"Help him onto the horse. Let's go!" Chu Qiao remarked coldly, departing on her horse. The four men with her followed swiftly behind. She had realized that they were not the only people present. In the dense, snow-covered forest on both sides, she could hear the sounds of many careful footsteps. She knew something was amiss. The horse carriage seemed isolated but was flanked by close to a hundred able-bodied guards. Once they had clashed, it would not be beneficial for Chu Qiao's party. The only solution was to feign ignorance and strike by surprise.
As expected, in an instant, the thundering sound of horses' hooves echoed from behind. Chu Qiao yelled while controlling her horse with the whip, "Faster!" The five people started to make their escape with a head start.
At this moment, a flurry of arrows aimed towards their horses flew in their direction. The arrows struck their intended targets, causing the four men to fall from their horses.
"Still not stopping?" an evil voice echoed beside Chu Qiao's ear. A white horse galloped beside her. The man on the horse was dressed in red. His facial features were like that of a woman's. His face looked charmingly evil. He held the reins of the horse in one hand and a fan in the other. He rode beside Chu Qiao with a smile on his face.
Chu Qiao aimed a ferocious kick to the horse's stomach. The horse neighed in agony but did not fall back.
The man, momentarily dazed, spoke with a smile, "What a fierce lady. It's fine. Since you don't like it, let's not allow it to disturb both of us." As the man finished his sentence, he leapt onto Chu Qiao's horse in one swift motion. He placed his hand on Chu Qiao's waist, his breath landing on the back of her ear in spurts. He remarked gently, "How fragrant and fair. There are actually beautiful ladies in Hong Chuan. How ignorant of me."
Chu Qiao, with a sneer, tried to bump him off the horse. The man, with a laugh, held her tight in his embrace. He stuck out his tongue, licking her earlobe and added, "Such fairness and fragrance. A ravishing beauty indeed."
Chu Qiao felt a cold shiver up go up her spine. She saw that she was surrounded. Brimming with anger, she clenched her fist and elbowed the man in his shoulder. Turning her body, she slid below the horse's back. Wrapping her legs around the horse's stomach, she grabbed the man's leg and tugged at it with strength. The man, underestimating her agility, was caught off guard. With a thud, he fell off the horse, landing on the snowy ground pathetically. The young lady leapt off her horse and aimed a single knee at the man's back, causing him to see stars from the impact.
Chu Qiao, like a ferocious tiger, started to execute her Wing Chun martial arts, raining blows on the man's head with lightning speed. The lady's blows packed a punch. The swiftness of her strokes was dazzling. Everyone looked on, dumbfounded, at the young lady sitting on the man's back.
"Ah! You fools, go and save the Prince!"
Upon hearing the lady's words, Chu Qiao's heart skipped a beat. She thought to herself, Prince?
The thunderous sounds of horses' hooves echoed caused the snow to scatter about. Zhao Che had arrived at the scene with his troops from Xiao Qi Camp. However, seeing the events unfolding before their eyes, everyone panicked, and their faces turned pale.
Zhao Che, giving a big frown, yelled while perched atop his horse, "Chu Qiao! What are you doing?"
Chu Qiao stopped what she was doing. The man, whose face was bruised, giddily looked up. His eyes were swollen and everyone wondered if he could see what was in front of him.
Zhao Che decisively got off his horse, taking big strides forward. He bowed to the man sprawled on the floor, saying, "Your Royal Highness, I was not strict enough with my subordinates. Sorry for offending you." Finishing his sentence, he grabbed Chu Qiao's arm, pulling her away from the man and towards himself.
Chu Qiao was dumbfounded. She looked at the Tang envoys who were on the brink of tears, feeling at a loss. Was this the only son of the Tang Emperor, Li Ce? The lecher, the prince who got whatever he want?
She had lost her mind. Chu Qiao knew that she had stirred up trouble, big time.
There were too many things to worry about. Killing the prince of the Tang Empire? Conspiring to destroy diplomatic relations between the two empires? Disobeying orders of the higher-ups? Any charges that proved her guilty was sufficient to get her executed. She had never acted so rashly before, to the point that she did not consider the consequences. What had gone wrong? Why had she behaved like she was possessed?
She did not dare to look at Zhao Che. The chattering of the few ladies on the opposite side was loud enough to break the roofs of the tents. She stood behind Zhao Che, recounting what had happened. However, she could not find any excuses to defend herself. She could only hope that this incident did not implicate Yan Xun, or that he would not have to take the rap on her behalf.
"Are the few of you done?" a cold, deep voice suddenly boomed. The few ladies froze. Zhao Che was wearing a suit of armour from head to toe. His look was steely and he stared sharply at the few of them, articulating clearly, "If you're done, then scram!"
"You!" a lady dressed in yellow pointed at Zhao Che and exclaimed. However, she was stopped by another lady who was slightly older than her. "Xiao E, do not be rude towards the Seventh Royal Highness."
