Chu Qiao's face was as fair as a white jade; her skin clear and tender, showing signs of the bitter cold weather outside. Yan Xun used his fingers to warm her up, causing her to fall into a daze. She could not help but blush when he did that, pushing his hands away uneasily. She frowned and said, "What are you doing?"
"Here." Yan Xun showed her his hands, and a grain of shiny white rice was stuck to his fingertip. He laughed and said, "AhChu, you must've been really hungry out there. I think I have to compensate you for your effort."
As Chu Qiao opened her mouth to speak, she suddenly caught a glimpse of Yan Xun's fingers. On his pale hand, there were four long and slender fingers, but part of his pinkie was cut off.
Chu Qiao's gaze suddenly turned cold. As she slowly scooped up a mouthful of rice, she raised her head and said in a deep tone, "If we succeed this time, Wei Jing will never be able to climb into power again."
The atmosphere became quiet all of a sudden as Yan Xun looked at the side of Chu Qiao's face. He raised his hand and patted her shoulder. "AhChu, don't think too much."
"Yan Xun, I will not be reckless. I will do what I can." Chu Qiao suddenly sounded bored as she lowered her voice and said, "We have waited for so many years, I will not lose my patience now."
The warm afternoon sun shone through the windows, engulfing them in a warm glow. There seemed to be a taste of spring in the air. Time flew and the young children from the past had now turned into adults. The sun shone brightly outside. There were things that had changed, but there were things that aged like wine, turning mellow with time.
"AhChu, since you are back, don't head out again. Take a good rest."
Chu Qiao raised her head. Although she was not very old, she had grown into a beauty. Her eyebrows curved, which was an uncommon sight among the ordinary noble woman as she seemed to possess more spirit and wisdom. She lowered her head, resting her forehead on Yan Xun's chest as she whispered, "Okay."
Yan Xun reached out to pull the girl into an embrace. He gently patted her back and said, "When we return to Yan Bei, spring should be there. I will bring you to Huo Lei plains to hunt for wild horses."
"Okay." Chu Qiao sounded somewhat vexed as she said, "We will do that."
Time passed slowly. Yan Xun's shoulder started to ache but Chu Qiao remained silent for a long while. The boy looked down, seeing the long eyelashes casting a silhouette on her face. Under the sunlight, she seemed even more beautiful.
"AhChu?" Yan Xun murmured, but saw no response from Chu Qiao. He chuckled softly under his breath, "She actually fell asleep in this position." He stood up and carried her by the waist. With her alertness, she did not struggle, as if she knew that she was in a safe place.
When they walked out of the study room, AhJing came forward immediately. Yan Xun gave him a glare, causing AhJing and several other servants to back off instantly, not daring to make a sound. They watched as Yan Xun slowly carried Chu Qiao, who was dressed in men's clothes, into the bedroom.
After a while, the Prince Yan walked out of the door. AhJing came forward hurriedly.
"They were ambushed on the way back. Miss led her men as they took an alternative route from Lu Ye, rushing back here. She was afraid that your Highness would be worried; hence she did not stop her horse for three days. I'm afraid that she might be too exhausted."
Yan Xun furrowed his eyebrows tightly together as he muttered, "Where are those people?"
"They are now 80 miles west of Zhen Huang City, at Liang Shan Town. Our men are currently watching them. Your Highness, do you want to take action?"
"Yes." Yan Xun nodded as he walked calmly towards the study room.
"Then…" AhJing hesitated as he thought. He asked, "How about the stone merchants in charge of the mausoleum? The ones Miss brought over?"
Yan Xun pondered for a moment and said, "Since they are now useless, get rid of them too."
"Yes, your Highness."
The cold wind blew from the direction of Xuan Lang Mountain. Yan Xun raised his head and saw a featherless white bird soaring through the northern winds. It seemed to be attracted to the fragrance wafting from his body as it circled fearlessly above his head, chirping curiously and flapping its wings, flying up and down.
AhJing seemed a little dazed, but he cried gleefully, "It is the Cang Wu bird! Your Highness, this may be a little Cang Wu bird that has lost its way. This bird is not afraid of humans and is very precious. There are many people that domeste it! But this is my first time seeing a Cang Wu bird so small."
"Is it?" Yan Xun replied faintly. He put out his hand as he raised his eyebrows towards the bird that was circling above his head. The little bird chirped and it seemed very curious. After a few flaps, it actually landed on Yan Xun's fingertips, pecking at his palm with its tiny, bright yellow beak. Its red eyes looked around energetically with affection.
AhJing was surprised. As he wanted to gasp in disbelief, a crisp crack sounded. Yan Xun clenched his fist, and the precious little bird did not even have the time to scream. It landed on the ground with a dull thud.
"You are too gullible. If I did not kill you, someone else would have. It was just a matter of time." The man's black robe fluttered behind him. With a straight posture, he disappeared within the pavilion. Gusts of strong wind caused massive amounts of snow to billow, burying its corpse under a thick cover of snow.
