"Chun'er," the prince whispered. He was no longer the handsome and radiant prince from the past, but seemed more like an old man now. He held his sister's hand tightly, continuing, "Brother has let you down."
Zhao Chun'er remained silent, shaking her head vigorously. The tears that she had suppressed along the entire journey started to flow freely, falling to her left and right as she shook her head.
Chu Qiao stood up slowly, no one noticing or looking at her. In such an environment, her shadow appeared all the more insignificant. She was undeniably responsible for the state of things today, as she had overseen the execution of the ten men. The young lady turned around and picked up her sword on the ground. She picked up a torn mat and walked out of the door.
The front door closed with a creak. The rain poured down from above. Coupled with the cold wind, the weather was unforgiving and relentless.
Using the mat as a shelter, she swiftly dashed into the horse stable. Upon seeing her, the black warhorse neighed in delight, shaking its head back and forth. Chu Qiao shook the rainwater off her body. She laughed and walked towards the horse, patted its neck and said, "You still welcome me after all, don't you?"
The horse was not able to comprehend her words. However, as its owner seemed friendly, it shook its head in joy.
"I can only rely on you tonight." Chu Qiao smiled and leaned on the horse, sitting down. The horse stuck to her, using its neck to caress her arm.
At this instant, something fell out of the rucksack on the horse's back, making a thud. Chu Qiao picked it up to inspect it, realizing that it was actually a small jar of wine. She had not drank in many years. However, when she split up from the forces of the Southwestern Envoy that day, she subconsciously took a jar of wine from He Xiao.
The thunderstorm outside continued to rage on, increasing in intensity. The skies turned increasingly grey, blocking the rising sun. The interior of the house was warm, with the fireplace burning. The flames reflected the shadow of the two royal siblings onto the window.
The young lady sat in the horse stable. She extended a leg and leaned on the horse. She held her sword in one hand, and the jar of wine in the other. She arched her head and gulped the wine down. As the wine trickled down her throat, it caused her to feel a burning sensation. She suddenly started to cough intensely, as if she would have coughed her lungs out. The warhorse was startled and looked towards her direction. As she continued to cough, she patted its neck, saying, "I'm fine…I'm fine…" As she laughed, tears trickled down the corners of her eye. Like a stream, the tears flowed down her face, its path altered by the movements caused by her intense coughing. The torrential rain showed no signs of subsiding. The young lady's shadow appeared frail and slim, and ever so desolate.
As dawn broke, the pouring rain finally subsided. The sun rose over the layer of mist, before disappearing from view again. Chu Qiao fed the horse and walked over to the door. She knocked on the door lightly, and with a hoarse voice, she said, "Are both of you awake? We should continue our journey."
Rustling sounds came from inside the house. Chu Qiao stood to the side, waiting quietly. After a while, the wooden door opened with a creak. Zhao Chun'er was standing by the door, a cold look on her face. However, her words were calm. "Thirteenth Brother wants you to go in."
Chu Qiao nodded and followed behind Zhao Chun'er into the house. Zhao Song was sitting amongst the heap of straw grass. His hair was combed neatly by Zhao Chun'er. He was clean shaven and looked much more rejuvenated. If not for the empty sleeve that dangled in the air, Chu Qiao would have thought that this was just a nightmare.
"Please leave." Zhao Song stared coldly towards her direction. His words exuded calmness, but gave off an aura of hostility. "I don't ever want to see you again."
Chu Qiao, having expected this outcome, was not surprised. Matching his calm tone, she replied, "I will bring the both of you back. It's a long journey back to Zhen Huang, I'm worried to leave the both of you alone."
Zhao Song raised his eyebrows and looked at Chu Qiao. "What does the fact that we're alive or dead have to do with you?"
Chu Qiao suddenly felt an overwhelming surge of sorrow. Taking a deep breath, she continued, "This place has been wartorn. Bandits are everywhere. The various feudal lords are monitoring the situation, expanding the power of their military. At this stage, the power of the royal family cannot subdue them anymore. Before the both of you get back to Zhen Huang, you cannot reveal your identities. Towards the west, bandits have gathered near the river bank. You…"
"Enough," Zhao Song interrupted her impatiently. "I said, what does the fact that we're alive or dead have to do with you?"
Chu Qiao's heart felt heavy. She took another deep breath, only managing to whisper after a long while, "Zhao Song, I know you hate me. I know that by doing this, I'll never be able to make amends. However, I cannot watch the both of you die just like that."
Zhao Song smiled coldly, raising his eyebrows to look at Chu Qiao. "AhChu, do you know what I liked most about you back then?"