"As Your Highness is busy, we will not impose. However, we will not let this slide easily. We have sent out a messenger to Zhen Huang in order to discuss this matter. As for this lady," the lady's eyes lingered on Chu Qiao. "as Your Highness refuses to hand her over, we cannot do anything about it. Please watch over her on our behalf. We will settle the score some other time. Farewell." Finishing, she turned around and left the tent. The other ladies, sneering, followed behind.
Zhao Che stood silently in the tent. He looked at the curtains moving in the wind, remaining silent for a long time.
Chu Qiao stood behind him, unable to see his expression, but able to imagine how angry he was. To Zhao Che, the best solution to the problem was to execute this rebellious woman on the spot rather than hand her over to the court. However, he had refused to hand her over to the Tang Empire. Why was this the case? Chu Qiao swore to herself that if he swung his fist at her in that instant, she would not retaliate.
Suddenly, Zhao Che's back jerked. It was as if he was trying to suppress what he was trying to say. Sweat trickled down her forehead and her palms were clammy. Her pupils constricted. What was he trying to do? Was he trying to make use of this opportunity to sow discord? The Emperor had been trying to find fault with Yan Xun all along and this was the perfect opportunity to eliminate him. Would she become an excuse for him to do so? Why was she so unlucky to have stirred up such a big mess, having just entered Xiao Qi Camp? She clenched her fists, subconsciously feeling for her dagger around her thigh.
Zhao Che turned around with a weird look on his face. He looked at Chu Qiao with vigour in his eyes. Suddenly, his mouth opened and then…
"Hahahaha!" A booming laugh echoed from his mouth. Deputy Commander Cheng and a few other key appointment holders of Xiao Qi Camp suddenly stormed in, laughing along.
Zhao Che reached out his hand and placed it on her shoulder. He gave her a thumbs up and exclaimed, "Excellent! Well done!"
What in the world is going on? Chu Qiao was momentarily stunned, her eyes enlarged.
"Li Ce, this lad, should have been taught a lesson long ago."
"Prince of the Tang Empire? He behaves like a sissy, wearing red and green all day. It makes me puke at the sight of him."
"How problematic. Someone should kill off his arrogance."
"Lass, well done. If anyone dares to mess with you, we'll be the first to back you up!"
Chu Qiao was dumbfounded, unable to speak. After a long while, she whispered lightly, "Your Highness, we cannot treat this issue lightly. Although the ignorant cannot be found guilty, I walloped the Tang Prince. Also, he came to celebrate the Emperor's birthday. Even if it did not help matters, shouldn't I give him a sincere apology?"
"You walloped him?" Zhao Che raised his eyebrows, turning towards his men and saying, "Who witnessed it? Did all of you witness it?"
Everyone replied in unison, "I did not witness anything."
Chu Qiao was stunned. She looked at Zhao Che in confusion.
Zhao Che sighed and remarked, "Now that I think about it, how stupid of you. If you wanted to beat him up, you should have done so when no one was around."
"That's right!" Big Beard Dong brashly stepped forward, interrupting, "Your Highness has discussed this with us. When this fellow is on his way, we will find an opportunity while no one is around to place him in a sack and beat him up to vent our anger. We will make sure that he goes to Zhen Huang with a swollen face. However, we did not expect you to strike faster than us. We had arrived long ago and watched you beat him up from afar but did not show our faces."
Chu Qiao looked at the men, who were beaming. She wept, but no tears were shed.
"Don't worry." Zhao Che gave her a pat on the shoulder with loyalty. "Although we did not see eye to eye in the past, since you're under my charge now, I will not treat you shabbily."
As night fell, the base fell into silence. The only sounds came from the eastern side, resembling that of a sizhu. This was an unusual sight, considering that it was a military base. Deputy Commander Cheng had mentioned before that this was a routine for the Tang Prince—that he could not fall asleep without a tune. Today, after his ordeal, the tune sounded much more solemn. It was symbolic of a palace maid missing her youth.
Chu Qiao sat on the snowy hill, playing with the long sword in her hands. Across the vast, snowy plains, countless bright lights illuminated the sky. The bright moonlight reflected onto the ground. Silence enveloped the camp, occasionally interrupted by soldiers on patrol. The fact that this place was not a battlefield made the atmosphere much more relaxed and less tense. It was much more desolate.
Chu Qiao sighed lightly. "Nothing's special about the many bright lights after all."
A crisp sound suddenly echoed. Chu Qiao looked down at the precious sword that had not been taken out of its sheath, realizing that the sound had originated from there. She frowned lightly and took the sword out its sheath. The sword was uniquely forged. It was four feet in length. It had a greenish-white body accompanied with indistinct dark red carvings. At first glance, one would have thought that those carvings were bloodstains that had not yet dried.
"What a fine sword!" a gasp of praise sounded from behind.
Chu Qiao turned back, only to see Zhao Che walking up the snowy hill. He was dressed in a black robe. He made his way to her side and sat down, asking, "What is its name?"
Chu Qiao was momentarily stunned. She shook her head and replied, "I don't know."
"How would you not know the name of your sword?"
"This sword is not mine."
Zhao Che nodded his head, not probing further. He held a flagon in his right hand. He angled his head upwards and took a mouthful from it, subsequently handing it over to Chu Qiao.