It was already the peak of summer, and the daylight extended late into the evening. The envoy traveled until the sun was already set before settling down in the middle of a valley.
Chu Qiao and Zhuge Yue were assigned to a single tent. The tent was small and short, such that one would hit his head just sitting upright.
With them, servants were also camping in the outer circle of the campsite. After asking around, they found out that not only the Xian Yang Liu family were present, ut that there was also the Wang, Jia, and Ouyang families.
After the entire day of traveling, Chu Qiao felt weaker than ever. Considering the poor circulation within the tiny tent, Zhuge Yue brought her out and leaned her against a tree to relax. He then bought a freshly hunted rabbit from the other servants and started a fire to cook. Before long, the scent of cooked meat wafted in the air.
He tore off a piece of the meat and held it close to Chu Qiao's mouth. Upon seeing that, Chu Qiao eagerly tried to bite into the meat, only to be flicked on the forehead by Zhuge Yue. Sternly, he warned, "It's hot!"
"Oh." Chu Qiao heartily smiled, before carefully blowing at it and picking it up from Zhuge Yue's hands. Putting the piece of meat into her mouth, she found it so tasty that she could not help but to praise Zhuge Yue, "Wow, I never thought you'd be so good at this."
"I had only learned it during those years in the woods," Zhuge Yue casually replied, before taking out a dagger and slicing the cooked rabbit into pieces. After which, he passed the delicious meat to Chu Qiao piece by piece.
By now, the night had fallen, as the last vestiges of the sunlight were consumed by the blanket of darkness. Under the sparkling starry night sky, one could hear the cicadas singing, mixed with an occasional chirping of the cuckoos. The valley was peaceful and serene, with only the rustling of clothes as the servants walked around hurriedly.
Sitting in a patch of green grass, Chu Qiao took a deep breath, before displaying an enraptured smile, as though she was an innocent and naive child, and exclaimed, "How nostalgic!"
Zhuge Yue coolly continued the conversation, "What is so nostalgic?"
"This feeling…" Chu Qiao leaned back on the tree trunk, as her tranquil expression was tinged with a small smile. Quietly, she elaborated, "I miss the long grass, green trees, camping, and cooking around the campfire with a group of friends. After cooking, we would just sit around the campfire and chit-chat, maybe drink some alcohol. Most of all, I miss those days when I didn't need to worry about tomorrow, about survival."
Observing her quietly, Zhuge Yue questioned, "Have you actually experienced such a life before?"
"Of course." Chu Qiao lifted her head, as she gracefully smiled. "It was from long ago. Three good friends and I were in a valley just like this, and were eating roasted rabbits just like this. Oh, but our skills were better than yours, and we had more seasoning."
"Hmph!" Snorting in disdain, Zhuge Yue turned his face away.
"Xiao Shi learned from a famous chef from France, and her skills were top notch, particularly when it comes to roasting meat."
Raising an eyebrow, Zhuge Yue inquired, "France? Is that a restaurant somewhere?"
"Hmmm?" Chu Qiao nodded her head. "Indeed, that is a restaurant."
Pouting in contempt, Zhuge Yue replied, "I've never even heard of it before. Certainly, it is not a famous one."
In the distance, another campfire sprouted up, as activities buzzed around it.
"Hmm?" Chu Qiao was taken aback.
"Continue your story. We are bored anyway." Zhuge Yue lowered his head and continued to slice the rabbit. "Talk about your friend."
"Oh, sure." Chu Qiao nodded and consented. For some reason, her heart was particularly heavy tonight. Perhaps the actions of the Da Tong's Elders had hurt her feelings. She wanted to do something to distract her.
As the grass swayed under the chilly night breeze, her quiet voice sounded out, "Their martial skills were all better than mine."
Raising an eyebrow again, Zhuge Yue was slightly taken aback. "They were all women, right?"
"Indeed," Chu Qiao took a glance at him as she teased, "Didn't you look down on women?"
