"Hold on tight!" the man bellowed. With a whip of the reins, the horse exploded forward.
Sounds of countless horses galloping ensued. Chu Qiao was hugged tightly within that man's chest. A cold, sharp wind blew past. Despite the heavy storm all around, only a few droplets reached her. Turning back and staring past his shoulders, she could only see the curtain of clouds tightly covering the sky, as if it was night time. The sound of galloping horses in the dense forest was thunderous, and it was unclear how many enemies were there. It was impossible to tell friend from foe or to distinguish the imperial forces from the hostile assassins. In the direction she had just escaped from, birds circled overhead. Metal clashed endlessly. The trees were even shaking with violence as if they were about to be uprooted completely.
"It is the Master!"
Suddenly, rustling sounds came from the front. Men in black brushed shoulders with them, and when their gazes crossed, their eyes were clearly filled with deference and they nodded with reverence. They pulled out their weapons, some with menacing daggers, some with deadly swords. Without any hesitation, they charged towards the bloodthirsty pursuers.
"Master! Right in front!"
"Master! Enemies 80 steps to the west!"
"Master! Reinforcements from the south!"
"Master! Reinforcements from the northwest!"
"Master! Reinforcements from the east!"
In the frenzy, wave after wave of reinforcements appeared to help. Completely unfazed, the man handled the reins singlehandedly and hugged the young lady with his other hand. Gradually, they had left the chaos far behind them. The dense vegetation faded into plains of tall billowing grass. Chu Qiao's hand was covered in fresh blood. Anxiously, she raised her head and asked, "You were injured?"
Yan Xun was in also wearing black, his face covered by a cloth. He looked down and questioned, "Where is Li Ce?"
Chu Qiao replied honestly, "He escaped."
In the darkness, Yan Xun's eyebrow shot up. With ominous eyes, he stared at the forest that was still brimming with torchlight. Finally, he turned back with a wave of his hand. He ordered, "Let's return to the city."
"Wait!" Chu Qiao hurriedly added, "Zhuge Yue is back and he is still inside."
Yan Xun, with a slightly bewildered look, replied, "You intend for me to go back and take the opportunity to kill him?" Taken aback, her initial intend instantly vanished like mist. Yan Xun continued, "We cannot expose ourselves yet. Without much time left, we should let him off first."
On the galloping horse, Chu Qiao cowered in Yan Xun's chest. Looking over his broad shoulders, the waves of trees were in full view. The sky was shrouded in darkness, so dark, it seemed like it was made of ink.
The spring of Hong Chuan highlands always came late. Right now, flowers in Tang Empire and Song empire were already in full bloom but Xia Empire's land remained mostly barren in the frigid coldness, with the freezing wind from the northwest occasionally bringing a wisp of a distinct flowery fragrance. According to Yan Xun, it was the smell of the Huo Yun flower.
It seemed like anything that the Tang Prince was involved with would certainly turn complicated and puzzling. Whether it was being beaten up by Chu Qiao or the attempted assassination, the incidents were all willfully suppressed by someone. If Chu Qiao had not had such heavy injuries that she needed one whole fortnight to recuperate, she would have doubted thought the whole incident was but a fleeting nightmare.
Despite the presence of Chu Qiao as a primary witness, the whole incident was shrouded in mystery. It was fruitless, despite thinking about the incident for a few days. Yan Xun had little choice but to activate all the strength Da Tong had at their disposal in the capital. Even then, it took ten days for them to arrive at a vaguely logical conclusion. But this conclusion made Chu Qiao feel nothing but aghast. She would rather not believe it was true.
"Since we cannot find the root of the problem, we must think in terms of the result. Which is, despite numerous efforts and mobilizing over three thousand soldiers to hunt down the assassins, the Xia Empire was still judged to have failed to protect Prince Li Ce. It had to give concessions in regards to the tax implementation at the Tang Hu customs. Within the Tang Empire itself, this incident led to a series of investigations, involving over a dozen nobles from the side of the family who had army authority. In these nobles, it was highly likely three of the feudal lords lost control over their army as a result. The biggest suspicion among all was, despite being ambushed by a force over ten times their size, Li Ce's subordinates were all merely injured with no deaths at all. With such results, even if we were to say Li Ce was lucky, I have to conclude that his luck was way too good to believe. Inferring as such, when we have eliminated all the impossible choices, the remaining option, no matter how unlikely, will be the truth."
Lying sideways, Yan Xun leaned on the soft cushion in the carriage, his hand holding his forehead. "AhChu, you really were lucky this time around. If you had really done something to Li Ce, perhaps you would not be here anymore."
Frowning, Chu Qiao carefully reflected on the incidents of that day, but she could not find a single loophole in that hypothesis. If it was really as Yan Xun had said, that had been Li Ce's doing, then that man was way too dangerous to be involved with.
Yan Xun was not the only one interested in this incident. Just as the doctor left, the palace summoned Chu Qiao. Yan Xun accompanied her all the way to the Chang Ping gate, as she was to proceed alone. Chu Qiao got out of the carriage and followed the servant who was there to lead her through the corridor to the front hall.
Perhaps it was too early. Sheng Jin palace was still in a state of tranquility. White birds gracefully glided across the clear blue sky, while cooling winds brushed against everybody's clothes, causing their long sleeves to flutter like butterflies.
"Eunuch Bai!" A young eunuch ran over from the Xiang Zhang palace and exclaimed to the elderly eunuch who was leading the way, "Eunuch Bai! Lady Qin of the Shu Yi dwelling had deceased!"
