For 14 entire days, Zhao Che did not step out of the camp. The news continued to stream in, keeping him updated. This was not due to Zhao Che's sources of intelligence. He understood that this was meant to provoke him and bait him out of the camp. Although his eyes were closed, he could visualize the forces waiting to kill him outside the camp.
On the second day of the fourth month, Sheng Jin palace issued a decree that Zhao Che was loyal and patriotic. He was to be rewarded with two thousand taels of gold and promoted to the General of East Road. Although the rank conferred upon him had no real power, once the Emperor endorsed it, he was a general. This was enough to show the Emperor's satisfaction and trust in him.
On the night that he received the royal decree, Zhao Che stood on the square of the martial arts school in the calvary camp. He stood there, silent for a long time. He could hate the Muhe clan, their domineering nature, their abuse of power, and the fact that they did not recognize status within the clan. However, it was undeniable that he owed his stability among the royal siblings to this influential clan. With its downfall, how would he maintain his foothold in the royal family?
The calvary camp was shrouded in a cloud of depression for five whole days. Those that were better off had left the calvary camp to go to the royal army. As for those who did not, they retired and went back home. Zhao Che did not stop them. After all, these nobles understood that in order to survive in the Xia Empire, other than the approval of the royal family, strong support was needed.
Within five days, the strength of the calvary camp decreased by two thirds. The people left were either loyal subordinates that had followed Zhao Che for many years or the disciples that had been promoted from the borders.
As time passed, the chaos within the capital died down. The official documents from the military were issued and a messenger was entrusted to pass them to Zhao Che. Seeing that he was not around, he placed the letter on the table and prepared to leave. As Zhao Che approached from afar, he pretended not to notice him, departing on his horse.
Deputy Commander Cheng handed over the letter, frowning. "Your Highness, the military issued a letter. They want to mobilize the troops of the calvary camp to station at Yu Cheng, 130 miles away, to repair the roads. This is to allow for the Tang Prince's smooth journey."
Zhao Che did not read the letter. Instead, he only clenched his fists tightly. Half a month ago, the Third Prince, Zhao Qi, was said to have personally journeyed out of the city to repair the roads. However, with what happened to the Muhe clan, it was obvious that Zhao Qi did not leave the royal capital. The army was discreetly sent to wait in ambush for an opportunity to strike.
Presently, the Muhe clan had been exterminated. The Wei clan reigned supreme. Zhao Qi had also taken credit for repairing the roads, resulting in him being revered by the civilians. However, today, he wanted Zhao Che to lead the calvary camp to repair the roads. Was this an act of mockery from the one in power? Or was it an act of humiliation from the victor?
Zhao Che stood stationary for a long while. Even though he had gotten used to being the victim of the abuse of power, the resentment he felt was hard to stomach. He laughed coldly and turned back, facing the majestic palace. He stared in that direction with a sharp and ruthless look in his eyes. The next day, the troops from the calvary camp set off towards Yu Cheng to repair the road and welcome the Tang Prince, Li Ce.
The Tang and Xia Empires were not far away from each other. With a fast horse, one could travel between the two places within a month. With a horse carriage, it would take about two months. This prince had travelled four months in advance without any notice, but was nowhere in sight.
The majority of the princes of the Xia Empire had travelled along the borders before. They travelled with the army, passing all sorts of terrains from vast plains, mountain ranges to rivers. However, this esteemed guest from the Tang Empire needed a bridge to be constructed before he crossed a river. The bridge had to be wide enough to accommodate the width of four horses, and had to be made of stone. If he was to venture through the grasslands, a path had to be paved for him first, lest his precious horse's hooves were dirtied. He refused to utilize water transport and was not willing to walk through mountainous roads, deserts, or any path outside a fifty-mile radius of a city. He only consumed the finest delicacies which were brought down by the Tang Empire. Over 200 carriages carrying his clothes, weapons, and other material needed to accompany him on his journey. Anything that was handled by men was instantly rejected by him. The Tang Emperor, in order to satisfy him, had racked his brains. It was rumored that the grains consumed by Li Ce had to be harvested from fertile soil in the back palace by the best farmers, and then cultivated by the young ladies in the palace personally.
After getting wind of what happened, Chu Qiao was left speechless. To welcome such an bold character, the Xia Empire had actually sent Zhao Che and his troops from the calvary camp camp. Wasn't that a deliberate act to make things difficult?
In short, the warriors from the calvary camp braved the snow for ten days to pave a path. As everything was about to be finished, news suddenly broke out from the front: The prince had caught a cold as had kicked his blanket away during the night. Their entire party had turned back.
Zhao Che, hearing this, was so enraged that he turned back with his soldiers.
Chu Qiao sighed upon hearing the news. A feeling of fear suddenly bred in her heart. The Tang Prince was either a really absurd character or a feared exponent who knew how to mask himself.
No matter what, she had been drafted into the calvary camp after all. She knew the chaos surrounding the Muhe clan early on, and she had the intention to push back her reporting time. Presently, Zhao Che was no longer as powerful as before, but he was still the head of the calvary camp. Chu Qiao, as a head instructor of horse riding and archery, had to show her face within the camp.
