As Meng Fuyao was about to reach for her acupuncture point, she heard her ask, "You're Brother Meng, working under Sir Zong?"
"Eh?" Meng Fuyao uttered, looking herself up and down in shock. 'Is my disguise that bad?'
"I'm accustomed to identifying voices," explained Qiao Ling. "I can tell that you're deliberately lowering your voice," she added, sighing. "Brother Meng, I know you like me... but it's not possible between us."
In an instant Meng Fuyao felt her body, as well as the finger she had reached out, turn to stone.
'What is going on?'
"You're always visiting the kitchen and striking up conversations, and you often smile at me... I know these much..." Qiao Ling added regretfully, not looking at her. "I... do like you. If not for the general, I would've considered... but... please give up, Brother Meng."
'I drop by the kitchen to steal food when you're not looking.'
'I smile at everyone, not just you...'
It was a rough night for Meng Fuyao, and she had no words for Qiao Ling. She looked up and let out a prolonged sigh like a sorrowful servant would upon seeing his beloved marry another man.
Qiao Ling knitted her brows and raised her pitch a little, resolute and decisive. "It's my fortune to be able to marry him, Brother Meng. Don't stop me or I'll hate you."
"Oh Mother, hate me then..." Meng Fuyao mumbled under her breath, immediately shooting her palm out and deactivating Qiao Ling's acupuncture point. Amid the latter's panic-stricken face there seemed to be a tinge of hidden admiration in her eyes, which caused the former's heart to jump a little. Something was amiss.
Why wasn't she asleep at this time?
Why had she tied her hair up like that of a married woman?
And that raise in pitch...
Meng Fuyao sprung up into the air and made a 360 swallow flip, exiting the window in the blink of an eye.
"Where are you running?" A low growl rose from within the room. The door curtain was pulled aside, its brilliant stringed pearls unveiling like a waterfall before an invisible force pulled one tight to form a whip and flung it toward Meng Fuyao's back.
However, before the whip reached Meng Fuyao, Guo Pingrong had already appeared right behind her.
Even without turning her head Meng Fuyao reached for her whip and did the same, causing the pearls to break and scatter onto the ground.
As the pearls rolled about, some guards who had arrived immediately stumbled to the floor. "Watch me!" Meng Fuyao howled, full of hatred.
She no longer wanted to escape. She turned around to face Guo Pingrong, waving her fist and getting him excited. He had always been good at fist fights and naturally was more than happy to accept her challenge.
Yet, a few crow-black needles appeared from between her fingers.
Guo Pingrong immediately retracted his hands, but Meng Fuyao was a step faster. It was merely a feint; she hadn't planned to use those needles at all. Even before she kept her hand, she had already kicked her legs up, executing a somersault in midair before kicking a black object toward him.
"Take this bomb!" she laughed.
Upon seeing a black object whizzing by and hearing the word bomb, Guo Pingrong and his guards fled the scene.
Pu!--- the object landed, and a stench exploded, along with the splashing of black mud.
It was a fertilizer that Zong Yue used to cultivate Chinese knotweed and had been mixed in with some pungent herb. Meng Fuyao had hidden a small bag of it with the intention of pranking Lord Yuan Bao and hadn't expected it to come in handy that night.
"How do you like it? Help yourself!" Meng Fuyao shouted happily, flying over the eaves like a shooting star.
When Guo Pingrong was finally able to make chase, she was long gone.
As she was in a rush, Meng Fuyao did not notice two men dressed in black, almost camouflaged into the night, exchanging glances after she had left. Without a word, they left the residence as well.
Guo Pingrong fixed his gaze on the black mud, but his mind was occupied with images of the youth's slim waist and long legs. Lust flashed across his eyes.
There was a mountain named Green Pearl in the southwestern part of Zhongzhou. Possessing the same name as a beautiful concubine in ancient history, it was as dainty, exquisite, layered with fog, and surrounded by clear, jade waters.
There was a tiered platform on top of Green Pearl Mountain that resembled the hair of a beauty from far. Streams could be heard trickling down, along with the vigorous flapping of fishes. It was a fine scenery.
Lying on the platform with her legs propped up, Meng Fuyao chewed on a blade of grass, deep in thought. She hadn't returned to the residence since she fled the night before, in fear that Qiao Ling had exposed her identity as Servant Meng, which would get Zong Yue into trouble as well. Hence, she simply decided to catch some rest on the mountain.
Suddenly, the surrounding light dimmed. Someone had lied down beside her, in an even more relaxed posture, and when his back had reached the ground a familiarly fluffy ball crawled out to rest, in that exact same posture as well.
