Chapter 149 Betrayal
The drum beat a couple more times, and a figure appeared on the paper window of the bedroom. The person paced back and forth with folded hands, seemingly hesitant.
The door suddenly swung open, and Liu Zhongming stood on the threshold, wearing a jacket. “What’s the matter?”
He felt anxious and uneasy. There was no other reason for the steward to disturb him in the middle of the night.
Having known the steward for many years, he knew the man was not one to be verbose.
“Lord Shizi, General Bai has been found. He’s alive, but his condition is not good. They brought him back.”
A heavy burden was finally lifted from his heart. He didn’t even have time to change his clothes before rushing out.
The steward hurriedly intercepted him.
“Lord Shizi, Lady Bai specifically instructed that you only need to be informed. General Bai needs medical treatment and rest at the moment. Even if you go now, it won’t be of much help and will only delay your important matters. In a few days, when General Bai’s condition stabilizes, we will notify you.”
Liu Zhongming received the letter handed to him by the steward, and indeed, it was written by his aunt.
His aunt knew that he was worried sick, unable to eat or sleep, so she wrote down the details of the events.
— Bai Shiyan went alone to the south of Beiwang Slope and unexpectedly encountered Ren Rui and his group. The Southern Bureau had long been keeping an eye on Shiyan, and now, on this narrow road in the desolate mountains, they made a decisive move and ambushed him.
— Shiyan suffered some injuries but managed to escape the encirclement. However, he couldn’t shake off his pursuers and desperate for a solution, he hid himself in the crevice of a rock on the mountain.
— Ren Rui didn’t know where he had gone, but being a ruthless and decisive person, he wouldn’t let go of any suspicious places. He set fire to the dry grass in the crevice.
— Shiyan was forced to descend, with the crevice appearing narrow and a different world below. It was a considerable height from the ground, and he climbed for a long time in hunger and cold. Eventually, he reached the bottom of the valley and continued forward along a mountain stream covered in thin ice, finally finding a house in the mountains.
After that, things went smoothly.
However, the village was quite far from the hunting ground, and it took a considerable journey to bring Bai Shiyan back home and take good care of him. He remained unconscious for several days before finally waking up, but his hands and feet were frostbitten from the harsh mountain wind, making it impossible for him to travel.
Fortunately, Bai Shilei, along with the soldiers from the Northern Bureau, searched meticulously and managed to learn about Bai Shiyan’s whereabouts from the villagers. Now, he had been safely brought back home and was receiving proper medical treatment.
Liu Zhongming covered his eyes with his hands and choked back tears. Fate had ultimately favored them, and everything was not beyond repair.
Shortly before receiving news of Bai Shiyan’s whereabouts, there was good news from his sister’s side as well.
Perhaps because the palace hadn’t seen a new child for many years, the Emperor attached great importance to the child in his sister’s womb, being extremely cautious even in matters of diet.
After returning from the hunting ground, his sister had been taking good care of herself for several days, and finally, the child settled down, and there were no signs of any problems.
Although they had experienced dramatic ups and downs, everything had finally returned to a good track.
He had never believed in spirits or deities, but at this moment, he wished he could kneel down and express his gratitude to Buddha and the Bodhisattvas. He even consulted the almanac and purposely chose a day to go up the mountain for worship.
However, before he could even leave to fulfill his vow, an unexpected guest arrived at the courtyard—a surprise visitor.
“Shi… Shiyan! Why did you run out without taking proper care of your injuries?!”
Bai Shiyan’s left hand was severely frostbitten, wrapped in thick bandages. Supporting himself with a crutch in his right hand, he limped into the inner courtyard, seemingly oblivious to Liu Zhongming’s astonishment and joy. Unusually serious and direct, he asked, “Where is Qu Chenzhou?”
Liu Zhongming’s heart tightened, quickly understanding that Bai Shiyan had figured out the cause and effect of the situation.
What should come will eventually come, after all, there’s no escaping it.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t let him get away. I’ve already caught him,” he said as he supported Bai Shiyan and whispered, “I’ll take you to see him.”
They headed towards the bedroom. With each step, his heart grew heavier, hoping that Bai Shiyan would say something, even if it meant cursing him, just to ease his own conscience.
But along the way, all they could hear was the sound of Bai Shiyan’s cane tapping on the corridor, creating an oppressively quiet atmosphere.
Inside the bedroom, the air was stifling hot. Several charcoal braziers were arranged along the walls, dispelling any trace of cold from the spacious room.
As they turned around the folding screen, a heap of bedding piled up on the bed came into view. The person underneath was covered up to half their face, with only their disheveled black hair visible.
A pair of slender hands emerged from the covers, locked in handcuffs with iron finger rings, rendering them unable to even flex their fingers.
The handcuffs were attached to a bed frame, concealing the person’s face with the shadow of their arm, revealing only the bedding beneath.
Bands of gauze were wrapped around their legs, winding upwards and disappearing into the bedding. Faint bloodstains marked the gauze, and a thumb-thick iron chain was fastened around their left ankle.
The short iron chain was directly connected to an iron ring at the foot of the bed, restricting the person’s left leg within a few feet of movement.
