He picked her up and allowed her to lean against his chest while using his fist to hammer on her back. Lightning flashed relentlessly in the heavens, as the thunder shook the earth. Amidst the pitch black of the night, only those streaks of white occasionally lit up the surroundings.
"Wake up! Wake up!"
"Cough cough…" A wave of light coughs replied to him, as Zhuge Yue quickly grabbed Chu Qiao by her shoulders and stared into her eyes. He asked, "Are you awake? Are you awake?"
Chu Qiao's cough was initially very light, but it worsened, as became more and more vigorous. Muddy water was expelled from her lungs, as her face was flushed an unnatural red. Lying in Zhuge Yue's embrace, she could not even talk, as she continued to cough.
Even though it was just sounds of coughing, it sounded like soothing music to Zhuge Yue's ears. He let out a sigh of relief and completely went limp. In this cold, freezing night with a torrential downpour and raging wind, exacerbated by the threat of death, he did not want to conceal his emotions anymore. His arms enveloped the woman in his chest and he tightly hugged her
"Your…family…will punish you..." a quiet voice said. The whisper was so soft, it was instantly swept away by the raging wind. "The Xia Empire… Zhao Yang….. Zhao Che...they will not let you off."
The downpour had not relented in the slightest, continuing to wash away the blood and mud on the duo. Another flash of lightning streaked across the heavens above, illuminating their pale faces.
"You will die! Do you know you will die?!" Chu Qiao's hoarse voice was choking on tears as she questioned. All this time, how could she not realize Zhuge Yue's intention to protect her? But now he had openly fought against the forces of Zhao Yang, could he have not known what type of ending would await him?
"Who did you think you were?" Chu Qiao clenched her teeth and glared at him. "You killed my family and sacrificed Yan Xun and I. I really want to just kill you now. Our hatred runs so deep, but why did you save me?"
Zhuge Yue did not reply as he stared quietly into her eyes, as if observing her soul. After the escapade and multiple life and death encounters, Chu Qiao finally broke down, as her iron heart was shattered by her conflicting emotions.
"Zhuge Yue, I owed you so much, what do you want me to do?" She closed her red swollen eyes, as she freely let her tears flow down her cheeks.
The path forward was straight and free of any obstacles. In the heavy rain, the occasional lightning lit up the entire view. During the intense brawl on the streets of An Bai County, there was not a single soldier that approached the combat zone. This was enough to infer the mastermind behind this assassination. Different from others, Zhao Yang had been the victim of intense bullying and ostracization in the palace since young. This nurtured his ruthlessly cruel methods. Even if it was against Zhuge Yue, he had not shown any mercy.
Out of options, Zhuge Yue could only bring the injured Chu Qiao along while traversing in the shadows without even contacting Yue Qi and the rest. They joined a merchant convoy that was headed towards Tang Jing after paying some fees to join as travelers. Closing the door, Zhuge Yue informed Chu Qiao, "I found out that the owner of this convoy is called Liu Xi. Would you happen to know him?"
Chu Qiao lightly frowned, and replied, "I should have met him once before."
"If so, we must leave immediately," Zhuge Yue decisively declared.
"Wait!" Chu Qiao called out. "I had merely seen him from afar, and we had not even seen each other's face clearly. And that was many years ago."
Zhuge Yue's brow furrowed. Chu Qiao naturally knew what he was worried about, and tried to pacify him. "Those people will think that we are common folks who had contracted some kind of disease. We will not even get a chance to see them. As long as I remain careful, it will surely be fine."
"Isn't he the nephew of Liu Mingjun?"
Zhuge Yue descended into contemplation, and he slowly remarked, "The Liu family is considered a big family in Xian Yang City. I am unsure if he was in the welcoming fanfare during my entrance to the city."
Upon hearing that, Chu Qiao frowned as well. Zhuge Yue continued, "I think it is better to err on the side of caution. Tomorrow morning, I will head out to buy horses, and we will ride on our own carriage to Tang Jing."
Chu Qiao nodded in reply. Her current position now was relatively awkward. Since Liu Xi was Liu Mingjun's nephew and was a member of the Da Tong Guild, she would definitely be able to gain his assistance and be escorted back to Yan Bei if she so requested. But right now, Zhuge Yue was alone without his bodyguards. If Liu Xi attempted anything funny…
"You rest first." Placing Chu Qiao on the bed, Zhuge Yue gently told her, "I will ask the waiter to prepare some food. What do you want to eat?"
Chu Qiao shook her head, and answered, "Anything will do."
Zhuge Yue turned around, and while walking away, commented, "Well, it was not as if we have a choice. In this place, what options can we possibly have?"
Chu Qiao stared blankly as the silhouette disappeared beyond the door, before managing a weak smile.
Given the Zhuge family's influence, one could probably find their servants anywhere on the West Meng continent. As one of the greatest noble families, they surely had way more than just the meager political power that was on paper. In this world, how much hidden influence did each of the great families truly have? No one could definitively answer that question.
Chu Qiao knew that behind each and every noble family, there were hundreds of years of efforts contributed by their ancestors. Even if Zhao Zhengde had suddenly uprooted the entire Muhe family, who could be sure that the Muhe family had completely been eradicated from the West Meng Continent?
