Trapped in the blood-reeking space, Guo Pingrong shuddered involuntarily at the thought that his glorious and brilliant life had come to an official end. A beautiful, firework-filled dream had in an instant been crushed.
"Your Highness...I need revenge..."
Through the glossy layer of blood on the ground a reflection of a faint purple robe could be seen, its corner swaying before Guo Pingrong's eyes. Hopeful, Guo Pingrong looked up at his venerable crown prince.
A familiar pair of eyes - breeze-like, deep but perpetually smiling - greeted him, but the feeling it evoked in him was completely foreign. The way he looked down at Guo Pingrong was no different from how a wyvern would, from the highest of heavens, at a mere mortal who had dared intrude upon his territory.
It was distant, compelling, cold and deadly.
Guo Pingrong's desperate call for revenge had instantly cracked within his throat, and his body started shaking uncontrollably.
In front of him, Zhangsun Wuji bent down and squatted in the pool of blood. There seemed to be flames burning beneath the eyes that were fixated on the hot blood.
"You've done wrong, Pingrong," he stated dully.
Guo Pingrong jolted his head, not understanding why His Highness had said that. Also, why hadn't he called for the physician?
"You're wrong for being conceited. You were born into the lowest rung of society and have suffered too much in the beginning, to the point where you have lost control of your temper and become petty and narrow-minded. You spent a night traveling over a hundred kilometers to wipe out the family, whose member had once spat on you. You ordered men to gang r*pe your aunt, only because she hadn't thrown you a single compassionate glance. You drunk-stabbed a man who had accidentally bumped into you in a small alley, and even killed his innocent and good-willed friend."
Guo Pingrong listened as the crown prince listed his doings, which he hadn't expected to ever be divulged. His whole body was trembling as he looked up at those unfathomable eyes. Why was he bringing these up, and why hadn't he mentioned anything about them thus far?
"I need Generals, not Saints." Zhangsun Wuji emphasized, and upon seeing the doubt in Guo Pingrong's face, he continued, "Generals need no virtues. They just have to be good killers and brave warriors. As long as you're able to guard the 18 restless tribes in the southern border and work hard to build up Wuji Nation, I have no reason to get involved in your personal matters. They have nothing to do with my court."
Hands behind his back, Zhangsun Wuji stood up, his robe moving slightly and releasing an exotic scent.
"But today, Pingrong, you have done something I cannot tolerate."
In response to Guo Pingrong's increasingly apprehensive look, Zhangsun Wuji's smile disappeared as he bent down to whisper something into his ears.
Guo Pingrong's face instantly changed. It was as though he had just swallowed a burning clump of coal, and his whole face was beyond distorted. He opened his mouth as if gasping for air, attempting to say something but no matter how hard he tried he simply couldn't utter a single syllabus.
He stared, wide-eyed, at Zhangsun Wuji, while his whole body was shaking. The initial shock on his face had gradually morphed into regret, confusion, despair and so on. Ultimately, he cried out. Both of his knees were on the ground, crawling over to tug at the corner of Zhangsun Wuji's robe.
"Pardon me, Your Highness!"
Hands hidden in his sleeves Zhangsun Wuji gazed at his capable general, whose temperament had been warped by what he had had to go through as a child, his eyes expressionless.
"One more thing...the child prostitution in Deepspring Brothel... it's because of you, isn't it?" Zhangsun Wuji smiled faintly. "You sure know how to play, and you play without the slightest scruple, don't you? Do you really think these girls are poor kids from Zhongzhou villages? They are the daughters of the 18 tribes, dragged over by Tory. You're the general in charge of assuming control over the southern border, and yet you went on to provoke its already unruly inhabitants? Pingrong, you have really disappointed me."
Guo Pingrong loosened his blood-filled palm and stared at Zhangsun Wuji in disbelief. He couldn't understand why the crown prince, who should've been busy with big governmental affairs, would even know about the child prostitution going on in the brothel. Worse, he couldn't understand why Tory would lie to him. Guo Pingrong looked in utter despair at Zhangsun Wuji but was unable to seek the answers from his eyes.
"No..." Guo Pingrong jumped to his feet, howling and making a dash for the door. "I can't die like this. I am a military leader. I came in fourth place in the True Martial Arts Meet. I'm the disciple of the ninth strongest man! I-"
His voice was stuck in his throat.
Snow was falling outside, and fine specks drifted into the room through the creaks in the window, and toward the body that was releasing a significant amount of heat. Yet, upon closing in, the flakes stopped midway and started falling to the ground, as though there was an invisible wall blocking their path.
The sky was bright, its sunrays highlighting a kneeling figure from within the room. A few snowflakes could be seen falling upon a finger, fair and slender, whose tip was in contact with the kneeler's forehead.
It was a subtle pose, but the crazy, tiger-like Guo Pingrong was no longer able to advance even a millimeter forward.