Chu Qiao was stunned. She looked up, hearing Zhao Song ramble on slowly, with clarity. "I liked you as you are now. You were forever so self-confident, regardless of your status, identity, your predicament. You would not look down on yourself, nor wallow in self-pity. You would never lose hope, forever maintaining that faith, forever trusting in your abilities. However," Zhao Song's look turned black, continuing, "I really hate the present you—arrogant and self-centred, always proclaiming that you are saving people. Who do you think you are? What do you think you're doing now? Being benevolent? Making amends? Or wanting to do some good deeds before you can return to that beast in peace, to live your life?"
Chu Qiao shook her head and bit her lower lip, trying to explain. "Zhao Song, I…"
"Scram! Don't let me see you again!" Zhao Song raged. "I said to you before, we have severed all ties. The next time we see each other, one of us will die. Betraying the royal empire, killing the innocent, you cannot make amends even if you die a hundred times!"
"Scram!" Zhao Song was enraged.
Chu Qiao stood rooted to the spot, her limbs trembling uncontrollably. She straightened her back, then continued, "Zhao Song, I'll leave once the both of you have entered Zhen Huang. Even if you don't need me, there's still the princess. It's a treacherous journey. I'm sure you don't want the same thing to happen to the princess again."
Upon hearing these words, Zhao Chun'er's body stiffened. Zhao Song turned to look at Zhao Chun'er, saying with the same stubbornness, "I'll protect my sister. It's none of your concern."
"Don't tell me that you are a coward, that you need an enemy to protect you?" Zhao Song shouted as Zhao Chun'er was about to speak. She looked at Chu Qiao with complexity, bit her lower lip, and remained silent.
An hour later, Chu Qiao watched the carriage of Zhao Song and Zhao Chun'er disappear into the distance. At this moment, a surge of fatigue overwhelmed her. The stormy night had caused her to become feverish; she could barely support herself as she stood up. However, as the sun reappeared in the sky, she gritted her teeth and mounted on her warhorse, chasing after the carriage.
From that day onwards, she carefully followed behind Zhao Song's carriage. As she was unable to navigate on their behalf, she could only clear the path ahead for them at night. Whenever she encountered any wandering bandits, she would chase them away. As for more brazen bandits, she would lure them away by exposing her cover. In the day, she would follow behind them secretly. As her horse was agile, she was not discovered. However, after four days, due to extreme fatigue and surviving on no food, she developed an illness.
When she woke up, it was still raining outside. She lay in a dilapidated hut, seeing Zhao Chun'er dressed in plain clothes and holding a bowl with two pieces of dry rations.
"Eat up. If you're dead, who will escort us back?" the princess of the Zhao family said calmly, looking at her from above. She put the bowl on the ground and turned to leave.
A stream of muddy water splashed on Chu Qiao's face, resembling a hardened scar. She looked on as Zhao Chun'er's shadow disappeared in the rain. Unknowingly, she felt a feeling of warmth in her eyes.
Seven days later, the majestic city of Zhen Huang appeared amongst the morning fog. The city, located in the northern part of West Meng, and having weathered 300 years of war and conflict, stood tall amongst the plains of Hong Chuan. It very much resembled a lion in slumber. Looking at the city that she had lived in for eight years, Chu Qiao suddenly felt tired and emotional.
As she turned her horse around to face the northwest, preparing to leave, the sound of a horse's hooves suddenly echoed out from behind. Chu Qiao calmly looked back at the person in front of her, remaining silent.
"You're leaving?" Zhao Song asked.
"You're going back to look for him?"
"Will you be back?"
"I don't know. Maybe, maybe not."
"Haha," Zhao Song suddenly gave off a hearty laugh. The empty sleeve, where his arm used to be, fluttered in the wind. He seemed like a kite which was missing half of its wings. "Look, I'm still a coward!"
"Zhao Song," Chu Qiao said in a low voice, "thank you for seeing me for the last time."
Zhao Song laughed bitterly. "You could escort me over such a long distance. Am I so petty not to come and send my regards?" The wind scattered the yellow sand around. Zhao Song was dressed in a plain, brown outfit, but he still had the air of a royal prince. The man's hair was scattered around by the wind. In a cold tone, he uttered slowly, "However, this is really the last time. The next time we see each other, there will be no sentiments between us. I will not give you any mercy."
Chu Qiao shook her head slowly, replying, "I will not kill you."
"That's your problem," Zhao Song said coldly. "Anyone who betrays the royal empire is doomed to die."
Upon hearing those words, Chu Qiao raised her eyebrows, frowned and slowly said, word by word, "Zhao Song, what exactly is a royal empire?"