The true influence of the Zhuge Family would definitely not lose, even to Yan Xun. And furthermore, as one of the main ruling families in the Xia Empire, they had political gravitas that even Yan Xun could not match. Protected by the ranks and files of their personal legions, they held influence over their kin, who had infiltrated into various positions of power throughout the empire. Behind each and every one of those Zhuge officials was a path paved with money and influence.
Yan Bei had rebelled, and as a result, all of Yan Bei and related factions stood against the Empire. By extension, one could imagine the catastrophe that the Royal Zhao family would face if one day the Zhuge Family decided to raise the banners of mutiny after comprehensive preparations! Thus, considering the clout of the Zhuge Family, and Zhuge Yue's position within the family, no matter where, as long as Zhuge Yue decided to request for assistance, a crowd of Zhuge family members would gather. Despite that, Zhuge Yue had obviously rejected that option and chose to conceal his identity along the way, personally taking care of her and not informing his family of his whereabouts. Perhaps, he was worried that his reinforcements could not be trusted to conceal Chu Qiao's identity as well. The fact that he was helping her could become leverage for other factions within his family to attack him with.
Chu Qiao smiled mockingly at how she had been trying to deceive herself. She completely understood the cause of the current situation, but she stubbornly refused to admit and face the truth. With that, she chose to escape from reality by shutting her eyes and quietly bided.
Perhaps, he merely wanted to travel with me without much disturbance, where he is not the Master of the Zhuge Family, and I do not need to act for the sake of Yan Bei either. Just like common folk, interacting without hatred, without irreparable conflicts, without considerations of alignments, and definitely without those realistic responsibilities.
This chance would probably be their only one.
Chu Qiao slowly closed her eyes, hoping that she could quickly fall into a slumber and forget about all these considerations. She could understand every aspect, but she could not find a suitable response to all that he had done for her. Right from the start, they had been on opposite sides of the conflict. After those eight years, they had only grew distant. One should never lose their composure.
Chu Qiao relaxed, and after a short while, she entered a deep sleep. Right before sleeping, she mocked herself yet again. What was the point of thinking so much if she could not go on her separate way right now?
By the time Zhuge Yue returned, Chu Qiao had already fallen into a deep slumber. Holding on to a large tray, Zhuge Yue brought back some food, and a bottle of liquor. After arranging the food and utensils, he sat by the table and poured himself a cup of liquor. This shop was not big, but the food was really delicious. Even though the dishes were covered, the intense aroma still seeped out and entered his nostrils. The liquor was well brewed and flavourful. Just by drinking it, Zhuge Yue could feel his whole body warming up.
The setting sun glowed a deep crimson, casting his long shadow on the ground. Zhuge Yue continued sitting quietly, enjoying the liquor as the sun sank below the horizon. As the streets lights lit up, the streets began to bustle with activities, but before long, the crowds dispersed, and the city sank into silence. The city was asleep, except for him, still quietly sitting in the darkness like a statue, with only his hand moving back and forth between the wine bottle and his cup.
Chu Qiao woke up deep into the night with an intense headache. Still sleepy, she felt thirsty and wanted to look for water, but she noticed the shadow in the darkness. Her first reaction was to reach for the dagger on her thigh, and even in her weakened state, she jumped out of bed like an agile beast.
But she quickly realized her mix-up, as she clumsily put away her dagger, and looked at the man in the darkness. Confused, she asked, "Zhuge Yue?"
"Yep." She received a quick reply. The man seemed to have drunk a lot, as the room was filled with the smell of alcohol. "Thirsty?"
Chu Qiao nodded and realized that in the darkness, even if she nodded, she could not be heard, so she opened her mouth, but by then a cup of water had already been passed to her. She accepted the cup. The water was warm, and some would consider it hot. The cup was small, but Chu Qiao held it with both hands. After drinking a sip, she licked her dry lips. Still sounding hoarse from just having woken up, she whispered, "Why did you not turn on the lights?"
The room was so quiet that one could almost hear the man gulping. After a very long time, a quiet sound replied, "Dark is better."
Chu Qiao seriously asked, "Zhuge Yue, when will you start calling me Chu Qiao?"
The man snorted coldly. "Dream on."
"You are way too stubborn." But just as she said that, she laughed in self-mockery, and went on, "Actually, I am like that too. When I decide on something, I will not change my mind easily."
Zhuge Yue did not reply. Chu Qiao seemed to be in a good mood today, as she resumed her quiet monologue. "Actually, you are not really a bad person. Although you are a bit aloof, a bit ruthless, a bit lacking in compassion, and, erm, when you have a long face you are a bit annoying, other than that, you are pretty decent. Then again, in this world, who is not ruthless? Whose hands are completely free of blood? The world is just like that, only the fittest will survive. I cannot even count how many I have killed. Zhuge Yue what about you?" Pausing shortly, Chu Qiao went on, "You should be clear about those you have killed, as you only need to personally kill those servants who had offended you. But I cannot remember how many I have killed. The number of people I slaughtered is probably more than the number of people I have ever talked to. Each time I swing my blade, a head would roll. When their scorching blood splashes onto my face, it feels as hot as burning red coal."