The rumors were not false. The assassins from Da Tong Guild, hidden in Xia territory, set out to chop off the heads of the county governors who had participated in the massacres. In less than two days, the capital had received a list of over 30 senior officials who had died.
In that instant, the scouts and bounty hunters sent out by the various lands retreated back to their own territories, intimidated by the sheer strength of the army from Yan Bei. Although Yan Xun did not have the ability to wage war against the entire Xia Empire, he was definitely capable of eliminating the forces of one province, one territory, or one county at a time, much less the individual bounty hunters. They were fearful that the capital would abandon them in their time of need, much like what happened to Yan Xun. Also, who could guarantee that the blind fortune teller by the door, the old lady running a roadside stall selling pancakes, the new servant in the family or the new concubine in the residence was not an assassin of the Da Tong Guild, sent to retrieve their heads?
The less trouble, the better. Although it was good to contribute to the empire, their lives mattered more ultimately.
Chu Qiao was naturally unaware of the drastic change in the situation outside when the ship set sail. She lay silently in the cabin to recuperate, worrying about how the alliance through marriage between the Tang and Xia Empire would affect Yan Bei politically. She hoped to enter Tang Jing quickly, then head south along the water route back to Yan Bei to discuss this matter with Yan Xun.
She did not know what storms lay in front of her. The bustling and prosperous capital was like a giant fish net, enveloping the power of the world in itself. The violent winds along with the aroma of the cosmetics from Tang approached from the south, carrying with it an almost hypnotic feeling.
Two days later, Zhuge Yue assembled his forces and departed Xianyang City, entering Tang territory via Bai Zhi Pass. Simultaneously, an army of troops left Yan Bei swiftly for the southeastern continent of West Meng. The drama between Yan Bei and the fallen capital of Zhen Huang was about to continue in the capital of the Tang Empire.
As night fell, lights illuminated the boat and the landscape in the distance. The mountains on both shores were majestic. Occasionally, there were eagles circling in the sky, spreading their gigantic wings and letting out loud cries.
In the pitch-dark, narrow cabin, the young lady's breath could be heard in the silence. There was only a narrow aisle in the middle of the cabin. Liang Shaoqing tossed and turned, unable to get to sleep. Suddenly, his arm knocked against the cabin wall with a thud.
"Are you so agitated that you can't sleep?" The young lady's voice sounded beside his ear. Liang Shaoqing rubbed his bruised arm and explained, "It's so warm that I can't sleep."
Chu Qiao laughed softly, choosing not to expose his blunder. She leaned on the side of the bed and said, "I can't sleep either. Bookworm, open up the curtains. It's stuffy inside here."
Liang Shaoqing sat up and opened the curtains. The silver moonlight shone on the young lady's face, showing her pale features. Chu Qiao turned her head and looked outside. Her eyeballs were black; her eyebrows were long, just like a butterfly's wings. Liang Shaoqing stared at her, momentarily dazed.
"Bookworm, what are you looking at?"
Chu Qiao frowned and chided him. Liang Shaoqing blushed and stammered for a long while before saying, "I'm thinking, thinking about where are you from."
Chu Qiao raised her eyebrows and looked at him from the corner of her eye. "We've not known each other for long but you're asking me about my life story. Are we very close?"
Liang Shaoqing was stunned. He replied, "After all, we've been through life and death together. What's wrong with asking about your hometown?"
"Okay then." Chu Qiao turned back and lay on the bed, closing her eyes and laughing softly. "Tell me about your background first."
"I'm from Shangyu, located in Zhaoyang County, part of the Xia Empire."
"Shangyu in Zhaoyang County?" Chu Qiao frowned and added, "Your surname is Liang. How is Liang Zhongtang related to you?"
Liang Shaoqing replied in joy, "He's my father. Have you heard of him before?"
Chu Qiao opened her eyes wide and turned around to size Liang Shaoqing up. Frowning, she remarked, "Is he really your father?"
"Yes." Liang Shaoqing was elated to find a common topic for conversation. "What's wrong? Is there no resemblance?"
Chu Qiao shook her head and replied, "Nope."
Liang Shaoqing rubbed his head and laughed. "Hehe, my mother said so too."
"Your father is cautious and cunning in his methods. He has connections all over Shangyu. It's a small town, but it's the hub for food and trade in the southern region. The Liang family in Shangyu is also a noble family. Given his brains and wit, how did he produce a son like you?"
"Each his own. My father and I have different interests. What's wrong about that?" Liang Shaoqing, having said that, stared at Chu Qiao suspiciously. "How come you know my father so well? Xiaoqiao, who exactly are you? Where are you from? Why are the officials after your life?"