Liu Zhongming silently gestured with his eyes, but he couldn’t detect any astonishment in Bai Shiyan’s gaze. He remained quiet, as if lost in his own thoughts.
“Shiyan,” he looked at the flickering shadow cast by the firelight, softly speaking, “It was my fault for being blind and trusting the wrong person. It nearly cost you your life, and…almost endangered everyone else too.”
Bai Shiyan leaned on his crutch, his gaze fixed on the bedding, motionless and unsettlingly quiet. He seemed like a completely different person from the boisterous friend he used to be.
Only his chest heaved violently, as if a surge of molten lava was about to burst out.
“Shiyan, I know you hate him, resent him,” Liu Zhongming’s eyes were filled with moisture. He held back for a while before suppressing the bitterness and speaking slowly, “You have every right to beat him, even kill him. But…”
His guilt and remorse intertwined, caught between the two of them, his heart twisted like a knife, afraid to look at his friend.
“But I have made more mistakes than him. It was my fault for trusting the wrong person, for betraying you. You have hatred in your heart, throw it towards me, can you? I won’t utter a word of complaint, nor will I retaliate.”
“From now on, I will keep him locked up here, never letting him harm anyone again. Let’s pretend this person no longer exists, alright? You can go back and tell Aunt… that he died of illness.”
His voice grew lower, aware of his own wrongdoing, yet he still pleaded softly, “Shiyan… could you… spare his life…”
Bai Shiyan finally reacted, a delayed astonishment flickering in his eyes. “Zhongming, do you know what he has done?”
“I… I know…” Liu Zhongming’s hand trembled, curled up within his sleeve. “I know, but the fault is mine… everything he did wrong was because of me. I have married him, and I am willing to bear all his sins. I only ask that you spare him a chance at life.”
Bai Shiyan seemed even more agitated than him. “It has come to this point, and you still protect him?”
Those words filled Liu Zhongming with overwhelming guilt. Something choked him, and in his desperate state, he knelt down on his knees.
“Shiyan, I have wronged you. When everything settles, I will let you handle it, whether it’s killing or mutilating, I won’t say a word.”
“I will live and die with him. I won’t let him cause trouble elsewhere. Can you… hand him over to me… for me to deal with…”
He had never imagined that he would bow down and plead like this in his lifetime, and he certainly never expected it would be for an enemy who had betrayed and deceived him. In an instant, a surge of anger overwhelmed him, and he coughed violently, tasting the metallic tang of blood in his mouth.
Bai Shiyan remained silent for a moment, then extended his cane towards him, signaling for him to support himself. “Zhongming, get up.”
Liu Zhongming didn’t want to further embarrass himself. After taking a few deep breaths, he stood up. He had said everything that needed to be said, and now he could only wait for Bai Shiyan’s judgment.
“Zhongming, I heard that you have been busy with the affairs of Jinxiu Ying these days,” Bai Shiyan changed the topic.
Liu Zhongming hesitated for a moment. “Yes.”
“Then go back to your duties,” Bai Shiyan’s gaze shifted. “Leave me alone with him, to have a…talk.”
“Leave!” Bai Shiyan’s face turned cold, without any room for compromise. “Go to Jinxiu Ying right now, don’t stay in the courtyard. It will affect my mood. Also, instruct everyone in the courtyard not to interfere, no matter what I do.”
“No!” Liu Zhongming shivered and immediately refused. “No!”
“Zhongming, after all the years of friendship between us, is he more important than me?”
Liu Zhongming lowered his head, his eyes slightly red. “Shiyan, whether you scold me or call me foolish, I have already punished him. You can see the injuries on his body. I’m truly… begging you to spare him, I’m begging you…”
“Leave!” Bai Shiyan took a few deep breaths, no longer looking at him, but his voice softened. “I promise not to harm him, just to have a few words with him. Do as I say. Or are you saying you don’t even trust me?”
Liu Zhongming had no choice but to concede. Anxious, he glanced at the bed, clenched his teeth, and turned away.
Bai Shiyan had also brought someone along. Before long, a soft voice came from outside the door, “General, Shizi has left. It seems he went to Jinxiu Ying, and the Shadow Guards have withdrawn as well.”
He responded with a sound, and upon hearing the door closing, he let out a long sigh of relief. He dropped his cane, stumbled, and threw himself onto the bundle of bedding, calling out softly, “Chenzhou! Chenzhou!”
The hand locked in the iron finger rings twitched slightly but gave no response.
In his anxiety, Bai Shiyan grabbed the blanket and lifted a corner, only to see a naked neck and shoulders covered in ambiguous marks. He quickly let go and set it back down.
He was not an ignorant child, and with a single glance, he understood how those marks came to be. He was momentarily speechless.
“Zhongming said you two got married! He… how could he do this to you?” Bai Shiyan’s voice trembled.
“Big brother…” Qu Chenzhou closed his eyes and moved his lips weakly. “Water…”
Finally hearing his response, Bai Shiyan felt overwhelming joy. Tears welled up in his eyes, but he quickly wiped them away. He hurriedly brought water, helped Qu Chenzhou sit up, and slowly fed him a few sips. Eventually, Qu Chenzhou caught his breath, slowly opened his eyes, and called out to him softly.
