Some things were decided since one's birth, such as blood ties and their destiny.
He slumped in his seat, raised his wine glass and gulped it down in one shot, along with all his suppressed thoughts and indignation.
Chu Qiao had just walked over to the city gates and saw the servants of the Zhuge family holding lanterns and looking around. Upon spotting her, they ran towards her direction in elation.
"Xing Er, the fourth young master asked us to wait here for you. Let's go back to the house."
Chu Qiao paused. Given Zhuge Yue's character, she did not expect him to send people to locate her. She nodded and got into the carriage prepared by the servants.
The horse carriage creaked forward along the bustling city streets. The volume of the noises outside gradually decreased, eventually reaching complete silence. The child leaned on the inner walls of the horse carriage. Scenes of the recent massacre started to appear before her eyes—the cold-blooded stares of the soldiers, the deeply rooted resentment of the refugees, and the limp resistance of Wei Shuye.
It was still futile despite his identity. What could she, a small fry, do then? To resist an entire empire with her abilities would be akin to a mantis trying to stop a car—an utter failure. What she could do now, was to tread carefully on her toes and continue living on, in search of an opportunity to exact revenge and leave with Xiao Ba. As for other matters, she could not hope to change anything, due to her limited capabilities.
The horse carriage slowly wandered into the distance. Chu Qiao suddenly felt a chill. She opened the curtains and scanned her surroundings, and remarked, "This isn't the way back to the house. Where are you taking me?"
The servant froze, not expecting a child of such a small age to be able to recognize directions. He smiled obsequiously and replied, "The young master is in the other courtyard, not in the main residence."
The child's eyebrows twitched. She carefully asked, "Courtyard? Which courtyard?"
"The courtyard in the western part of the lake."
Chu Qiao frowned. The precarious nature of her work over the years had naturally made her develop a sense of cautiousness, allowing her to sense when something was amiss. She tested the waters and probed, "I did not manage to retrieve the things from the house that the young master instructed me to. Let's go back to the house, then make our way to the courtyard."
The servant replied with a smile, "Don't worry. the young master just said that the things no longer need to be retrieved. He's waiting in the courtyard. Let us go there quickly, lest he gets worried."
Chu Qiao nodded slowly with a quiet expression and let the curtains down. The servant heaved a small sigh of relief. A sly look flashed across his eyes and the edges of his lips became sharp. However, the instant where his smile expanded, a dagger suddenly made contact with his neck, coldly. The child, taking advantage of an opportunity, swiftly pounced. She solemnly exclaimed in a cold tone, "You're not serving the fourth young master. Who are you?"
"Hehe," a low pitched laugh, as hoarse as a night owl, suddenly erupted from the side. A gorgeously decorated carriage slowly made its way out from the dense forest. Inside was a flamboyantly dressed old man. He laughed and remarked with words carrying a tinge of evil to the servant who was at the side, nodding and bowing to him, "Impressive indeed, such a stubborn temper at this tender age. Her looks are not bad either. I'll reward you handsomely later."
Zhu Shun, flattered, replied with a laugh, "Sharing the burden of the second Grand Master is my duty. If the second Grand Master rewarded me, it would mean my loyalty was not accepted by you."
The old man laughed and gave orders to the two servants on his left and right, "Take this lass back to the house." Everyone obliged resoundingly and swiftly advanced forward.
In that instant, hundreds and thousands of thoughts flashed past Chu Qiao's mind. She was aware that she could capitalize on the other party's contempt and carelessness to make her escape by swiftly wounding them. However, in this case, it would arouse the suspicions of others, especially the one-limbed Zhu Shun. Even if she escaped by luck, it would no doubt implicate Xiao Ba, who was still trapped in the house. If she decided not to escape, she would end up in the clutches of this old lecher. At that time, given the capabilities of an eight year old girl, how would she manage to resist an entire army of guards from the Zhuge residence?
To escape, or not to escape?
