Chapter 146: Sand Between Fingers
As the sun began to set, people who had entered the city in the morning began to trickle out, either on foot, by carriage, or on horseback, all rushing to return home before nightfall.
Most people lived within ten li* from the city gates to the outskirts of the capital, with only a few traveling further to cross the Ten Li Pavilion, where border guards would inspect their waist tags and confirm their departure from the capital.
* chinese mile; around 500m
Where there are people, there is business.
Along the official road not far from the Ten Li Pavilion, scattered tea stalls and taverns offered a place for those leaving the capital to rest for a while.
By this time, the number of guests naturally dwindled.
The tavern’s attendant had been working there for many years and knew that this was a rare opportunity to take a nap. He was lying on a table, his head feeling heavy, and was about to doze off when he heard a thumping sound, as if a wooden stick had hit the door panel.
Looking up, he saw a young man holding a wooden crutch, stumbling into the door and tapping his way around clumsily before knocking on the door.
The attendant noticed that the young man carried a simple package tied in a knot on his chest, and his eyes were covered with a black cloth, making it difficult for him to see the way. The attendant hurried over to help him.
“Where are you going, young man?” He wiped the table eagerly and curiously asked, “Why don’t you find someone to travel with you? How can you travel alone like this?”
The young man nodded in the direction of the voice and smiled slightly. “I’m the only one, and no one else is traveling with me.”
The attendant was struck by his gentle and clear voice, which was so pleasant that it made his bones feel weak. He suddenly looked up and caught sight of the young man’s face, and exclaimed, “Wow!”
“What’s wrong?” The young man’s hand on the table involuntarily curled up as if he was startled.
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing.” The attendant wiped the table vigorously and laughed. “Young man, don’t mind me. I’ve been working on this road for more than ten years, seeing thousands of people come and go, but I’ve never seen anyone as beautiful as you, like a fairy.”
The boy seemed to have something on his mind, and he lowered his head slightly in response: “Waiter Brother is exaggerating, I’m just an ordinary passerby.”
In fact, the waiter wanted to say that it was a pity. On one hand, he felt sorry for the person, and on the other hand, he felt that there might not be any eyes in the world that could match this face. It would take an extraordinary pair of eyes to do so, so he could only sigh in regret.
“What would you like to eat, young sir?”
“Please bring me a few of the restaurant’s specialties, without spice. Thank you, Waiter Brother.”
“Alright! Are you headed to the Ten Li Pavilion?”
The waiter was enthusiastic and couldn’t help but say a few more words: “You’d better hurry. If you’re late, even if you can make it through, the wilderness outside has no place to stay. It’s getting cold at night, and it will be even more inconvenient for you. Why not stay here for a night before you leave?”
The words seemed to have touched on the boy’s concerns, and he simply responded with a “en” without giving a definite answer.
The waiter noticed that he didn’t want to talk to anyone and took a few more glances before turning and leaving.
The surroundings quieted down, and even the sound of the waiter’s footsteps disappeared outside the door, probably looking for someone in the kitchen.
Qu Chenzhou let out a sigh and tightened his cloak.
It had been over half a month since the hunting team set off from the autumn hunt. In the past, they would stay for about twenty days, but this time, with the sudden change in the hunting ground, the emperor would certainly not stay long.
While calculating the days, he couldn’t help but worry about Bai Shiyan.
The divination of the “heading towards death for life” divination was too vague. What kind of choice was heading towards death? What was the chance of success? He didn’t even know for himself, let alone Bai Shiyan.
In case Bai Shiyan really died in Chengfeng hunting grounds, all his planning would be for nothing.
But he had cast the divination several times, and the divination had not changed. It seemed to be only weak danger, which was why he had bet most of his chances on Bai Shiyan.
During these days of guarding the empty courtyard, he had also been holding the ring, contemplating it repeatedly.
No one was around, and the future seems shrouded in an impenetrable mist. Standing at a crossroads, he looks around in confusion.
He felt as though he had returned to his past life.
Every step was like walking on a razor’s edge, every step a gamble.
“Towards death for life…” murmurred Qu Chenzhou to himself.
If he continued forward, the ten li pavilion ahead will be his watershed. If he can pass through, it will be the first path, but if not, it will be the second. He has done all he can and can only leave the rest to fate.
Lost in thought, he heard footsteps approaching the door, and them coming directly to his table.
This time, the waiter knew not to disturb his peace and was not as noisy as before.
The porcelain plates made a crisp sound as they were placed on the wooden table, with two dishes and a bowl in front of him.
He could not see but the smell was like what he liked.
The waiter was attentive, not only setting the table for him but also bringing tea and handing him chopsticks.
Qu Chenzhou politely thanked him and reached out to take the chopsticks. However, he recoiled suddenly upon touching the familiar hand.
The chopsticks he did not catch fell to the ground, making two dull sounds like a hammer hitting his heart.
At almost the same time, his eyelids flicker as the blindfold over his eyes was suddenly pulled off, and a voice that made him tremble sounded across from him.
“Chenzhou…” the person leaned over the table towards him, “Are you also interested in the autumn scenery?”
