She lifted her head and took a deep breath, swallowing all of her emotions. She tried her best to calm down and not think about it. The night was pitch black. With a sudden thud, a white dove landed on the snowy ground. It was looking at Chu Qiao from afar, inching closer as its head tilted to the side.
This was a wild dove. Unlike domesticated messenger doves, it was still afraid of humans. It must be curious as to why this person was sitting alone and was motionless for so long. It wanted to take a closer look. Chu Qiao raised her head and took notice of the little bird and grinned. She reached into her pocket to take out the horse feed that she had brought along, scattering it on the ground.
With thick snow covering the land, it was hard to find food. When the dove saw the food, it let out an excited chirp as it spread its wings and flew hurriedly towards Chu Qiao. However, at the same time, two sharp arrows shot towards the dove from afar, piercing through its abdomen. In a swoosh, blood spewed all over the ground.
Thunderous hooves sounded in an instant. Two quick horses galloped ahead of the pack, one was red and the other was black. The man on the red horse was twenty-five to twenty-six years old, and he looked defiantly at the teenager sitting on the ground. Without speaking, he took another arrow and pulled his bow, shooting an arrow straight towards Chu Qiao's heart!
With a swish, Chu Qiao burst up like a cheetah, supporting her weight with one hand as she got up. Her actions were strong yet graceful. Her right hand swept past her body, grabbing the arrow firmly in her palm. A gust of wind billowed as the young girl's coat fluttered in the air, like the wings of a flying eagle. Her gaze was as cold as ice, staring directly at the people galloping towards her.
"Whose slave are you and why are you wandering in the hunting arena?" a cold voice sounded from the man riding the red horse. Although he had tried to attack her without reason, he showed no signs of regret. He was dressed in a coat made from an arctic mink. Despite his graceful stature, he exuded an unspeakable aura of icy eeriness.
With a thud, the man on the black horse leapt to the ground. He too was around twenty-five to twenty-six years old. He had bronze eyes and a dark complexion. He ran towards the dove that was shot and picked it up. As he was examining it, he said, "Muhe Xifeng, how do we count this?"
The man on the red horse glared coldly at Chu Qiao, then turned towards the other man and said, "Zhalu, I shot at its throat. Naturally, I win."
The man frowned and raged, "How can you tell that your arrow is the one in its throat? It's not like our arrows have our names engraved on them."
"It shot from my hand, I would know."
"Hmph, that won't do." Zhalu said, "Let's go again."
Muhe Xifeng picked at his brow and said, "How do you want to compete?"
"We'll aim at her." Zhalu pointed at Chu Qiao and said, "Isn't she a slave? Let's just shoot her."
Chu Qiao's brows furrowed as she squinted at Zhalu. Zhalu did not even notice as he climbed onto his horse and said to her, "Run, quick. Run far."
Chu Qiao sized up both of them, her brow tightly knit. She said in a deep tone to Muhe Qingyun, "I am not a slave."
Muhe Qingyun raised his brow as he heard it, as though he was interested in her. He said, "So what?"
Yes, so what? Even if she was not a slave, these aristocrats could kill anyone they wanted without reason.
Chu Qiao said nothing as she turned and walked towards Yan Xun's tent. With a swoosh, an arrow embedded itself in the snow, inches away from her feet. Zhalu shouted, "I told you to run, did you not hear me?"
Engulfed in the cold wind, the girl suddenly turned and shot a cold gaze towards Zhalu. The Lord Zhalu of the northwestern felt a chill shooting up his spine, and swallowed the curses that he wanted to say.
"If I was riding a horse, could the two masters shoot me?"
Muhe Xifeng gave her a smirk but did not say a word. Zhalu raged, "Give her a horse."
A war horse that had jet-black fur was brought before her. Chu Qiao patted its head gently as she turned and glanced at the two men. The wind was strong that night, whipping up snow from the ground and painfully hitting their faces as if it were sand.
Suddenly, the girl flung her body onto the horse, brandishing a dagger from her waist as she stabbed it into the horse's buttocks without hesitation. The war horse let out a loud neigh and galloped away with incredible speed. Before anyone could react, she had vanished from their sight.
Zhalu was dumbfounded as his eyes widened in shock. After a while, he turned and said to Muhe Xifeng, "She just left like that?"
Muhe Xifeng turned his horse as he steered it towards the sounds of chatter. He said casually, "Otherwise, what do you think she did?"
Zhalu was filled with rage, and irritable voices cried behind him. Muhe Xufeng flashed them a sharp and cold gaze.
Even before nearing the camp, a troop was galloping quickly towards her. Chu Qiao stopped her horse as she frowned, looking into the distance. She saw figures coming closer and closer. It was Yan Xun and AhJing leading a troop of guards.
"AhChu!" When Yan Xun saw Chu Qiao, he pulled his reins and ran towards her. In a deep voice, he asked, "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Chu Qiao said as she shook her head, then asked, "Has the night hunt ended? Why are you back so soon?"
Yan Xun looked up and down at the girl as his chest heaved, trying to catch his breath. He shook his head and said, "Let's get back to the tent first."
Yan Xun seemed unusually tired tonight. When they returned to the tent, both of them went back to their respective rooms. As she walked out of her door, she coincidentally bumped into AhJing with some other guards leading them into the camp. Chu Qiao was astonished as she walked forward and enquired.
AhJing said respectfully, "Miss, his Highness bought them from the hunt."
Chu Qiao was dumbfounded as she said in a deep tone, "They were bought from the night hunt? What do you mean?"
"At the human hunt tonight, the prince said that he had had too many drinks for the night and did not feel like participating in the hunt. The second master of Wei, along with Prince Ling and the others, protested against his decision. Prince Yan was helpless, so he bought every child in his cage for 100 gold coins each."
