Chu Qiao felt a tinge of warmth in her heart as she patted Zhao Song on his shoulder. She said, "Don't worry, I have a way to deal with it."
Sigh. "Since you always had a plan, I worried for nothing."
"No, you did not." Chu Qiao laughed as she said, "You told me that you were worried about me, which means you still treat me as a friend. I appreciate that."
"You do?" Zhao Song was suddenly elated, a smile spread across his face. "Then don't return to Yan Bei with Yan Xun. Instead, stay in the capital with me?"
"No," Chu Qiao said resolutely. "I would agree to anything else, but not that."
Zhao Song sighed once again as his shoulders drooped, an I knew it expression on his face.
They had known each other for about six or seven years. When Yan Xun initially came to the palace, everyone saw Chu Qiao as his female guard. Nobody doubted her identity, nor looked into the young child's history. Those who knew anything about Yan Xun had perished. No one from the Zhuge family had the chance to meet her in the palace. The only person who knew everything was Zhuge Yue, but for some reason he had said nothing about it. A month after that incident had happened, he left Zhen Huang for the Wolong Mountains and hadn't returned since.
All these arrogant aristocrats had seen her in the very beginning on the hunting grounds, but they would never bother to look twice at a lowly slave. Even though Wei Jing hated her to the core, he only saw her as Yan Xun's servant. Every time he wanted revenge, he would come directly for Yan Xun when no one was around.
However, Yan Xun and Chu Qiao's tranquil days had came to an end after they met Zhao Song. This young prince recognized the young servant from the Zhuge household that had repeatedly made fun of him with a single glance. However, he did not speak a word. Even when the aristocrats wanted to put Yan Xun down further, he had secretly helped Yan Xun and Chu Qiao overcome their challenges, one after the other. On a serious note, he was the only friend the two of them had in the capital.
It was a pity that Zhao Zhengde was his father and that he was the Prince of the Xia Empire. This was one thing that Yan Xun would never let go.
"AhChu," Zhao Song handed her the box and said, "This is for you."
Chu Qiao was stunned, "How can I accept it? It is a treasure."
"Just take it." Zhao Song stuffed the box into her hands without another word. "It's of no use to me. You know me, I will get bored of it in a while. Since it is going to be someone else's sooner or later, I'd rather give it to you first. Your body is weak, and Yan Xun is such a cold-hearted guy, he sent you out for errands even when it is so cold. I heard that you just returned from the northern regions, right?"
"Yes." Chu Qiao nodded and said, "I went there to do some small business for the prince."
"I have some fur coats that were brought over by the Si Se Ee people, they are incredibly warm. I will order my servants to bring it over to your place, you must remember to wear it."
"Okay." Chu Qiao smiled. "Thank you."
"Well then, I'll be heading back first."
As if she was in a daze, she said, "Aren't you participating in the hunt later?"
Zhao Song shook his head and said, "The hunt will last a few days and today's main event is the human hunt. Looking at a bunch of people shooting arrows at young slaves, I don't see the fun in it. I just came to look for you. Since I found you, I'll head back first."
Chu Qiao nodded. As she was about to speak, she heard a high-pitched squeak behind her, "Aiyo! My little ancestor, I did not mean it that way!"
Both of them turned their heads, looking straight at two teenagers that were around 16 to 17 years old standing in front of Zhao Song's tent. They stood shoulder to shoulder, the contours of their figures were very deep and they looked very much alike. One of them had thick and bushy eyebrows with a strict gaze. He wore a blue robe with a coat over his shoulder, making him look as if he was as strong as a leopard. The other had a large, grey fur coat that looked worn, and it just reached his mid-thigh; it seemed a little too short for him. His gaze was cold and strict. Behind them were a few smaller servants, without a carriage within the tent.
The teenager in the blue robe stared coldly at a young eunuch of the second class as he said angrily, "If you had not meant it that way, then what could you have meant?"
The young eunuch was kicked aside, the tremendous force nearly breaking his arm. As he cried in pain, he said, "What I meant was that this camp is for the thirteenth highness. My sixteenth highness, you cannot use this camp."
His voice was deep and sounded cold to the bone as he heard what the eunuch said. With a single grab, he held the little eunuch by the scruff of his neck and demanded, "Then where am I assigned to?"
"You…you were assigned to the west side of the forest."
"Really?" The teenager sneered. "Is that a good place? If I'm not mistaken, it is just beside the horse's stable with animals in it."
"This…this… We will be careful not to let the animals disturb your sixteenth highness in the middle of the night."
"Yu Delu!" The teenager widened his eyes and roared, "How dare you!"
"Sixteenth!" A deep voice suddenly sounded. The teenager in a grey fur coat that was standing beside him held him back as he said, "Don't cause trouble."
"How did I cause trouble?" The teenager seethed. "Fourteenth brother, I do not understand. We are sons of our father, how could some of us be doted on, while some of us get thrown into a corner? These servants are looking down on us!"
"Stop." Fourteenth turned and said to Yu Delu, "Eunuch Lu, could you please show us the way to our tent?"
"Yes, yes." Yu Delu stumbled to his feet as he led the way.
"Wait!" Zhao Song suddenly shouted as he walked forward.
As sixteenth saw him, he glared at Zhao Song and wanted to rush towards him. However, fourteenth pulled him back.
