Book 2: The Infinite Heart
Chapter 11 - Sacrifice In Place of Another
Midnight settled in the small alley, still and soundless.
Yet suddenly, a yell containing both humor and exasperation rang out.
Moonlight shone on the foot of the wall, allowing one to faintly see a pretty damsel lifting her foot and giving the man opposite her a kick. Swiftly afterwards, she ran off like a butterfly fluttering under the moon.
The Yuan Zhaoxu left in her wake could only faintly smile. Unexpectedly, behind him suddenly emerged a black shadow. The dark-clothed man slightly bowed, then quietly said, "Master … your wound …"
Yuan Zhaoxu lifted his hand. Only this time, his finger had already been almost completely covered by a layer of dark gray. With his expression calm he lightly replied. "No need to worry."
Raising his head to gaze towards the direction where Fuyao vanished, Yuan Zhaoxu's expression remained unchanged. "Guo Pingrong is becoming more and more of a good-for-nothing. Not even stopping to ask before using the almost divine artifact-grade weapon 'Brilliance of Heaven and Earth', on a single woman no less. He even poisoned the weapon! Is this how a high disciple of one of the Ten Emperors behaves?"
His back figure was straight like bamboo, while his sleeves fluttered despite the windless night. The black-clothed man subconsciously retreated a step, and his waist bowed deeper by another degree. It was rare for his master to be temperamental – the black-clothed man had even once thought that nothing in the world could move his master to anger. However, from the chilly aura emanating from his master's body, it could be seen that Guo Pingrong's actions had actually touched upon Yuan Zhaoxu's reverse scale.
After ruminating for a while, the black-clothed man forced a smile. "Well, Guo Pingrong is of common birth after all, and his roots are of slums dwellers. It is a given that he does things in a crude and uncivilized manner. On the other hand, this person is adept at battle, similar to the honorable Prince De. He still has contributed much to the Empire."
Yuan Zhaoxu barely lifted his lips in a small smile, staying silent. Only after some time did he reply: "Send someone to keep watch. Protect her to the best of your capabilities."
"However, as long as she can handle it, you must let her solve problems by herself."
"For the next few days I will enter seclusion. Fang Yimo's 'Brilliance of Heaven and Earth' is not some common attack, and even I cannot treat it lightly. Your team will handle outside matters yourself."
Slightly turning his body, Yuan Zhaoxu looked towards the direction Fuyao had gone in for a long time. After a while, he left with a chuckle.
Left behind was the black-clothed man who had stood in place the entire time, gazing forwards with a complicated expression. Suddenly, he thought of something his master had said a long long time ago.
"I hope to meet outstanding women, she who freely grows even amidst the weathering of wind and waves, she who can soar at the same heights as men. Not those golden canaries forcibly protected by layers of feathers, those who can never know of the thrill of flying through curtains of howling rain, who can never understand, how to pursue their own beliefs." ————-
During the past couple of days, Meng Fuyao could clearly feel that the atmosphere at Prince De's mansion was somewhat abnormal.
Most likely this was because from that night onwards, Guo Pingrong had appeared on the premises of Prince De's mansion time and time again. It was unknown what he had said to Prince De, but the prince had now brought a team with him to scour the whole residence several times, with a pair of piercing, narrow pupils that swept back and forth across every person they encountered. Due to this matter Zong Yue forbid Fuyao from going out again. Fuyao naturally knew a formidable opponent when she saw one, and so actually listened to Zong Yue for once. Not only did she not go out, she even purposefully applied a bodily disguise, turning herself completely unremarkable: a yellow-complexioned and flat-chested scrawny brat. In the couple of times Guo Pingrong happened to meet her, his eyes didn't even waver before passing over her.
Today, Meng Fuyao went to Zong Yue's medicinal garden to procure some herbs. Along the way she weighed her options. Considering the persistent, tireless actions Guo Pingrong was taking, it seems like he had already determined the person who cut his pants off was within this royal mansion. From the looks of it, she would be better off if she left as soon as possible - aye, she should have left a long time ago! It was just her greed for the free and exquisite food and board that had been holding her back.
And if she was to be honest, there was another reason for staying that she didn't want to admit - Yuan Zhaoxu had not appeared for several days already, and she was afraid that if she just took off like this, the guy wouldn't be able to find her. Despite Fuyao herself knowing full well that this person had extraordinary power and would not encounter trouble under ordinary circumstances, but .. but, what if?
Fuyao absentmindedly grabbed a garden spade. Before she could even use it, she suddenly heard a crisp shattering sound.
At the same time, a girl's panicked pleas sounded from the direction of a small garden's pavilion, outside the medicine garden.
Fuyao stretched out her neck to look. From behind the cover of foilage, she saw an outer court maid named Qiao Ling kneeling on the floor, hastily trying to gather up a whole floor littered with broken porcelein. In front of her was Guo Pingrong, his expression ominous as he loomed overhead. Opposite him was Prince De who berated the servant with a heavy face: "What an inept and stupid maid, scram!"
Qiao Ling was so shocked that her whole body faintly trembled, and she retreated as fast as she could. Meng Fuyao silently sighed - recently Guo Pingrong's mood had been terrible, and whoever met him was sure to meet with bad luck. In the end, it was actually her fault that Qiao Ling was implicated.
