ad fallen asleep.

The next morning, Han Ruzi finally got to see Meng E’s true appearance.
She looked like she was around twenty, her stature significantly taller than that of the thirteen year old Emperor.
She was not ugly, but would definitely not be called beautiful.
She had a dull expression, no different from any others in the palace.
Han Ruzi could not even remember when it was that she started attending to him.

The young Emperor was not discouraged by his initial lack of success.
Instead, he avowed to pay more attention to everyone within his “ten-step radius”.
But he had to avoid the mistakes he made when writing the “secret edict” and not incriminate anyone.

He soon discovered that the eunuchs and servant-girls around him were not all the same.
Behind the same dull expressions, everyone had their own hidden, private thoughts: The old eunuch in charge of his headwear occasionally spied at the servant-girl carrying his robes, who in turn was secretly paying attention to the one holding the case of accessories… Meng E seemed to be on the top of this “spying chain”: she kept an eye on all others but no one dared to look at her.

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Yang Feng never participated in these little games.
He waited outside, looking at no one, and when the time came he escorted the Emperor to pay his respects to the Empress Dowager, and then to participate in the rehearsal.
He never left the Emperor’s side.

At first, Han Ruzi thought that the people around him were hostile to one another.
It was only when he was on his way to meeting the Ministry officials that he suddenly realized that the eunuchs and servant-girls were answering to different people, and therefore were weary of each other.

The Minister of Rites and Decorum did not appear.
Instead, a Vice Minister took his place.
He maintained a distance from the Emperor and did his best to avoid speaking.

The afternoon’s fast proceeded normally, though.
Yang Feng did not kneel at the door but he guarded the door from the outside, not entering the quiet chamber and leaving the Emperor and Prince Donghai undisturbed.

Prince Donghai was surprised by this.
He waited for more than two hours before speaking.
“How strange that nobody is watching us.”

Han Ruzi did not make a sound, nor did he turn his head.

Prince Donghai coughed twice before saying what was on his mind.
“It was not me who revealed the secret.
You were not careful enough, so your tracks were revealed.
But you were quite cunning.
‘I want to eat meat’ — you were trying to test whether the Minister of Rites is worth trusting right? Mm, very cautious.
But overly so.”

Han Ruzi’s little bit of trust towards Prince Donghai had long disappeared.
But this person was within his ten-step radius so he did not want to engender conflict.
Thus, he said, “In any event, the matter cannot be done.”

“If you had been bolder, the Minister of Rites might have been able to take action yesterday.
But because you wrote ‘I want to eat meat’, the senior officials would not treat it seriously.
You must be willing to take risks to accomplish things.
You would never be able to stand out like this.”

“I never wanted to ‘stand out’.
My situation is no worse than it was before.”

“In your situation now, you may lose your head at anytime!” Prince Donghai found the Emperor’s steadiness unbelievable.
But thinking that his earlier threats had never had an effect on his brother, he let the matter go.
“I know what you mean.
You and your mother…  truly suffered in the past.
No Princely title, no Teacher, even worse off than an ordinary member of the Imperial Clan.
From what I can tell, the Empress Dowager must hate you and your mother.
She is not even willing to see you.”

“You have seen the Empress Dowager before?”

“In the past.
She is not a simple person…” Prince Donghai lowered his tone even further.
“As long as she was around, Lord Father’s gaze would never look at anyone else.
I’ve heard that she knows… voodoo.”

When mentioning “voodoo”, Prince Donghai managed to scare himself.
He quickly went to kneel properly and muttered, “For all we know, she may be able to hear everything we say here.
Or she might have hurt herself practicing voodoo so she is hiding and refusing to see anyone.”

Han Ruzi did not believe in voodoo.
He turned and looked at Prince Donghai.
He was quite puzzled.
“Why did the Empress Dowager order you to attend to me, and even let us interact alone?”

“To humiliate me and the Cui clan, I suppose.” Prince Donghai said in indignation, not bothering to hide his anger towards the Empress Dowager or his desire for the throne.

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Han Ruzi did not think so, and he even suspected that Prince Donghai was playing the fool.
At least if he were Prince Donghai, he would not be in a hurry at all.
Since the Cui clan was a powerful clan, they would not submit to the Empress Dowager easily.
Prince Donghai still had his chances.

“We must still think of a way to oppose the Empress Dowager.
This time, the message should be sent to the Cui clan.” Prince Donghai could not guess at the Emperor’s thoughts, and excitedly suggested a new plan.

“No,” Han Ruzi flatly refused.
“I don’t want to oppose anyone, least of all the Empress Dowager.
Even if I am not to have the throne for long, it is still my best chance for survival.”

Han Ruzi turned back around.
Prince Donghai looked at him in complete shock, and after awhile, displayed an expression of extreme fury.

Dinner for the day included an extra dish that when eaten felt like meat.
Han Ruzi was very surprised — the vegetarian fast was still on-going so he should not be eating meat.
Only after chewing for a while did he realize that it was mushrooms.
It seemed like his complaining had some use after all.

After the meal, Han Ruzi used every chance he had to strike a conversation with the eunuchs or servant-girls around him, to very little effect.
They were confused by the Emperor’s sudden change in personality, and soon became very suspicious and did their best not to answer.
When they had no choice but to speak, they would consider their words carefully, as though they were not speaking to the Emperor but passing along a message to someone who was not even present.

What they felt from the Emperor was not warmth, but pressure.

Yang Feng came and went.
He heard some of the conversations.
He did not object, nor did he make any suggestions.
He was like a distracted shepherd, occasionally checking whether the herd was still grazing in place, and then he went along with his own business.

The entire day went by and Han Ruzi was exhausted.
All he had gotten was a few words in response.
His ten-step radius still remained a desolate wasteland.

In the night, as he lay on his bed, Han Ruzi thought about what he had undergone during the day.
He realized that he had not gained nothing for his efforts.
At least he discovered one thing: the Empress Dowager’s faction was not the only one in the Imperial Palace.
By his side, there were other forces simmering below the surface.

But this was of no help to the current Emperor.
He could not even assert control over his ten-step radius, let alone find any “time or condition” that was beneficial to him.
But just before he fell asleep, a small event gave Han Ruzi some confidence.

When he was nearly asleep, Meng E’s voice suddenly sounded.
“I have asked.
Those two were sent for treatment.
They will not die.”

Han Ruzi’s drowsiness disappeared immediately.
He was concerned about the two eunuchs, but not to the extent of constant worry.
He was happy because someone was finally willing to answer his questions directly.
The desolation of his ten-step radius finally had a breath of life.

[1] One li is roughly equivalent to half a kilometer, or a third of a mile.

[2] The ‘E’ in Meng E is pronounced like “er” without the ‘r’ sound.

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