In the narrow, dark room, the young lady's startling cries awoke Liang Shaoqing. The young man crawled over to Chu Qiao's side, asking nervously with concern, "Are you awake? Are you alright?"
Chu Qiao frowned, opening her eyes with great willpower. Her trance lasted less than a second, before she snapped, "Stupid bookworm. You're pressing on my shoulder."
"Ah!" Liang Shaoqing was shocked. He jumped back in an exaggerated motion. He had reopened her wound, which started to bleed again.
"I'm sorry! Are you alright? Will you die?"
Chu Qiao stared at him impatiently, frowning heavily. She tried to resist the waves of pain coming from her left rib. She had been through the vicissitudes of life but had fallen at the hurdle which she least expected to. She was undoubtedly frustrated. Luckily, the wounds on her left rib and shoulder were not deep enough to be fatal. However, if she stayed in this dirty place for slaves without any treatment, she would be in big trouble. She looked around the narrow prison cell, where a human could not even stand up properly. A narrow beam of light shone in from the top. Chu Qiao knew that the both of them had been locked in an underground prison, having been considered dangerous people.
At this moment, the sound of locks opening echoed. Two men dressed in brown made their way down the narrow steps. They were carrying whips as thick as the width of a thumb. In a hoarse voice, they said, "Useless creatures! Get up!"
Liang Shaoqing was scared out of his wits, his hands and legs trembling. The scholar, who had lived in luxury all these years, had decided to leave his hometown and go to Tang Jing in a fit of passion. However, he had landed himself in this state. In the past, he would never have comprehended the unimaginable evils of this world. Despite this, the timid bookworm stood in front of Chu Qiao defiantly, saying, "What, what are you trying to do? When I get out, I'll report you to the officials for forcibly enslaving us, for assaulting the nobles, for disregarding status, for rudeness, for…"
With a swoosh, a whip landed on Liang Shaoqing's arm. The scholar had some backbone. With a grunt, he maintained his defiant look, not moving an inch.
"Useless creature! You're still trying to put on a front even though you're here? If you continue to spout nonsense, I'll fill your mouth with shit, and see whether you still want to talk! F*ck!" The man continued to rant, but his frustrations were not dispelled. He cracked his whip again, but before it hit Liang Shaoqing, Chu Qiao reacted swiftly to intercept the whip's motion by grabbing its tip. The man was enraged, trying to thrash it twice, but to no avail. Fueled with rage, he tried to wrestle the whip out of her hands. However, Chu Qiao let go of the whip. The man fell back, hitting his head hard on the brick wall.
"Every person has his ups and downs. It's best to have an escape route when you handle things." Chu Qiao's face was pale, but she maintained her cold tone. The man, who had landed pathetically on the ground, got back on his feet and dashed at Chu Qiao with a warcry. He had barely taken two steps before he stopped in his tracks. Although Chu Qiao was young, she exuded calmness beyond her years. It was way different compared to the scholar, who had noisily threatened to report the matter to the authorities.
"Bookworm, hold me up."
Liang Shaoqing was stunned. "Up? To where?"
Chu Qiao stared at him, frustrated. Coupled with the fact that she was injured, she did not explain further. She tried to get to her feet with the help of the wall. Liang Shaoqing, witnessing this, hurriedly helped her up by holding her hand.
"This little brother knows what's best. Fifth Brother, let them change. We're about to open for business." The outfit meant for slaves was but a piece of cloth with a hole in the middle, which acted as a collar. Ropes were fastened at the side, forming an outfit. The front and back had a large word imprinted on it, which read Slave.
The city of Xianyang bustled with life in the morning. Merchants from all lands walked along the streets. Various accents from the south and north could be heard. The hawkers advertised various commodities along the streets, ranging from perishable goods to material items. The marketplace was crowded, adding to the liveliness of the city.
"Get in!" With a forceful push, the man pushed the both of them into the cage, containing 70 to 80 slaves. They were of both genders, of all ages. The older ones with white hair were about 40 to 50 years old; the younger ones were barely seven or eight years old. They sat timidly in the corner like frightened rabbits, scanning the surroundings around them.
Swoosh! A whip made contact with Chu Qiao's back, causing a burning sensation, and opening a bloody wound. Liang Shaoqing threw himself over her, shielding her from any further blows. The whipping sounds echoed in his ear. The other slaves shouted in panic, clustering together at the center of the cage and quivering.
"Better behave yourselves! There's a big customer later. If any of you dare to make trouble, I'll deal with you!" The man waved his fists and sneered, before turning his back to walk away with a swagger.
