"Everyone drop your weapons!" The rapid winds changed direction and snow flew adrift. Chu Qiao abruptly raised her lean, small face and cried sharply, "Otherwise I will kill him!"
"Drop your weapons!" Wei Shuye hollered in response, frowning.
There was a shriek. An arrow accurately buried itself into the head of Wei Shuye's war horse, entering from its left eye and coming out of its right. Blood and brain matter splattered as the horse uttered a painful, shrill cry. Wei Shuye stumbled off of the horse and tumbled onto the ground. It was a rather sorry sight.
Half-crouching on the floor, Chu Qiao held her knife to Wei Jing's neck with her left hand. With her right hand, she held her crossbow, holding it up with her shoulder. She slanted her head and using her mouth she picked up an arrow from the quiver on her back. Her mouth and arm collaborated as she quickly reloaded the arrow. Arching her eyebrows, she gazed at Wei Shuye coldly, then slowly said, "My next arrow won't be going for the horse, so I suggest you don't move."
For a moment, everyone's eyes seemed to be dazed, all of them frozen by the unrelenting weather. Thousands of elite Zhen Huang soldiers, the princes and heirs of the biggest noble families, and top-tier generals serving at the Imperial Military Assignment Center gazed and frowned at the child who was barely three feet tall. She was dressed in clearly oversized leather armor, the teal leather collar shielding her sharp, lean face. It was a face even smaller than the palm of a full-grown man. She had a pair of clear eyes and her small, delicate nose perked upwards slightly. Her arms were so slim that they seemed like they would break if anyone placed force on them. Her entire person exerted an unmistakable sense of fragility and immaturity.
But it was this very child, who looked like the wind could blow her away, that had broken through the defenses of the elite soldiers of the Wei household. At this very moment, half-crouched at this very place, she fearlessly faced thousands of soldiers. She was against the decision made by the Grand Elder's Council, against the holder of Sheng Jin Palace, against the entire Great Xia Empire. She threatened everyone by holding the head of the enemy hostage, her face cold and menacing.
This was the first time Chu Qiao would go up against the authoritarian rule of the Great Xia Empire publicly, looking down on imperial authority. Her thoughts were simple. She would run away from here and bring Yan Xun along as she escaped from this place.
"Put down your weapons and open the gates. Don't make me say this twice." Her voice was deep and her gaze slowly swept across the crowd. As her body slowly turned around, so did the crossbow resting on her shoulder. The arrow point glared like her other blood-thirsty eye, gliding across the people surrounding her as their fear increased.
"Do it!" Wei Jing suddenly cried out. Being of noble birth and having lived a luxurious life, the imperial prince could not tolerate the shame of being threatened by a lowly peasant. He stubbornly lifted his young face, unafraid of the knife that threatened to slice through the skin on his neck, and said furiously, "Take them down!"
Thwack. Before Wei Jing could finish his sentence, two of his fingers had been sliced off by Chu Qiao. Unprepared for the pain, he howled in misery, blood pouring from his wound and dripping to the ground.
"I suggest you shut your mouth, Childe Wei." Chu Qiao looked up at the soldiers of the Wei household and smiled coldly. "Did you not understand what I said, or do you intend to disobey? Perhaps you are under the command of another master of yours?" Her gaze turned to Wei Shuye as she circled him slightly. "With your biggest competitor dead, someone may be able to step up and become head of their family. Major General Shuye, who else but you would be the next Elder Master of the Wei family?"
"Scum!" Wei Jing seethed, his voice full of hatred. "Don't bother trying, the bond between me and my brother is strong."
"Bonds must be tested to tell how strong they are." Chu Qiao grinned. The smile was creepy and ghastly, completely unfitting of an eight-year-old child. Her eyes met Wei Shuye's as she faked a cut with her knife across Wei Jing's neck.
Her hands worked quickly as she tied up Wei Jing. Despite her slight figure and weak strength, her skills and the type of knot she used worked miraculously. She had prevented Wei Jing from escaping despite his strength.
"Get on the horse," she said. "I wish to trouble Childe Wei to walk with us a bit further."
The clouds had now grown so thick that not a trace of starlight could be seen and even the clear moonlight was starting to fade.
Chu Qiao did not ride the same horse as Wei Jing, but was alone on another war horse. She rode boldly and confidently, staying two horse-lengths behind him. She held her small crossbow, her eyes fixed lethally on the man strapped on the horse in front of her, and she remained prepared to deal the final blow should the need ever arise. "Yan Xun, let's go."
Yan Xun squinted. His lips slanted upwards on one side and he laughed joyfully. He lazily hopped back on his horse, leading his subordinates as he rode forward, completely unconcerned about the enemies at his side. Chu Qiao led the way and emitted a dark, cold feeling that was impossible to ignore despite her small body. Everywhere she went, rows of Zhen Huang soldiers cowered back like flood waters ebbing away.
The city gates opened with a creak. Torches burned brightly, lighting up the sky and coloring it red. The smoke signals from the north of the empire continued to fume. The battle affected tens of thousands of Xia people and blood soaked every inch of earth upon the Yan Bei Plateau. Yet at this moment, at the heart of the empire, the boy named by the empire to be the head of rebellion, son of the King of Yan, Yan Xun, strode out of the walls of Zhen Huang City unchallenged. The only thing the most elite of the Xia Imperial troops could do was watch on with blank expressions, no longer able to change anything about the outcome.
The corners of Zhuge Huai's mouth twitched upwards, forming a barely noticeable smile.