Chu Qiao replied with a natural expression, "It's just something I heard and remembered along the way. Although we do not know each other well, you know my character. I offended the government officials and was forced to conceal my identity. I still need to trouble you to help me cover up during our time on the boat."
Liang Shaoqing was caught off guard by Chu Qiao's formal words. Patting his chest, he assured, "Don't worry, I promise I won't say anything."
The midnight breeze drifted slowly across the ship, causing the curtains to flutter in the air. The boat glided slowly across the river surface, rocking gently from side to side. Chu Qiao leaned by the side of the bed, her eyes half-closed. She stared at the outside of the cabin, her mood visibly relaxed compared to many days ago. She had not experienced such peace and tranquility for a long time, since leaving Zhen Huang City and that giant prison. She felt that life had become brighter since she started her journey as a fugitive. Even the winds gave her a feeling of warmth.
"Xiaoqiao?" Liang Shaoqing whispered. "Xiaoqiao?"
"Mmm? What's up?"
"What are you singing?"
Chu Qiao was stunned. "What did I sing? Did I sing?"
"Yes, you did. You were humming a tune. It's nice, I've never heard anything like this before."
Chu Qiao blushed warmly. This young lady, who was emotionless when she killed her enemies, could not suppress her emotions having been caught singing subconsciously. Gently, she replied, "It's a tune from my hometown."
Liang Shaoqing moved his upper body joyfully and lay on the bed, asking, "Sing another song for me, will you?"
Chu Qiao shook her head in rejection. "I suck at singing."
"It's nice," Liang Shaoqing insisted stubbornly. "Just one song, alright?"
"It's just some small tunes. You won't like it."
"How do you know I won't like it?" Liang Shaoqing frowned, searching for an excuse to make her sing. "Just take it as an apology to me. You caused me to lose my belongings and become enslaved. Just sing a song to make it up to me?"
Chu Qiao frowned and replied, "You're a big man, yet you can think of such reasons."
"Xiaoqiao, just one song. After all, we can't get to sleep."
Chu Qiao took a deep breath nervously and whispered, "I'll…I'll sing then?"
"Go, go ahead," Liang Shaoqing encouraged her.
Chu Qiao opened her mouth a few times but no words came out. Frustrated, she remarked, "I have not sung in over ten years."
Liang Shaoqing pouted and replied, "Over ten years? How old are you this year?"
Chu Qiao knew that her tongue had slipped. Angrily, she replied, "Are you listening or not?"
"I am. I'm waiting for you."
"Then I'll start." The young lady cleared her throat. Her hoarse voice sounded out gently in the night, like the fallen leaves in autumn.
"I know, I've always known you were there,
In the darkness, in the desolation, by the tall cliffs at the shore.
We said that we would walk hand in hand, together, amidst the darkness,
Creating our own sunny world amidst the masses' disdain.
There will be pigeons and horses on the green plains,
Mountains, rivers, lakes and vast blue skies.
The sunlight will not be blinding,
The night sky will be filled with stars.
I know, I've always known you were there,
At the tall mountains, the green plains, waiting for me to return to your side.
You once said to open your eyes bravely,
Staring at the radiant, sunny horizon in the distance.
I know that many obstacles lie ahead,
I understand that the adversities will be relentless.
No matter how big the storm, I'm not afraid of closing my eyes,
Knowing that you will be there for me."
The night was heavy. Light winds blew across the cabin. Chu Qiao's voice was like a stream of warm spring water, warming up the ice-cold atmosphere in the cabin. Liang Shaoqing remained silent for a long time, staring at Chu Qiao.
The sounds of wheels rolling across the deck echoed out. Chu Qiao stared outside, seeing a shadow flash past from the corner of the cabin. The darkness enveloped the landscape from all four directions. The river water flowed with serenity, silence dominating the surroundings.
The physician under the Zhan family was skilled. In less than three days, Chu Qiao's wound had almost healed. The old man had discovered that she was a woman when he attended to her, but had been understanding in not divulging her identity, even going as far to hand her a bottle of ointment to remove her scars, instructing her how to use it.
That day, when the boat finally docked at Meicheng Pier, the sky had not darkened. The boatmen disembarked to take a rest. Many local officials had gathered on the shores on both sides to welcome the Zhan family. The atmosphere was lively. Chu Qiao stared out the window, frowning. Liang Shaoqing knelt on the bed, perplexed. "Xiaoqiao, what's wrong?"
Chu Qiao pointed at the crowd, saying, "Look. The officials here are of low rank, below the eighth level. Other than that, there are only the elders of the various families present. After all, Meicheng is an influential town. Why does it look like they couldn't even send over a proper entourage? Looks like our master does not have a powerful background, not enough to be accompanied by hundreds of servants on a casual voyage."