Guo Pingrong's consciousness had fallen into chaos; there were countless horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, weaving together to form a rope. The rope tightened with a creaking sound, squeezing and wringing his memory and clarity until his mind was in a tremendous mess.
His body fell a little to the side, the last thread of awareness escaping his head.
"Master is the ninth most powerful man and Zhangsun Wuji..."
"Offended the wrong person..."
Before he could complete the thought, he had already collapsed to the ground.
Zhangsun Wuji retracted his hand and rested it against his fur coat.
He raised his head slightly to look at the light coming in from the window. The expression in his eyes was unreadable, but it seemed almost as though he had seen a precious flower getting beaten by the strong wind and rain and had reached out to protect it only to get pricked.
After a long pause, he lifted a leg to give Guo Pingrong's body a contemptuous kick.
"I'm sparing your life, but you're only a puppet from now on... I was against using this method on any of my subjects, but you can be the first. Be honored."
He turned around, waving his sleeve, and an imperial guard walked over. Far away, a whole group of residence guards kneeled on the snowy ground, not uttering a word.
Without turning his head, he entered his carriage. Before drawing the curtains, he said flatly, "Pass the order."
"There have been abnormal movements within the 18 tribes, so go and regulate the situation. Dissenters shall be punished on the spot. Prince De will now be King Rong, so bestow upon him Rong, Zhen, and Lizhou, and have him subdue the southern border. The General will work under King Rong's subordinates to reach peace. Do it within the next few days.
"Eh?" Zhangsun Wuji's gaze shifted. Sweat trickled down the Captain's forehead, but he quickly wiped it off before answering, "Yes!"
The carriage departed, and a wave of confusion emerged from the Captain's eyes. Some time later, he raised his head to look at the sky. The snow had stopped, but the clouds were stirring energetically.
The Captain let out a soft sigh, which transformed into a puff that dispersed into the cold air.
"Something's about to happen..."
Meng Fuyao hung from a tree, cold beads oozing from her body, while the branch she was resting on was covered in blood and sweat. The chilly wind blew onto her back, but her chest area was hot as if being burned.
She made a flip, with much effort, and started panting for air. She pressed on her chest while moving into a cross-legged position and trying hard to regulate her inner energy. Meng Fuyao felt as though countless fire snakes were slithering on top of one another, and where they passed her channels seemed to catch fire and developing into even more fire snakes.
What strange ingredients did that needle contain? It felt like aphrodisiacs but not really. Yet, there seemed to be something tugging at her desires, but the moment she got excited her internal organs started to hurt. If there wasn't an overpowering herbal scent lingering on her collar to keep her alert and allow her to regulate the Cleaving Nine Heavens' inner energy to suppress the pain, she would've lost all control long ago. Having gone through such an exhausting battle, it wasn't surprising that her injuries were severe and difficult to endure.
Amid her hazy consciousness, Meng Fuyao broke into a daze, vaguely noting that she had underestimated Guo Pingrong. He was the disciple of a worthy man, and his serious lack of morals did not determine his abilities. She had come prepared and with caution but barely scraped by.
Meng Fuyao had taken all kinds of precaution against him and focused all her attention on him instead of the "victim", whom she had dropped her wariness toward out of sympathy. Actually, she had her misgivings about it. Hence, deactivating her acupuncture point. However, what she hadn't expected was for that girl to keep the needle in her mouth and make a move on her upon their arrival at the festival hall.
Nevertheless, it was a blessing in disguise as her all-out battle with Guo Pingrong had allowed her to undergo another breakthrough. What she couldn't understand was how the thin, poison-dispelling fragrance pouch, specially blended by Zong Yue and known to cure many types of poison and even aphrodisiacs, was unable to fully quell the effects of Guo Pingrong's needle.
"Mother," Meng Fuyao cursed, "Barefoot doctor! Remote doctor! Quack!"
Darkness took over her vision in a flash. Someone was close by, and Meng Fuyao immediately struggled to get up and grab hold of her dagger.
The person stopped before her, his appearance ordinary and languid. He turned out to be the black-cloaked man who emerged by Yuan Zhaoxu's side from time to time.
He looked at her hesitantly with a regretful expression. He had been ordered to protect this lady during his master's isolation but had lost focus along the way due to an accident, causing her to get into trouble. He was standing before her but dared not go closer as her cheeks were a peachy pink, clearly abnormal.
He stood there for quite some time until a whizzing sound of the wind was heard from behind. He whipped his head around to see a man in white emerging from within the darkness and looking calmly at him.
The man in black exhaled and bowed. "It's good that you're here, Sir."
"Leave it to me," Zong Yue assured and had the man in black leave, before walking toward where Meng Fuyao was.
Meng Fuyao set her gaze downward, half-consciously making out that the man before her was a familiar person. At that, she hopped down with a grin on her face before extending a hand to push him. "You... get away from me..."