Qiao Ling turned around to quietly wipe her tears, and her small crying face flashed past Fuyao's field of view for an instance. Watching her, Fuyao suddenly felt some shock.
The girl was attractive in all aspects. Her palm-sized little face had a pair of pretty, limpid eyes. Generally she was not very noticeable, but now that her glimmering pupils were awash with tears, for some reason she looked kind of familiar.
Before Fuyao could recall just what part of her was so familiar, she heard Guo Pingrong give an "En?" noise. He suddenly strode up, reaching out a hand to grab Qiao Ling's jaw and roughly turning her face towards him.
Squinting his narrow eyes, his gaze raked up and down Qiao Ling as if scouring flesh from bone. When had the sixteen year old Qiao Ling ever been this wantonly looked at by a man before? Not to mention Guo Pingrong's tall figure and steely face, and that pair of long eyes that always looked at people with some degree of malevolence! All said the man could be considered as attractive. Qiao Ling was so embarrassed that even her neck flushed crimson, yet this gave her even more of a charming, elegant grace.
When Meng Fuyao saw Guo Pingrong's gaze, she thought of Yuan Zhaoxu's remark "sovereign's sickness", and inside her heart she silently cried not good. She suddenly realized who Qiao Ling's eyes resembled just then - her own! Despite the child's eyes not being as clear as her's, a slight brushing of tears would definitely bring it close. It must have been that pair of pupils that attracted Guo Pingrong's attention.
Guo Pingrong truly was focusing on Qiao Ling's eyes. From his high vantage point that night, the wind caused by his hidden weapon had whisked her face cover off. Although the darkness obscured her appearance, that pair of resplendently clear eyes held a type of heart-pounding beauty and fierceness.
In that moment, he had almost forgotten all of his previous rage, and the only thing left in his mind was that shocking glimpse. In that moment, he who had experienced all the central plains could offer, could only give up on his previous plans to cleave Fuyao in half and start to consider capturing this beautiful woman who was daring yet sly. If her pair of lively eyes only directed their smile towards him; if her clear, crisp voice sweetly panted underneath him; if her strong, slender legs tightly held on to his body … what kind of heavenly feeling would that be?
Wasn't a man's pride to command all under heaven when sober, and lie across the legs of a beautiful woman when drunk?
As for that other man who countered his secret weapon and forced him to fall off the wall - Guo Pingrong sneered. Could his "Brilliance of Heaven and Earth" really be that easy to receive? The deadly southern borderlands poison that was smeared on the weapon would immediately attack the heart upon contact with skin. That person was probably a corpse by now, and even if he managed to luckily survive, he would still suffer an even crueler fate! The moment Guo Pingrong found out who he was, he would be destined to be cut into pieces under the general's sword - let him know that the disciple of the tenth-ranked master was not someone that any random nobody could afford to provoke!
His thoughts turned again and again in his heart, yet his expression was indecipherable. The fingers clenching Qiao Ling's chin subconsciously tightened, hurting her so much she let out a cry. "Ah!" Only after hearing the sound did Guo Pingrong loosen his hand. After vulgarly assessing Qiao Ling up and down once more, he turned around and spoke to Prince De. "I didn't expect that in Prince De's court, even a lowly maidservant could be this good-looking."
The tall-statured Prince De exuded a solemn and majestic air as he sat in the main seat, almost as tall as a person despite being seated. Although his face was originally quite attractive, a narrow scar wound directly streaked across his brows, jarringly breaking immersion. It was rumoured that during the revolt of the king of Linjiang, the wife and partner of the shadowy assassin who was killed by Zhangsun Wuji, Luan Mei, plotted to murder the Crown Prince. Prince De had to use all his might to block her all out sword strike, and ever since then he was left with this irremovable mark. The loyal official, famous in the Infinite imperial court for his courage, smiled as he looked at his close subordinate who had followed him ever since birth. Indifferently he said, "You are typically so high-minded, it is rare for someone to catch your eye. Since you like her, just take her with you."
"Truly?" Guo Pingrong's eyes brightened.
Prince De laughed loudly, saying, "It is just a maidservant, did you think this prince would be so stingy as to not give her to you?"
"Your highness may see her as just a maid, but I see a treasure." Guo Pingrong turned back to appraise Qiao Ling, then gave a meaningful laugh. "It is rare to find someone to my liking, so I suppose this can be considered fate as well. I would hate to wrong her, so I'll bring her back with me right now to clear face and take as a concubine."
"Since you like this girl so much, it is her fortune. As it is though, my mansion cannot just casually neglect this Jianwu general's first concubine." Prince De grinned. "Come, bring the girl Qiao Ling away, and tell Lady De to prepare Qiao Ling's marriage affairs. Tomorrow we will send her off to the general's household in style!"
Guo Pingrong smiled as he gave thanks, and ordered people to take the both shocked and delighted Qiao Ling off to prepare. As Fuyao watched the girl enter the back courtyards with a dazed expression, her fist forcefully collided with her palm.
"This is bad!"Footnotes Original title in Chinese was李代桃僵, literally "the plum tree shriveling in place of the peach tree". Used to mean sacrificing oneself in place of another Reference to a dragon's reverse scale, which if touched will cause them to go berserk 开脸, referring to clearing off the fine hairs on the temples and neck of a bride, a custom before a traditional wedding