Zhuge Yue did not reply, as Chu Qiao resumed, "But that was back then. If I were to face them again, I would estimate that I am at about the same level as them. Xiao Huang excelled in precision shooting, ah, I mean archery. Xiao Shi was the most exceptional in close quarter combat, and had once beaten 17 highly skilled men all at once. Mao'er's fighting skills were not as good as them, but when it comes to techniques to kill others, she was the best."
Zhuge Yue asked, "What about you?"
"Me?" Chu Qiao chuckled. "I was an all-around genius."
Irritated, the man rolled his eyes. "Such arrogance."
Chu Qiao did not feel offended, as she merely turned her head around and asked, "Zhuge Yue, what wish do you have?"
Frowning, Zhuge Yue threw a glance at her direction, before coldly snorting, "I hope that you can quickly scram back to Yan Bei, and not let me see you ever again. Better remain in Yan Bei for the rest of your life."
"That would be impossible." Chu Qiao let out an amused chuckle, as she casually declared, "Even if you do not invade Yan Bei, I will bring my troops down to the Xia Empire."
"Is that so? Then my wish is for Yan Xun's reputation to be in ruins, and thus Yan Bei gets annexed by the Batuha family. You spend your life adrift, and finally end up begging at my doorstep."
Chu Qiao shot a glare at him. "Such a vicious man. Then again, that would be impossible too." Lightly laughing, Chu Qiao mused, "If such a day really were to come, I would probably have already died in the conflict."
Not expecting that reply, Zhuge Yue was stunned, as he could not find any words suitable to reply with.
"At that time, the four of us asked ourselves the same question." Staring at the horizon, Chu Qiao cycled through the distant memories in her mind, as she quietly described, "Xiao Shi looked really cold and stoic on the surface, but she was probably the most fragile one among us. She like collecting dolls, those really expensive dolls. She would burn through her monthly salary. Her greatest wish was that upon leaving the organization, she would receive a huge solatium. After which, she would get married to someone plain and normal and play the role of a good wife. She had a childhood friend with whom she was on really good terms. Perhaps, without what happened afterward, her wish would have been granted."
At this point, a dreary smile surfaced on Chu Qiao's face. Chu Qiao continued her monologue after a short pause, "Xiao Huang is the noisiest among us. Her family was really well off and was very adventurous. At that time, she was planning to climb a mountain and carve her name on the peak."
Pausing again, Chu Qiao described the third friend in question with a smile, "Mao'er's wish was always simple—to earn money. She was the most greedy, and she was extremely daring, so she to do all kinds of business. As a result, she was not that loyal to the organization. To her, it was just another job to earn money."
Zhuge Qiao inquired, "What about you?"
"Me?" Chu Qiao was taken aback. After pondering for quite a while, she slowly replied, "I do not know. I was planning a mission. I only hoped that the mission went off without a hitch so that I could complete the mission as soon as possible."
Zhuge Yue snorted in disdain.
Chu Qiao turned and look at him while wearing a small smile. "Actually, I have always been this way. I have few wishes of my own, and am extremely dogmatic and stubborn. I only hope that my beliefs are correct, worthy of me to risk my entire life fighting for it."
"For example," Chu Qiao took her liberty to take a pause, before she elaborated, "whatever you owe me, I will make sure to get it back. Likewise, whatever I owe you, I will make sure to repay it."
"I think I would admire Mao'er more," Calmly, Zhuge Yue stated his opinion. "Was the organization you spoke of Da Tong? Please introduce her to me if you get the chance."
Calmly shaking her head, she bitterly smiled. "I am really weird to have told you all this."
Zhuge Yue snorted. "It was not as if I forced you to tell me that."
They suddenly caught wind of small footstep sounds from afar. Being alerted by the intruder, the duo raised their heads only to see a young girl; at most five or six years old. She wore a bright red blouse and had two braids coming down from her head. She stared at the rabbit meat in Zhuge Yue's hands, as she bit on her fingers.
