"Okay," Chu Qiao laughed as she pushed Yan Xun in front of the desk, pointing towards the map and vividly recounting the details of her trip seriously.
The skies were foggy and a profound silence engulfed them both. Drinking a mouthful of tea, Chu Qiao jotted down a final stroke and began pointing at the chart. "As long as General Meng Tian ruled the Meng clan, I would not have to worry about them. Due to current circumstances, instead of worrying about the Sheng Jin palace or about Wei Fa, we have to worry about the Zhuge clan."
Yan Xun picked at his brows and said, "Didn't Zhuge Huai just leave the capital? In recent years, Zhuge Muqing had slowly retreated from the Grand Elder's Council, handing the family matters to Zhuge Huai. Would he interfere this time?"
"I think you have underestimated the slyness of this old fox." Chu Qiao shook her head. "In the empire's reign of 300 years, the Grand Elder's Council had been led by different families. Among the founding elders, only the Zhuge clan had fought their way out of the prairie, along with the Great Emperor Pei Luo. The Zhuge clan understood the balance of power; this was their greatest asset. They have never placed themselves in harm's way, unlike the Muhe clan, which craves the limelight. The recent emperors wanted to consolidate their power, starting from the ones who had the most limelight. This was the only reason why the Zhuge clan had survived all these years. There were constant disputes within the empire, although it seems Zhuge Muqing had always taken the neutral stance, avoiding any conflicts that came their way. This did not happen by chance. Look here," Chu Qiao pointed at the chart, "this is the intelligence that I have gathered over the months. The Zhuge bloodline seems like they are not plotting anything on the surface, but the supplies, salt, and metal ores, in the northwestern region were reallocated on a small scale. Although there hadn't been much that was allocated each time, the frequency of reallocation was very high. Zhuge Xi had been sent to Xi Han City from Song Shui to collect the taxes for land and supplies. However, it has already been two months and he is still not back. The officials felt that Zhuge Xi was dull-witted and was not of much use. However, in my opinion, although the size of Xi Han City is small, it sits beside the Ya Ming Gates, which is one of the places we must pass in order for us to return to Yan Bei. It sits in the center of the courier routes of Yao Shui, Fu Su, and Chi Shui, causing it to have significant strategic importance. That city must not be overlooked."
"Also, look here on the eighth of last month, the Grand Elder's Council had agreed to announce Zhuge Ran as the official call to arms. Zhuge Muqing did not send his son back to their northeastern camp. Instead, he was sent to the southwestern camp to be a general. The southwestern camp neighbors the northwest, with the southwestern camp situated within the territories that are under the control of the Bataha clan. If the Zhuge family had not secretly communicated with the Bataha clan, how would Old Batu allow an outsider to camp within his territory? Also, this is the most important point: did you not notice that Zhuge Yue might be coming back very soon?"
Yan Xun nodded. "I have noticed all that you said. Lady Yu sent her men to remind me about this a few days ago."
"Oh?" Chu Qiao's eyes brightened. "What did Lady Yu say?"
"She said that it was still too early to act. When various powers gather to celebrate the Xia Emperor's birthday, there will be too many variables to consider. For now, we can only react accordingly."
Chu Qiao's brows instantly furrowed as she looked up at Yan Xun. She said slowly, "Yan Xun, do you think that it is okay? I fear that there will be trouble. I think we should prepare ourselves in advance to be absolutely sure."
"AhChu, there are no perfect plans in this world. Talking about preparation, haven't we prepared ourselves adequately throughout the years?" Yan Xun gazed seriously into her bright eyes. "Do you believe me?"
Chu Qiao nodded. "I do."
"Then you should take a rest." Yan Xun laughed softly. "Leave these matters to me. Your trip to the Nan Ji Mountains has stressed your body too much, you are too exhausted for this."
"I do not want to return to Yan Bei alone." Yan Xun suddenly said in a deep tone, "I do not have any relatives left. AhChu, you mean the most to me."
The candles burned warmly, Yan Xun's gaze was as soft as water. He raised his hand and stroked Chu Qiao's cheek. "AhChu, do you still remember the year that we stepped into Sheng Jin palace when my fever was so severe, and there was no medicine to treat it? Do you remember what you said to me?"
Chu Qiao was stunned as Yan Xun continued, "You said that you wanted me to rest without worry, that you would be awake until I woke up. In the end, I woke up four days later and you were still awake, taking care of me all of that time. Now that I have the ability to take care of you, you can rest without worry. I will be awake until the day we can close our eyes together and sleep in peace."
Chu Qiao lowered her head and pursed her lips gently. A bunch of warm flames tingled deep within her heart, reassuring her within this cold and dark winter night. "Okay, then I will not leave. I will stay by your side, waiting for you to bring me away from here."
Yan Xun nodded and had a bright gaze. His smile was so warm it seemed like a thawed lake in March. The worry she had had over the past months vanished instantly.
"AhChu, we walked in here together and we will walk out together. You have to trust me because, in this world, we are all we have.
At that time, snow accumulated in mid-winter as the long tranquil night passed. Zhen Huang City was peaceful. However, no one knew about the devilish sharp blades that lay beneath its surging undercurrents. The bizarre and unpredictable currents broiled silently, ready to overflow at any moment, annihilating everything in its way. The people on the shore could only tread with caution, trying their best to save their clothes from the muddy water. When a person could not fight against the tide, the most he could do was stay away.
