Chu Qiao could not contain her tears anymore. She covered her mouth, unable to suppress her cries.
Zhao Song, Zhao Song, Zhao Song…
It started raining at about one in the morning. After Zhao Chun'er and Zhao Song got in their carriage, Chu Qiao journeyed to the vast plains, accompanied by the fierce troops from the Southwest Emissary's garrison. Song Qian and the others were shocked.
"Who cut off Zhao Song's arm?"
"It was Your Highness."
Chu Qiao frowned and hollered, "Lies!"
"Miss, I did not!" Song Qian was scared out of his wits. He continued, "It really was Your Highness. He came to assassinate Your Highness, and had his arm chopped off. Lady Yu wanted to kill them, but was stopped by Your Highness. Your Highness instructed us to escort them back to the capital."
Chu Qiao took a deep breath and said, "Why did Your Highness spare them?"
"Commander Jing said that he was scared you would get angry." As Song Qian finished his sentence, he was scared that Chu Qiao would mention that he had taken matters into his own hands. He added frantically, "However, if we took action on the way, you would not know anything, and you would not be angry."
The raindrops landed on Chu Qiao's hair. With a low voice, she said, "Was this what Commander Jing said too?"
"This… Yes, yes!" Song Qian exclaimed.
He Xiao, seeing that Chu Qiao's expression was not good, shouted, "If you dare to speak nonsense, I'll kill you!"
"No need to say anymore." Chu Qiao looked up and spoke in a low voice, "Take them away and kill them all!"
"I did not say anything wrong!" Song Qian cried, adding, "Miss, look at us. Which of us were not tormented by the Xia troops? Our families, parents, and spouses, brothers and sisters, who did not die at the hands of the Xia officials? If the intention was not to let us take action, why were we deployed here from the various camps?"
"Correct!" another soldier echoed. "What's wrong with hitting him? So what if we raped the Xia Princess? My sister was humiliated by the royal family from Xia! My parents went to report the issue to the authorities, but they were beaten to death on the spot! What wrong have I done?"
"That's right! Miss, what have we done wrong? Why are you punishing us?"
"Let me tell you what wrong all of you have done!" A streak of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the horizon. The young lady turned around, pointed at the carriage, and slowly uttered, "The ones that killed your parents, humiliated your sister, and harmed all of you were not these two!"
Cries of agony sounded out. Chu Qiao did not turn back. She stared at the carriage silently, not daring to approach it. Her footsteps became heavy.
"Miss!" He Xiao took big steps forward towards her, wiping the water off his face. He said boorishly, "We have executed those beasts."
"He Xiao, head to Xi Ma Liang yourselves," Chu Qiao said, her face pale. "I can't follow you there anymore."
"Miss!" He Xiao was shocked and asked, "Why?"
The thunder rumbled on, and the torrential rain continued to pour, landing on Chu Qiao's face and inadvertently covering up her tears. "Because I have more important things to do."
As the sun rose and the rain stopped, the weather was refreshing. All sins seemed to have been washed away along with the storm.
On a high cliff, a young man stood upright, wearing a white robe. His face was pale and his eyes were jet black. He stared at the mountainous landscape in front of him.
"Master, we should leave." Wu Daoya stood behind Yan Xun and whispered.
Yan Xun remained silent, staring into the distance. As the wind blew, he started to cough intensely, appearing frail. His voice was heavy, and the smell of blood lingered in the air.
"Mmm." Yan Xun waved his hand and turned around. He refused Wu Daoya's gesture to support him, making his way down the hill while coughing.
The mountain ridges varied in height, forming many ups and downs. On the bridge behind them, out of their sight, a green horse carriage made its way along the road slowly. In the skies above, white eagles circled about, following the horse carriage out of Yan Bei's skies.
The vast plains were desolate. There were no traces of human beings within a hundred mile radius. Due to the conflicts and massacres over many years, this place had turned into a barren land. Every time the troops made their way across the border, the civilians fled their homes in search of a safer place. However, amidst this messy world, what place could be considered a utopia?
The wind and rain continued relentlessly for three days. The horse carriage passed by a rundown village, littered with piles of black debris everywhere. Chu Qiao found a house that was still intact, and carried the unconscious Zhao Song into the house. She cleaned the house up, found some clean, dry straw, and started a fire. Within an hour, the house had warmed up.
This place was a no man's land known as the Chuanzhong Regions. Chu Qiao had initially led the Southwest Emissary's garrison through this place, and had engaged in battle with Zhao Yang's forces not far away. It could be seen that the civilians living here had been scared away during that battle. As they were pressed for time, they had left everything behind except for food and clothing. The kitchen utensils were still in good condition, and there was still clean water on top of the firewood in the firewood room.
Chu Qiao carried a bowl of warm water and walked over to Zhao Chun'er, who was sitting alone in a corner of the house. She squatted down, passing the water to her. The esteemed princess of the past did not look up nor despise the living conditions. She took the water and began sipping.
