Chapter 418: The Gathering of Dragons!
Translated by: Hypersheep325
Edited by: Michyrr
When Wang Chong was leaving the practice ground, deep within the palace, the Fifth Prince, Li Heng, was pacing around, his head lowered and his heart full of worries.
In front of him was a threshold that was not even a foot high. Yet this threshold was like a high and invisible wall, solid and thick. With a pressure that made it hard to breathe, it stood in front of Li Heng.
Everything was quiet, but Li Heng felt cold sweat on his brow and an indescribable anxiety in his mind.
More than two hours had passed since the audiences of the wei1 period had concluded, but Li Heng had still not received a summons.
Li Heng knew that his destiny rested entirely on that small threshold.
Suddenly, the door opened, and a sharp voice came from deep within the hall.
"Report, Fifth Prince Li Heng is to present himself!"
Bzzt! Like a heavy hammer had struck his heart, Li Heng began to quiver all over as he instantly broke out of his stupor. The long-awaited summons was finally here.
Li Heng took a deep breath, steadied his mind, tidied his clothes, and then raised his feet and nervously crossed the threshold.
The sounds of his feet falling seemed as heavy as mountains in Li Heng's ears.
The hall extended so far that it seemed to have no end. Li Heng felt an icy cold under his feet. Other than solemn-faced palace guards, each of them five zhang tall, there was no one else on the path.
It was so quiet that one could hear a pin drop.
After some time, though it seemed like both an instant and countless epochs, when Li Heng felt like he could walk no further, the world before his eyes suddenly opened and a dazzling bright light shone in front of him.
At the same moment came that boundless, esteemed, and divine energy, as unfathomable and massive as the heavens and earth.
This energy caused the pressure on Li Heng's body to increase by more than a thousand times.
"This son, your servant, pays respects to Imperial Father!"
Li Heng crossed the threshold. Not daring to raise his head, he kneeled on the ground, respectful and trembling in fear. Even though he was twenty years old, the godlike figure seated in the upper reaches of the hall still inspired just as much as respect in him as it had when he was a child, perhaps even more.
The torches flickered, but the figure seated high above did not move.
And below that figure, Li Heng felt energies both extremely weak and extremely powerful.
These were the princes of the palace. It was obvious that he was far from the only person who had been summoned here today.
The great hall was absolutely quiet. Cold and cruel gazes came in from all sides to fall on the main door, at the kneeling figure of Li Heng.
There was no such thing as familial love in the imperial clan!
Not even the wisest of sage kings or the most incompetent of tyrants could change this iron law. So it had been for dynasty after dynasty, generation after generation!
Li Heng could not feel the slightest bit of warmth in the palace, only the deepest chill.
After some time, a majestic voice resounded from the upper reaches of the hall.
Still trembling in fear, Li Heng stood up, but he still did not dare to raise his head. Following the usual regulations, he walked with head lowered to the very end of the hall.
Although he was the esteemed Fifth Prince, Li Heng had the least backing amongst the princes, and he was also the weakest. Thus, when being ranked, he always stood at the very end.
The other princes had never cared about his status as the Fifth Prince, nor had the Sage Emperor.
To Li Heng's surprise, after he took his place, the Sage Emperor did not immediately begin to question. He seemed to be forgotten.
The other princes all began to look away, and the atmosphere suddenly seemed to move again, turning back to normal.
Li Heng was like a ball of air, standing at the end of the line with no one paying attention to him.
A massive energy like a towering mountain stood in the place closest to his imperial father. Although it was like the luster of a gem before the bright rays of the sun, to the rest of the princes, it was inconceivably strong.
Li Heng knew that this was the energy of the First Prince.
No matter how they were ranked, the First Prince, as the future heir, was always standing closest to his imperial father, right beneath his feet. No one could ever change this.
In every audience, his imperial father would always question the First Prince on the politics of the court, renovations for the army, cultivation on the martial path, the lives of the common folk, and many other questions in every possible aspect.
Each meeting was a test. It wasn't just the First Prince, but every other prince that was subjected to this test. As each person took on their imperial father's test, they would also be displaying their talents.
There was none of the comfort and warmth found between the fathers and sons of the common people in the imperial clan. This was the reason Li Heng avoided the Imperial Palace.
The politics of court, foreign relations, irrigation of farmland… Li Heng understood not one thing that came from the mouths of the other princes.
It wasn't that his knowledge was too shallow, but that he had never had any sort of resources. He had never even had a tutor to teach him.
Li Heng did not dare to hate or complain. As he usually did, he stood at his place, his head lowered, trembling in fear as he obediently did nothing.
The First Prince, the Second Prince, the Third Prince, the Fourth Prince… and then it was the Sixth Prince, the Seventh Prince—all the princes stepped forth to receive the Sage Emperor's test.
And when it was finally his turn—
"Very well, let's end things here for today!"
In the upper reaches of the hall, that majestic and grandiose figure suddenly waved its hands.
Just like that, Li Heng had been callously passed over. A strain of irrepressible disappointment flashed through his eyes. Though disappointed, he also felt rather fortunate, but he quickly regained his composure.
This sort of thing had already happened many times in the palace.