Chu Qiao tightened up, her mind still rapidly weighing her options. How about she beat this old lecher at his own game and eliminate him, given this opportunity?
In a flash, some well-built men surged towards Chu Qiao, intent on snatching the dagger she held in her hands.
"Hang on!" a low-pitched, distinct voice suddenly reverberated. Everyone turned their head towards the source of the voice, only to see the snow on the ground being scattered by a herd of over twenty rapidly approaching pitch-black war horses. The youngster mounted on one of the horses was handsome and was dressed in green robes, adorned with white fur. He gave a loud whistle and galloped forward.
The horses gave a long neigh and stood up, their warm breaths blending with the crisp, cold air, forming a cloud of mist. The youngster, under the guard of his servants, stared coldly at the crowd. His voice was calm, he gave off an aura of wisdom and calmness that was way beyond his years. He remarked, in a low voice, "Long time no see, Mister Zhuge."
Grand Master Zhuge, with eyes half-open, sized up the youngster. He gave a chuckle, revealing his yellow teeth. "Oh, it's Prince Yan Xun of Yan Bei. At this ungodly hour, instead of resting in your house, what are you doing out here braving the strong, snowy winds?"
Yan Xun remarked unscrupulously, "Thanks for your concern, Mister Zhuge. How could I be sleeping soundly in my house, if you, at this age, are still admiring the lights at this late hour? It's lantern festival, the entire nation is celebrating. I just came out to admire the festivities."
"Oh?" Grand Master Zhuge's long eyebrows smoothed out and he replied, "In this case, Young Prince Yan, do continue admiring the sight. I will not stay with you then." He promptly turned to his subordinates and said, "Back to the house."
"Hold on!" Yan Xun swiftly ordered his horse to move forward, blocking Master Zhuge's path. He laughed lightly, pointed at Chu Qiao, and declared, "Mister, you can leave, but only if you leave this child behind."
The old man's eyebrows moved ever so slightly. He quizzed, "What do you mean by this, your Royal Highness?"
"This child just startled my horse, Flurry, and scared it away. I want to bring her back to answer for her deeds."
Grand Master Zhuge, hearing these words, gave a slight smile and retorted, "In this case, I will compensate you with a fine horse."
"This horse was just brought back from the Western desert by the King of Yan Bei! It is a fine, well-travelled horse, can you afford to pay for it?"
"Feng Mian, shut your mouth!" Yan Xun frowned, berating the page boy behind him. "The Zhuge family is a patriarch of the empire. The head of the Zhuge family is also one of the seven elders of the Grand Elder's Council, and possess wealth and power that even our royal family cannot hold a candle to. There is nothing that they cannot afford to pay for. However, fatherly ties run deep. Flurry was personally tamed by my father and was delivered to Zhen Huang from afar. It is not a typical war horse, so I cannot let things slide just like that. I have to take this child with me."
"You need not say no more, Mister Zhuge," Yan Xun interrupted the old master. He raised his head and declared, "Mister Zhuge, given your high status, you should not need to lower yourself to plead for a slave. Regarding this matter, I will answer personally to the fourth young master of the Zhuge family. Men, take this child away."
The personal attendants of the Yans' residence stepped forward; one of the well-built men pushed Master Zhuge's subordinates away, causing him to stagger. He carried Chu Qiao out with a single hand and prepared to mount the horse.
Zhu Shun, seeing that old Master Zhuge was teetering with rage, stepped forward with a pretentious smile. He tugged on the saddle of Yan Xun's horse and pleaded, "Your Royal Highness, things can be discussed…"
With the cracking sound of a whip, followed up by a ferocious kick from Yan Xun to Zhu Shun's chin, Zhu Shun's fat body was knocked back. He fell on the floor and exclaimed in agony, spitting out a mouthful of fresh blood, along with two of his yellowed front teeth.
"Who are you to gesture in front of me? You have no idea of your limitations!" Yan Xun stared sharply at Zhu Shun and remarked coldly.