On the journey over, Zhao Chun'er had behaved like this. Surprisingly, she did not appear hostile towards Chu Qiao, nor disobey her instructions. She was obedient and quiet, choosing to eat and drink whatever she was given. When the path ahead was treacherous, she would get down and push the carriage along with Chu Qiao. When they ran out of firewood, she would eat cold, dry rations with Chu Qiao. When they passed by shallow rivers, she would tread on the water with her. When they encountered bothersome civilians, she would adopt Chu Qiao's fierce posture, carrying a knife to scare them off. However, she spoke only a few words. Other than Zhao Song, she was uninterested in other affairs.
Chu Qiao knew that Zhao Chun'er did not regard her as her benefactor, and that she was not behaving like this out of fright. Throughout her ordeal, this young lady had matured at a frightening pace. She had changed into a different person overnight. Chu Qiao was worried that she harbored suicidal thoughts.
Chu Qiao ground the rations and poured them into hot water, bringing them to Zhao Song's side. She stuck out two fingers to open his mouth, force feeding him. The man frowned. He had started to grow a beard. Unlike Yan Xun and Zhuge Yue, the old Zhao Song had crystal clear eyes, thick eyebrows, and appeared as cute as a small lion when he was angry. In just a few days, his old radiant self had turned into a forlorn one. He was skinny and frail, and his face as pale as a sheet of white paper. Looking at his empty right sleeve and blood stained clothes, Chu Qiao quickly turned away, unable to look further.
"Hmm…" A low sneer suddenly sounded out. Zhao Chun'er, who had been silent the whole time, suddenly jumped up like a beast and crawled towards her brother.
Zhao Song frowned, a painful expression on his face. Chu Qiao half-knelt by his side and held his hand tightly. "Zhao Song? Zhao Song?"
"Fool, don't go!" the man uttered in a low voice. His eyes were closed, his veins popping out of his head. His expression was agonizing, like that of a trapped beast.
"Thirteenth Brother!" Zhao Chun'er threw herself on Zhao Song, exclaiming, "Thirteenth Brother! Chun'er is here! I'm not going anywhere!"
Chu Qiao was pushed aside by Zhao Chun'er. Unable to resist, she advised, "Princess, do not aggravate the wound."
"Out of my way!" The young lady stared fiercely at her with disgust.
"Don't…don't follow him, you…you will die…"
"Thirteenth Brother," Zhao Chun'er had a cold look on her face, "Chun'er knows, don't worry."
Zhao Song's face was unusually red, as if he was running a fever. Chu Qiao stood at the side, unable to think of a way to approach the siblings. She wanted to prepare some water, but as she turned back, she was stopped dead in her tracks by a hoarse voice.
"I…I can…protect you…too…AhChu…"
Zhao Chun'er was dumbfounded. Her expression turned pale, as if she had been possessed. She turned around to look at Chu Qiao, and then at the unconscious Zhao Song. Suddenly, she gave a bitter grin and walked back to her corner. She grabbed her knees, and buried her head in them.
Zhao Song uttered nonsense the entire night. He berated Yan Xun for betraying his trust. Other times, he was shouting for Chun'er to escape, and more often, he was pleading with Chu Qiao to stay. This man, who had been so decisive in wanting to cut ties with her on that long street, showed his weakness and soft side on this rainy night. His words were like knives, stabbing Chu Qiao in the heart with every sentence.
When dawn broke, Zhao Song awoke. Chu Qiao stayed by his side the entire night to bring his fever down, ensuring that he stayed hydrated. Chu Qiao exclaimed with joy, "You're awake?"
The noises woke Zhao Chun'er, who was sleeping. The young lady opened her eyes, but did not walk over.
The look in Zhao Song's eyes was complex. For a moment, he did not know where he was. He looked at Chu Qiao with joy in his eyes, slowly turning to that of suspicion, then pain, resentment, anger, and other various negative emotions. Finally, the look in his eyes turned cold. It was unbelievably cold, colder than the freezing mountain peaks, enough to send shivers down one's spine. From the look in his eyes, Chu Qiao was brought back to their friendship from over the years. From the time they got to know each other, to the time they became good friends, and finally, the time when they severed their friendship under the majestic city walls.
At this moment, reality hit Chu Qiao. However, she still held out for a glimmer of hope. She and Zhao Song would never be friends again. The damage had been done. Just like his severed arm, no amount of effort could salvage the situation.
"Chun'er?" Zhao Song turned around and looked at the young lady in the corner, speaking hoarsely. His voice sounded rusty. He used his solitary arm to gesture towards the frail girl.
Zhao Chun'er pouted and crawled over on her knees. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her lips were quivering. However, she still forced out a smile that was worse than a sad expression. She grabbed tightly onto Zhao Song's hand.
The rain was pouring outside. The fireplace was burning in the house. The siblings, having been through a life or death situation, remained silent, akin to a pair of statues. Thousands of indescribable words, translated into two saddened expressions, met face to face in the enclosed, narrow room.