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    Chapter 67 - Soul Detachment

    Thus, Rong Bi's journey back to the capital began. For most of the trip, she remained in the carriage, treated like a delicate snowman that might melt with a breeze or shatter with a touch. Doctors visited daily to tend to her needs, and every aspect of her life was attended to meticulously.

    At each stop, Rong Yi would take a few guards to explore the local cuisine, bringing back special dishes, as well as purchasing various spices, side dishes, preserved foods, dried vegetables, pickles, and cured meats. Rong Bi could tell from this leisurely pace that the princess must have given instructions, knowing about her injuries and wanting to spare her the discomfort of travel. They didn't rush, stopping for two days when it rained and a few days when it was windy. They rested two days for every day they traveled, with the guards and bodyguards bonding over discussions about food.

    This relaxed atmosphere made Rong Bi feel at ease, free from the anxiety of being around nobles. Sometimes, she would gaze at the scenery outside the carriage while reading local guidebooks and snacking, even reminiscing about the days in Baohuan Palace when she tended to vegetables and cooked soups. She wondered what the crown prince was doing now.

    Yuan Jun continued his quiet, uneventful recovery, occasionally seeking the elusive moment when he could switch bodies with the mysterious process. However, he couldn't find the opportunity, likely because his soul had been too severely damaged. Continuing to inhabit that body might harm its health, causing him to be expelled.

    To pass the time, Yuan Jun started studying obscure Buddhist and Taoist texts, even sending someone to invite National Teacher Chong Xiao, claiming he needed help understanding some Daoist scriptures.

    When the news reached Yuan Zixu, he seemed indifferent: "Go ahead and inform the prince that it's not quite appropriate for someone his age to delve into such matters. He should avoid altering his disposition and only dabble lightly." Despite his words, he appeared in high spirits. After the messenger left, he chuckled at Li Dongfu, "Is this an indirect way to please me?" Clearly, he enjoyed watching his son lower his pride and struggle to win his favor.

    Li Dongfu, standing by, dared not speak. Instead, he thought of a cat playing with its prey, feeling a chill run down his spine. After a moment, he smiled and said, "According to the prince, he heard that during his critical condition, it was the National Teacher who held a ritual to expel evil spirits, allowing him to regain consciousness. He feels grateful and wants to personally thank the Daoist master while also learning more about Daoist knowledge."

    Yuan Zixu dismissed it casually: "Perhaps there were impurities in the palace before. The National Teacher's ritual did indeed make me sleep more soundly. But he is the crown prince, anointed by heaven. It's the duty of these righteous scholars to serve the emperor and the royal family. Praising them excessively might inflate their egos, making them forget their place."

    Li Dongfu felt a chill run down his spine.

    Monk Chong Xiao had already been led into the Treasure Scroll Palace. The palace was warmly lit by numerous charcoal braziers, filling the air with a faint scent of Buddha's hand fruit.

    Crown Prince Yuan Jun, having recently recovered from a severe illness, leaned against a cushioned armchair at an angle. His expression was relaxed and content, wearing a fox fur over his saffron-colored robe. A long string of 108 Buddhist prayer beads made of jade adorned his left wrist, while his slender fingers gently played with light green beads in his other hand, exuding calmness and tranquility. Upon hearing the eunuch announce the arrival of his guest, the prince lifted his gaze slightly, his noble demeanor and unwavering gaze typical of one in power.

    Startled, Chong Xiao realized that the crown prince had been imprisoned for a long time. He had expected to see a sickly and melancholic figure, but instead found a prince of refined elegance. Imprisoned or not, the crown prince was still next in line to the throne, towering above all others. Chong Xiao, who had always been arrogant due to the emperor's favor, couldn't help but feel intimidated by the subtle aura of authority when he met the prince. Unconsciously, he bowed deeply: "This poor monk pays his respects to Your Highness, the Crown Prince."

    Yuan Jun raised his hand slightly, "Master, please rise. I have troubled you to come here today because there are some esoteric Taoist practices that I do not understand and wish to seek your guidance on."

    Chong Xiao was known for his diplomatic skills, adept at adapting to different situations and people. Otherwise, he wouldn't have earned the trust of the suspicious Yuan Zixu. Upon entering, he noticed Yuan Jun holding a string of Buddhist beads and carefully began to discuss the unity of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, a topic he excelled in, one that court officials often enjoyed: "Buddhism speaks of the Three Bodies and Seven Consciousnesses, while Taoism refers to the Three Souls and Seven Spirits – indicating that there is some common ground in their teachings."

    Yuan Jun listened attentively, his gaze fixed on Chong Xiao's face, asking earnestly, "Buddhism believes in the unity of body and spirit, where the body is the essence of the spirit, and the spirit serves as the function of the body. When the body perishes, the spirit vanishes too, reincarnating. However, Taoism claims that the primordial spirit can leave the body, like Zhuang Zhou, whose spirit transformed into a butterfly, fluttering freely in the world. Venerable Daoist, is it truly possible for a person's spirit to leave their body?"