Zhu Shun was caught by surprise. He quickly kneeled down and frantically kowtowed. In the Xia Empire, a member of the royal family did not need a reason to slaughter a civilian.
Yan Xun raised his whip and pointed at Zhu Shun, declaring coldly, "I will spare you temporarily on account of Mister Zhuge today. If you still exhibit this unruly behavior another day, I will kill you in person, even in the presence of the head of the Zhuge family."
Finishing his sentence, Yan Xun did not even look at old Master Zhuge and echoed to his subordinates, "Let's go!"
Yan Xun's people then mounted on their horses. With the sight of snow being scattered around, they faded away into the end of the long street.
Old Master Zhuge turned red, his left hand trembling in anger. Zhu Shun crawled forward, maintaining a kneeling posture. He tugged at the leg of Master Zhuge. He pleaded, "Grand Master, please don't be angry! I…"
"Scram!" the old man bellowed. He delivered a kick to Zhu Shun's chest and shouted, "Useless piece of trash!" Following that, he boarded the carriage and promptly departed.
The heavy snow continued to fall. Silence now enveloped the long street, further highlighting the bustling main street.
The war horse stopped by the lake. The youngster, having maintained a serious look previously, now turned back with a smile and laughed, "Lass, you owe me a favor…again."
The child raised an eyebrow slowly. Although she remained silent, her body language obviously conveyed the message, I did not beg for you to come.
Yan Xun grunted indignantly and whispered, "Would it hurt to say something nice?"
Chu Qiao took one look at him and prepared to walk away.
Yan Xun froze and hurriedly blocked her path. "What are you going to do?"
The child raised an eyebrow, "Of course I'm going back to the Zhuge residence."
"You still want to go back?" The youngster frowned and questioned, "That lowly servant will not spare you! And as for that old fellow from the Zhuge family, he is known for his deeds in the city of Zhen Huang! Do you want to court your own death?"
Chu Qiao pushed him aside and said, "None of your business."
Yan Xun did not let go and maintained his grip on her, saying, "What do you mean? I rescued you out of the goodness of my heart and you give such cold treatment. What good do you see in Zhuge Yue, that enigmatic fellow, he is worth you disregarding your safety to go back to him?"
Chu Qiao raised her head, frustrated that she prepared to risk all or nothing, but failed to eliminate the old lecher Zhuge. She impatiently brushed Yan Xun's hand off, looked up and stated coldly, "Did I cry for you to come and save me? Keep your kindness to yourself, I cannot stand it."
Yan Xun's eyes seethed with anger. Seeing Chu Qiao's small shadow disappearing into the distance, he shouted childishly, "Ridiculous! Serves you right that you got bullied. If I cared about you again, my surname would not be Yan!"
Chu Qiao did not even look back and disappeared among the vast sea of people after a long while. Feng Mian carefully approached and surveyed Prince Yan. He saw that his eyes were bloodshot as if he was about to cry from anger. Feng Mian froze slightly. The empire deployed various feudal lords to helm the neighboring territories and defend Zhen Huang, its capital. However, to suppress them, their sons were held hostage back in the capital. These children lived in the whirlpool of power from a young age and matured incredibly early as a result. It was the first time that Feng Mian had seen his master express his joy and anger towards another person in such a manner, just like…just like a normal child.
"Your Royal Highness, let's make our way back to the house?"
"Hmm!" Yan Xun grunted coldly, his voice hinting at a tinge of anger. He mounted his horse and led his assistants back to the Yans' residence.
"Feng Mian," Yan Xun, having barely taken two steps, turned back and instructed his apprentice, "You take a trip to the Zhuges' residence and tell them that I found Flurry. Also, tell them not to make things difficult for that girl."
"Ah?" Feng Mian froze and opened his eyes wide. "Your Highness, didn't you say that your surname would no longer be Yan if you helped her again?"