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    Chapter 60: Secret Tunnel

    The rain poured down in torrents, merging the dark lake with the heavens into a world of water. Lotus leaves danced wildly amidst the tempest, while shadows flickered amidst the chaos. The guards of the Bao Han Palace had just completed their shift change and couldn't help but grumble at the sight of the downpour. "This rain is so heavy, even an oil coat won't protect us."

    In the palace, one was not allowed to carry an umbrella on duty; instead, they wore oil coats, forbidden from using ponchos or hats to maintain decorum. These oil coats were not provided by the palace and had to be procured by the guards themselves. Most of the palace guards were from noble families, so obtaining such attire was no trouble for them. However, the Qinghou Guards were different. This elite squad, handpicked from various military units for their prowess in reconnaissance, tracking, and espionage, served as the emperor's personal guards. Hailing from humble backgrounds and distant lands, every member was a devoted martyr, loyal solely to the emperor and his commands. Without influential family backgrounds, their efforts in the palace were driven by the desire for prosperity and safety for their descendants. Many would save their earnings to send back home, unwilling to splurge on expensive oil-coated silk raincoats. Thus, during rainy days, they had no choice but to endure the elements.

    Their commander had just been ordered by the emperor to be flogged to death, and the newly appointed Deputy Commander, Yu Huan, was still settling into his role. He was cautious and meticulous, inspecting the rotation diligently. He asked casually, "Why are all our people here? What about the original guards of the Bao Han Palace?"

    Ever since the crown prince was confined to the Bao Han Palace, the palace had two sets of guards. One was led by Shen Anlin, originally from the Eastern Palace, while the other was dispatched by the Qinghou Guards. Both teams took turns in four-hour shifts, ensuring strict security with not even a gap for a flying dove to slip through.

    The Qinghou Guard on duty wore an expression of discontent. "They're all in the office drinking, saying that Princess Yi Yang has accomplished a great feat, and the Crown Prince is so pleased that he lavishly rewarded them with food and drink. They started since the fifth hour of the evening and haven't stopped yet. I doubt there are many actually on duty; most just make a round, mark their attendance, and return. Only us brothers are honestly fulfilling our responsibilities."

    Yu Huan noticed their dissatisfaction and chuckled. "Would the Crown Prince only reward them and not us?"

    The guard replied, "Of course, he'd give to us as well, but who do they think they are, drinking on duty with such thick skin?"

    Yu Huan asked, "Does Commander Shen not restrain them at all?"

    The guard answered, "Commander Shen came in this afternoon, paid his respects to the Crown Prince, and left, saying he had family matters to attend to. Deputy Commander Liu Bin never bothers with such things – you know that well."

    Yu Huan was well aware that the Eastern Palace guards were essentially the personal retainers of the Crown Prince. They would naturally dare to accept the prince's wine and food. Furthermore, all the Eastern Palace guards came from noble families with titles; those without any rank could not enter. They received generous treatment and frequent rewards from the prince. In contrast, the Qinghou Guards, who hailed from humble backgrounds, often felt resentful. Especially after the recent punishment of their commander, everyone was now cautious, not daring to act recklessly. Yu Huan tried to reassure them, "It's alright. With such heavy rain and the gates locked, the guard post is right by the entrance, so anyone coming in or out can be seen. After your shift ends, go have a good meal before returning home. Given this downpour, you won't be able to leave anyway. You might as well warm yourselves by the fire and have some hot wine to prevent catching a cold."

    A smile graced the guard's face as he recalled arriving for his shift and seeing the Eastern Palace guards jovially heating wine and sharing jokes. The wine was indeed excellent, its aroma seemingly permeating even through the howling winds and heavy rain outside! Not to mention the whole roasted suckling pig and sheep that were being cooked, with the Eastern Palace guards using their daggers to slice off meat to grill over charcoal while sipping on their wine – a scene of pure bliss! There were also various delicacies and seasonal fruits, all rare treats found only within the palace. Of course, they weren't ignored by the Qinghou Guards on duty, but who among them dared to partake?

    They were well aware that their duties as Palace Guards differed from those of the East Palace Guards, whose primary responsibility was to ensure the personal safety of the Crown Prince. Although they effectively supervised him, they still answered to his commands, even if those commands now entailed tasks like fishing, plowing, gardening, or even cleaning cesspools. The Qinghou Guards might secretly mock them for becoming laborers in such menial tasks, but they understood that the East Palace Guards had the easiest and least stressful jobs, with no fear of punishment. As the Crown Prince, even if he was coerced into cooking daily for the Emperor, he remained the supreme authority. Though confined, the Emperor continued to shower him with favors and forbade anyone from insulting the heir apparent.

    In contrast, the Qinghou Guards, who were reputed to serve only at the emperor's command, were entrusted with the chilling order to execute the Crown Prince on sight should he step outside the Baohan Palace. This authority, while seemingly formidable and indicative of imperial favor, concealed a grim reality. Each member of these guards hailed from humble origins, fully aware that the act of slaying an imperial heir was punishable by the extermination of nine generations of one's kin—a fate known as "zhujiao," or "exterminating the nine clans." Their lofty title of "obeying imperial edict" served as a thin veil; in truth, should the execution ever be carried out, the executor's own death would be assured. Whether the punishment would extend to their entire clan rested solely on the emperor's willingness to bear the stigma of patricide.