    Seeing the unusual question, Chong Xiao inwardly pondered the prince's intention but merely smiled, discussing the familiar Taoist concept of "transmuting essence into energy, energy into spirit, and spirit into emptiness."

    Yuan Jun listened for a while but didn't dwell on the abstract philosophical discourse. Instead, he pressed on, "During my severe illness, I felt as if a pure aura was floating in the air. Drifting along, perhaps because of my concern for my elder sister, it resembled a cloud, flying northward with the cranes, until I reached the Northern Pass and saw Princess Yi Yang. She wore a red skirt and silver armor, her weighty brows low, as she instructed the garrison to defend the city."

    Chong Xiao chuckled. "It seems His Highness the Crown Prince's longing for the princess has transcended into dreams."

    Yuan Jun, however, countered, "Yet in my dreams, Elder Sister was adorned in a coral-red robe, with dual phoenix patterns embroidered on the hem of her skirt. Her boots were adorned with coral beads, and she wore a pair of phoenix hairpins in her coiffure. A long sword hung at her waist, all of which I recall vividly. Such attire is unprecedented in my previous encounters."

    Again, I noticed the servants and guards attending my elder sister, each with distinct features and expressive eyes. Among them was a Kunlun slave, his hair curled tightly and his body a deep black, holding a red horsewhip as he led the horses from behind. This particular Kunlun slave was unfamiliar to me, known only through the pages of books I had read.

    The elder sister, in a demonstration of her personal commitment, ascended the city walls to boost the morale of the troops. She ordered that dumplings, filled with a mixture of wood ear mushrooms, radish, and meat, be bestowed upon the defenders. Standing atop the wall, she gazed into the distance, her heart filled with a poignant mix of longing and determination, as she gracefully paced along its edge. It was then that she noticed people pointing at me, their voices filled with awe, exclaiming that a five-colored auspicious cloud had descended – a certain sign of divine favor, assuring our victory in defending the city.

    Yuan Jun unfolded the story at a leisurely pace, detailing every aspect. Chong Xiao merely smiled. "I have heard of the victorious news from the Northern Frontier. Princess, your defense of the city was indeed triumphant. It must be the sincere devotion of Prince Jin that has moved heaven and earth, thus earning the protection of the universe."

    Yuan Jun remained noncommittal, and Chong Xiao, observing his expression, sensed a hint of indifference. Suspecting that the prince might be attempting to display his affection for his sister to move him, in hopes of persuading him to intercede with the emperor and secure his release, Chong Xiao felt a sense of foreboding. His current position was entirely due to Yuan Zixu, and it was clear that the prince was under the emperor's suspicion. He must not let the emperor misinterpret his actions as an inclination towards the prince. It would be wise to maintain neutrality and protect himself. Thus, he coughed lightly and said, "Your Highness has recently recovered from a severe illness. I dare not impose too much upon you..."

    Yuan Jun glanced at him with a cold gaze, and Chong Xiao felt a chill in his chest as if his every thought had been exposed. He couldn't help but feel guilty and was unable to bid farewell. However, Yuan Jun said, "I wish to know, is it possible for you, Daoist, to create a pill that allows the soul to leave the body, undergo a transformation, and have a second life? I've read tales of Daoists who can make talismans, and by holding them, one can travel in dreams to the ten islands and three continents of the Immortal Realm."

    Chong Xiao hesitated, unsure whether to say yes or no. If he said yes, how could he actually produce such a pill? But if he said no, the emperor's men would certainly be watching the prince's every move, and he would have to explain the tall tales he had spun in the past. As a cunning con artist, he usually spoke ambiguously, leaving himself room to maneuver. Thus, he quickly launched into a discussion about Buddhist concepts of the eight consciousnesses having no true form, avoiding a direct answer to the prince's question.

    Yuan Jun wore a smile that wasn't quite a smile and replied, "However, when I think back carefully, it seems that it was precisely after Father Emperor bestowed upon me the red pill crafted by Daoist that I often felt a floating sensation in my dreams. This time, the experience lasted longer because I was deeply concerned about my elder sister's battle situation and feared the city's fall. I lingered reluctantly, unwilling to return. Yet, in my daze, I seemed to hear music drifting from the horizon, resounding melodiously, clearing all around. It was then, amidst my dizzy spell, that I felt as if I returned to my body. When I regained consciousness, I was extremely weak, having severely drained my vital energy."

    "I later learned from the palace attendants and imperial physicians that I had been in a mysterious coma for several days and was on the verge of death. It was Daoist and your disciple who performed magic rituals within the palace, holding a Daoist ceremony, that brought me back to consciousness. I inquired with the servants, and they said that during the ceremony, the music played was 'The Clearing Tune'."

    Chong Xiao looked up at Yuan Jun in shock, his heavy robe dampened by cold sweat. Yuan Jun smiled warmly, seemingly looking at Chong Xiao with great familiarity. "It appears that my life was saved by the National Preceptor. I should properly thank you, Daoist. However, due to my current weakened state, I can only offer material possessions as gratitude for the National Preceptor's life-saving act. I hope you won't refuse. At present, these material things are all I possess."

