stood a man, admiring the paintings on the wall with his hands cupped behind his back. He had a mask on, but it did not rob the brilliance from his eyes. Like two bright reflections of the moon found on a water surface, they glistened so peacefully yet profoundly.
Qi Xunyi had just entered the side hall when a screen on the left side shifted slightly. A pair of eyes could be seen, darting about in a quicksilver manner, resembling two pairs of mercury.
The black eyes made a few more rounds when someone behind gave a small push. A sneaky individual appeared in full view, out from the door, followed by a youth whose face was pale and eyes as cold as night.
"What is this place?" Meng Fuyao scanned her surroundings with her black, mercury-like eyes.
Yun Hen frowned as he scanned the place. He, too, couldn't recognize it very well. Many of Taiyuan palace's hidden passages had no exits, and after much exploration, the two youths had chosen this path since it had no specific marks on it. Judging by the decoration in the room; however, it seemed that they had arrived in the center of the palace.
He stood still, suddenly making a hand gesture.
Yun Hen peeked through the long curtains, half-covered, into the master bedroom. There were lit lamps inside, and he saw a pair of shadows, one belonging to a person with loose robe and graceful posture.