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    Chapter 77: Tainted Hearts

    The lotus flowers in the Baohe Palace were of the thousand-petaled variety, imported from the White Horse Temple in the south. They had blossomed like flames the previous summer. But now, in winter, the pond was filled with withered lotus leaves, exuding a melancholic yet serene charm.

    "Observe the purity of the lotus, and you'll understand the untainted heart." Yuan Jun strolled slowly across the Nine-Curves Bridge, calm and composed. A faint smile graced his lips. The moment he met the renowned ventriloquist, Master Wuwang, he knew that his father had fallen into the trap he meticulously set.

    After days of meticulous planning, he finally reaped the rewards, but now found no one to share it with. He could write it down in a journal, but he didn't know when the young palace official would switch souls with him again. After all, he had resolved not to switch freely – was she currently speaking with Zheng Tanhua?

    Would she agree to marry Zheng Tanhua?

    In this instant, Yuan Jun felt a tinge of loneliness and wistfulness. Rong Bi was about to be married, his sister was already wed, and he would continue on this path alone. Power's pinnacle didn't seem as alluring as before.

    The Buddhist and Taoist scriptures he had been studying diligently lately seemed to leap out at him. If he truly embraced asceticism and distanced himself from the world, wouldn't that be a good thing?

    "One who speaks not of worldly affairs is one without worldly concerns."

    Buddhist teachings claim that all phenomena are empty, while Taoism asserts that the way is nothingness. He suddenly felt a sense of confusion towards the hatred and obsession he had clung to. What was the point of his relentless pursuit? Was there any difference between him and his father?


    "The crown prince is the heir apparent. If everything is emptiness, how can I entrust the realm to you? This would not bring blessings to the nation and its people." Yuan Zixu lowered his head, asking Master Wuwang.

    Master Wuwang smiled slightly, his withered features revealing a tranquil twinkle in his eyes: "Your Majesty already holds the answer in your heart, why inquire of this old monk? Wealth and status on earth, as well as immortality, all have their causes and consequences."

    Yuan Zixu felt a subtle stir in his heart as he probed Wuwang further, "There was a fortune-teller who, unaware of my identity, foretold that my destiny clashes with that of the Crown Prince."

    Unwarranted shock washed over his face, his eyes suddenly glowing with an astonishing intensity. He abruptly rose to his feet and bowed deeply, "Your Majesty, I humbly request that you bestow the Crown Prince upon the Buddhist faith as a monk. In doing so, peace shall reign in this world."

    Yuan Zixu gazed intently at Wuwang, "Master, you came today merely to engage in wordplay with me, withholding any hint of divine insight. Yet now, you openly advise the Crown Prince to embrace Buddhism. Is this to save him?" The Emperor's voice brimmed with murderous intent, like an impending thunderbolt, concealed yet ready to strike.

    Wu Wang spoke frankly, "Your Majesty, fate is not constant, and all things have cause and effect. The seed of cause has been sown, the fruit of effect will inevitably grow. The Crown Prince is destined to build a mighty and illustrious career, and the heavens will repay him with divine blessings. The destiny of the royal family is intertwined with the fates of the common people. It would be wise for Your Majesty to go with the flow, bestowing the prince with entry into the Buddhist order, and in doing so, you could also pray for your own peace and prosperity."

    Yuan Zixu sneered coldly. "Master means that the Crown Prince was originally destined to be the heir, but because I, out of fear of his fate overpowering mine, interfered, it led to a change in his destiny. Heaven compensated him in another way, perhaps... with a connection to the divine? It could even be that this divine connection was originally mine, and this is karma coming back to me?"

    Abbot Wuwang remained silent.

    Yuan Zixu laughed sarcastically. "You old monks only care about saving the Crown Prince, spouting karma and retribution without hesitation. The Crown Prince has not earned a single merit, I ask you, where does he get such great blessings from? Are you suggesting it's due to past-life connections?"

    Wuwang closed his eyes and chanted a long Buddhist prayer. "Your Majesty possesses a thousand insights upon hearing once. The Crown Prince is innocent, I implore Your Majesty to reconsider your actions." Wuwang's withered face regained its calm, like a dry tree, as if he had let go of all four elements, or was ready to face death without fear.