"What?" Eunuch Bai was dumbfounded and his fly-whisk dropped to the ground. Incoherently, he asked, "What happened?"
"Shu Yi dwelling's claimed that she suddenly fell ill after eating the red date cake prepared by the west cookhouse. The Court of Internal Affairs has already arrived."
"How could that be?" The eunuch furrowed his eyebrows. He turned and was just about to speak when Chu Qiao interjected, "Eunuch, please proceed with your urgent business, I know the way to the front hall."
"Ah, thank you," the elderly eunuch replied with gratitude, before turning to the younger eunuch. "Lead the way, with haste!"
Chu Qiao had lived in the palace for so many years and was familiar with the mistresses and eunuchs. More accurately, the Xia Emperor was not exactly lustful, and as a result, the women in the palace had seen little involvement from the Emperor. She could vaguely recall how Lady Qin was not particularly conspicuous and had always been one of the quietest and peaceful ones in the palace. She took frequent trips to the Shang Yi chamber to borrow books. Even such a neutral person could not escape from the politics and ended up dying.
Chu Qiao did not want to overthink. Passing through the Xiang Zhang palace, she entered the Ba Qu Ming Lake. The willows along the two shores had already began to grow. Some even had flowers, forming whole patches of crisp bright green. The occasional breeze caused ripples in the pale green water. Standing on a bridge above the lake, with the refreshing breeze blowing in her face and her clothes fluttering in the wind, it was no wonder that Chu Qiao felt a sense of rejuvenation within her heart. Pacing past the Rong Hua pavillion, the gate to the front hall was just ahead. She took the side path, which was quieter and with fewer people. She walked under rows of brick-red rooftops with gold embellishment and ornamental mountains in the distance. The azure lake water had flowering willows along the shores. Her white clothes and jet black hair fit impeccably with the ambience, forming an elegant scene.
But this tranquility was shattered when a pained shriek suddenly reverberated through the air, stopping Chu Qiao right in her tracks. She lifted her head, only to see a snowy white eagle falling from the sky and hitting the ground with a loud thump. A sharp arrow had penetrated its chest, staining its beautiful feathers with crimson red blood. A series of footstep followed. Scowling, she reached out for the closest door along the corridor and dodged into it. But, just as the door closed, she was ambushed by someone whose strength was so strong, their palms could stir wind.
Her opponent was extremely strong. Without noticing, she was already being suppressed. With amazing reaction speed and without identifying the assailant, she turned and took hold of the palm. With a twist of her other wrist, she grabbed the assailant's throat in her hands. But just as she hit her mark, a slender yet cold hand, tightly clamped around her neck.
Striking like lightning, the two were equally matched.
The doors and windows were all shut, without a single ray of light. Within the day room they were unable to clearly see each other's facial features. The duo was concealed by the darkness and only their sharp gazes glimmered, like two beasts who had unwittingly stumbled upon each other.
Even though they had both mutually suppressed each other, they did not go any further. Almost simultaneously, both of them released their fingers. Seeing each other's intentions, they continued to unwrap their fingers, one at a time. Finally, they stood free, facing each other, but that did not erase the tension in the air.
Meanwhile, a gentle voice resounded in the courtyard, "Sister Yun, why are you doing that?" Dressed in blue clothes with phoenix decorations, and donning a headdress with violet and gold engravings, the lady strolled forward surrounded by her maidservants. With fluffy long sleeves and a slender figure, she had the face of a Greek goddess.
"As sisters, how could I bear to see you commit such grievous mistakes?" As the servants brought a chair made of Phoebe Zhenan wood, Lady Shu flicked her sleeves and slowly sat down. With a slight smile, she took the letter retrieved from the white eagle. Removing it and inspecting it carefully, she proclaimed, "Palace women communicating with outsiders is a huge crime. Sister, having been in control of the palace for six years, how could you not know? Why did you make such a mistake?"
As the one who used to be the most prominent woman in court, Muhe Nayun wore a dark purple Chinese dress with golden decorations. Standing upright, with two maidservants behind her, she was still as beautiful as had been in her prime. But now, she seemed a little thinner and paler. Without even a glance at Lady Shu, she instructed her two followers, "Let's go."
As if she had not heard, Muhe Nayun proceeded.
A few servants followed and blocked her. In a deep voice, they warned, "Your Majesty, please hold your steps. The Lady has something to say."
With a loud slap, Muhe Nayun violently swatted his face. The Xia Empress raised her eyebrows and bellowed, "Know your position! How insolent are you to stand in my path?!"
The servant, taken aback, dropped down on all fours. After all, as the Empress for over ten years, with her accumulated reputation and stature, she was able to instill such fear into these servants.
Lady Shu's gaze froze and she indifferently replied, "Sister's influence is still so overwhelming, just like in the past. That is really something to be celebrated."
Muhe Nayun's expression was frigid and she chillingly stated, "We were never that familiar and did not interact much. I was never scared of you, and even now I do not take you seriously. The rise and fall of women in the palace is very common, and since we are neither friend nor foe, you do not have to always address me as sister."
Lady Shu flashed a smile and replied, "Sister Yun's personality is so fiery and her words are so direct. I am all the more captivated by you."
"Thanks, but no thanks. I still have business to attend to, so I will excuse myself from accompanying you to view flowers." With that said, Muhe Nayun turned to leave.
"Hold up!" Lady Shu's face turned gloomy. Slowly standing up, she raised the letter in her hand and coldly asked, "Sister, are you not planning to explain this?"