    Yu Huan took a few steps, watching as the rain intensified. Though clad in an oiled cloak, a gust of wind instantly left half his body drenched. He shook his head and persevered, inspecting several posts, only to find, without exception, that they were manned solely by the Qinghou Guards. Indeed, the Eastern Palace's attendants had sought refuge in their duty rooms, indulging in wine and merrymaking. After all, any oversight on their part would be pardoned by the Crown Prince, who had provided the very sustenance for their revelry. What slip could they possibly make? On such a rainy day, the Crown Prince, in high spirits, had sent for wine in the afternoon, and it was said he retired early, drunk with joy. Yu Huan glanced towards the study, confirming that the candles had long been extinguished. Normally, plagued with worry for Princess Yi Yang, the Crown Prince would pore over military treatises, scrutinize maps of Bei Xi, and sit silently before a chessboard. But now, with Princess Yi Yang's resounding victory, he had at last allowed himself the luxury of unbridled intoxication.

    The Crown Prince was unaware of the order the Emperor had issued. Yu Huan couldn't help but sigh as he recalled the deputy commander who had been hastily dispatched to Bei Xi. He felt a pang of sympathy for the overly young Prince and Princess. One by one, he comforted his loyal guards on duty, promising them that after their shift, they could indulge in food and drink at the duty room—it would be disrespectful to decline the Prince's generosity. Satisfied by the looks of gratitude from the guards, he sensed he had won their loyalty. With a bit of a swelled head, he returned to the duty room, where his own shift had ended. In such heavy rain, it was imperative that he hurry back to the guards' quarters to change out of his wet clothes.

    Hardly had he left when the duty guard, nearing the end of his shift, found that his relief was strangely delayed. The rain grew heavier, and through the wind came faint whispers of laughter and fragrance. Unable to contain his curiosity, the guard returned to the guardhouse only to discover that his fellow guards, who should have been on their way to relieve him, were already indulging in a meal. They greeted him with embarrassed smiles, "Ah, the rain is too heavy. By the time we made it from the barracks, we were drenched. Have a few sips of yellow wine to warm yourself against the cold. Wipe off the water on you, and have some food. It's already late at night, and with such heavy rain, just make sure the gate is secure. There are also guards stationed outside the palace walls, so there's no need to be overly concerned."

    In that moment, everyone gathered to enjoy the wine and meats. Though the Crown Prince's quarters were closely monitored, the ingredients served were always of the finest quality. The imperial kitchen staff dared not skimp on such matters. In comparison, the food that the guards usually consumed in their barracks seemed no better than swill fit for pigs.

    The rain from above melded into the lake, as if something swam beneath its surface, hidden by the swirling lotus leaves. Rong Bi had stealthily changed into a pitch-black robe, concealed from head to toe under a dark lacquered tung oil cloak with its hood pulled tightly around her face. Silently, she traversed the Nine-Curves Bridge under the cover of the inky night and made her way into the waterside pavilion, which was still shrouded in darkness. Tang Xi awaited her there, kneeling upon her arrival. "Your Highness, please follow me," he said.

    With practiced ease, he lifted the trapdoor, revealing the hidden staircase that led to an underground chamber submerged in water. Rong Bi descended, followed closely by Tang Xi who secured the trapdoor behind them. Lighting a torch, they ventured down the tunnel, which had been excavated alongside an underground waterway. The pathway was lined with charred, preservative wood, creating a solid walkway amidst the gushing sounds of water flowing above the wooden walls. It was evident that a considerable amount of money and effort had been invested in constructing this waterproof secret passage.

    Rong Bi followed Tang Xi in silence for about a mile before they emerged from another secret passage, finding themselves inside a humble residence. The room was adorned with embroidery frames and floral canopies, disguising it as a young maiden's chamber. Exiting the room, they stepped into a courtyard, passing through two partitions and a winding, secluded alleyway. They then entered another small gate, ultimately leading them to a grand hall illuminated by several bright candles.

    Upon entering, Rong Bi noticed an elderly man seated on a high-backed armchair on one side. Shen Anlin stood respectfully behind him, while a young scholar sat on a chair to the elder's right, his features bright and handsome, exuding warmth.

    The elder had already risen to his knees, addressing, "This old servant, Shen Pingye, pays his respects to Your Highness, the Crown Prince, ten thousand years, ten thousand years."

    Shen Pingye? That must be the Imperial Uncle, the Marquis Cheng'en, the late Empress's brother. Rong Bi observed Shen Anlin and the young man follow suit, kneeling down. She rushed to assist the elder, saying, "Uncle, please rise."

    The Marquis Cheng'en watched as the Crown Prince removed his wind hood, revealing a slightly pale but clear and resolute face. Despite his long confinement, he still carried himself with grace and composure like a lotus untouched by the mire. There was no trace of resentment or gloom, only a serene clarity that greatly comforted the Marquis. He held the prince's hand and said, "Your Highness has suffered." Recalling the late Empress, he couldn't help but shed tears, "It is this uncle's incompetence. If your mother were here, seeing you and your sister subjected to such indignity, I cannot imagine her disappointment in me."

    Looking at the Marquis Cheng'en's tears and vulnerability, Rong Bi felt a pang of sympathy. "Uncle, you've worried needlessly. You're advanced in age, so please don't grieve further. I am well, and there's no need for concern. There will come a time when the clouds part and the moon shines bright. Isn't my sister now triumphant?" She forcefully resisted the urge to look at the young man, yet she knew deep down that he was her third brother, Rong Mo.

    She had finally met her own flesh and blood!

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