In the evening, Zhao Che's messenger returned with news. The prince, who acted as if he was a big shot, had agreed to pause his journey temporarily to recuperate. However, he refused to enter the camp, instructing Deputy Commander Cheng to remain where they were and await further orders. In addition, he requested for Chu Qiao to meet him personally where he was stationed.
Chu Qiao was perplexed and sought to clarify the situation.
The soldier hesitated for a long while, before whispering, "The prince refuses to see Your Highness, claiming that his ferocity would aggravate his illness. These words were quoted by the maidservant beside the prince." Everyone who was listening was stunned. Was it that this prince, who only had tastes of the finest, was not willing to talk to another male? Additionally, the soldier instructed Chu Qiao to dress like a lady and set off immediately.
The heavens were kind. For the next few days, there was no heavy snowfall, which meant that their previous efforts were not ruined. Chu Qiao, accompanied by four soldiers, rode towards their destination. She was dressed in a bright red robe. Although it was meant for a man, it made her seem gorgeous as it accentuated her beautiful features.
The two places were just four hours apart. Barely two hours into their journey, a horse carriage approached from the oncoming direction. It was flamboyantly decorated and accompanied by four fine horses. It occupied the width of the entire lane, blocking everything in its path.
Chu Qiao frowned and stopped her horse. She saw two young ladies leading the horse carriage. One of them was wearing a white robe made of leopard skin with a pink dress made of cotton. The other was dressed in green and looked like a hunter. Both of them were wearing hats and cloaks, their faces red with the cold. They constantly turned back, engaging in joyous conversation with the people in the horse carriage.
"Ah! Sister Fu, there are people in front?" the lady in green remarked, her eyes brightening up. The horse carriage stopped in front of Chu Qiao's party.
"Who are they?" a charming voice sounded out. "Are they male or female?"
The young lady gave a nonchalant reply, "Four males and a female."
"Oh?" The voice inside hesitated. "Can I ask, how does the female look? How old is she?"
The young lady looked at Chu Qiao, before replying, "She looks alright, about 16 or 17. Her looks are comparable to mine but way below that of Sister Fu, Sister E and Sister Qing."
A laugh suddenly erupted from inside the carriage. The voice continued, "For Lu Er to say this, the person must be beautiful. Let the men go and make the female stay. I want to talk to her."
The young lady sneered in disdain towards Chu Qiao's party. "Did you hear what, Sister Fu, said? The men can leave. The female stays behind."
Chu Qiao and her party were dazed. The four soldiers that accompanied her were enraged. Given the way they were dressed, they were not ordinary figures. No matter who these young ladies were, they should not have been so audacious.
Chu Qiao was wary. There were many extravagant and unruly nobles within the Xia Empire, not to mention their offspring. She was careful not to offend these people as she did not know which family they were from.
Before Chu Qiao's party had spoken, the young lady replied angrily in desperation, "Did you not hear what I said? How stupid." She took out two taels of gold and threw them on the floor before declaring arrogantly, "I see that you are not carrying a jade token, which means that you are not part of any clan. I'm offering this price for a clanless female, which is a pretty good offer. The few of you, quickly leave."
One of the soldiers shouted angrily, "Where did this lass come from? I dare you…"
Before he finished his sentence, a whip flew towards him. The maidservant, although she looked young, was quite skilled. The whip made contact with the soldier's eye, leaving a bloody scar. The soldier fell off his horse, covering his eye and exclaiming in agony.
"Hm! This useless creature doesn't know his limits!" the maidservant remarked, her whip flying towards the soldier again.
Chu Qiao, seeing that she was so overbearing, was subconsciously overwhelmed by anger. She rode forward and grabbed for the whip. With exquisite technique and a little strength, she seized the whip.
"Don't go overboard," Chu Qiao warned the maidservant coldly.
Another soldier suddenly exclaimed loudly. Chu Qiao looked down to see fresh blood all over the palm of the soldier who had bore the brunt of the whip. Blood oozed out from his eye, indicating certain permanent blindness.
"Hm!" Lu Er, the maidservant, sneered. "What's so special? It's just a lowly civilian. At most, I'll pay you… Ah!" Before she had finished, a whip ferociously made contact with her fair face. The force of the impact was heavier than that of the previous stroke. The young lady yelped in agony, covering her face, anger seething through her teeth.
"What's so special? It's just an ungrateful creature. I'll make you blind in one eye just for fun. At most, I'll compensate you with some silver." Chu Qiao replied coldly, mimicking her tone.
The young lady was quite rugged. She did not scream but only gritted her teeth, staring at Chu Qiao with extreme resentment. "Stupid lass, I will not let you off!"
"Who needs your mercy?" Chu Qiao, squinting, retorted, "Didn't you say you wanted to buy me? Let's see what you've got." As she finished her sentence, a dagger swiftly flew out, embedding itself in one of the horses' hips. The horse, shocked, raised its hooves in the air and started to gallop.