Just like that the three of them reclined in a neat row.
Meng Fuyao did not turn her head. Instead, she continued gazing at the drifting clouds, a twinkle forming in her eyes.
She was always having "chance encounters" with him at the least possible places.
By then, it was meaningless for her to point out the coincidence. It was obvious that he knew her whereabouts. If that was the game he wanted to play, she would join in.
Plus, she found herself enjoying his sudden appearances, especially since they hadn't met for a few days.
Lord Yuan Bao, on the other hand, had a not such a good expression on his face, which resembled a ball of yam. Of course, Meng Fuyao had never felt the need to take into account his opinions.
As a certain someone lied by her side, she noticed his lashes forming a graceful arc. He seemed a little pale and lethargic that day but exuded a charm similar to that of noble sons. Eyes half-closed, he fiddled with a visually unmatching twig.
Meng Fuyao smiled, waiting to see what he had up his sleeves, only to find him sitting up, facing her and away from the stream, and tossing the twig backward.
The next thing she knew, droplets flew everywhere, and silver light flickered. The twig had penetrated a fish, which was whipping about powerfully.
Meng Fuyao opened her eyes wide, her gaze alternating between the stream and him, as he tossed yet another twig and striking yet another fish. His movements were precise and speedy, quickly gathering a pile of flapping fishes on the ground.
It was a winter day, and the stream had frozen, so Yuan Zhaoxu had relied solely on his hearing. He was able to make out the fishes' trajectory and accurately fork them. Disregarding martial arts, such a keen sense of hearing and extreme level of accuracy were extremely rare.
"The thin-scaled fishes in Green Pearl Spring become juicier in winter. We're going to have a good meal today." The man turned to the fishes, only to see that Meng Fuyao had already beaten him to it, and was busy reaping the harvest.
She pulled her sleeves up before squatting down by the rocks. After some thought, she questioned, "Who was that shrieking lady from that night? There seems to be a serious feud between your crown prince and herself. Aren't you his reliable attendant? You should know something, shouldn't you?"
Yuan Zhaoxu sat leisurely on the withered grass. There wasn't any posture that could rob his grace away. Having heard her words he smiled, the corner of his eyes lighting up. "She's an imperial concubine."
"Ah?" Meng Fuyao uttered, raising her head.
"Concubine De is the eldest daughter of the king of Linjiang. Because he had plotted against King De, his whole family was punished. She was let off the hook since she was already his concubine. Nevertheless, the event had taken a toll on her mental health," Yuan Zhaoxu summarized.
"Why does she claim that your prince is a usurper and not pure-blooded?"
"There's a legend running within the imperial family," Yuan Zhaoxu started cooperatively. "The crown prince had gone missing for a period of time when he was young, and someone made up the rumor that the current crown prince isn't the real descendant but instead had been substituted."
"Ridiculous." Meng Fuyao snorted. "The old emperor isn't a dummy. Won't he be able to verify his own son's identity?"
"That's hard to say. Mortals are stupid and known to mess things up," Yuan Zhaoxu responded calmly. Seeing that she had sorted out the fishes, he retrieved a multi-colored and multi-pocketed cloth pouch from within his sleeves.
"What's that?" Meng Fuyao asked curiously, scooting so close that her lashes were almost brushing against his hand.
"Ah!" Meng Fuyao jumped away, glaring at him.
As if nothing had happened, Yuan Zhaoxu started extracting items from the pouch. A tiny white bottle came from the red pocket and a tiny black bottle from the green pocket. Within seconds, bottles of all colors had formed a pile. They were all very small and carved from crystals, and hence extremely precious.
Meng Fuyao had been trying to appear calm, but those bottles were too adorable that she had forgotten about his comment. Scuttling over once more, she asked, "What are these good stuff?"
She looked on as he proceeded to rub the substance within the bottles onto the fishes' bodies. She smelled them one by one: Salt, plum, wine, ginger juice, soy sauce, and vinegar.
Meng Fuyao stared, engrossed, at the extravagant way he roasted the fishes. She had forgotten about the fact that seasonings weren't as easily obtainable as in modern times, especially the last three items. Vinegar wasn't enjoyed by people of ordinary status, and pepper was a specialty product found only in Gaochang Nation, which was located in the western region. There weren't any plantations in the five regions, so the presence of all seven seasonings could only happen during a national feast. Yet, this man was casually sprinkling them all over the fishes, which he had so casually caught.