In the gloomy jail, the morning dew fell slowly in a rhythm known only to itself. A grizzled old man, shackled with 5th grade spiritual weapons, closed his eyes and hummed a tune, blending with the fall of water; not like any prisoner should act.
The jail door creaked open and the old man froze, looking at his visitor.
A man in a golden gown walked in.
“Ha-ha-ha, my dear Prime Minister Zhuge, how do you like your new home?” The emperor put on a winning smile.
Zhuge Changfeng chuckled, carefree, “Thank you, Your Majesty, for your consideration. I have been very well. There’s no court politics to mind, no insidious plot in the shadows, letting me find a peace long forgotten.”
“Ha-ha-ha, you’ve failed at every corner yet still find amusement in everything. I am impressed by your strong mind.” The emperor mocked.
Zhuge Changfeng shook his head, “A loss is a loss and no amount of anguish will change that. It’s better to enjoy the newfound peace. Oh, it can’t be that Your Majesty has come to take it away from me, no?”
“Not at all. Although your death is necessary so as not to leave such a dangerous element to my son after my passing and even though I will be the one to take your life, it won’t be now. We’ve been close for a hundred years now, some might even call it friendship, understanding each other to a fault. Letting you die now will make me feel lonely.”
Zhuge Changfeng snickered, “Your Majesty, is that what you call friendship, biting each other for decades? Friendship had been a delusion of mine in my younger days, but in time I knew Your Majesty is no friend. A ruler walks a solitary path, bereft of friends and filled with schemes.”
The emperor fell silent from solitude, “Yes, the lands are more important than everything. I am the emperor of this nation so how can I make friends with commoners? Even so, I once imagined this. In the times we worked together, I treated you as my confidant.”
“Yet you still raised your hand at me.”
Zhuge Changfeng gazed at the black and damp jail roof, “Do you recall Prime Minister Yang? I was only a small official then, but grew to my position by Your Majesty’s grace. You said Prime Minister Yang was a vile man in control of the court. You asked me for my cooperation in getting rid of such a traitor, to take his place for the good of Tianyu. “
“Yes, he was a man with a black heart, itching to revolt!” The emperor said.
Zhuge Changfeng shook his head, “I used to think so too and for that, I had him arrested through the evidence Your Majesty brought forward. But when I barged into his home with righteous might, he said to be wary of you and committed suicide. I was baffled, taking it as nothing but a traitor’s poisonous vilification.
“But after the first ten years of my tenure, with dedication and passion, the same thing happened. Your Majesty found another official and enticed him to strike me by appealing to his willingness to serve you. I just couldn’t understand why. So I bore in silence, unmoving against any of your taunts and challenges, while also looking into Prime Minister Yang. I learned to my shock that he was the previous ruler’s man, loyal and true, yet forced by Your Majesty to revolt. His final words now made sense. A ruler’s mind has no limits.”
“A prime minister has power over everyone. But not even I can touch him without reason in fear of public outrage and the other officials’ terror. I can only have him removed.”
The emperor said, “But Prime Minister Zhuge is far wiser. I’ve thought of countless excuses over the years yet nothing reached you, having a counter for every replacement. I knew then that Yun Xuanji’s prediction was true. The head of Four Pillars is you. With your power, you intimidated the seven houses, bringing balance outside and inside of the court.”
Zhuge Changfeng shook his head, “Everything is still in Your Majesty’s control, I see. Although I had a feeling, I figured as long as I took proper measures, I’d escape it. I never thought… Your Majesty, everyone calls me the greatest mind in Tianyu. But to me, Your Majesty has no equal, far beyond my meager calculations.”
“Prime Minister, don’t be modest now. I’m but a senile old ruler. You brought the Quanrong army into Tianyu without my notice. You had me cornered with them and I had no choice but to secede a tenth of our lands to make them withdraw. I shall have this shame for as long as I live. I have failed my people and my ancestors.”
The emperor sighed even as he smiled.
