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Chapter 73

written by LigayaCroft
edited by Kakashi

It was a long dream filled with Li’s best memories in Huicūn. Still, even though he knew it was only a dream, Li enjoyed the interlude, for Huo Zheng was there, real and warm to the touch.

A lazy summer afternoon that they enjoyed together. Huo Zheng was doing the village’s accounting books cluttered all over the kitchen table and he was fetching her a cup of cold tea near the stove when Li heard voices, this time loud and clear, that made him momentarily turn to look at the sky outside the window to the bamboo forest beyond.

He has regained consciousness?

Tianjun, it is true. The Heavens seem to be on our side. He briefly opened his eyes a little while ago.

When Li looked back, Huo Zheng was gone.

A-Li,” Soft hands cupped his face, accompanied by his Mother’s voice. “A-Li, wake up. Please.

Never one who wanted to disappoint his Mother to her face, Li tried. Hard. His eyelids felt weighted down by rocks but he did his best with sheer will to open them up.

When at last he succeeded, he saw his parents and Chenwei, blurry at first until his vision began to clear, hovered around him. His Mother had tears in her eyes; truly, the Holy Empress had gone softer as the years had gone by. His sister threw her arms around him and started bawling.

“Xiaogui, please,” He patted her back. “Help me sit up.”

His Mother and Chenwei helped him do as he requested. The task was simple but the amount of effort it took from him to sit up left him breathless.

“How long was I out?”

“One hundred years,” Chenwei hit his shoulder with her fist and even though the force was gentler than what she often used on him, it sent him reeling to hold on to the bed’s side railing, which caused her to apologize profusely over the reprimand that came from their parents. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! It’s just that you had everyone worried!”

Li looked around the worried faces in the room, stopping at the Emperor, whose face was unreadable.

“I apologize for making everyone worry,” he cast another glance at his Father, studying his expression. “Fùqīn [1], is something wrong?”

The Emperor shook his head. “Take some more rest, A-Li. We will talk again soon.”

After he was given his liquid medicine in a bowl, Li watched his Father leave as he was assisted by a servant to lie back down again.

Chenwei sat by his side, but the way she kept fidgeting like she was sitting on top of something hot caught Li’s attention. He cast her a look asking why, and she responded by looking at their Mother, who was wiping a cloth over his forehead. Chenwei cringed, her hands balling into fists.

“Mǔqīn [2],” Li mouthed in a deliberately faint voice, and taking in how Chenwei’s face brightened, took it that he was on the right track.

“Yes, A-Li?”

“Can I ask to have some of your porridge?”

The Empress Bai Qian was a woman of great beauty, but her cooking skills had stayed very dismal. Through the years, she had only successfully mastered cooking porridge, her act of devotion to her children whenever they got sick.

His Mother snapped up, calmly throwing away the wet towel on an empty bowl. “I will cook the best porridge you’ve ever tasted, A-Li.”

“Thank you, Mǔqīn.”

“Chenwei, watch over your Da-Gē.”

“Yes, Mǔqīn.” Chenwei stood up and bowed, maybe a little bit too eagerly. However, the Empress looked too distracted to notice and walked away, taking the maids with her.

The door had barely closed shut behind the entourage when Chenwei flew toward the stand where his robes hung.

“Hurry, Da-Ge. You actually woke up just in time. Mei Lin Táng Jiě [3] is getting sentenced today. Your presence might change where this trial has been headed all along.”

Mei Lin?

With initial difficulty, Li got up to stand and found that he felt better after the initial wave of dizziness had passed. He allowed his Sister to help him get dressed and ready to face the Royal Court. All the while she gave him a rapid fire update on what he had missed as he slept for one hundred years.

It turned out he was not the only one who became injured that day.

The Demon Ancestor Shao Wan and the God of War Mo Yuan had fallen down the Zhuxian Terrace. While High God Zhe Yan had appeared shortly and tried to save them, he was only able to bring Mo Yuan back before passing unconscious due to the severity of his injuries.

