"Be careful!" Zhao Song shouted, dashing out of his seat. At the same time, a bright, white object flew out from behind! As Tu Da's fist was about to land on Chu Qiao's back, the object smashed into Tu Da's head, carving a big, bloody wound in his head! At this moment, Chu Qiao had just kowtowed on the floor.
Tu Da's eyes widened in disbelief. Blood oozed out of his mouth and nostrils. With a lifeless look, he collapsed on the floor, bleeding heavily from the back of his head. The sight tugged at people's heartstrings.
"How audacious!" Zhama raged, jumping out from her seat. "How dare you carry a weapon in front of the Emperor! Are you intending to rebel?"
Yan Xun, unfazed, sat in his chair. He held a porcelain shard between his index and middle finger and retorted coldly, "Is a cup considered a weapon too?"
The audience was shocked. Yan Xun had actually used a broken cup to kill Tu Da!
Zhao Song remarked coldly, "Father, Princess Zhama's servant did not abide by the rules. He tried to backstab his opponent. He deserved to die."
The Xia Emperor nodded in agreement. The guards on both sides dashed out and dragged Tu Da's corpse out of the tent.
"Princess, are you sufficiently rested?" The young lady calmly turned back, looking at the uneasy Zhama emotionlessly. She declared deeply, "If you're still tired, you can ask your other servants to spar with me."
The nobles of the Xia Empire turned their attention from the deceased Tu Da to Zhama, in anticipation of how she intended to handle the situation. Everyone could see that Zhama did not intend to spar with Chu Qiao. She previously issued the challenge as she was confident that Tu Da could kill Chu Qiao. However, Tu Da was now dead. If she were to decline the challenge by fabricating excuses, she would be viewed as a coward that did not dare to take up the challenge. In addition, she was the initiator of the duel. In the Northwest, cowardice was regarded as worse than being a deserter. She would be despised by everyone.
Zhama gritted her teeth and swung her whip. She stood up and said, "So be it, let's spar. Why would I be scared of a lowly maidservant?"
"Hang on," Zhao Qi suddenly rose and added with a laugh, "I have not seen such a masterful lady in a long time. How about this? Instead of sparring like the last round, let's allow them to compete using archery this time around. What do all of you think?"
As Zhao Qi spoke, everyone understood. The Batuha family dominated the northwest region with their powerful influence. Old Master Batu was hot-tempered. If his precious daughter was hurt in the capital, it would most certainly induce his rage and resentment. In addition, Princess Zhama was renowned for her exquisite archery skills. Zhao Qi had just intended to salvage some pride for the northwest region.
Although she, a lowly maidservant, was skilled in the art of weapons, her prowess in archery was not as recognized. The audience would most certainly be disappointed but they did not have a say.
However, from the seventh table in the front row, Zhuge Yue squinted slightly. He had witnessed Chu Qiao's exquisite archery skills. He raised his cup and took a sip.
As expected, Zhama's expression become smug. She confidently retrieved a crossbow, walked to the center of the square, and said, "You first?"
"I do not dare. Princess, you first."
Zhama gave a cold laugh. She loaded three arrows into her crossbow. Bending the bow, she released three arrows together. They flew at a lightning speed towards the target a hundred steps away, landing in the center of the bullseye. The audience applauded at her impressive skills.
Before the thunderous applause had stopped, the other young lady suddenly knelt on the floor and released her arrows from the crossbow that was slightly taller than her. Three sharp arrows homed in on the arrows on the target board, penetrating the rear part of Zhama's arrows. It was as if both of their arrows landed on the bullseye simultaneously! In that instant, it was clear who the winner was!
The audience could not believe their eyes. The intensity of the applause escalated, not subsiding for a long time.
"Princess Zhama, thank you for going easy on me." Chu Qiao nodded, walking towards the tent.
Even the Xia Emperor was visibly moved and exclaimed, "I have not seen archery skills of this level in many years. Especially since you are a female, it is indeed rare."
Chu Qiao raised her eyebrows, but she continued to kneel on the ground, remarking deeply, "Thank you for the compliments, Your Majesty."
Zhao Song said excitedly, "In this case, Father, how about you reward her?"
The Xia Emperor stared at his son bleakly and replied, "Reward them each a roll of silk."
Zhao Song, obviously unhappy with the reward, was about to intervene. However, he was stopped by Zhao Qi, who gave him a stern look.
An official carrying two rolls of silk approached, handing Chu Qiao and Zhama their rewards. They received it and retreated. The atmosphere in the tent was electrifying and the audience was captivated by dancers who had started to perform. Yan Xun looked up at Chu Qiao and they shared a smile.
The royal banquet had finally ended. Chu Qiao and Yan Xun retreated back to their tent. AhJing was critically injured and Zuo Tang stood guard outside at all times.
Yan Xun prepared a pot of tea. He sat on the chair, drinking. Chu Qiao, sitting beside the fireplace, looked up and said, "What do you think about the Xia Emperor rewarding Zhao Che with the Long Quan Sword?"
"It was very obvious that he was warning the Muhe clan to stop pinning Muhe Xifeng's death on Zhao Che."
Chu Qiao raised her eyebrows and nodded. "In this case, wouldn't the Wei clan take the rap? Don't tell me that he wanted to instigate between the Wei and Muhe clans?"