Qu Chenzhou turned pale, stood up suddenly, and the chair under him fell to the ground, making a loud noise in the quiet shop.
Liu Zhongming was standing in front of him, but after half a month apart, the smile on his face had become unfamiliar, so unfamiliar that it made people shudder.
Qu Chenzhou’s gaze swept calmly around the shabby tavern, where only the two of them were present, and even the waiter was nowhere to be seen.
The second path.
He didn’t know whether to say his luck was good or bad.
“Shizi,” he tried to steady his breathing and nodded slightly, “you’ve returned quickly.”
“I missed you, of course I came back quickly,” Liu Zhongming signaled for him to sit down, explaining with a smile, “there was an incident at the hunting ground, so I came back early. I escorted my sister back to the palace and was about to come home. I thought I could see you, but I didn’t expect you to run out on your own – it made it hard for me to find you.”
“Sorry…” Qu Chenzhou didn’t sit down, but poured tea for Liu Zhongming and took a step back, saying again, “I’m sorry.”
Liu Zhongming turned his teacup with two fingers, the taste of the rough tea almost scentless, like a dry hand that stripped off layer by layer of his disguise.
Anger had already surged up and down in his heart, but facing the person face to face, he had to stay calm.
He couldn’t figure out why, why Qu Chenzhou had to treat him like this.
Without asking clearly, without a clear understanding of the other’s attitude, he didn’t believe it, nor was he willing to accept it.
“Sorry?” Through the rising steam, he looked up and asked softly, “What are you sorry for? For running away without permission?”
Qu Chenzhou pursed his lips and refused to speak.
Liu Zhongming smiled and his mouth felt bitter with the tea he couldn’t swallow.
“When did you discover the ring? I had the shadow guards keeping a close eye on you, but I underestimated you, and you still managed to slip away.
“It’s my fault for keeping you around. I don’t blame you, Chenzhou…”
He adjusted his breathing before speaking again. “You seem to know a lot, don’t you? I just mentioned sending my sister back to the palace, why didn’t you ask why?”
“While we were at the hunting ground, a mountain cat climbed up to the watchtower, which frightened my sister. It wasn’t until the imperial physician took her pulse that they discovered she’s been pregnant for over a month.”
“You knew, didn’t you? You shook your head earlier, was it because you didn’t know, or because you refused to answer?”
As he listened to the barrage of questions, Qu Chenzhou moved his lips but only asked after a long pause, “Is the Noble Consort and the little prince doing well?”
Liu Zhongming looked down at the tabletop and didn’t answer his question. “Chenzhou, have you forgotten about someone else?”
He waited for those words to be said, waited for an explanation of the note hidden in the sachet.
But there was only silence in the air.
“It’s Bai Shiyan!” he shouted, shaking his hand and splashing the entire cup of tea onto Qu Chenzhou’s face. “Why didn’t you ask how he’s doing now?!”
The fine tea leaves clung to his hair, flowing down his damp cheeks with the tea. Qu Chenzhou didn’t wipe it off and remained silent, raising his eyes.
“How is my older brother doing?”
Suddenly, Liu Zhongming kicked the table between them, and the old wooden table hit the nearby chairs, breaking into several pieces, and kicking up a large amount of dust.
“You still dare to call him your older brother?” he forced back his hysterical rage.
“Tell me, did you write that note? – Yes! Only you could write it! Your handwriting is identical to mine! You tell me, did you send Shiyan alone to the south of Beiwang Slope?”
The silence of Qu Chenzhou said it all.
“It was the Dragon Cavalry, wasn’t it?”
Liu Zhongming laughed bitterly, realizing he had been blind. He had personally taken Qu Chenzhou to the Dragon Cavalry’s base, and had become an accomplice in putting Shiyan in danger.
“You made me go to see the Dragon Cavalry twice, and I went to great lengths to arrange it. I really underestimated you. Isn’t that right, Qu Chenzhou?” He spat out three words from between his teeth: “Qu Sitian…”
These three words were his entire gamble, as well as his greatest fear and hatred. He hoped to hear something, even if it was Qu Chenzhou’s counter-questioning him in a vague and indirect manner. If he had said something, he might have been willing to be confused, to deceive himself.
However, Qu Chenzhou seemed to be indifferent to his vague disguise, and his calmness in those three words was chilling.
“Has Shizi remembered something?”
Liu Zhongming choked in his throat and sneered.
He truly appreciated Qu Chenzhou’s intelligence, and he should have realized that with just that intelligence, Qu Chenzhou would not bother struggling fruitlessly. Knowing how to calmly negotiate with him was the best approach.
But this time, Qu Chenzhou had probably miscalculated.
The hope was like a bubble that burst, and what had been love and desire in the past had now turned into disgust. Disgust to the point that he hated himself for not gouging out his own eyes when he saw that face.
In fact, he had no room for bargaining at all.
He didn’t want to be led by the nose by anyone, so naturally he would not answer the question.
“After Shiyan’s incident, I thought for a long time. I understood some things, but I couldn’t figure out others. Can I ask Qu Sitian to help me understand?”
Qu Chenzhou took a few steps back and sat down silently, gesturing for him to continue.
