Chapter 147: Branding
The sedan chair parked on the street was opened slightly, and the person inside couldn’t wait any longer, leaning out of the window to brave the cold wind.
The servant was still talking to the person inside at the doorstep, leaving only his back to him.
After a while, the servant finally ran back, bending down and saying, “Wangye, Shizi and Little Brother Qu are not at home.”
“Who are you trying to fool!” Mu Jingzhao shouted, “It’s early morning, where could he have gone?”
“According to the message, Shizi left two days ago and hasn’t returned since. Little Brother Qu is really not at home,” the servant replied.
“Just came back from the hunting grounds, and doesn’t even rest,” Mu Jingzhao grumbled to himself, “It’s been over two days. What is Zhongming doing? Even Little Chenzhou isn’t here. Zhongming is such a scumbag! Where did he take the person to play?”
Today was another disappointment. The sedan chair was quickly lifted up and carried back along the same route. After not walking two streets, the sedan chair slowly stopped, and the servant leaned towards the window and whispered, “Master, it’s Shizi!”
Mu Jingzhao lifted the curtain and hurriedly went out. It was indeed Liu Zhongming riding a horse towards him.
“Zhongming, you came back at the right time,” he quickly greeted him, but his eyes couldn’t help but look behind Liu Zhongming, and he gasped.
Liu Zhongming seemed unaware of what he was looking at and dismounted his horse, bowing his hand. “Why did you look for me so early, Wangye? Do you want to drink?”
Mu Jingzhao had lost his mood to chat with him, and his eyes were wide open as if his tongue had tied itself in knots. “This…this…”
Liu Zhongming followed his gaze and looked behind him, then smiled happily and shook the rope in his hand. “Is Wangye looking at this?”
Tied to the other end of the rope was a young man, his hands tied behind his back, with a black cloth covering his eyes that was four fingers wide. He had been dragged behind the horse for who knew how long, and was already exhausted, unable to stand still. In the winter weather, he was stripped down to just a padded jacket, and his originally fair face was faintly turning blue.
Exhausted and lacking the strength, the young man stumbled and suddenly collapsed on the ground, curling up and breathing heavily.
Even without seeing those eyes, just by looking at the outline of the figure, Mu Jingzhao could recognize who it was, making him shudder.
“Zhongming, what are you doing? This…this isn’t Little Chenzhou, is it?”
Hearing the voice of Ning Wang, Qu Chenzhou seemed to have caught a life-saving straw, struggled to sit up and hoarsely pleaded, “Wangye…save me…”
Before he finished speaking, Liu Zhongming coldly chuckled.
The attendant who followed behind stepped forward without a word, and the whip fell with a whistle. The cry for help was forcibly interrupted and turned into a painful sound stuck in the throat.
The blood splashed up as the whip was lifted.
Mu Jingzhao was frightened and stepped back, only to realize that the whip landed squarely on Qu Chenzhou’s leg.
Although he didn’t know how long Qu Chenzhou had been dragged like this, just by looking at the bloodstains all over his legs, he could imagine what had happened along the way.
“Zhongming, Zhongming, look…” He was so flustered that he didn’t know whether to help Qu Chenzhou or plead first. “How could you do this? This is such a big mistake. How could you be so heartless? If you don’t want him, give him to me!”
“Does Wangye want him?” Liu Zhongming sneered, suddenly exerting force and dragging Qu Chenzhou over. With a flick of his toe on Qu Chenzhou’s chin, he asked, “Does Wangye like this face?”
“Like! I like it!” Mu Jingzhao’s joy was palpable, thinking that there was room for negotiation, but he saw that Liu Zhongming was still smiling, moving his footsteps and slowly stepping on Qu Chenzhou’s legs, which were covered in wounds.
“You do look like a fairy. If you really fly away like a fairy, then there will be nothing left. Why not…”
Qu Chenzhou laid on the ground, unaware of the pain caused by the shoes rubbing on his wounds. He suddenly felt a sharp pain when Liu Zhongming’s foot suddenly exerted force, and a shrill scream almost immediately came out, but he twitched and convulsed in pain, unable to utter a sound.
His mind buzzed, unable to hear clearly even the fragmented conversation between Ning Wang and Liu Zhongming.
“Liu Zhongming, don’t… why bother…give me….?”
“You vile slave… never changing…”
He hung his head, struggling uncontrollably, not knowing whether he was awake or unconscious, with only a persistent obsession in his mind, barely maintaining a little clarity.
On top of his head, he didn’t know what the two people were saying, only Liu Zhongming’s cold laughter was extremely clear.
“I was too indulgent to him before…he must remember…his life and death is in my hands…”
The pressure on his legs was released, and before Qu Chenzhou could recover from the pain, he was lifted up by someone from left and right.
