Chu Qiao did not just underestimate the hate that Zhao Chun'er felt towards her. She had underestimated Zhao Che's wisdom, as well as her standing within the Xia Empire. After Zhen Huang had published the poster, the Xia Empire, which had previously disintegrated, suddenly had a cause to be united again. The various feudal lords answered the capital's call, preparing themselves for combat by conducting sparring sessions, telling war stories with passion, holding rallies, and conducting spectacular parades. It was as if they were preparing for battle with a gargantuan army, instead of a solitary female. The troops, demoralized from their defeat by the Yan Bei troops, became revitalized. Singing their wartime songs and hearing the war drums, they walked out of their city gates to much fanfare, escorted by their commanders. They journeyed to the vast plains to begin their arduous manhunt. Civilians who were not aware thought that the Yan Bei troops had invaded, and fled their homes with their valuables.
Chu Qiao knew that it was not the fact that she was so well known. Rather, it was the fear of the Xia troops. The reason was simple. When the capital had called for reinforcements during the previous battle, no one lent a helping hand. Presently, the troops of Yan Bei did not intend to return to the east. The Zhao family had stabilized in the vice capital, regaining their standing. The various troops stationed in other territories within the Xia Empire had also returned to be under the charge of Zhao Che. The tumultuous times caused by Yan Xun's rebellion had eased. The noble families wanted to find an escape route for themselves. In the last few days, the noble families such as the Mu family from Lingnan, the Zhuge family from Huaxi, and the Wei family from Yinchuan had sent out envoys to transport large amounts of rations from the vice capital and the capital. At this stage, their intentions to set up an escape route for themselves were obvious.
Hence, all the feudal lords, who did not dare to invade Yan Bei, pointed their fingers at this young lady, who had brazenly escaped from the Seventh Royal Prince and Eighth Royal Princess. They believed that as long as she was killed, the troops of Yan Bei would disintegrate. Even the feudal lords stationed in various counties, who were not informed by the capital, expressed their loyalty by sending out large armies of troops to conduct surveillance checks, hell bent on capturing the young lady.
This was a gesture from the various feudal lords to the Emperor. However, this brought big trouble to Chu Qiao. At this instant, she was at the southeastern border separating the Xia and Tang Empires. Her horse, fatigued, had started foaming at the mouth. Chu Qiao, helpless, could only stop to let the horse rest and recuperate. She had no appetite, but in order to conserve her strength, she stomached a piece of dry food and drank cold water, causing extreme discomfort to her stomach.
Today was the sixth day of her travels. In two days, she would enter the territory of the Tang Empire. However, before this, she would still have to pass through two more places governed by the state, followed by an area of no man's land, which was chaotic. Following which, she would reach the first pass at the northern part of the Tang Empire—Bai Zhi Pass.
For thousands of years, Bai Zhi Pass had acted as a leverage for the eastern mainland forces to withstand the siege of the northern minorities. Many battles had taken place there, and the place was heavily guarded, even more so than Yan Bei Pass. Chu Qiao had not completely formulated a perfect plan.
As her mind wandered, the sounds of horses' hooves echoed out from afar. Chu Qiao was shocked and looked up into the distance. Her expression changed.
Over a hundred horses approached from the distance. This was unlike the northwest, where the forces waited for her to surrender herself. The forest was dense, with elevated ridges. Without those contours, her cover would surely have been exposed. Chu Qiao gritted her teeth and jumped on her horse, riding into the distance.
She followed the stream for over three li, losing the enemy. As she managed to catch her breath, another round of hoof sounds echoed out. Chu Qiao frowned, then decisively grabbed two giant stones and tied them to the horse's back. Patting its rear end, she tried to get the horse to leave.
This horse had followed her for many years. They had been through thick and thin, and had developed a strong bond. The horse ran a few steps, before stopping in its tracks and turning back to look at her, shaking its tail non-stop.
Chu Qiao picked up her rucksack and walked towards the forest. As she started to walk, the horse started to follow behind her. The young lady frowned, using a knife to slice at the horse's throat. The warhorse was startled, gave a long neigh, and turned to run away! As the horse's hoof sounds ebbed, Chu Qiao tooked a deep breath, picked up her rucksack, and walked into the dense forest.