    Suddenly, Yuan Zixu felt a sense of boredom. He rose and swept his sleeves, retreating indoors. Soon, Li Dongfu emerged to escort Master Wuwang out of the palace.

    The following day, Yuan Zixu unexpectedly requested that Master Wuwang be summoned to the palace. However, the temple replied that Master Wuwang had, the previous night, studied the celestial patterns and gained enlightenment. He had left the capital to wander the world, seeking Zen through ascetic practices.

    Yuan Zixu reluctantly relented, but only Li Dongfu, the one tasked with delivering the imperial edict, knew of the deadly poison concealed upon him. After a night had passed, the Emperor's murderous intent could no longer be contained. As expected, Venerable Wuwang was a sage monk; aware that the Emperor would eventually order his death once he regained his senses, he promptly left the capital upon exiting the palace.

    Yuan Zixu's murderous intent wasn't intense enough to warrant a relentless pursuit across thousands of miles, thus sparing the person's life.

    Feeling somewhat disinterested, he rose and went to the Heavenly Unity Temple, hoping to see Daoist Priest Chong Xiao's alchemical refinement process.

    The news of the Emperor summoning Master Wuwang to the palace had long spread throughout the imperial court and beyond, and Chong Xiao was naturally aware of it. Confined within the palace to refine elixirs, he felt immense pressure. He had also heard that the Buddhist sect was vying for the position of the Crown Prince, even sending precious lotus seeds to the palace despite his imprisonment. Now that the Crown Prince had seemingly encountered a miraculous event, though its authenticity was uncertain, the Emperor seemed to have believed it. Considering that his own alchemy endeavors had yet to yield results, Chong Xiao wondered if the Emperor was beginning to lean towards Buddhism, seeking answers from monks, indicating a potential abandonment of Taoism.

    The contest between Buddhism and Taoism sees one rise as the other falls. Talk of the shared roots of the three religions is merely a means to seek balance in the secular world. The struggle for a vast following remains the relentless pursuit of all proselytizers, while the favor of the emperor is sought by all sects. The rise and fall of both Buddhism and Taoism are ultimately intertwined with the emperor's love, hatred, and personal relationships.

    This was a silent, life-or-death conflict for the survival of their respective sects, and now it was a matter of his own existence.

    If he couldn't concoct that so-called soul-separating medicine for the crown prince, not only would his life be in jeopardy, he would likely face brutal punishment.

    Despite his usual quick thinking, Chong Xiao was flustered at the news of Venerable Wuwang's entrance into the palace. Gazing at the alchemy furnace about to be ignited, he fingered the vial in his sleeve and steeled himself. It was better, he gritted his teeth, to let an old man like him take the lead rather than let those bald monks reap the benefits. After all, it was the emperor who had pushed him to this point.

    With his resolve made, the task proved surprisingly easy. He knew that in Taoist alchemy, there were thousands of herbs on those pill shelves, and among them were substances like toad venom, mandrake juice, and opium water, which could induce hallucinations when consumed. However, his ancestor had strictly forbidden him from creating such a pill and made him swear never to ingest it himself. Nevertheless, he had been taught a secret method, to be kept confidential and used only in the direst of emergencies.

    This was the crucial moment; Chong Xiao gradually calmed his heart and made up his mind.

    When Yuan Zixu arrived at the Heavenly One Temple, Chong Xiao was sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed, muttering incantations. Steam rose from the purple-gold furnace, and its magnificent lid had been lifted. Young attendants fanned palm-leaf fans, causing pure white vapor to rise, filling the entire alchemy hall with an exotic fragrance.

    Yuan Zixu sensed that the scent was different from before; it stirred his spirit, invigorating him. A glimmer of hope emerged in his heart as he looked towards Chong Xiao.

    Chong Xiao opened his eyes, his gaze radiant. He abruptly stood up and focused on the furnace. With a joyful expression, he exclaimed, "Your Majesty! The elixir is complete!"

    Amidst the swirling white mist, thin trails of blue smoke rose densely, reaching towards the sky like a floating pagoda, as if divine presence was descending upon the altar. Two bright red pills spun around in the purple-gold basin, their aroma piercing straight through the crown of one's head.


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