When she woke up, it was deep into the night. Within the tiny stove on the table, there was a pot of warm milk. Chu Qiao poured it into a small cup and drank from it, instantly feeling the warmth spread through her. The moon was enormous that night and hung brightly in the night sky, illuminating Ying Ge court. She opened the windows and bright white moonlight shot into the room. She sat on a stool and placed her elbows on the windowsill, breathing slowly.
She had looked at this yard countless of times, but there were many times which she could not discern whether the view before her was a dream or if her past life was purely an illusion. Within the blink of an eye, she had been in this world for eight years. Eight years is enough to change many things, including a person's thinking, beliefs, longing, and their determination to strive for what they want.
There were two tall pieces of timber in the yard. They had stood there for more than seven years. Even in dark nights like this, one could still use the moonlight to see the deep blade marks within the blocks of timber. This was the place where she and Yan Xun had practiced their martial arts. In the early years, they did not even dare to practice in the day. Every night, they would sneak into this courtyard, one of them silently looking out for the other. One silently practiced the international mixed martial arts that Chu Qiao had demonstrated. Whenever the palace's servants walked by, they would get hold their breath, only releasing it when the servants had walked away.
Within the remote west warming room, there would always be two sets of bedding prepared. At that time, they did not have anyone they could trust. These two children would sleep in the same room, with their knives in their arms. When one was asleep, the other had to be awake, with a thin string tied between the two doors. Even when there was the slightest movement from either of them, both would jump out of the bed with their knives in hand.
On the shelves of the study room, there was an antique vase filled with a variety of medication to prepare them for anything that came their way. Although they did not use it often, it became a habit of theirs. The chopsticks and spoons they used for their meals had to be made of silver. They had also reared quite a number of rabbits. Before having their meal, these rabbits would have a bite of the dishes that were served to them. After which, they would wait for a day or two before putting the foods into their mouths. In the first few years that they were here, they had never tasted a steaming hot meal.
It did not matter whether it was in the middle of summer or deep in the winter, they would always wear a layer of soft armor under their clothes. They would always have a handy weapon on them, regardless if they were asleep or awake. Time passed incredibly slowly, but no matter how tough life was, they fought side by side and grew up together. Hope started to seem clearer and the future did not seem as bleak. Inside their hearts, a tinge of raging anticipation grew with time.
Chu Qiao grinned slightly. In a way, this could count as having a sense of belonging. After so many years, so many killings, and so many devious plots, she finally did not see herself as an outsider wanting to escape. As a matter of fact, the moment she stepped into this royal city, their fates were tightly bound together.
Chu Qiao could not help but look towards the northwestern skies. There lay the Hui Hui Mountains and Huo Lei Plains that Yan Xun vividly described countless times. Also, the Yan Bei prairie that they longed to go to was also there. These thoughts supported them through countless cold nights, humiliating moments, as well as moments they were filled with hatred. They had come through all of that.
She took a deep breath and closed the windows. She came to the desk and spread out the chart, lowering her head as she studied it closely.
The door creaked open slowly as a man, dressed in a white cotton robe with camels embroidered on its collar, walked into the room. He looked tidy and handsome.
Chu Qiao grinned, but she did not get up. She greeted him, "It's already so late, why aren't you sleeping?"
Yan Xun carried a meal box as he walked in, and opened its lid. He said, "You slept until midnight and missed dinner, aren't you hungry?"
As he finished his sentence, a rumble sounded from her stomach. Chu Qiao rubbed her belly as she smiled sheepishly. "It was fine before you mentioned it. It just started to rebel."
"Have some of it first, let's see if it fits your appetite."
"Okay," Chu Qiao said as she put down the pen and paper. She stood up and took the meal box. Looking in, she exclaimed, "Woah! Pear dumplings!"
"Yes. I know you love it, that's why I asked the servants to prepare it. It was kept frozen for the last few days, waiting for your arrival. They're freshly cooked."
"Hehe." The girl's eyes turned into slits as she smiled in glee. "Yan Xun, every time I eat this dish, it feels like I am home." She munched on the dumplings as Yan Xun poured her a glass of deer milk, silently watching her eat her meal. The moonlight shone through the windows onto both of them, with the fire crackling in the corner of the room. It seemed that everything had become peaceful and tranquil.
"AhChu." Seeing that Chu Qiao had finished her meal, Yan Xun passed her a white handkerchief and wiped the greasy stains from the corner of her lips naturally as he said in a deep tone, "The stone merchants that you have brought over…"
"Yan Xun, do what you must, you don't have to tell me anything." Before allowing Yan Xun to complete his sentence, she said, "I have not thought this through carefully, and was not ruthless enough to kill them. However, having them around might cause trouble in the future. When we do not have the power to go against the elders within the palace, it is unwise to have such evidence around. The reason I brought them back was for you to make this decision for me. That's why you need not explain it to me."
Yan Xun grinned and his gaze turned gentle suddenly. "Well, I just did not want to keep it from you."
"That's right." Chu Qiao laughed as she said, "We have already sworn to never hide anything from each other. Hiding facts would only cause misunderstandings and rifts between us, no matter the initial intention. We must not make that mistake."
"Hehe," Yan Xun chuckled. "All right, then tell me about your trip to Nan Ji Mountain this time, including all the minor details, from start to finish."