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The item was Wang Chong’s paper slip.
Wang Chong had been so furtive that even though the other eunuchs had been near them the entire time, they failed to spot it.
Gao Lishi had been holding this paper slip for a very long time, but he had hesitated to make a decision.
With a long sigh, Gao Lishi shook his wrist, obliterating the paper slip, letting its crumbs flow through the space between his fingers.
After a long while, Gao Lishi finally spoke into the darkness.
“Little Li, go to the King of Foreign Lands Residence for me.”
Some time later, in the King of Foreign Lands Residence, Wang Chong received Eunuch Gao’s reply and smiled.
Seventeen li outside the capital, at Spring Rain Lake, the Mountain Water Pavilion…
The vast surface of the lake was as smooth and clear as a mirror. Green lotus leaves studded the surface like stars, and the red flowers blooming from them and swaying in the wind were like elegant palace ladies.
As the gentle winds blew, the green lotuses bobbed on the surface, the red flowers dancing with them.
In the center of the lake, an ancient, gilded pavilion proudly stood.
The pavilion was connected to the shore by means of a long corridor that appeared like a dragon from a distance.
This was a famous scenic spot outside the capital. In another few months, during Buddha’s Birthday, this place would be packed with tourists. Countless tourists in the capital would take lotus lanterns and release them upstream, and these lanterns would eventually float down to Spring Rain Lake.
The sight of those tens of thousands of lanterns floating down to this lake was truly grandiose.
But as this season had yet to arrive, Spring Rain Lake was almost deserted.
Yet at this moment, the pavilion at the center of the lake was welcoming its two most important guests.
An ancient table carried a jar of yellow wine, two tea cups, and several small dishes. Wang Chong sat on one side of the table and smiled across at Eunuch Gao.
Gao Lishi was the eunuch director of the inner court and the Sage Emperor’s trusted aide. He could enjoy all the most rare and exotic foods in the world, so Wang Chong should have laid out for him a banquet of rare delicacies.
But Wang Chong knew that Eunuch Gao enjoyed the yellow rice wine and appetizers enjoyed by ordinary people.
When people of high status like Eunuch Gao were alone, they would often yearn for the life of an ordinary person.
As for Spring Rain Lake, when Eunuch Gao found himself with some rare free time, he liked to visit this place.
Surprisingly, Gao Lishi was a Buddhist, and each year, on the day of Buddha’s Birthday, he would leave the palace to preside over the lighting of the candles that took place here.
“It’s been oppressively tense in the Imperial Palace as of late. The Mountain Water Pavilion at Spring Rain Lake truly relaxes the mind.”
Gao Lishi closed his eyes, taking in the aroma of the lotuses and allowing the breeze to caress his face.
“Then Sir Eunuch should take a longer stroll around,” Wang Chong said.
Gao Lishi smiled and put this topic aside. He quickly turned to the jar of yellow wine on the table.
“King of Foreign Lands, thank you for your consideration!”
Gao Lishi smirked, and Wang Chong merely smiled in reply.
An influential figure like Gao Lishi would receive many gifts from high officials and nobles, all of them hoping that he would put in a good word with the Sage Emperor so that they could get a high position. Even if they couldn’t, getting acquainted with someone as influential as Gao Lishi was certain to have benefits in the future.
Gao Lishi was called the Maitreya Buddha of the Great Tang, and he never refused these gifts. But afterward, he would put them on a shelf and forget about them or turn them over to the Imperial Household Department.
As time passed and the officials learned what became of their gifts, they understood that Gao Lishi was an upright and incorruptible figure, so they stopped sending him gifts.
Very few people knew that Gao Lishi wasn’t someone who disliked gifts. It was just that those people had not given Gao Lishi any gifts he liked.
As Gao Lishi spoke, he took the wine jar and one of the small cups, and poured himself a cup. He brought the cup to his lips and took a long sip. His eyes squinted, and an intoxicated look appeared on his face, completely changing his demeanor.
It was as if it was not plain yellow wine in the cup, but nectar from the heavens.
“Good wine! Good food!”
After drinking the yellow wine, he used his chopsticks to take some braised beef. His expression was satisfied and content, not at all like the revered eunuch director of the inner court and more like a regular person.
Wang Chong could only mentally sigh at this sight. He had not imagined that the desires of the mighty Gao Lishi would be so simple.
After finishing off his cup, Gao Lishi turned to Wang Chong and got straight to the point.
“Your Highness, please speak. You should not have invited me today merely to treat me to some wine.”
“Sir Eunuch, forgive Wang Chong for being rude. Wang Chong truly does have a matter that he requires Sir Eunuch’s guidance on!”
Wang Chong’s smile faded and his face turned somber.