    Chong Xiao felt dizzy and suddenly knelt deeply, while Yuan Jun lowered his eyelashes, his smile not reaching his eyes. "I hope the State Preceptor can refine the golden pill soon and attain enlightenment. If there's any method of cultivation that allows one's soul to leave the body without harming the essence of life, please don't hesitate to share your knowledge."

    No matter how astute Chong Xiao usually was, he didn't know what he had agreed to or how he managed to leave the Precious Scroll Palace. The eunuchs by the prince's side presented him with a generous collection of golden and jade talismans, while his ignorant disciple, holding the box, cheerfully followed Chong Xiao out of the palace.

    Chong Xiao's mouth tasted bitter. Upon returning to his temple, a disciple informed him, "Master, for some reason, the imperial guards have sent a squad of soldiers to surround the temple. The general in charge says they've been ordered by the emperor to protect the State Preceptor."

    Darkness clouded Chong Xiao's vision. His most trusted disciple, Dongxuan, noticing his distress, approached, "Did the prince cause trouble for Master today? I noticed the prince's rewards were quite generous."

    Chong Xiao muttered, "Not really... He said he wants to repay my life-saving grace, but in this old monk's eyes, he's like a messenger of death trying to lure me into his trap. This time, my fate is sealed." After deceiving people for half his life, it seemed he had finally met his match. Chong Xiao's face turned ashen.

    Dongxuan said, "Didn't His Majesty express great satisfaction with the last ceremony you performed? When the prince woke up, with your profound magical powers, the emperor, empress, and concubines all bestowed rewards upon you. It's only expected that the prince would reward you now."

    Chong Xiao replied, "You don't understand. The prince claimed that after consuming the red pills the emperor had rewarded us, he felt as if his soul had left his body and drifted to the princess's side. It was only when he heard the music from the ceremony that his soul returned."

    Dongxuan's face lit up with joy. "Doesn't that further prove the depth of your Daoist arts?"

    Chong Xiao glanced at him. "If the emperor believes the prince's story, he'll demand those red pills. But where will you find them? We've been refining them daily, altering the formula countless times. How do we know which batch was effective? None of the test subjects, not even the emperor, experienced such an effect. Why would the prince be able to leave his body? If you were the emperor, what would you think? He's suspicious and might believe I'm deceiving the monarch, keeping something in reserve, or perhaps plotting to support the prince. Once accused of deceiving the king, no amount of wealth would save my life!"

    Dongxuan was startled. "The soul's journey is mysterious and hard to comprehend. It doesn't necessarily mean the prince's account is true... Master, please explain more thoroughly..."

    Chong Xiao forced a bitter smile. "Do you think I've been surrounding the temple for no reason? If the Emperor had doubts, he would have questioned me immediately. But now, he hasn't seen me for days and only has the temple surrounded. What do you make of that?"

    Dongxuan asked blankly, "Why?"

    Chong Xiao replied, "Naturally, it's to verify if the Crown Prince's account of his out-of-body experience is true."

    Dongxuan commented, "The Crown Prince has been in a coma within the palace. Perhaps it was just a manifestation of his thoughts during the day turning into dreams at night?"

    Recalling the Crown Prince's smile that day, Chong Xiao's face fell. "I hope so. This old Taoist might not be able to escape unscathed this time... I only intended to swindle some money for that ritual, but now it seems I'm being pulled into the Crown Prince's scheme. Was his coma all part of a grand plan to ensnare me? The question is, how did the Crown Prince know about the scene thousands of miles away? Could it really have been his soul leaving his body and receiving divine protection?"

    If he possessed the true skill of alchemy, he would have ascended to heaven long ago!

    With tears in his eyes, after seven days at the temple, Chong Xiao saw Li Dongfu, the imperial eunuch, arrive personally. Smiling, Li Dongfu invited him, "Master, His Majesty requests your presence."

    Chong Xiao had never really tried to curry favor with this powerful eunuch before the emperor. Being close to someone so imperfect would only hinder his spiritual cultivation and arouse the emperor's suspicion. Now, however, he had no choice but to hand Li Dongfu a gold ingot while smiling. "Greetings, Chief Eunuch Li. How has His Majesty been feeling these past few days?"

    Li Dongfu pocketed the heavy gold ingot with a grin. "This old servant is simple-minded and doesn't understand much. But I can see that the Emperor has taken quite a liking to the 'Clearing Melody' performed by the music troupe. It truly sounds like a celestial tune from the Daoist realm, making one feel refreshed and at peace. The Emperor even enjoys writing those words when practicing calligraphy – 'Resounding Rarities Bring Harmony to All Sides, Calm Seas and Silent Mountains Swallow Smoke.' It sounds wonderful too – demons kept at bay, the soul floating weightlessly. Ah... truly, eternal bliss in the immortal realm."

    Chong Xiao felt a wave of darkness wash over him, wishing he could die on the spot. Instead, he donned a new set of Taoist robes, steeled himself, and, escorted by the guards, entered the palace with trepidation, his mind racing for a way to cope with the situation.

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