Yan Xun flew into a rage, gave Feng Mian a kick while on his horse, and shouted, "Idiot! I dare you to say that again!"
Feng Mian yelped twice in pain. He immediately turned around and ran towards the Zhuge residence. He did not dare to repeat those words again.
Yan Xun huffed in anger. He saw all his subordinates staring at him and hollered, "I do what I want!"
Everyone hurriedly looked away in their own direction and did not dare to look Yan Xun in the eye again. Each of them thought the same thing and sighed to themselves. After all, the prince was only thirteen years old. It was no big deal if he occasionally threw a childish tantrum.
By the time Chu Qiao reached the Zhuge residence, it was already late at night. Upon seeing Chu Qiao, the gatekeeper was slightly taken aback, as he recognized that this was the favored maid of Qing Shan court's young master. Hence, he did not make things difficult and even gave her a lantern to light the way.
The Zhuge residence gave off an icy cold aura at night, and without the noise and liveliness of the daytime, the silence made the place feel like a pitch-black prison cage. Occasionally there were a few cries of some jackdaws, which were then promptly shot down by archers who had great precision. Any forms of noise was not tolerated while the masters were sound asleep; even animals could not be excused.
As Chu Qiao passed by the high walls of Lan Shan court, she heard a burst of suppressed cries. It was as if a female servant was hiding on the opposite side of the wall and crying, having erred and taken a beating.
Chu Qiao's footsteps gradually came to a halt. The gigantic moon in the sky, pale and round, reflected her small shadow onto the red wall. Her shadow seemed thinner and longer, which reminded her of past times when she had a taller figure. She suddenly felt a tinge of sadness. Perhaps, she would snap out of her trance and realize that it was just a dream. If it was a dream, all of these things would not have happened. Those lifeless corpses, the fresh blood that flowed, and those tears of despair…
The cries of the child on the opposite side of the wall persisted. As she was too short, she could not scale the wall. How could she give warmth to others if she herself was cold? Just like those corpses that were buried underneath the snowy plains. Her despair did not help the situation.
Unexpectedly, she opened the front door of Qing Shan court. Chu Qiao was surprised. She had originally planned to spend the night in the firewood room; the fact that the courtyard's gate was not locked stunned her. Zhuge Yue knew how to take care of his own health. When he was not attending lessons in the General Academy Hall, he would stay in the garden either busy with his flowers or enjoy some tea and burn some incense. He also highly valued sleep, unlike the other young masters, who were only preoccupied with lust, often throughout the night.
As she carefully stepped into the courtyard, the glow of a lantern started advancing towards her. Huan Er hurriedly grabbed Chu Qiao's hand and whispered, "Finally! Where did you run off to just now? I've been waiting for you the entire night."
Chu Qiao apologetically stuck out her tongue and replied, "My horse was scared away. I just came back. Where's the young master? How come the gate isn't locked?"
"You're lucky." Huan Er curled his lips and remarked with a smile, "Young master is in his study reading. He has been there all night and he has not told me to lock up. He hasn't slept either, so I've been able to wait for you here."
Chu Qiao nodded, walking towards Zhuge Yue's room. Huan Er hurriedly stopped her and said, "The young master was not in a good mood when he came back. I do not know who ruffled his feathers. It's late, let's discuss things tomorrow. Anyway, the young masters did not ask you to go to Xuan hall. You go and take a rest, I'll inform the young yaster on your behalf."
Chu Qiao nodded and replied, "That works too." She turned and walked back towards her own room. Huan Er dashed into the Xuan hall, spoke a few sentences and exited.
Chu Qiao was one of the maidservants in Xuan hall with a higher status. Her room was located close to the main yard. As she walked to the door, the light in the room behind her went out before she could manage to open it. She was enveloped by the darkness.
Chu Qiao was a little dazed. She turned back slightly, looking in the direction of Zhuge Yue's room. As the last light was extinguished, the entire Zhuge residence fell into a deep sleep. Chu Qiao stood in the corridor for a long time. As the wind blew, she twitched her nose lightly. It was as if she could smell the scent of blood beneath the ground.
Zhuge Yue seemingly had a nightmare just after closing his eyes. When he woke up, the third sound of the drum had just been struck. The sounds of the watchman dragged on, carrying a soft tail sound, and drifting far away in the silent night.
In that instant, he thought that he was still dreaming. In the dream, there was a warm spring breeze and beautiful peach blossoms. The touch of his mother's hand felt as gentle as the warm spring water, elegantly brushing across his hair, combing a neat bun for him. However, instantly, the cold air permeated his senses, rudely awakening him. He sat up, his white pajamas drenched with sweat. The windows were not fully closed and the icy, cold wind blew onto him through the window slit. The teapot by his bedside was already cold. A few pieces of osmanthus cake sat in a small blue and white porcelain dish. It's refreshing aroma was still delectable, despite the distance. He did not feel like sleeping anymore. He put on his coat, took his long flute, opened the door and walked out.
The maidservants outside were sound asleep, not awakened at all by his movement. He continued to walk and pushed the room door open, seeing the snowy white moonlight in the courtyard. It passed through the trees and shone on the ground, forming streaky, barbed reflections. It was as if it snowed out of nowhere. The warm radiance spread around the courtyard. The midnight wind was slightly chilly and brushed against his sleeves. The fluttering sounds mimicked that of a butterfly's wings. Heading east of the courtyard, he was welcomed by a big plum plantation. Its red and white colors intertwined and gave off a fragrant aroma, spread about by the wind.