What had brought her parents to Zhuxian Terrace that day was yet to be divulged to anyone by Mei Lin, the event’s only witness, who maintained that she knew nothing. Of course, the gossipmongers had their heyday— some saying the Demon Ancestor must have done something that endangered the Sky Kingdom and the God of War punished her by pushing her down Zhuxian Terrace. Yet through all these years, Mei Lin had remained quiet.

However, what she had done next caused her the trouble that she was in right now.

Mei Lin had made a series of decisions in the years that followed. After the Heavens relaxed its lockdown, Mei Lin stole Shennong’s scrolls from the Celestial Library, brought them to Kunlun and had them translated using a scroll given to her by her alleged teacher. Using her translated knowledge, she retrieved the ingredients, mostly rare and forbidden or hard to acquire, including the Jumenji heads that the former Tianjun had long declared unsafe due to its dark miasma. Lastly, she had administered the medicine she had created to her father, her fellow phoenix Zhe Yan, and to Li without prior clearance from Yàowáng, the Medicine King, who was the one who called the attention of the Royal Tribunal.

That a Demoness— who had a questionable role to play in the death of her own mother and the critical condition of her Father, who had no formal healing training from the Medicine King’s Royal College, who had stolen holy scrolls and translated them using another scroll of questionable origins— would administer questionable elixirs to key members of the Royal Family, was highly suspicious indeed. And the fact that those she had treated still remained unconscious days later had made the odds farther against Mei Lin’s favor.

“Tianjun is caught in a bad place. The Demons have threatened retaliation if their Princess is harmed, and the right-leaning Celestials have demanded she answer for her crimes. Either way, we will probably get a war.”

A-Li internally struggled to take all the new information in. His Uncle Mo Yuan and Grandfather Zhe Yan critically injured, his Aunt Shao Wan gone, and he had slept through it all for a hundred years!

There was a throng that gathered outside the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and all the steps to the Hall were filled with curious onlookers. Li and Chenwei evaded the crowd and sneaked toward the gardens where, by a tree along the wall, Chenwei revealed a door to a secret corridor using a spell; one known only to the Royal Family and trusted servants that exited right near one of the doors of the Hall.

As they turned the corner that went along the back walls of the Hall, they both could hear the commotion coming from inside. Li temporarily sealed his powers before they stepped out and made another turn to where the Lords’ aides stood on the side near the main exit, ready to assist their masters .

“Tianjun, we must not forget that the Demon Princess has the most to gain for fatally crippling the Royal Family,” one of the Three Pristine Ones pled in a downward and elongated tone. “With the Demon Ancestor gone, she could be the next Demon Queen herself. And without Zhe Yan High God and the God of War, we are exposed more than ever to any other clan’s attacks. Please sentence her with treason, Tianjun.”

As the Pristine Lord stepped back, another Senior Courtier stepped up to the middle. Without lifting his head after making his bow, he spoke.

“Tianjun, the Demon Princess is the only daughter of your only Brother. She is the closest friend of your son, the First Prince, and a beloved student of your Third Uncle. While it is true that she has acted rashly, I hope you show clemency as she was just acting on the festering worry we all had over the well-being of the God of War, Zhe Yan High God, and the First Prince Li. Please forgive her on account of her youth, and her parents’ good deeds in service of the Kingdom. Please grant her clemency, Tianjun.”

And so on it went until all but the Medicine King of the Senior Courtiers had spoken. All throughout, the Emperor remained quiet, his face not revealing anything.

“Tianjun,” Yàowáng spoke after he stepped to the middle of the aisle formed by the rows of Senior Courtiers. “Medicine is not to be taken lightly. Even my assistants have trained for hundreds, no, thousands of years. What gives the Demon Princess the right to overstep on our expertise by following a dangerous recipe that has been translated from ancient books using questionable means? What does that tell of our laws, Tianjun?” The question hung as Yàowâng waited for a response from the Emperor, and when he got none, he continued. “We have checked the mortal records for this Huo Zheng whom the Demon Princess has identified as her mentor, and her destiny ledger was empty! Nor was there any record of her in Hell!”

Murmurs filled the Hall.

“An empty scroll and a lost spirit,” Chenwei sighed beside him. “How fascinating.”

