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    When Father yielded military command to the imperial court, he had already devised this plan; it was meant to safeguard the Qi family while also paving the way for our eventual resurgence.

    Later, Emperor Jiande bestowed her hand in marriage to the Seventh Prince. Her father even sighed in relief, explaining that the Seventh Prince's birth mother was merely a palace maid, and he had neither the emperor's favor nor good health. Should they need to eliminate him in the future, it would unlikely arouse suspicion from others.

    From the day Qi Zhen was wed, she knew that sooner or later, she would have to take Xiao Yan's life with her own hands.

    Regrettably, she had allowed herself to be swayed by emotion.

    She used the poison meant for Xiao Yan on Prince Qiyuan, forcing the Qi family to support Xiao Yan.

    Years of meticulous planning by the Qi family had been sacrificed for her, yet Xiao Yan survived, and she ascended to the throne as Empress. She thought they could finally return to their life in Taiyuan Prefecture as before.

    Her lower abdomen throbbed with increasing pain, causing Qi Zhen's entire body to tremble. Weariness and helplessness crept into every fiber of her being.

    It was then that Qi Heng had a bowl of medicine delivered, instructing the midwife to prioritize the mother over the child.

    The child was already conceived, and for the Qi family, whether this child in her womb would see the light of day or not no longer mattered.

    Qi Zhen waved away the midwife's attempt to feed her the medicine, her bloodshot eyes locking onto the healer with a fierce determination. She had lost one child before and could not afford to lose another.

    With Qi Heng's capabilities, the child in her womb would be lost if she lost consciousness.

    Her regained strength allowed Qi Zhen to focus on the jade Buddha on the high altar. She bit onto a piece of cork, arching her body. After an indeterminate amount of time, a faint and feeble cry was heard.

    Rain poured heavily, and thunder rumbled as the candlelight flickered in the Buddhist hall.

    Gazing at the tiny, bloodied creature, no bigger than two palms, Qi Zhen's eyelashes were damp with tears.

    Her voice was so tiny, resembling that of a newborn kitten, almost inaudible, yet she had managed to survive.

    The next day, Qi Zhen carried her premature child back to the Kunning Palace.

    Half a month later, Xiao Yan recovered from the severe bout of typhoid and bestowed the child the name Xiao Yu.

    The Buddhist hall in Daci'en Temple where Qi Zhen gave birth was a small shrine dedicated to the ancestors of the Qi family. The only people present that day were from the Kunning Palace and the Qi family. For many years, this secret had been tightly concealed, and Qi Zhen had no idea how Meng Zong had found out.

    Upon hearing Meng Zong's words, her face turned cold as she asked, "What do you mean by that, Chief Censor Meng?"

    Meng Zong replied calmly, "Empress, there's no need for concern. I didn't come here to seek revenge but to collaborate with you. As a gesture of sincerity, I'll share a secret with you first."

    Qi Zhen narrowed her eyes and asked, "What?"

    "Meng Zong remarks with a detached tone, 'Miss Qi from the Qi family is not the child that the Empress gave birth to in the temple that day.' That child was abducted on the way back to the Qi residence. The current Miss Qi is merely a girl adopted from a distant branch of the Qi family by Commander Qi himself. I believe Her Majesty would recall that at that time, there were three pregnant women from the Qi family's side branches hiding in the capital."

    "Lord Meng, do you know what you're saying?" Qi Zhen's voice rose in pitch, her face flushed with anger, her hands unconsciously forming tight fists.

    On that day, two midwives and two wet nurses attended the young princess. After her abduction, Admiral Qi ordered their assassination, along with the coachman from that very day. Miraculously, one of the wet nurses survived being left for dead in the wilderness. Realizing she couldn't let anyone discover her survival, she disfigured herself and fled to the borderlands.

    Meng Zong lifted his gaze to meet Qi Zhen's, saying, "Once Your Majesty has an audience with that wet nurse, you will know the truth of what this humble minister just said."

    Qi Zhen's heart was already turbulent with the implications of Meng Zong's words. If her child had truly been abducted, her brother's cunning methods could indeed involve substituting another infant in their place.

    But who could have taken the child? And where was the child now?

    Suppressing all her doubts and anxieties, Qi Zhen composed herself and spoke calmly, "What did Lord Meng mean when you said you wish to cooperate with this palace?"

    "The incident involving Eunuch Liu and his group at the ferry this morning must have reached Her Majesty's ears by now. I'm sure the Empress is aware of who's behind it," Meng Zong said, slowly turning the jade ring in his hand. "Two days ago, Eunuch Liu had already secretly sent all evidence into the inner court. The Three Judicial Bureaus will undoubtedly investigate the matter in Yangzhou to its conclusion. This minister dares to assert that neither the Qi family nor the Second Prince will be spared by the Emperor."

    Qi Zhen was indeed aware of the events at the ferry that morning and understood that the Emperor would not show mercy to the Qi family this time.

    She gazed at Meng Zong quietly. "How does Minister Meng wish to collaborate?"

    Meng Zong replied solemnly, "General Qi, with his wolfish ambition, secretly exchanged the real Second Prince nineteen years ago at Daci'en Temple, attempting to taint the royal bloodline and substitute one prince for another. Her Majesty was also deceived in this matter. This minister will personally find the true Second Prince, and then, Your Majesty only needs to acknowledge that child."

    "Does Minister Meng know that this is the crime of deceiving the monarch? Aren't your actions also confusing the royal bloodline?"

    Meng Zong countered, "Does Her Majesty know why the Emperor asked the former Minister of Rites to be Prince Huai'an's tutor?"

    Qi Zhen was taken aback. "Huai'an is the posthumous son of the Twelfth Prince. The Emperor—"

    Her voice suddenly trailed off as if she had grasped something. After a long while, she exclaimed, "His Majesty never intended to establish Xiao Yi or Yu'er as the crown prince."

    Xiao Yan was unlike the previous emperor, and also distinct from Prince Qiyuan. Or rather, he lacked the stubbornness and arrogance of the Xiao family.

    He would choose the most suitable person to be the emperor as his successor.

    By entrusting Huai'an to the former Minister of Rites, he aimed to personally groom an appropriate crown prince.

    "Empress Dowager sees clearly," Meng Zong said. "In the Emperor's eyes, the First and Second Princes have never been qualified candidates for the throne. Unfortunately, Prince Huai'an is still too young, and the former Minister of Rites cannot wait any longer."

    Not only is the old Minister of State impatient, but even Emperor Jia Yu is growing restless.

    "The Emperor has already harbored suspicions about the Second Prince's identity and would not entrust him with the throne. If Your Majesty does not forge an alternative path, it will be the First Prince who ascends to the paramount position. This humble minister has come today to personally pave that very path for Your Majesty."

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