Chu Hechao’s breathing became heavy, as if he hadn’t heard clearly. “What did you say?”
The gentle breeze blew, carrying a scorching heat that felt suffocating and dizzying.
Yang Gonggong choked up as he conveyed the information.
Chu Wang and Lady Yang had planned to escape from Luoyang before Emperor Jianyuan’s death, but the city gates were closed when Emperor Jianyuan fell seriously ill. Li Li, ambitious as he was, had already kept a close eye on Chu Wang and his wife, ensuring they had no chance to leave the city. Since Chu Hechao was in the Northern Frontier with a massive army of 130,000 soldiers, Li Li feared that Chu Hechao might pose a threat to him. He planned to use Chu Wang and his wife as leverage to keep Chu Hechao from making any rash moves.
If it had only been that, Chu Wang and his wife wouldn’t have died.
Li Li would never dare to have them killed. As long as Chu Wang and his wife were alive, even if Chu Hechao was inherently unfilial, he would have to put on a filial facade and obey Li Li’s commands. However, if Chu Wang and his wife were dead, Chu Hechao would have a legitimate reason to retaliate against Li Li.
Li Li had been relatively polite to Chu Wang and his wife, but he didn’t anticipate that the eunuchs would also target them.
When Chu Mingfeng died, a eunuch came to offer condolences but was driven away by Chu Hechao and his troops. This eunuch harbored resentment and tampered with the grain supplies sent to the Northern Frontier, providing Chu Hechao with water-soaked provisions.
After Emperor Jianyuan fell seriously ill, there was no one to support them. The eunuchs panicked, fearing Chu Hechao would seek revenge. They threatened Chu Wang and his wife, forcing them to write a letter to Chu Hechao, expressing their allegiance to the eunuchs and promising not to harm them, pledging absolute obedience.
They were too greedy, thinking that with the support of Chu Hechao and his army of 130,000 soldiers, they could defeat Li Li’s powerful faction and install a puppet emperor on the throne.
However, Chu Wang and his wife couldn’t bear such humiliation.
Their eldest son had already been killed by the eunuchs. How could they let their second son carry the disgraceful title of a lapdog for the eunuchs, subjecting themselves to the scorn of the world and making themselves vulnerable?
Chu Wang was resolute and steadfast, while Lady Yang was both gentle on the outside and strong on the inside. They bravely chose the path of loyalty and righteousness. In the end, they painstakingly arranged for a few of their daughters to escape with loyal servants to Ruyang. After ensuring that Yuan Li’s parents would safely deliver their daughters to Youzhou, they drank a cup of poisoned wine in their eldest son’s room and went to the underworld to accompany him.
When Lady Yang drank the poisoned wine, she felt relieved because she missed her eldest son too much and had lived long enough. However, as her consciousness gradually blurred, she looked at the things in her second son’s room and suddenly remembered Chu Hechao.
A strong sense of regret surged within her.
She realized that she couldn’t remember what Chu Hechao’s room looked like anymore, and her memories of her second son were so scarce, only capturing glimpses of him as a child and as an adult. It was only moments before her death that she understood how much she had been mistaken.
The only thing she regretted was not having bid farewell to her second son. And the only thing she could do for him was to die.
Yang Gonggong sobbed and relayed Lady Yang’s final words, “She… she said, ‘I’m sorry, my child, Ciye. You must live well from now on. Mother will go first to accompany your older brother.'”
Although Yang Gonggong was a eunuch, he had some connections with Lady Yang’s family. He had left the palace early in his life and had no involvement with the eunuchs in the Imperial Palace. Hearing about the eunuchs’ actions, he too felt unbearable grief.
Since Chu Hechao asked that question, he hadn’t said a word.
Cries and wails filled the air, and the young Misses of the Chu family who had escaped from the Chu Mansion wept and wiped their tears nearby.