But for Li, it was not. As much as he knew now that this was to be the outcome of any immortal’s investigation to Huo Zheng’s life, being one who had lived in it and loved in it, the mere mention triggered what now were painful memories. The bubble he was in since he had woken up was broken.

It took conscious effort to remind himself to breathe.

She will come back, he reminded himself while he tried to relax his clenched fists. She has to.

“We have thoroughly checked and counterchecked and this mortal woman, simply, did not exist. Dare we trust her legacy of a translated piece of Shennong’s scrolls? The Demon Princess said she did it out of concern, but I dare to say she has risked your Brother and your son’s lives because of her Pride. We cannot let the Demons undermine us just like that. Please mete the severest punishment according to our laws, Tianjun!”

“Please give her the severest punishment according to our laws, Tianjun!” Echoed almost the entire Senior Council except for those who had sided with Mei Lin. They remained standing while peers bowed and knelt.

Yu Dian, the Green Demon Lord who often acted as the Demon Ancestor’s envoy to the Sky Kingdom sat straighter in his usual seat. His features had turned darker all throughout the speeches that had been delivered to influence the Emperor’s decision.

Finally casting his gaze on his niece who stood at the bottom of the throne, the Emperor asked, “Mei Lin, do you have anything to plead?”

With her back toward them, Li could not see Mei Lin’s reaction but her voice remained its usual haughty tone.

“Tianjun, as I have attested before, I orchestrated the whole plan to create the elixirs and I have no regrets. Whether I did it out of concern or out of treason is for you to judge. You are fair and wise, and I willingly accept your punishment.”

From where he stood, Li could see Gun Gun, Mei Shui, A-Xi, Cheng Yu and Lian Song all looked a little bit pale but none spoke up. It was impossible to not have any of them involved in creating the elixir. If a deal had been struck beforehand for Mei Lin to take all the blame, it would be for him to find out later.

But right now…

“I apologize for coming in unannounced, Tianjun,” he interrupted, walking down and toward the clear aisle between the rows of Senior Ministers.

Gasps rose from the gathering. Some of them even took several steps back in shock. A courtier hastily announced his name and title.

Mei Lin turned, her eyes round, before her shoulders went slack. It was unbecoming to show that much emotion in front of the Emperor but she had always been the most expressive one of the three of them. She also looked worn out, and why wouldn’t she be when she was almost drained of her cultivation?

What had the ritual of extracting the elixir done to her?

In her state, she shouldn’t even be standing. This filled him with fury. His sister, his cousin, one of his best friends… she had lost her Mother and her Father had been severely injured, and these opportunists thought it was the best time to deal the fatal blow.

“Zūzu, you saved me.”

Tears welled in Mei Lin’s eyes.

“You must have been so scared.”

She nodded, biting hard at her lower lip to stop herself from sobbing although her shoulders had begun to heave.

He gave her a reassuring smile and stepped beside her. Returning his attention to the Emperor, he again put his hands together in front of him and bowed his head.

“Fate works in mysterious ways, Tianjun, and as you can see, I have recovered.” He looked at the man who had just asked for Mei Lin’s head on a stake. His lips curved but the smile did not reach his eyes. Looking back at his Father, he said, “I am grateful for Yàowáng’s care for one hundred years. But I am indebted to Mei Lin for her daring actions.”

Nothing in the Emperor’s expression changed, not even after he showed up. However, it did not faze Li.

“Tianjun, while your servant is glad that the First Prince is now well, let us be reminded that the fates of Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan are still in question.” Yàowáng raised from behind him. “The Demon Princess has admitted she has used different types of elixirs on them.”

“The nature of their injuries were different from the First Prince,” the Emperor finally replied, his voice steady and calm. He tilted his head slightly to the right where Chancellor Jia Yun stood. “I believe it has been reported their pulses have gotten better since?”

“Yes,” Jia Yun affirmed with his hands together in front of him, casting a glance at Li.

“Mei Lin, step forward and receive your sentence.”

Those who had remained standing also got on their knees, including Li. Mei Lin moved closer to the bottom step toward the throne before she, too, knelt.