The past seemed like sand between the fingers, dissipating in the wind with a casual flick of the hand. The love and devotion that had accumulated over two years seemed to have never existed.
They were still strangers, just like when they first met in the study.
The last trace of eagerness in Liu Zhongming’s eyes dissipated, like a wild beast caught by a hunter, struggling with all its might but ending up a bloody mess.
“You told me before that we should target Qi Wang first because he holds military power. Once the military power is released, the other two Wangyes’ will be too busy fighting over it to pay attention to us, and it will give sister a chance to give birth to a prince.”
“That argument is flawless, but…” he sneered.
“It only dawned on me now that the Bai family also holds military power, and their temptation is no less than that of Qi Wang.”
“When Shiyan fell into trouble, the Northern Bureau was also left without a leader. If Shiyan died, Shilei would not be able to handle the responsibilities and would be a burden, and it would be a successful way for me to get rid of my right-hand man, isn’t it?”
“My sister’s unborn child was unstable. If I didn’t arrive in time, she would not have been able to survive. The Liu family wanted to seize the throne, but it would take longer if they waited.”
“Qi Wang has the Southern Bureau, so he is naturally not interested in the Northern Bureau. As for Ning Wang, he’s just a pile of mud that doesn’t need to be mentioned.”
“So…who are you really doing this for?”
Liu Zhongming suddenly smashed his teacup on the ground, took a few steps forward, and placed his hand on Qu Chenzhou’s neck.
He admitted that he no longer wanted to endure it, no longer wanted to pretend to be this ridiculous calm. He just wanted to bite off the throat in front of him like a dream.
Use blood to vent his anger.
Qu Chenzhou clenched his wrist with both hands, gasping for breath, but his eyes seemed to be mocking him.
“For whom? What does Shizi think? I have many things I want, and since you can’t give them to me, I’ll get them myself.”
Liu Zhongming became furious and suddenly raised his hand, slapping Qu Chenzhou’s cheek.
“What do you want that I haven’t given you? Huh? Tell me! What exactly do you want?”
“Do you only care about power and wealth? Is climbing higher so important to you?”
“What did I do wrong to you, Qu Chenzhou? You’ve been plotting against me for two generations! What did I do to deserve this? You tell me!”
“What did Shiyan do to you? Aunt and Uncle treated you like their own child and were always good to you. Do you dare to go see her?”
“Now that Bai Shiyan is missing, Aunt stays up all night, waiting for news about him! Do you dare to go see Aunt?”
“Qu Chenzhou, where is your heart? Is it made of stone?”
Qu Chenzhou licked the blood from his lips and suddenly smiled, giving up all resistance and slowly climbing up Liu Zhongming’s arm with his hands.
“Does the Shizi’s kindness and the Bai family’s kindness to me compare to what I want?”
“When you accuse me of only thinking about climbing higher, have you ever thought about what it’s like to live as a slave? Have you tasted this feeling?”
“I ask Shizi, who would willingly be a slave for life? Without experiencing suffering, do you have the qualifications to advise people to be good?”
“How could my heart be made of stone? When I’m with Shizi, my heart is happy, and it’s not a lie.”
“But when Shizi hastily left the capital, did you ever think about me? How did your actions affect me when you killed your way into the capital? And now you want me to be grateful to you?”
Liu Zhongming was taken aback for a moment: “I killed my way into the capital? How did it affect you?”
“…,” Qu Chenzhou’s surprise was fleeting, and he quickly smiled it off: “I don’t hold grudges about what happened before. Shizi should be magnanimous and let bygones be bygones.”
He pulled Liu Zhongming down and exhaled fragrantly, as if he didn’t feel the hand around his neck.
“Since Shizi has been frank, I’ll be direct too. Without the help of a noble patron, your current level of power is too far from the position you desire.”
“I am anxiously waiting as well, just assessing the situation,”
“Now that Shizi has caught up, how about we make a deal?”
Liu Zhongming’s eyes flickered: “What kind of deal?”
Feeling the pressure around his neck decrease, Qu Chenzhou’s hand encircled Liu Zhongming’s neck with a playful smile.
“No matter what I’ve done before or who I’ve helped, I’m willing to give my life for Shizi now. You should know that I can do a lot of things.”
“I can promise Shizi three things: first, you will control the military power; second, I will ensure the Concubine gives birth to a healthy prince; third, I will help the young prince ascend to the throne. However…”
He paused before continuing, “I also have three requests.”
Liu Zhongming seemed convinced and his expression softened, “Go on.”
“First, Shizi cannot doubt me again; second, you must obey me; third…”
Qu Chenzhou suddenly moved his wrist and a sharp spike appeared from his sleeve, aimed at Liu Zhongming’s neck.
But in the blink of an eye, he let out a scream and fell to the ground, shaking and curling up, clutching his pierced shoulder. A Shadow Guard who had appeared out of nowhere was standing behind Liu Zhongming.
“Qu Chenzhou, your calculations were good, but unfortunately, luck is not on your side,” Liu Zhongming said, stepping on his wound with a cold smile. “If you try to scheme against me, you will regret it!”
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