Yuan Song appeared tired, and he approached Chu Hechao with a remorseful expression. He whispered, “After the deaths of the Lord and Madam, Li Li didn’t dare to spread this news for fear of… He sent people to bury the Lord and Madam. I did my utmost to transport their bodies out. However, the journey is long, and the weather is scorching hot. I couldn’t bring the bodies to Youzhou. Instead, I made the decision to place them next to your older brother’s tomb… I only brought three young ladies from the mansion to Youzhou. General… I am filled with guilt.”
Chu Hechao remained silent.
He was so quiet, eerily quiet, which made people feel uneasy.
Many people’s worried gazes were fixed on Chu Hechao, while Yang Gonggong had already trembled and fainted, adding to the chaos.
People came and went, cries and shouts mixed together, and the freshly picked lotus seeds on the table, still glistening with dew, fell to the ground from someone’s sleeve.
A year ago, the Chu Mansion in Luoyang was draped in white cloth when Chu Mingfeng passed away. A year later, the Chu family estate in Youzhou was also draped in white cloth as Chu Hechao’s parents followed suit.
The chirping of cicadas and the croaking of frogs in the estate had significantly decreased. They seemed to sense the heavy atmosphere of death, keeping silent.
Two empty coffins were placed in the hall, containing only the clothes that belonged to Chu Wang and Lady Yang, the ones they wore in their youth in Youzhou.
Even these clothes had been a painstaking effort for Chu Hechao to find.
Many people came to mourn, and there were even more angry individuals. Everyone felt uneasy, their eyes red and their hearts oppressed.
Chu Hechao locked himself in a room, refusing to see anyone.
Yuan Li prepared a bowl of noodles and brought it to him. Opening the door and entering, he saw Chu Hechao sitting motionless on a chair, resembling a stone carving.
The room was stuffy and suffocating, with no fresh air coming through. It was cramped and dimly lit.
Yuan Li’s Adam’s apple moved as he closed the door and sat down beside Chu Hechao, holding a jug of water. It had been full when it arrived in the morning, and it was still full, now cold.
He pursed his lips, picked up the chopsticks, and served a portion of noodles in front of Chu Hechao. His voice was soft and low, “Have some food.”
Chu Hechao remained silent, sitting there like a statue.
His face was stubbled, and he remained motionless. Yuan Li didn’t know if he had cried or not, but in the dim light, he could see the redness in Chu Hechao’s eyes and the darkness beneath, a suffocating sense of oppression emanating from him.
Yuan Li’s eyes turned sour, and he said again, softly, “Ciye, please eat a little.”
Chu Hechao finally spoke, “Take it away.”
His voice was hoarse, soaked with a coarse rasp.
Yuan Li still held the chopsticks, but changed his address, “Brother, you…”
“I said take it away!” Chu Hechao exploded in anger.
The chopsticks in Yuan Li’s hand fell to the ground, and he stared at Chu Hechao in shock.
Chu Hechao looked at Yuan Li’s startled expression, finally coming back to his senses. Grief, remorse, and regret flashed across his face one after another. He bent down, picked up the fallen chopsticks from the ground, stood up, and walked to Yuan Li, embracing him.
“I’m sorry,” Chu Hechao’s voice was hoarse. “I’m sorry, Le Jun, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Yuan Li shook his head and said, “I know you’re hurting.”
Chu Hechao held onto Yuan Li’s arm tightly, his eyes turning red, almost choked with emotions. “How could they just die?”
How could they suddenly be gone?
Yuan Li felt a stifling discomfort in his heart, as if he were struggling to breathe underwater.
He hadn’t had parents in his previous life, but in this life, his parents had been living well. He didn’t know how it felt to lose parents, but just thinking about it made him realize how painful it must be. Chu Hechao bore the weight of this pain alone, and it must be excruciating.
Why did people die so easily?
In chaotic times, it was so simple for someone to disappear.
Even someone like Chu Wang could die so easily, just like a blade of grass.