"Yes." Yan Xun nodded. "The Muhe clan is overly domineering. The higher their status, the harder they will fall, just like the Ou clan thirty years ago."
Chu Qiao sighed, suddenly feeling fatigued from today's events. Too many things and too many people were entangled in the situation within one day, further complicating the already complex situation. She rubbed her temple, saying, "I'll go back first. You have an early rest too."
As she turned to leave, Yan Xun's voice suddenly rang from behind her. "AhChu, when Tu Da was about to hurt you, why didn't you hide? Given your ability to sense danger, you would surely have realized it."
Chu Qiao turned back, saying naturally, "Because you were behind me."
The winds outside were blowing heavily onto the tent. A few gusts of cold air entered. Yan Xun started slightly but quickly broke into a smile. "You're right. I'm so silly."
"I'll take my leave then." With the curtains raising, the young lady disappeared from the tent.
Yan Xun smiled slightly, adopting a warm expression. His icy cold heart gradually started to open up to the feelings of warmth and gentleness. As he had been behind her, she did not raise her guard. She left her back, which was the most vital part of her body, exposed. After all, they were each other's most trusted confidantes. Much like when they were young, he could only close his eyes in front of her and she could only sleep peacefully in his presence.
The night sky was dark and devoid of any glimmering light. The young prince of Yan Bei looked up slightly. "Thank you, AhChu, for letting me know that there's still one person I can trust."
The inside of the tent was warm. Chu Qiao took a bath, feeling very tired. She leaned on the soft couch, preparing to close her eyes. As her eyelids narrowed, she saw the precious sword that she had put on the side of her bed. She sat upright and took out the sword gently. Its green reflection sparkled like flowing water under the light. The dark red carvings on the sword were like fresh blood, subtly shimmering.
It had been seven years. She anticipated that they would cross paths again but she hadn't expected it to turn out this way. She knew that Zhuge Yue had surely seen the wound on her neck. They were always opposing each other like that. Wherever they were, they were destined to be enemies.
The child's cries of agony seemed to play in her ears again. The severed limb, the bloody sack, the cold lake—the memories swiftly replayed in front of her eyes just like a movie. The piece of roasted meat, whose fragrance drifted in the night when she felt most helpless, felt like a sharp arrow, embedding itself into her heart.
"Yue'er, do you trust fifth brother? I'll protect you!"
Emotions of sorrow and grief bottled up in her chest. She had a sharp look in her eyes. The cries of agony, which lived on in her daily nightmares, reverberated beside her ears again. The tragic cries before Xiaoba died in the prisoner's carriage on Jiu Wai Street had been etched in her nightmares for seven whole years.
"Sister Yue'er! Help me, please help me!"
Blood and human flesh were spewed everywhere on the ground. The faces of the children, who had been cut to death, were unrecognizable. On that horrific night, she sneakily escaped from Sheng Jin palace, making her way to the marketplace. She scavenged through the corpses along with the wild dogs, but could not make out the child's head or limbs. She could not even give the child a proper burial, having no choice but to let those body parts sink to the bottom of the lake, staining it bright red.
"Xiaoba, you lie here and wait. I'll exact revenge for you."
Her tears had already dried up that day. What remained was a strong feeling of resentment that brewed savagely within her heart. The child clenched her fists tightly and bit her lower lip, just like a savage beast.
Within a flash, seven years had passed.
Zhuge Yue, you finally came back.
The young lady's breaths could be heard in the darkness.
Don't you know, I've been waiting for you for a long time.
The stars in the sky were few and far. The distant winds from Yan Bei carried bloody air with it, blowing along the contours of the western plains.
It was early spring in the year 773 of the Bai Cang calendar. The Hong Chuan Highlands were experiencing a harsh winter with heavy snowfall. The road from the border of the Tang Empire to Zhen Huang was blocked. Trade between these two places came to a halt, causing the prices of goods in the capital to spike sharply. Many merchants hoarded goods and capitalized on the opportunity to raise the prices of necessities like oil, rice, and salt, causing chaos within the capital.
On the sixth day of the third month, Sheng Jin palace summoned Muhe Xiyun, the biological offspring of the Muhe clan, and stripped his status as a court official, replacing him with Zhao Qi, the third son of the Emperor. This was the first time in the empire's 300 year history that the capital's government offices were commanded by someone from the Zhao family. Following this, the power of the three armies of Zhen Huang were completely in the royal family's hands.
After Zhao Qi assumed his post, he immediately took control of the armies and carried out an internal reshuffle. Zhao Qi's biological mother, Empress Dowager Shu, the half-sister of Wei Guang, the head of Wei clan, obtained the support of the Wei clan's generals by using Zhao Qi's decrees. In just three days, the entire army was reshuffled and reintroduced with new faces. On the tenth day of the third month, Zhao Qi led the army outside of Zhen Huang to repair the road personally, endearing himself to the citizens of the capital.
At this moment, the snowstorm outside the capital peaked in intensity. A horse, braving the strong gale, approached at lightning speed. It was all bleak in front, without any traces of human beings. The surroundings were all white, making it impossible for anyone to differentiate between the different directions.
Separated by one slope, Wu Daoya squinted and stood on the snowy ground on the other side. He wore a green hat and white frost settled on his eyebrows. His face was frozen white but he looked ahead with vigor in his eyes. His expression was calm; no one could make out what he was thinking.