Behind him was Ning Wang’s incessant chatter, and in front of him was an unfamiliar voice.
“Well,” Liu Zhongming’s voice was unfamiliarly cold. “Let’s begin.”
Qu Chenzhou was dragged all the way back from Shili Pavilion, stumbling and falling. He had already lost all strength to struggle and resist, his mind was drowsy, and he let the people drag him forward until he was suddenly awakened by being pressed face down onto something.
This was something he was most familiar with since childhood.
The penal torture bench of the Control Department. Those slaves who were not branded on their shoulders were all dealt with using this thing.
The sound of iron tools stirring and rolling in the brazier was as terrible as blood boiling in h*ll.
“No…don’t…” Qu Chenzhou finally understood what kind of terrible thing was about to begin.
It was a fear branded in his bones.
He desperately struggled, but his legs were quickly tied to the torture bench, and someone was pressing hard on his shoulders.
His waist was cold, and his clothes were lifted up by someone.
“Don’t! Zhongming! I beg you… don’t…”
A harsh slap landed on his face. “How dare you! Who allowed you to address Shizi by his name?”
The burning pain on his cheek couldn’t suppress his fear – he couldn’t lose that birthmark. He needed its protection; it was his pillar of support.
But before he could scream again, someone grabbed his hair and pulled it back, stuffing a piece of cloth into his mouth.
“Shizi, which character?”
“‘Ming’,” replied Zhongming in a voice devoid of warmth. “Make sure you mark the birthmark accurately.”
The scorching hot branding iron came down, leaving an overwhelming stench of burnt flesh in the icy air. It was a smell that made one nauseous.
With his body taut and his neck strained, Qu Chenzhou let out a muffled scream of pain, his throat emitting a trembling sob.
He could no longer control his consciousness. Memories from his past life and present tangled in his mind, countless voices sounding like they were going mad and tearing at his organs.
“Chenzhou, I’m blessed to have your favor.”
“Chenzhou, I’ll treat you even better.”
“I promise you, you won’t be lonely, homeless or without support.”
“Chenzhou, wait for me to marry you.”
“Trust me, I won’t break my word.”
Qu Chenzhou used all his strength to try and scream at the top of his lungs, but it was all muffled by the cloth stuffed in his mouth.
The branding iron felt as though it had taken root in his lower back, causing him immense pain when it was lowered, and twisting his muscles when it was lifted.
The blindfold had long since become damp, though he couldn’t tell if it was from sweat or tears.
His body was drained of all strength, and he slumped forward on the punishment bench. Everything outside his body became hazy and indistinct, and he heard something fall from his embrace and hit the bench with a loud crack.
It was a sound that he had heard the promises of two lifetimes in.
But the sound was gone as quickly as it had come.
Footsteps quickly approached, and someone snatched the jade pendant hanging around his neck.
“You don’t deserve this, you worthless thing!”
He weakly lifted his head, but all he heard was the sound of the jade shattering against the stone floor, the broken pieces grazing his face, but he couldn’t even feel the pain.
The sound of the jade pendant hitting the floor echoed away, and there was no trace of it left.
He desperately tried to open his eyes to see what was happening, but eventually, he hung his head and passed out.
Autumn and winter days were slow to dawn, and before the first light of dawn had appeared, Liu Zhongming had already left the house.
He couldn’t leave his sister alone on the road from hunting grounds to the capital, so despite his worry for Bai Shiyan’s whereabouts, he had to return first.
His uncle was leading troops outside, and he and his aunt decided to keep Bai Shiyan’s disappearance a secret to avoid unsettling the troops.
Once they arrived in the capital, Bai Shilei immediately set out to search for him, while Liu Zhongming dispatched all the manpower he could to help.
Now there was only his aunt at home, and he cannot help but go see her and make sure she is okay.
It was still early, but Madam Bai was sitting by the window as expected. Despite the cold weather, she had opened the window. When she saw Liu Zhongming, she waved and smiled calmly.
However, compared to her usual efficiency and decisiveness, her calmness only made Liu Zhongming feel a pang of sadness.
He was a coward, and he couldn’t bring himself to admit that he had trusted the wrong person and caused something to happen to Shiyan.
“A Master once said that Shiyan has a strong life force and will be fine,” his aunt comforted him. “Go and do what you need to do. If there is any news about Shiyan, I will let you know.”
In fact, they had already prepared for the worst.
Liu Zhongming tried to hide his sadness, ate breakfast with his aunt, and hugged his baby cousin who was still in swaddling clothes.
Before leaving, his aunt called out to him.
“Zhongming, if you are too busy lately, you don’t need to run back and forth. I am alone and can’t help but think too much. Ask Chenzhou to come and keep me company.”