Chu Hechao didn’t say a word or shed a tear since he learned of his parents’ deaths. He clung tightly to Yuan Li, consumed by pain that engulfed his heart and soul, slowly drowning him. He buried his face in Yuan Li’s neck, and his scorching tears slid down Yuan Li’s neck.
Unconsciously, Yuan Li began to cry as well, and he embraced Chu Hechao. “I’ll be here with you.”
Chu Hechao held onto the fabric of Yuan Li’s back, his fingers trembling. He held onto Yuan Li as if he were holding onto the last piece of driftwood.
The death of Chu Mingfeng had left a wound in his heart, and now that wound was even deeper.
Chu Hechao cared about his family, but one by one, his family members had left him.
Now, he only had Yuan Li left.
Just one Yuan Li remained.
In the room, Chu Hechao’s tears of grief fell onto Yuan Li. After crying, that same evening, he appeared in the main hall.
Expressionless, he knelt before the two coffins.
Even if there were no bodies of his parents inside, he would still keep a vigil for seven nights.
When night fell and everyone dispersed, the main hall was left with only Chu Hechao.
Yuan Li returned from attending to his parents, his face filled with exhaustion. When he saw Chu Hechao, he walked over and knelt beside him.
Chu Hechao didn’t move or speak. After a while, he finally spoke hoarsely, “Le Jun.”
Yuan Li looked at him, “Yes?”
Chu Hechao lowered his gaze, looking at his hands. “Am I cursed, destined to lose my loved ones?”
Yuan Li was taken aback, and then anger surged up from his heart. “Who told you that?”
Chu Hechao fell silent for a moment. “Otherwise, how could I repeatedly escape death while they all died?”
One died, then another.
Yuan Li suddenly grabbed his hand, gripping it tightly, not caring that there was no one around. His face turned pale with anger as he scolded in a low voice, “Don’t say such things to me!”
His chest heaved rapidly, and he continued, “There’s no such thing as being cursed to lose loved ones, Chu Ciye! Don’t think nonsense! You still have sisters who managed to escape. Aren’t they your family too?!”
Chu Hechao didn’t speak. After a while, his fingers twitched, and he held Yuan Li’s hand.
The half-sisters he had barely met were insignificant to Chu Hechao.
He exerted great force, squeezing Yuan Li’s fingers until they cracked. Yuan Li didn’t cry out in pain. Chu Hechao was the first to notice that something was wrong. He released his grip, wiped his face harshly, and lifted his hand to touch Yuan Li’s cheek. “Does it hurt? Why didn’t you remind me?”
Yuan Li shook his head and then nodded. His voice was low. “Don’t think too much.”
Chu Hechao forced a bitter smile. “I’m afraid I’ll bring disaster upon you too.”
Unable to hold back, Yuan Li’s tears flowed freely.
The man bent down in silence, his fingers gently wiping away Yuan Li’s tears. Then, he embraced Yuan Li tightly, resting his chin on top of Yuan Li’s head.
His stubble grazed Yuan Li’s forehead as he gazed at the dark coffins before him.
A candle flickered, burning a small insect. The paper money burned, emitting thick smoke that obscured Chu Hechao’s face but couldn’t conceal his sorrow.
In times of mourning, one had to cry. Only through tears could one find a semblance of comfort in their heart. However, except for that one time when he cried on Yuan Li’s shoulder, Chu Hechao hadn’t shed a tear throughout the entire process of burying the empty coffins.
The three young ladies of the Chu family had already cried until their eyes were swollen like walnuts. They wept not only for their father and stepmother but also for their biological mother, who died alongside them in Luoyang, and for their uncertain future.
The person who had sheltered them from wind and rain had left. Yhey were familiar with Chu Mingfeng and unfamiliar with Chu Hechao. Chu Hechao’s notorious reputation and the unfamiliarity of Youzhou offered them no sense of familiarity or security. They were filled with anxiety and confusion, pouring out their fears and uncertainties through their tears.
Yuan Li looked at them, witnessing their tearful expressions, and occasionally thought, how good it would be if Chu Hechao could cry like that too.