Closing the door of Chu Qiao's room, he saw the candlelight within the room going out. His gaze turned cold and stern as he raised his head, looking in the direction of Xia Hua hall with an intense memory flashing before his eyes. He squeezed his fingers together, breaking a dried twig within his palm. He looked up and closed his eyes, suddenly remembering one night, years ago.
That day, Chu Qiao was just nine years old, and she was frantically looking for medicine that could cure his illness. However, Wei Jing found out about it as he was spying on them in the dark. In the end, she was whipped and beaten by 20 big, burly men. In order to prevent him from getting targeted with this excuse, she neither escaped nor fought back. She was beaten to a pulp, with blood flowing down her body. When he arrived, the child was almost dying but she was still clutching the packet of stolen medicine.
He had silently sworn from that day on, he would never let someone that meant so much to him leave his side again. There was no one in this life that could mean more to him than her. He hoped that his moment would come quicker. He had waited too long and he could not wait any longer.
Yan Xun opened his eyes, his gaze seemed clear as day. Tomorrow would be the time when Zhuge Yue returned to the capital. He had not seen this old friend in seven years. How was he all these years later?
The wound on his shoulder had recovered long ago, but a tinge of hatred still remained rooted in his heart. Yan Xun laughed coldly as he turned and strode into the darkness.
Since the beginning of this year, the capital city of Zhen Huang was experiencing the heaviest snowfall in its history. The heavy snow fell on the city for twelve consecutive days. Harsh and cold winds billowed through the ancient roads leading into the city. A team of light cavalry, clad in black armor, galloped through the snowy plains as they sped towards Zhen Huang City.
This troop looked very inconspicuous, wrapping themselves with ordinary blue fur coats. Wearing their fur cap, their weapons were all wrapped with cotton as they hung them over their backs. Their rides were also ordinary Hongchuan horses. One would think that they were ordinary city guards from a single glance. However, if one looked closely, they would feel an indescribable aura emanating from them.
The light cavalry rode past Jiu Wei as they bypassed its busy main street, going behind the Chi Lake and passed Zi Jin Square. They stopped only when they reached the Bai Qiang Gates, the place that only allowed the Inner City's Imperial Guards to enter. The man who took the lead was dressed in black armor with a black fur coat wrapped around his shoulders. With a light flick, snow and dust fell from his coat. He walked away from his troops with some of his men as he walked straight into the heavily guarded Sheng Jin palace.
"Seventh Royal Highness!" Among the snow, young Zhao Che raised his head with his face covered in frost. Beneath his sharp brow were his cold and emotionless eyes. He had spent the last four years at the border regions. His time there was like a stone, sharpening the edges of his sword. He raised his brow and asked, "Where's my eight brother?"
"He's been taken over by the state's household."
Zhao Che picked at his brow as he said in a deep voice, "Did you even work?"
The few men before him instantly knelt down in fright, as they echoed, "We deserve to die."
Sitting on his horse, Zhao Che squinted his eyes and said, "Since you all know you deserved to die, why did you even come see me?" After that, he turned and walked along Qian Xi road, leaving the young guards who were kneeling in the snow behind.
The snow was getting heavier by the minute, and raging winds howled. Zhao Che and the others were wrapped in their coats and fur caps as they walked hurriedly between the red walls.
"Who is that?" the palace guards shouted sternly.
The figure froze in front of them. Under the cover of the snowstorm, they could only make out the silhouette of that person. The figure was not very tall and was extremely skinny, but very clever. She knelt down when she heard the voice and lowered her head humbly.
"Your Highness, it should be the palace maid."
Zhao Che glanced in that direction silently, brandishing the sword from his waist, and instantly lifting the cap from his head. His long hair was tied in a man bun, but his neck was unusually slender and fair. Zhao Che stepped onto his cap with his boots as he gazed at the person kneeling before him. He said slowly, "Lift your head."
A delicate and pretty face entered his view. Her eyes were calm and her pupils were jet-black. Although she was in a man's attire, she was a beauty. Zhao Che's brows rose slightly and relaxed after a while as if he remembered something. With a mocking sneer, he said, "When a man becomes powerful, even their pets ascend to heaven. I can't believe that would be a day even you could walk freely within Sheng Jin palace?"
Chu Qiao lowered her head and remained calm, not speaking a word.
Zhao Che glanced back and spat, kicking her cap back towards her. He left without uttering a single word.
The snow and wind continued to billow while the girl raised her head, only seeing a fuzzy figure walking away from her. However, she felt an immense pressure coming onto her. Why would he return to the palace during the blizzard today? The situation within Zhen Huang had become increasingly tense without anyone having noticed, although there was still more than half a year until Yan Xun returned to Yan Bei.
That night, within Sheng Jin palace, there was a grand banquet organized. Apart from the Seventh Prince Zhao Che, who had just returned from his crusade, there was also the fourth prince of the Zhuge family, Zhuge Yue, who had returned from Wolong Mountains after seven long years of recuperation. He had already become the deputy commander of the military office.
The Emperor of the Xia Empire, Emperor Zhao Zhengde, had not come for this banquet, as usual. Only the Empress Muhe Nayun attended as a symbolic gesture. After all, Prince Zhao Che was her flesh and blood. Everyone enjoyed the banquet as toasts were offered between the kindly ministers. There was no sign of what had happened three days ago, when the eighth prince, Zhao Jue, was banished from the royal Zhao's family temple due to him incurring the wrath of the Emperor. He had since been relegated to the common people and was on trial by the country's government.
"Those things were like stones within a lake; not everyone could tell its shape and size. Only those who had the courage would reach in to find out. The depth of the water and whether they could walk out alive would be the unknown that could never be foreseen."