He hesitated for a moment before turning back and smiling, “Chenzhou has been sick these days. When he gets better, I will ask him to come and see you.”
Then, as if escaping, he got into the carriage.
Now was not the time for him to cry freely. With limited manpower in the capital now, he was afraid he would be stretched thin if he relied solely on himself.
At least things were good with his sister in the palace. Father took the initiative to secretly keep an eye on things and then he received a confidential letter from Mu Jingchen. With the movements of Imperial Concubine Xian and Jingchen, there was no need to worry about his sister anymore.
Fang Wuyang lent him the assistance of the secret guards to hold up appearances. Within a few months, it should not be a problem. By then, they should have news of Shiyan’s whereabouts.
The carriage stopped in front of Jinxiu Ying not long after. Although Liao Guangming had died, nothing in Jinxiu Ying had come to a stop. Everyone was in disarray without a leader.
The Emperor seemed to casually mention it, asking him to come and help. From the moment he stepped into Jinxiu Ying, there were new considerations in the eyes of countless people – although not explicitly stated, everyone knew who the next leader of Jinxiu Ying would be.
Liu Zhongming had no shortage of money or means. With Xu Ziwen’s help in Jinxiu Ying for so many days, he knew which people to keep and which to get rid of.
Everything was originally a matter of course. But when Xu Ziwen secretly sent him a few special confidential letters, he couldn’t help but shed tears. Ling He was now steadily sitting in the position of the Deputy Minister of the Dali Temple. He, who was once so uncompromising, had become much more worldly-wise in the eyes of outsiders, and at the banquet at his mansion, the figure of this new rising star was not lacking.
Rong Jiuan, with his extraordinary talent, used to be aloof and incompatible with others. Many people watched him rise and fall like a spectacle, as if it were a joke.
Now that he was covered in filth and competing with Third Young Master Liu, the onlookers enjoyed the spectacle, but surprisingly, they accepted him naturally.
He stayed in the Hanlin Academy for a few months, and because of a memorial he wrote to the emperor in small seal script, the emperor was delighted and promoted him.
These two people stood in different positions, but they both sealed all the complexities and clues of the court in these secret letters.
Even Jiang Xingzhi, who was around Qi Wang, seemed impatient but still provided detailed information.
The letter mentioned:
Ren Rui successfully captured the heads of dozens of Liequ old civilians in the hunting grounds, winning the emperor’s high praise. However, he knows best about the atrocities of indiscriminate killing under Qi Wang’s command.
Unfortunately, he did not see the appearance of those old civilians, nor did he get more clues from Qi Wang.
——Now that Ren Rui was riding high on his success, if Liu Zhongming can seize this opportunity to also expose the past deeds of Qi Wang, it could be an important step in bringing him down.
Liu Zhongming read and re-read these secret messages, Ling He, Rong Jiuan, Jiang Xingzhi, Fang Wuyang, even Jingchen…all of these people stood by his side because of one person.
He didn’t want to think about it, but he couldn’t help but think about it. That person had once exhausted all efforts for him, had once risked his life for him. He shouldn’t hate him, but he couldn’t help but hate him.
Even Qu Chenzhou himself had said, “Can the favor Shizi and the Bai family have shown me compare to what I want?”
That beautiful and colorful poisonous snake had corroded him to the point of being riddled with holes.
They were perhaps truly enemies from past lives, and Qu Chenzhou truly hated him. He hated him so much that he went to great lengths to give him so much love and care, and then mercilessly took it all away.
Leaving him as an empty shell, unable to even think properly, hating himself for not being able to shatter himself.
Liu Zhongming knew he should calm down and find a lead in all of these tangled and complex clues, but every word seemed to have Qu Chenzhou’s name on it, with his cold, passionate, cunning, and mocking face.
And there was also the bloody and mutilated body of Bai Shiyan.
Perhaps it was just one step away, he stared blankly at his own shadow cast on the desk, his face warm and wet.
He was one step away from going insane.
Dazed and confused, he didn’t know how the day had passed, nor when he had left Jinxiu Ying, he only knew that when he returned to the villa, the lanterns outside the door were already lit.
They were bright red, full of joy.
Liu Zhongming walked into the inner courtyard like a wooden puppet, and the housekeeper brought him the clothes that had been prepared long ago. He reached out and put on such bright colors for the first time in his life.
On a joyous day, red was only fitting.
The bedroom was also filled with festive colors, everything from the table and chairs to the bed linens had been changed to new ones.
Two small red candles the size of a bowl illuminated the cold winter night with a gentle warmth.
Someone was waiting for him in bed, dressed in a wedding gown, kneeling on the bed.