“You have broken many Celestial laws, but you have also saved the First Prince’s life. Because of that, I will spare your life. You are however, required to surrender the scroll that you said your teacher has left for Zhe Yan. Further, until such a time that both Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan are awake to plead on your behalf, you are forbidden access to Kunlun and Jiuchongtian.”

Murmurs filled the air. With a shake of her head, Mei Lin tipped her head up to look at the Emperor Ye Hua.

“Tianjun, may I see my Father Lord first before I leave Jiuchongtian?”

The Emperor took a pause, his gaze sweeping over the entire congregation.

“No,” he answered, turning to Yu Dian. “Lord Yu Dian, please accompany the Demon Princess on her way out.”

What might have sounded like a fairly light punishment must have killed Mei Lin inside. Since the God of War lay unconscious in his Yinguang Palace, being forbidden access to the Sky Kingdom meant Mei Lin might never be able to see him again. For somebody who had already lost one parent, this must feel like she had already lost two.

Mei Lin conjured Huo Zheng’s scroll and left it by her feet. By the time Yu Dian had gone down the steps to meet her, she was ready, and walked out with her chin up.

Her Mother would have been very proud.

“Tianjun, with your permission, as Mei Lin’s family in Jiuchongtian, we would like to walk Mei Lin out as well,” Li heard Lian Song say, and when Li turned, he saw his Father nod to give his wordless assent.

He also bowed before joining behind the procession, right behind Cheng Yu, when the Emperor called him back.

He stopped and turned. “Tianjun?”

“It has been a while since it was discussed in this Council but your heroic action that day deserves a reward. Name it, and it is yours.”

For a moment, Li thought he had heard wrong, but about more than hundred pairs of eyes now looked in his direction, some a bit taken aback that the Emperor went from punishing his niece to rewarding his son. It was possibly a move by the Emperor to distract the emotions of everyone in the room. After all, regardless if some of those in attendance sought to destabilize their family’s reign in secret, everyone present did owe Li their lives.

He thought of Mei Lin and what she had given up to save him.

Then he thought of his Father, and of what it cost the Emperor politically to serve Mei Lin with a light sentence.

Who among the Emperor’s 99 Senior Lords had his back?

And lastly, he thought about his wife. Now that her existence had drawn Celestial eyes, who would protect her when she returned?

He knelt. With his folded hands before him, he looked the Emperor in the eye from across the hall.

“During Tianjun’s youth, while the God of War had fragments of his soul scattered across the Four Seas and Eight Deserts, Tianjun assumed the God of War’s role in the military and led our clan to victory in factions and wars, even at the point of sacrificing your Spirit to the Eastern Desert Bell, helping set Tài Yé’s [4] heart at ease. Just like Tianjun did when he was younger, during these uncertain times, all I want is to help set Tianjun’s mind and heart at ease.”

Li watched the Emperor process what he had just said. The Emperor’s lips remained pursed for several breaths while murmurs rolled across the gathering.

“Alright,” the Emperor nodded, the corners of his face finally relaxing by a tiny bit. Did his eyes look a bit wet just now or was that just the light hitting the Emperor’s eyes at a particular angle?

His Father had never been one to show emotions while in public. Li surmised he must have seen wrong.

“First Prince Li, hear my decree,” the Emperor spoke louder this time. “Because of your quick thinking and bravery 100 years ago, you have saved your Emperor and Empress, as well as everyone in this very hall. Thus, while the God of War recuperates, I leave you in charge of our military. Further, as you have proven yourself worthy of protecting the Kingdom to ease my burden, from this day forward, I am bestowing you with the title of Crown Prince.”

An invisible pressure made Li’s head feel like it was about to explode. His heart thumped so fast inside his chest while he listened to the words come out of his Father’s mouth like a landslide.

It was then Li remembered one of his Shifu’s earliest words.

Oh, the irony.

Or the prophecy.

All he wanted was to be able to protect his Family.

From vagabond to Crown Prince— who would have thought?

“I thank you for your grace, Tianjun. I accept.”

Chapter 74

* * *

1) 父亲 – Father (formal)

2) 母亲 – Mother (formal)

3) 堂姐 – Dad’s brother’s daughter, but older than the Speaker

4) 太爷 – paternal great grandfather

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