For the family of Zhuge, it was not important whether Yan Xun made it back to the north. What was important was the fact that Sheng Jing Palace had assigned the task to the Wei family, and they had failed.
No other news would be more delightful than this, Zhuge Huai thought to himself. He said to the guard next to him, "Notify the fourth young master to return home at once. I have things to discuss with him."
The guard bowed and stepped forward. "The fourth young master has left the city."
"What?" Zhuge Huai was taken aback. "Left the city?"
"He has just left from the northern gate. He said he was going to catch a runaway slave from the household."
"A runaway slave?" Zhuge Huai frowned. "What kind of runaway slave would he bother to chase himself?"
"I'm not sure. I will see to it immediately."
"I hope that he doesn't mess things up," Zhuge Huai mumbled, as he lifted his head and squinted towards the pitch-black night sky.
An hour later, on an old, desolate path, Yan Xun instructed to have Wei Jing freed from his binds. "Since I have agreed to let you go, you can count on me not to go back on my word. You may leave now," he said coldly.
Taking one last spiteful glance at Yan Xun and Chu Qiao, who stood behind him, he turned around and left. He headed back in the direction of Zhen Huang City.
"You shouldn't have freed him," Chu Qiao said behind him, her voice icy. "Did you not see the look in his eyes? Keeping him alive will only mean bigger trouble in the future."
Looking at the gradually disappearing silhouette of Wei Jing, Yan Xun shook his head, then slowly explained, "Killing him would mean Yan Bei had really committed treason. I still don't know what happened back home, so I can't take the risk." He turned around. "What are you going to do now? The house of Zhuge won't let you off easy. Come to the north with me."
Chu Qiao lifted her chin and chuckled, "Thanks for the offer, but I still have things to do."
Yan Xun frowned. With a deep voice he said, "What sort of things could a child need to do?"
Chu Qiao arched her eyebrows at Yan Xun. "After knowing me for so long, which part of me looks like a child to you?"
Speechless, Yan Xun was tongue tied trying to justify his words. Thinking about it, the girl really did not seem like a child. The Prince of Yan locked his eyebrows together and thought for a long time, then pulled on her hands in exasperation. "You look just like a child to me. Look at your hands, your small arms, small legs, small head, and small figure. You are obviously a kid. No matter how cruel you are, you are still a child," he said stubbornly.
Chu Qiao shook off Yan Xun's hands, muttering to herself, "What a pest."
"Hey!" Yan Xun spurred forward, blocking the way of Chu Qiao, "You're really leaving?"
"I must go."
"What do you need to do? Can't I have someone do it for you?" the Prince of Yan asked loudly, humiliated by her rejection.
Chu Qiao turned around. She looked at the boy's clear eyes and replied seriously, "Yan Xun, we were never the same kind of people. I think it's enough for us to have walked together for so long."
Sitting on his horse, Yan Xun remained silent.
"For the sake of having known you, I will say this: it's hard to predict what will happen in the future. Take care of yourself," she said with her tone low like an elder. Then, she turned her horse around, her horse whip waving in the air as she left.
Without the light of the moon and stars, the lone child and her horse gradually disappeared into the snowstorm. Yan Xun suddenly jerked out of his trance and spurred forward, but to no avail. Sitting on his horse, he yelled to the child who had disappeared into the snow, "Hey! Look for me in Yan Bei if you ever need me!" His voice pierced through the snowstorm and echoed into the night. The night was far from over, the scene pitch-black and chilling to the bone.
In the complete darkness outside of Zhen Huang City, a small shadow quickly dashed along the traveler's road outside of the eastern gate. An oversized leather coat covered his face and body. A small sack made from the skin of a mink plopped against his back, its bulging shape an indicator of its heavy weight.
The snowstorm continued to worsen and the blowing winds barely allowed a man to open his eyes. The men struggled to walk forward but never stopped moving, as if some savage beast was in pursuit of them.
In the howling winds, the crisp sounds of hooves suddenly sounded. On the distant plain, a pure black war horse galloped rapidly. The child on its back was slight in figure, no more than seven or eight years old, and dressed in the clothing of a Yan guard. Her pair of black pupils scanned the scene beneath the night sky like a perceptive hawk. She saw the lonely strider in front of her and immediately increased her pace in delight.
"Xiaoba!" Chu Qiao cried. The winds raged and tore her voice apart within seconds. The individual on foot seemed completely oblivious and continued on his journey, his head kept low. Chu Qiao spurred onward and dashed, then stopped right in front of the man. Frowning, she spoke in a low voice, "Xiaoba?"
"Hehe," a low, raspy voice answered her and the small figure lifted his head. His face was wrinkled and showed no traces of a young child. It was a middle-aged dwarf around forty years old!.
Suddenly, a bolt shot from the sleeves of the dwarf and straight towards the Chu Qiao's face. Its edge was sharp and glistened with coldness. Caught off guard, Chu Qiao moaned, then her body fell off the back of the horse.
A raspy laugh sounded, extremely creepy in the chilly night. The dwarf tossed aside the sack on his back and slowly crept forward, one foot kicking the leg of the child. Only when he saw that the child was as limp as a corpse did he crouch down to check her breathing.
"Master must be mad to have sent me against such an easy child." The dwarf sneered and turned the body of the child lying on the ground over. But in that instant, the limp body of the child jerked upwards. Her pair of eyes shined like stars and her motions were explosive and powerful. In the blink of an eye, the child who had been at the mercy of the dwarf had turned things around. She mercilessly sent the cold dagger into the artery in the dwarf's neck and spat out the sleeve bolt onto the ground.