"The ruler of the six seas, the influence on Ande Bang. The Holy Ways of the royal empire, epitomized through benevolence, its prosperity and downfall…"
It was morning in the springtime. The air was fresh. A voice of someone reading echoed along the greenish mountain passage. From afar, a young scholar was sitting on a donkey, holding a book stained by mildew, and reading while shaking his head. The weather was good. The rain had just stopped, leaving a fresh aftertaste which lingered in the air. Liang Shaoqing closed his book and looked up slowly, squinting a little. Kindness radiated from his young, handsome face. He reached out his hand, opened his palm, revealing the tiny grains of rice in his hand. A yellow skylark descended onto his palm and pecked at the grains of rice while taking peeks at Liang Shaoqing's harmless face.
"The heavens are kind. Leave, and do not be caught by bird hunters again."
The bird circled around him, but did not leave. The bright rays of sunshine shone on the young man's face, illustrating his gentle demeanor.
At this instant, fighting sounds were heard from afar. The scholar froze, sticking out his ears to listen. He frowned, saying to himself, "Safety first. Don't meddle in external affairs."
As he finished his words, he nodded with conviction, seemingly trying to convince himself that he was right. He turned around to go back along his original path, to avoid getting involved in this unnecessary disaster. However, as he took two steps, he stopped in his tracks. What if it was a case of the strong trying to bully the weak? He was a gentleman, but it was against his principles to sit back and not do anything. As he weighed his next action, the scholar sat on the horse's back and fell into deep thought.
The fighting sounds continued; so did the conflict in Liang Shaoqing's heart. He was scared of trouble, but he did not feel good ignoring the situation. After a long while, the young scholar gritted his teeth. He thought to himself, it's probably two farmers fighting with each other. If he got up to stop the fight, they would make peace with each other. Even if the situation spiralled out of control, he would be able to report it to the authorities without getting into any trouble. Hence, with a mindset that he would take a peek at what was happening, the man patted the donkey and said, "Xiaoqing, let's take a peek."
The heavens did not bless the kind people. At this moment, the little skylark, who had been circling in wait of more grains of rice, had turned impatient. In a moment of madness, it pecked at the donkey's eyelid. Xiaoqing was startled, and let out a roar and dashed towards the front!
"Ah! Xiaoqing! Xiaoqing! What are you doing? It's the wrong way! Be gentle!"
The wind blew past his ear. Liang Shaoqing grabbed the donkey's neck tightly, feeling nauseated. The woods flashed past his eyes. Liang Shaoqing did not know that his donkey could run so fast. As he sighed helplessly, the donkey let out a sharp cry and stopped in its tracks.
Silence! Dead silence!
The smell of fresh metal lingered in the air, along with the aftertaste of a pig slaughter. Liang Shaoqing let go of his hand slowly. He looked up and opened his eyes. With some cautiousness and fear, he scanned his surroundings.
Everyone stopped what they were doing. Soldiers covered in fresh blood turned around to look strangely at this unwelcome guest, including the girl that they had surrounded in the center. After two days of pursuit, and over ten battles in between, these people were overwhelmed with fatigue. At this moment, any movement would trigger their primal instincts. The big reward was near. The issue was who could last till the end. Hence, any indication of enemy reinforcements was treated with utmost importance.
"I'm…just passing by." Liang Shaoqing grinned, looking at the bloodied swords in everyone's hands. Quivering, he explained, "I… My donkey got startled and it wandered over here. Sorry to disturb you. I'll leave right now, right now. Please carry on."
Liang Shaoqing sat up straight, preparing to leave this ghastly place. As he turned around, he saw the girl surrounded by the troops. His eyelid twitched and his body quivered. At that moment, he did not have time to take note of the young lady's appearance. He only saw a pair of eyes, a pair of crystal clear eyes. She looked at him leave, giving him a cold gaze which sent shivers down his entire body.
"Stupid lass, surrender yourself. If you carry on this way, even if you don't die in our hands, you will bleed to death," the leader of the troops declared coldly. Chu Qiao took a few heavy steps. The enemy was adept at tracking. She was slightly careless, and it was enough for her to be bothered by the enemy. Over these two days, although she had killed over 30 enemies, she was exhausted as she had not eaten. She had no more strength left to battle. At this instant, she was solely fueled by her bravery. Her hand slowly felt for her dagger. She took a deep breath, awaiting a final battle with the troops.
"Looks like you don't appreciate the easy way out!" the man declared coldly. "Brothers! Let's go! We are about to enjoy a good life! Let's kill her right here!"
With the clashing of swords, another round of fighting began! At this instant, a shout echoed out. The man, in a crisp tone, shouted, "Stop it!"
In a flash, everyone was stunned. They turned their heads to look in the direction of the shout, but were rendered speechless.
The young scholar had returned on his donkey. Although he was pale and frightened, he mustered some courage and retorted, "All of you, bullying a young lady. That's absurd!"