This mansion was probably only silent at this hour. Without the other noises, it was as if he was the only person left in this world. He spotted a pavilion located higher up and wandered along the mottled stone path leading up to it. Frost had just descended upon the night, causing the path to be slightly slippery. He bent down and walked slowly, seemingly minding his way, but not paying attention at the same time.
"Fourth young master?" a crisp sound echoed in the distance. He raised his head and saw a little girl sitting on a tree next to the pavilion. She was wearing jade-green clothes, her neck adorned by a ring of snow-white camel fur. Her black eyes were big and round and were staring at him. A pair of small green boots were swinging around in mid-air, just like two dancing grass crickets.
He slowly raised his eyebrows and asked, "Why are you here?"
"I couldn't sleep." Chu Qiao was astonished to see him here at this hour as well. She remarked honestly, "Fourth young master, you couldn't sleep either?"
Zhuge Yue remained silent and slowly walked up towards the pavilion.
The Zhuge residence was originally constructed on a hillside. The sights here were marvellous and offered a view of almost the entire city of Zhen Huang. The hazy moonlight was just like a thin white veil, shrouding every corner of the city, and suppressing the hostility of the harsh northern winds which had chipped away at the city for a few hundred years. The moonlight made even the thick city walls, which had been stained with the blood of numerous people, appear gentler.
Chu Qiao looked at his back view, suddenly feeling a sense of disorientation. The peace after the bloodshed made her feel tired. She leaned on a branch, staring at that quiet youngster. She watched the wind tug at his bright-colored sleeves, just like two big butterflies flying about with the flow of the wind.
"Fourth young master, I lost the little red horse."
Zhuge Yue did not respond, as if he did not hear her words in the first place. The long flute was still in his hands, but he did not play it. He stood still silently for a while, before turning and walking down the hill.
Chu Qiao, seeing that he was leaving, climbed down the tree to follow him. However, she lost her footing and slipped. In desperation and confusion, she grabbed hold of the tree branch, only for it to slice a big hole in her clothes. The back of her arm was also cut and fresh blood oozed out of the wound.
Zhuge Yue stopped in his tracks and raised his head, only to see what seemed like a monkey—no, a child—hanging from a tree branch. He paused to think and reached out his arms.
Chu Qiao was caught off guard and questioned suspiciously, "Fourth young master, what are you trying to do?"
Zhuge Yue replied, "Jump down."
"Ah?" She thought for a long while, before realizing his intention. Chu Qiao quickly said, "It's okay, Xing Er can make her way down by herself."
Zhuge Yue frowned slightly, appearing rather impatient, and declared stubbornly, "Jump down."
Chu Qiao could not insist further and she could only release her grip. In an instant, she dropped into Zhuge Yue's arms. She was still short, only reaching his shoulders in height. In his arms, she felt like a small cat.
"Let's go." Zhuge Yue placed her on the floor and walked in front of her, Chu Qiao promptly followed. They were surrounded by plum trees and the floor was strewn with petals. They trod on the soft white snow, leaving behind two rows of shallow footprints.
By the time they got back to Qing Shan court, all the servants there were awake and frantically searching for the pair. Zhuge Yue did not elaborate and went straight back to his room. Huan Er dashed over to Chu Qiao's room and started to question her.
As they spoke, a maidservant reported that Young Master had caught a cold and that someone was on their way to get a doctor. All of Qing Shan court started to become busy. Huan Er brought a few maids and servants in and out to prepare warm water and change towels, until the doctor arrived to take the Young Master's pulse and prescribe some herbal medicine. Only then was everyone able to catch their breath.
Chu Qiao, having had some supper, was preparing to sleep, when she suddenly heard a knock on her door. She opened the door to see Huan Er standing outside, along with an elder who looked over fifty. Huan Er uttered, "Xing Er, the young master said that you were cut. Since the doctor is here already, let him take a look at your injury."
Chu Qiao paused for a second, and then made her way for the doctor to attend her wound. After the doctor was finished, Huan Er stated, "Also, the young master said that he would sleep in tomorrow, so we need not wake up too early to work."
Chu Qiao nodded in agreement, and Huan Er left the room joyfully.
The hazy moonlight shone on this silent courtyard, it was as if a layer of white frost had been glazed over it.
The next day, first thing in the morning, Chu Qiao went to see Zhuge Yue. However, the young but mature young master was not in his room. Chu Qiao, aware that she lost the red horse, knew that she had to provide explanation to him. As she was about to go outside to ask for his whereabouts, she saw Zhuge Yue stroll into the courtyard, wearing a set of dark golden armor and holding a long sword. He was flanked by a group of servants and adopted a decisive and agile posture. Chu Qiao had not seen him like this before. Zhu Cheng, back bent, had a cloak draped over his arms. He followed closely behind.
Huan Er along with other maidservants hurriedly ran up. They served tea and water to Zhuge Yue, started burning the incense, wiped his hands clean, and started preparing for his bath.
Chu Qiao stood by the side of the main entrance and waited for Zhuge Yue to take his seat. And then she stepped up and confessed, "Fourth young master, I lost the little red horse."
"Um." Zhuge Yue acknowledged her lightly, drinking a mouthful of the tea that he received from Huan Er. Then, he ordered his other servants, "Go and fetch two pots of the cymbidium that was delivered yesterday and take away this incense burner. It irks my sense of smell."
The servants quickly obliged and set about to run their errands. Chu Qiao stood in her original spot. Seeing that Zhuge Yue had no intention of punishing her or continuing with this topic, she smartly stopped talking. Just as she prepared to sneak out, Zhuge Yue put down his teacup, pointed at her and said, "Xing Er, hold on."