The crowd slowly dispersed. The slaves who had been whipped grunted softly and weakly.
"Aye." Chu Qiao felt hot all over. As she had lost excessive blood and felt dizzy. She nudged the scholar softly on the shoulder, saying hoarsely, "Are you alright?"
Liang Shaoqing looked up. He was still sprawled over Chu Qiao's body. Snapping out of his trance, he stood up to get off her, exclaiming, "I'm alright."
"Support me, I want to lean over there."
Liang Shaoqing obliged, helping her to lean against a corner of the cage. Chu Qiao frowned, trying to withstand the pain of her wounds. In a low voice, she said, "There will be someone coming to buy slaves later. We need to be purchased so that we can get out of here quickly."
Liang Shaoqing was stunned. "Are we going to be slaves?"
"Given our situation, there's no way we can escape." Chu Qiao's face burned bright red, appearing feverish. There was no strength in her voice. She closed her eyes slowly, leaning her head on the scholar's shoulder and whispering, "I need to find a place to recuperate."
Liang Shaoqing's body stiffened. The young lady breathed lightly onto his neck. The man blushed, his face turning redder than Chu Qiao's. He replied hastily, "Yes, yes. Right, this makes sense."
Chu Qiao did not reply. He looked down, realizing that she had fallen asleep. Her breath was hot to the touch, indicating that she was running a fever. Liang Shaoqing was shocked. He placed a hand on her burning forehead. He lowered her body and used his leg as a pillow for her to sleep on. He was out of solutions to escape this ordeal.
The streets of Xianyang City was congested. At this moment, a group of troops passed by the street. The leader rode a white horse. He was handsome, charming but sinister. His eyebrows were well-defined, his nose was pointier than other people's. His lips were bright red, and the look in his eyes was deep. He was accompanied by a big group of well-built guards, slowly making their way across the long street.
"Master," Zhu Cheng approached the man on his horse and whispered. "the water route is ahead. Zhu Ting has made prior arrangements. The envoy from the Tang Empire will welcome us there. As long as we get there, we can enter the border via the water route."
Zhuge Yue nodded his head lightly. The civilians stared at his handsome face in awe, giving way to his entourage. He attracted occasional seductive stares from bold teenage ladies. The sun had risen and the fog had dispersed. Zhuge Yue was dressed in a dark blue robe, appearing strikingly handsome. As he passed by another section of the market, the noble young master suddenly frowned and stopped his horse. His entourage followed suit, looking at where Zhuge Yue was staring at in confusion. They spotted numerous stalls selling various cosmetic products and lanterns. A group of ladies were gathered in front, choosing the products that they liked. Upon seeing a noble young master approaching, they stared at him in surprise and joy, each hoping that the man was staring at them.
Zhuge Yue stared for a long while, an unpredictable look in his eyes. Suddenly, the man turned his horse to leave, ignoring the sighs of disappointment from the ladies. His entourage followed behind him, confused.
At this moment, a hawker tugged at the sleeve of a lady, who was about to leave in disappointment. He asked, "Miss! Do you still want this rabbit lantern?"
"No, no!" the young lady retorted impatiently, leaving with her other female companions.
The sounds of drums reverberated across the street, signifying the opening of the slave market. The market became even livelier. Boss Mu's business was good on this day. He closed a big deal which had been agreed upon previously. Additionally, there were many other smaller customers. He grinned brightly while looking at his money pouch, revealing a mouthful of yellow teeth.
"Miss! Miss!" Liang Shaoqing lowered his voice, holding a bowl of water which he had painstakingly obtained. He crept to Chu Qiao's side, whispering, "Wake up. Have some water!"
The crowd was messy. Big groups of civilians gathered in front of Boss Mu's stall, watching the slaves being put on display. Some were well-built, and others were handsome. The various buyers surrounded the cage, discussing the various traits of the slaves like they were buying farm animals. They took a look at the appearances of the slaves and how their teeth were shaped. For those men who bought female slaves, they requested a complete inspection of their bodies on the spot. Boss Mu provided good service. On his right, a little room was catered for the esteemed customers to carry out their inspections.
When Zhuge Yue passed by this place, an old man of about 60 had just purchased ten female slaves aged 11 or 12, sparking discussions from the onlooking crowd. Boss Mu's business was prosperous. The front had been congested, blocking the way of the Zhuge family's entourage.
"Master, let me take a look in front." Yue Qi had grown into a well-built man. His look was peaceful. Evidently, he had become an accomplished swordsman.