“Was it about your audience with the Sage Emperor yesterday?” Gao Lishi lightly said, but his eyes were not fixed on Wang Chong.
“Precisely! Forgive this Wang Chong’s foolishness, but this one still does not understand the Sage Emperor’s words from the game of chess during yesterday’s audience. Sir Eunuch, please clear up my confusion!” Wang Chong respectfully said.
The mind of a sovereign was difficult to fathom, and the Sage Emperor’s mind encompassed all of society. Only a scant few could guess at what he was thinking, but things were different for Eunuch Gao. He was perhaps the only one who could dispel the fog and explain the incidents in the palace, including yesterday’s chess match.
The eunuch director of the inner court who had served the Sage Emperor for decades was perhaps the only one who could answer all the questions on the minds of the officials.
After a long period of silence, Gao Lishi said, “What is it that you want to know?”
Wang Chong stared at Eunuch Gao and bluntly said, “Is the Sage Emperor the Sage Emperor?”
Gao Lishi deeply frowned at this question.
“Why would you ask a question like that?”
“Sir Eunuch, a person does not inexplicably change without reason. The officials developed an impression of the Sage Emperor long ago, and there can be only two explanations for such a major shift in behavior. The first is that they were stimulated by something, and the second… is that the appearance is the same, but not the person!”
Wang Chong stared at Eunuch Gao, taking in even the subtlest of movements.
The Eastern Palace incident, the Peace Pavilion affair, the selection of talented women, and even the Sage Emperor’s demand that Yang Zhao open up the imperial treasury had ceased to be secrets. In private, some people had even begun to wonder if the Sage Emperor was really the Sage Emperor.
But as these were treasonous conjectures, no one dared to say it out loud. Moreover, this was a minority view. However, in both this life and the last, these conjectures had existed.
Even as early as the Great Qin, there had been cases of someone pretending to be royalty, so who could say that it was not happening now?
“Well, King of Foreign Lands, what do you think?” Gao Lishi asked back as he stared at Wang Chong.
Wang Chong fell silent. He naturally did not believe it. Would a fake Sage Emperor be able to stop his True World ability, or still have the loyalty of the eternally faithful Eunuch Gao?
Eunuch Gao’s presence had been a crucial factor in the lingering unpopularity of the fake Sage Emperor theory.
“This one naturally does not believe!”
Wang Chong quickly broke out of his stupor and shook his head.
“But if the Sage Emperor was still the Sage Emperor, what is the reason for the major shift in behavior? Sir Eunuch, please enlighten me!”
Gao Lishi’s sharp eyes gradually turned soft and gentle. Glowing with wise and profound light, they flashed with countless inscrutable thoughts.
After a long silence, Eunuch Gao finally replied, “For this question, I also cannot answer you.”
Wang Chong found it hard to hide his disappointment over this undesired answer. If Eunuch Gao was not willing to speak, no one would be able to answer the question.
At this moment, Gao Lishi began to speak again.
“…Your Highness only needs to know that His Majesty is still His Majesty. Everything has its reason. This should be enough!” Eunuch Gao sternly said.
Wang Chong was taken aback, and then he let out a long breath.
Although Eunuch Gao had still not given a definite answer, to hear with his own ears that ‘His Majesty is still His Majesty’ was enough.
At the very least, this would calm the panicked officials!
But for Wang Chong, this explanation only made him more confused.
“If Sir Eunuch does not want to say, this one will not force you,” Wang Chong said after a brief pause. “But in the inner hall, His Majesty seemed to be implying something that Wang Chong still does not understand. Sir Eunuch, please enlighten me.”
Other than the incidents in the palace, Wang Chong’s concern was also on the Sage Emperor’s words during the chess match.
Wang Chong had been deeply uneasy ever since then. And if Gao Lishi was right and the Sage Emperor was still the Sage Emperor, those words were even more disconcerting.
“His Majesty is in the prime of his life, so what need is there to ask for my pledge? Moreover, even if the Sage Emperor’s reign comes to an end, there is the Crown Prince of the Eastern Palace and all the officials to protect the people. For what reason did His Majesty ask Wang Chong alone about this matter? In addition…”
Wang Chong paused, and then he took out the double fish jade pendant and placed it on the table.
“The Sage Emperor gifted me this jade pendant and said that when the time came, the pendant would give me all the answers. What time is the Sage Emperor referring to? What is this jade pendant? I’ve gone through all my books, but I’ve found no record of this jade pendant!”
Starting from yesterday, Wang Chong had mobilized a great deal of his resources, including Lu Ting and the great clans he was closest with, to scour the records, but they had not found any records on this double fish jade pendant.
The pavilion seemed to grow much quieter. Outside, the lotuses swayed as a gentle breeze blew across the lake.
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