"Thirteenth brother." Zhao Song nodded and said to Yu Delu, "Eunuch Lu, I'm not participating in today's hunt, let fourteenth and sixteenth brothers stay in my tent."
Yu Delu looked dazed as he glanced cautiously at Zhao Song. He asked, "Then what about tomorrow and the day after? Is your thirteenth highness not coming here at all?"
Zhao Song laughed and said, "Let's talk about it tomorrow. Even if I had to live beside the animals, I'd be okay with it. Don't forget that I slept in the stables when I was young. It's okay."
"This…" As Yu Delu was about to speak, fourteenth suddenly interrupted, "Thank you, thirteenth brother, for your kindness. Sixteenth brother is still young and naïve. This camp will still be yours. Sixteenth, let's go." After which, he turned and left, pulling the sixteenth prince along with him. Yu Delu was still stunned but hurriedly caught up with them.
"That was my fourteenth brother, his name is Yang. He's too troublesome to deal with. You may have never seen him before. That is because their mother was a woman who was gifted to the emperor by the Han Jia people. Hence, they were born with a lower status and always roamed within the Xi Wu palace, and have never been where you stayed."
Chu Qiao nodded in silence.
"Alright, I gotta go. You go back to Yan Xun. Watch out for Zhege Yue, I saw him at dinner last night. He is not like what he used to be, you must be careful."
Chu Qiao nodded, and said, "I understand."
Zhao Song brought his bodyguards as he climbed onto his horse. He turned and did not forget to remind her, "If there is nothing to be done, try not to roam around. Jing Han and the rest have seen you before. Don't let them see you here. Furthermore, Wei Jing is back. You and Yan Xun have to keep your cool when you see him. If something happens, send someone to notify me immediately."
The girl sighed helplessly and said, "I know, you should get on your way."
"If something happens, send someone to inform me immediately. Don't be silly and deal with it yourself."
Chu Qiao did not know whether she should laugh or cry as she said, "If you wait any longer to leave, the night will soon come."
"Hmph." Zhao Song left on his horse as he mumbled, "I knew you would want me to leave. Why are you so heartless? Sooner or later, you will realize who cares about you the most." With a shout, Zhao Song left in a flurry, his men following closely behind.
Chu Qiao looked on as Zhao Song's figure rode further away. Suddenly feeling the warmth of the western dusk, she forgot about the frigid northern winds.
When she came back, she passed by the western forest. From afar, she saw the fourteenth prince, Zhao Yang, and the sixteenth prince Zhao Xiang, raising the tent with their servants. Chu Qiao made sure to remember them as she took a glance, after which, she walked back to Yan Xun's campsite.
When she pulled the drapes open, a waft of fragrant bluegrass hit her nose. Yan Xun did not look up, as he to be writing something. He asked calmly, "Zhao Song has left?"
Chu Qiao looked at Yan Xun as she sat beside the fireplace to warm her hands. "You're quite smart."
Yan Xun let out a long sigh as he put down the documents that he had just written. As he put down his pen, he said, "He has not liked such game since he was young. It isn't surprising that he left."
As she heard Yan Xun use the word "game" to describe the hunt, she unknowingly felt a tinge of coldness within her heart. She raised her head as she asked, "He could not bear to play this game. How about you?"
Yan Xun frowned and said, "Are you talking about the past, or now?"
"All of it."
"AhChu," Yan Xun walked over to Chu Qiao and knelt beside her, "do you know why my father failed?"
Chu Qiao looked up but remained silent.
Yan Xun laughed lightly with a bitter smile that had a tinge of bloodlust. "He lost because he was too soft-hearted and thought too highly of friendship. He once had the opportunity to overthrow the current emperor and take the throne himself, bringing the Yan clan back into the Zhao clan's bloodline. But he didn't. After that, he had the opportunity to kill General Meng Zhen who led a conquest against him, but he did not. In the end, Zhao Zhengde killed his whole family and Meng Zhen beheaded him. When I first stepped into the Sheng Jin palace, I swore to never be like him."
The young Yan Xun stood smart and upright, his gaze dark like the deep sea as he walked out. He stopped as he lifted the curtains. He said in a deep tone, "If you are unable to accept it, stay in the tent tonight. Don't come and watch."
There was a full moon but stars were rare. Over at the main hunting arena, sounds of music and dance echoed through the air. The Xia Empire respected the martial arts and its people were tough. To commemorate the nomadic spirit of the ancestors, the empire would always organize two huntings in a year; one in the spring and one in the autumn.
However, it was still early spring. In Hong Chuan, snow would continue falling until May or June each year. Their winter was extremely long, while their summer was extremely short. In the nearby forest, there were sporadic sounds of chatter. Chu Qiao knew that it was the soldiers hunting for tigers and bears, allowing the hunt to carry on safely tomorrow.
She wore a white mink jacket with a fur coat over her shoulders. Her boots were also white, making her hair and gaze seem a little darker than usual. She started to age seriously. Although her features had not fully matured, the face of Jing Yue'er was one that would turn into a beauty, emanating an obvious aura of charm and beauty.
Within the tent, braziers radiated warmly, but she had an indescribable moodiness within her. She walked all the way to the northwestern corner of the campsite and became restless as she heard distant music. There were some conflicting feelings within her that had accumulated over time.