"Oh." Chu Qiao nodded and said, "Then carry on with your work, I will head back in." The girl turned back calmly. Although the winds that night were cold as they blew towards her, when she opened the curtains that led into the tent, she felt warm and comfortable inside. Her low spirits had vanished completely.
On the second day, the hunting conference that was organized by the Xia Empire commenced. Those who were eligible to participate in the hunt, other than the royal families, the ministers and their families, along with the envoys from neighboring fiefs, were invited. With that being said, the grandeur of the event was unparalleled. The spring hunt could not beat the autumn hunt. Throughout the hunting arena, white snow gleamed within the boundless pine forest. Everyone turned up in their finest dresses, with large mink coats on their shoulders and bows on their backs, possessing peerless valor.
The Xia Empire had an open culture that was drastically different from that of the Song and Tang Empire. Looking out, sights of women riding on horseback were common. Hence, when Chu Qiao was by Yan Xun's side, she did not seem out of place.
"AhChu," Yan Xun turned back and looked at Chu Qiao, her face flushed red. He asked, "Are you cold?"
"Nope." Chu Qiao raised her head and answered, "It has been a long time since I woke up this early, and the air is so fresh."
Yan Xun laughed. As he was about to speak, a troop closed in on them hurriedly. Muhe Xifeng was dressed in a purple mink coat. He looked incredibly handsome and attracted much attention as he rode by.
"Prince Yan, we haven't met in a long time, how are you?"
Yan Xun turned and squinted as he glanced at Muhe Xifeng from head to toe. He had a faint smile and said, "Prince Muhe has been leading troops out of the capital for most of the year. Indeed, it's been a long since I last saw you."
"Yes," Muhe grinned and said, "Recently, there are small portions of people that are causing problems in Yan Bei. However, Prince Yan is lucky to have avoided all that as you have lived leisurely in the capital. It's sad that I can't enjoy that life as I am fated to have a hard life."
Yan Xun's smile remained unwavering as he nodded and said, "An able man is always busy, and all you have done is for the sake of the Xia Empire's revival. The actions of Prince Muhe are seen by our people."
Muhe Xifeng laughed and said, "I appreciate your auspicious remarks." After that, he steered his horse and turned, stopping to take a glance as he passed by Chu Qiao. He smiled eerily and said, "This lady looks familiar."
Chu Qiao bowed respectfully as she answered, "I think Master Muhe has mistaken me for someone else. Chu Qiao isn't blessed enough to have met you before."
"An outstanding person, Chu Qiao is a good name." Muhe Xifeng smiled and galloped away.
At this moment, drum beats suddenly sounded. With seven long and short beats, its rhythm was inconstant. From afar, one could see the Xia Emperor ascending onto the balcony, with Muhe Nayun and a troop of guards following behind him. Tens of thousands of imperial troops stood to face different sides, separating the emperor from the other people. Behind a thick golden veil, one could barely make out the emperor's eyes; they could only feel an aura of bitter cold emanating from behind the curtains.
Everyone fell silent as they shouted, "Long live the emperor" in unison. They fell to their knees and kowtowed. The hunting teams stretched more than 30 miles long as they chanted in unison, their impetus was staggering. The long-awaited hunt of the Xia Empire had finally begun.
In a distance, a sea of flags rose on the coast of Chi Shui, with silhouettes moving about. Chu Qiao stood beside Yan Xun as they saw army tents for miles without end. They could not help but narrow their gaze. The might of the Xia Empire's military was indeed extraordinary. Even though it was just a royal hunt, they had staged such an impressive display. It would be unthinkable if they were really called to battle. They would be vigorous and mighty.
The emperor's tent was in the middle of the whole formation. The Xia people had set up the most aggressive formation, with the Imperial Guard, the Green Army, the Cavalry Battalion, and the Jing Qi Army arranged so that each army faced a different direction. Within the army, the troops were arranged vertically from the start to the end. There were watchtowers deployed on both flanks, perched on high grounds and in a square formation, surrounding the central main tent.
The Northern, Southern, Western, and Eastern armies, which guarded the city, formed a snake formation and surrounded the central army. Every 30 steps, there was a signalman deployed. With every 100 steps, 100 soldiers were deployed. At the four outer corners of the camp, there were thousands of troops from the field operations division deployed there, setting up sentry posts. The defense was so intense, it seemed like even water would be unable to squeeze through the tiniest hole.
A long wind blew past as the war horses neighed. With their flags fluttering, Yan Xun looked as far as the eye could see. His expression was solemn as he said in a deep tone, "AhChu, go back and rest for awhile."
Chu Qiao turned and looked at his expression, understanding what he truly meant. She nodded and said, "You need to be careful."
Yan Xun turned and smiled lightly. "Opportunities are hard to come by, AhChu, wait for my good news."
Throughout the afternoon, the atmosphere within Yan Xun's tent was incredibly tense. Chu Qiao sat inside the tent in her jet-black robes. With a glance, one could even mistake her for Yan Xun.
She wrote a last stroke on the map and raised her head as she said in a deep tone, "Remember to do everything carefully and not to be exposed."
Everyone replied in unison, "Miss Chu, don't worry."
That afternoon, the youngest and most outstanding individual of the Muhe family, Muhe Xifeng, disappeared within the dense northwestern jungles. The Muhe clan sent out a large number of troops to find him, but to no avail. Muhe Xifeng was the nephew of Muhe Nayun. The Empress of the Xia Empire wanted to personally order the The Dauntless Cavalry Camp to search for him but was rejected resolutely by the current commander of the camp, Zhao Che. The mother and son parted ways in discontent. Zhao Che would never imagine that this choice he made would cause him so much trouble in future.