"…Today is a gathering of a father and his sons, so there's no need to talk too much of politics. Come, send out the dancers and music! We feast!"
This order seemed to open the floodgates. The side doors of the hall opened and countless beaming maids and eunuchs filed in, carrying plates of fruit, tables and chairs, wine pots, and incense.
In just a moment, a table and chairs of ancient style had been arranged before the princes, and atop the table were fruits, cakes, drinks, and fine foods.
Once all the princes were seated, bong! With the ringing of bells, the music started, and several gorgeous palace maids dressed in white filed in, seeming like fairies from beyond the clouds.
Just when the palace maids were prepared to walk into the center of the hall and perform a dance, a voice suddenly interrupted the music.
"Imperial Father, this soft palace music detracts from the iron-blooded style of my Great Tang. This lowly son of yours has heard that Fifth Brother has prepared a sword dance to perform before Imperial Father so as to entertain his brothers. I hope that Imperial Father allows it. Fifth Brother, don't you think so?"
The Third Prince suddenly got up from his seat. After finishing his words to the upper reaches of the hall, he suddenly twisted his head to turn to Li Heng, his eyes shining with icy and aggressive light.
For a moment, time seemed to stop. The sounds of music, dancing, talking, airflow, and eating… all vanished.
The originally relaxed atmosphere instantly grew taut, brimming with the silent odor of swords and sabers in the darkness.
All the maids and eunuchs almost immediately lowered their heads, fear in their eyes. The other princes, on the other hand, began to laugh as they turned to face Li Heng seated at the end of the table.
Even the First Prince, seated at the front of the table, though not full of ridicule as the other princes, still put down his chopsticks and turned to look.
The entire hall had become so quiet that one could hear a pin drop.
Li Heng felt that invisible pressure tightly closing around him, so powerful that he almost couldn't breathe. His complexion instantly changed.
He had originally believed that he had escaped this disaster. Unexpectedly, his third brother refused to let him go. That he had not made trouble at the beginning wasn't because he hadn't paid him any mind. He had just left the opportunity so that he could use it now.
The sneers, the laughs, the malicious satisfaction, and the hostile gazes made Li Heng suddenly begin to sweat.
He had never experienced these things before.
It was his first time being the center of attention, but it was never something he had wanted.
Third Brother really isn't willing to let me go! Li Heng said to himself. He had never even learned how to sword dance and had no idea how to start. The other princes had also never done such a thing.
Li Heng knew that the Third Prince had done this on purpose.
"Your Highness, you must remember that in the palace, the more you say, the more mistakes you can make, and the less you say, the fewer mistakes. This is the lesson this old slave has learned from his decades of experience. Your Highness, you must remember this."
Mysteriously, the words Li Jingzhong had said to him before he entered the palace rang in his ear.
They weren't sure of what would happen once he entered the palace, and Li Jingzhong could not enter, so he had given Li Heng this last word of advice.
"Imperial Father, I…"
Li Heng was just planning to refuse when he suddenly heard the voice of the Third Prince.
"Hmph, Fifth Brother, what's wrong? Why are you hesitating in front of Imperial Father? Do you want to take back your words? Are you suddenly unwilling?"
The voice was cold and suffused with jeers. It seemed to have already seen through him.
"Third Brother, you—"
Li Heng stood up, but just when he was about to speak, an ancient mountain seemed to press down on him. Li Heng suddenly felt a majestic, grand, and awe-inspiring gaze descending upon him.
Li Heng's heart trembled as he immediately swallowed back his words. Yet right when he was about to say something else, he once more heard the Sage Emperor's calm and indifferent voice.
"Enough. Lin-er, do not make trouble for your fifth brother!"
Blood suddenly rushed into Li Heng's head. This was not his first time being overlooked, but this time, Li Heng suddenly found it impossible to bear. Suddenly, the words Wang Chong had said to him in Kunwu Training Camp floated up in his mind.
"Your Highness, how can one catch a tiger cub without entering the tiger cave? You have nowhere to retreat. If you want to change your current situation, change His Majesty's attitude to you, you have to be extremely proactive and courageous.
"When you enter the palace this time, the Third Prince and the others will definitely think of every way to make trouble for you. In normal circumstances, you would definitely shrink back. So, no matter what, you have to do the exact opposite. You have to take the initiative and show yourself in front of His Majesty. This audience is your best chance, no matter what your chances of success are. Only by confronting mortal danger can one grow. If you want to gain His Majesty's favor and regard, I'm afraid that this is your last chance!"
Blood continued to rush into Li Heng's head. He could endure the ridicule, cruelty, indifference, assaults, and assassinations from the other princes, but the only thing he couldn't endure was the indifferent gaze of his most respected and beloved imperial father.
"Imperial Father, I'm ready! This lowly son has prepared a sword dance to offer to Imperial Father!"
These words were so resounding that they echoed throughout the entire hall.
Li Heng kneeled on the ground, his body trembling, but his voice incomparably firm.
For a moment, the hall was still. All the princes were dumbstruck, and even the gaze of the Sage Emperor seated high above slackened for a moment. He turned his head and looked down at Li Heng below.
It was just one indifferently spoken word, but it stirred countless ripples in Li Heng's heart!
1. The wei period is the time between 1pm and 3pm.↩