The duo knew that they were traveling with not just the members of the great families, but their servants as well. Some of those servants had their own families. This kid was probably some servent's child.
Frowning, Zhuge Yue was about to say something, but Chu Qiao acted faster. Waving her hand, Chu Qiao called out, "Come here!"
The girl's face instantly brightened up, as she stretched her hands out and trotted over.
The young girl's eyes were crystal clear. Looking into them, Chu Qiao smiled. "How old are you?"
Nervously stealing a glance at Zhuge Yue, the girl anxiously replied, "I am six."
"What is your name?"
Perhaps feeling that this young lady was really friendly, the girl promptly responded, "My name is Xingxing."
Irately, Zhuge Yue sternly lashed out at the kid with a long face, "Go back and tell your parents to change your name!"
Stunned, and seeing how Zhuge Yue was staring so fiercely at her, the girl blinked her eyes, as tears seemed to form at the corner of her eyes.
"Why are you scaring such a young kid!" Frowning, Chu Qiao pulled the girl over and whispered something to her. Shortly, the girl started giggling happily.
Sitting aside, Zhuge Yue watched, suddenly feeling strange. In his memories, Chu Qiao was never like this. She was supposed to be calm, quiet, stoic, calculating, intelligent, and devoid of any emotions that normal women should have. However, in this reunion, he saw more sides of her that he had never seen before. Perhaps, he smiled in self-ridicule, the previous her had always been putting on an act. She had always seen him as an enemy and had never shown her true colors. Even now, she might not be her real self. Else, why would she still bear arms even when so severely injured, as though she was guarding herself against him?
Between the two of them, trust never existed. Perhaps, it was exactly as she had said: whatever she owed him, she would surely return it someday.
Smiling bitterly, Zhuge Yue's gaze turned melancholic.
Damn it, for some reason, I really enjoy this atmosphere.
At this time, the girl walked up to him and tugged on his sleeves. Pointing at the rabbit meat in his hand, she asked in her child-like voice, "Are you still eating that?"
Zhuge Yue pushed it over to her impatiently.
Not sensing his impatience, the child's face bloomed into a smile, as she smiled at Zhuge Yue. "You are so nice!" She then returned to Chu Qiao's side. Clumsily squatting down, she sat on the ground next to Chu Qiao, and shared the rabbit meat with her.
After some time, someone came over, calling for that girl. The girl jumped up and dashed to that person, not forgetting to wave goodbye to Chu Qiao and Zhuge Yue as she ran off. Her bright cheery voice reverberated in the night sky...
Shattering this serene atmosphere, sounds of panicked shrieks suddenly resounded. That night, not just in this valley, within Xian Yang City, a wave of slaughter occurred as well!
A handsome man in a purplish gold coat leaned sideways on the bed, as two attractive dancers cuddled with him. Jade white fingers picked up a grape, putting it into the man's mouth.
"Lord Feng!" Wearing black camouflage for night operations, a servant entered. His face had a few drops of red liquid, and even though his black shirt did not show anything, the scent of fresh blood instantly filled the room the moment he entered. The servant kneeled on the ground, and firmly declared, "The mission was successful."
The famous Xian Yang City Lord Feng lightly raised an eyebrow, and calmly replied, "Since it was successful, you may go home and sleep."
That night, all of Xian Yang City encountered disaster. Blood poured into the tributaries of Chi Shui river. Hearing the blood-curdling howls, the common folk of Xian Yang City were awake the whole night. The guards suddenly turned a blind eye to those blood-soaked few who had broken out of the encirclement and knelt before the main gates to Xian Yang Military Yamen.
Ultimately, those few created such a ruckus, the Yamen had to inform some local "enforcement authorities". Hearing that there were people who disturbed the honorable mayor's rest, Lord Feng sent out large numbers of soldiers to "reason it out" with them.