Zhuge Changfeng shook his head, “I see, the one who’ll take the blame for selling his country is me in the end. Your Majesty’s calculations run deep, playing the century-old senile with such willpower has opened my eyes.
“Selling my country, one more crime to add to my never-ending list. It wouldn’t matter even if I go down as the worst criminal in history. Though there is just one thing I would ask Your Majesty if you would be kind enough to enlighten me.”
“Go ahead.” The emperor urged.
Zhuge Changfeng spoke, “When I met the twin saints, they were just scholars. How did Your Majesty place them in my sights?”
“Ha-ha-ha, you’ll have Yun Xuanji to thank for that.”
Grinning, the emperor spoke full of himself, “Just as how you and Dugu Zhantian came to office by High Priest’s recommendation. Even before he declared it to the public, he had told me you two will emerge, becoming Tianyu’s blessing. But I had him delay his announcement to first see your characters.”
“It’s how I found Dugu Zhantian to be a military man, yet bogged down by honor and easy to control. And you, Zhuge Changfeng, foolish in your younger years yet had uncanny perception and a sharp wit. You’re meant to be a shrewd old fox. For any eventuality, I had the ever hiding twin saints fake their wounds for you to save them and remain as your trusted aides.
“To not raise your suspicion, each time you took an exam I had the proctor fail you even though you didn’t. You were barred entry into court for three years, stopping you from finding anything pointing to the Heaven and Earth Twin Saints as my aides were sent to watch over you. And when you lost hope, I had Yun Xuanji recommend you.”
With everything unraveled, Zhuge Changfeng took a deep breath and shook his head, “I had been dancing to Your Majesty’s tune from the start. Fighting you for so many years was an arrogance of mine.”
“Prime Minister, you’ve done quite well, or my plan of rooting out all powers from Tianyu wouldn’t have gone so smoothly, ha-ha-ha…” The emperor felt the world was his oyster.
A man came in to report, “Your Majesty, there’s an urgent report!”
Zhuge Changfeng raised an eyebrow, “Y-you’re Hell Valley’s You Ming. I saw you by the second prince’s side. How…”
“Prime Minister Zhuge, I don’t see the harm in telling you. Second prince’s rebellion was incited by me. A father knows his sons best, they say. With his rash behavior, just a nudge was enough to spur him on.” The emperor taunted, “The next prime minister is also decided, You Ming.”
“I am humbled by Your Majesty’s grace!” You Ming bowed on cue.
Zhuge Changfeng sighed, “Your Majesty used his rebellion to force my hand. You used your own son, made him a rebel to the throne, just to get to me. Your Majesty’s mind truly is boundless. They say no parent is cruel to his children, but you, Your Majesty, are by far the worst.”
“Isn’t it all your fault for being so cautious? I had everyone leave my side yet you still didn’t act. The only chance I have to get rid of you is if you strike first.” The emperor snorted at his jab.
You Ming presented a jade slip.
Zhuge Changfeng said, “Your Majesty, I am now blinded, down here in the dark. May I ask that you share information from the outside with this poor old official?”
The emperor eyed him and snorted, “You’re in prison for life, so it won’t change a thing. Fine, You Ming present the report to me and Prime Minister Zhuge’s ears. What good news is it, I wonder. Must be Dugu Army’s demise, ha-ha-ha…”
The emperor cackled as Zhuge Changfeng sat there peacefully, though his ears were twitching.
You Ming looked into the jade and widened his eyes, showing hesitation, “Your Majesty, Luo clan observed how the Quanrong army has invaded Tianyu’s every corner and being loyal to the crown, is drafting men to purge the outsiders. They are now close to a million.”
The emperor choked, coughing.
Zhuge Changfeng laughed, “That’s the Zhuo Fan I know. Well done! Your Majesty, I can say for sure you were asking for it.”
The emperor glared.
[Zhuo Fan, this rotten upstart, has the cheek to play with me? Absurd…]