“Chenzhou, I’m here,” Bai Shiyan responded quickly, but he couldn’t help turning his face away, sniffing once before answering, “I’m fine. You were right, I knew I was fine. I’m sorry for putting you through this.”
Qu Chenzhou pursed his lips and surprisingly managed to smile faintly.
“Big brother, you don’t need to comfort me. Before we set off, I had made arrangements, but I wasn’t sure…” His words were slightly difficult, and after a brief pause, he asked, “What about Jingchen?”
“Don’t worry, I informed him before coming here. As you suggested, I told him some things and kept others to myself.”
“He has been searching for his brother for so many years, and he would help you just for the sake of Fang Wuyang’s matter. It wouldn’t take much effort from him.”
“When I arrived, he should have been preparing to leave as well. He said he would find an excuse to invite Shizi for a walk so that there would be a witness in the future.”
Bai Shiyan seemed afraid that speaking too slowly would cause Qu Chenzhou to lose strength.
Qu Chenzhou nodded gently and asked again, “What about Ren Rui?”
Bai Shiyan hurriedly replied, “Ren Rui is about to be promoted. There haven’t been any major disturbances in the court. It’s unlikely that anyone has discovered Jinping Village.”
“Ren Rui is bold and meticulous. He should be able to handle it well. There’s no noticeable change from the outside. The people delivering things haven’t noticed anything. You still have some time. You can make it.”
After feeding him a few pills, Bai Shiyan watched as Qu Chenzhou tilted his head back and swallowed them. He laid back weakly in Bai Shiyan’s arms, and Bai Shiyan couldn’t help but feel a surge of emotions, his nose tingling with a touch of sourness.
There really were people… who could be as fragile as jade yet as steadfast as a rock. There really were people who would stop at nothing for the sake of their beliefs.
“Chenzhou,” he spoke softly, afraid of disturbing the person before him. “These pills will help you gather some strength. Big brother won’t be able to go out with you for a while. Be careful on your own. Leave through the side gate, head south, and it shouldn’t be long before you meet with Jingchen.”
Qu Chenzhou nodded once again and struggled to sit up, clutching the blanket. “Big brother, help me get some clothes.”
Bai Shiyan didn’t dare to look closely at him. He chose a relatively thick padded jacket and pants from a nearby cabinet. Unable to remove the handcuffs from Qu Chenzhou’s hands and fearing it would take too much time, he had to use a few strikes to break the shackles on his feet. Then, he turned his back.
Behind him, the clanging of iron objects drowned out the rustling of clothing.
With a heart filled with apprehension, Bai Shiyan listened, wanting to say something but feeling that his sentimental nature was out of place here.
After a moment, Qu Chenzhou slowly walked past him. He couldn’t put on the outer robe, so he just clasped it with his hands.
“Big brother, please see me off.”
Bai Shiyan supported himself on his crutch and cautiously tried to assist, afraid that Qu Chenzhou might not have heard him properly due to his recent loss of consciousness. He explained, “I’ve distracted him. The people in his courtyard won’t stop me from leaving, but once they see you gone, they will definitely rush to inform him.”
“When you leave, try to be as quick as possible. Don’t let him catch up to you before encountering Jingchen.”
“Rest assured, I surveyed the surroundings when I came here. As long as…” He hesitated for a moment but still uttered the name, “as long as Zhongming doesn’t speak, no one else will know.”
Qu Chenzhou didn’t react to those two words. He just leaned against the doorframe and took a breath as he walked out of the room.
The housekeeper outside the door was naturally shocked but dared not say anything.
Bai Shiyan watched the person walking ahead, with a pale and faltering face. Unable to hold back, he reminded, “Chenzhou… From now on, when you’re alone, take good care of yourself.”
“…” Qu Chenzhou remained silent for a moment before answering softly, “Big brother, don’t say that. In the future, when we serve together in the same court, there will likely be many matters where I will seek your assistance.”
“If there’s anything, just tell me,” Bai Shiyan responded hurriedly, escorting him all the way to the side gate. Finally, he asked the question that had been lingering in his mind.
“Chenzhou, what Zhongming did to you is unforgivable, and I don’t expect to plead for him. But…”
He didn’t know what “but” meant. On one hand, there was his cousin who knelt before Qu Chenzhou, unaware of the truth, and on the other hand, there was his adopted brother who went to great lengths for Zhongming.
The two of them were supposed to be on the same path, but they ended up in the current situation. Bai Shiyan was caught in the middle, unable to say anything, feeling suffocated with discomfort.
Qu Chenzhou stood at the door frame, quietly pausing for a moment before speaking slowly.
“Forgiveness?” He murmured softly, “Between us, we have both disappointed each other. He harmed me, and I used him. It’s not a matter of who forgives whom.”
“Big brother, the situation with Shizi… seems different from what I expected. He still doesn’t know everything. And these days, he comes to me every night and refuses to sleep, perhaps unwilling to accept our past.”
“I’m afraid that if I leave now, in his anger, he might lose control. I hope that you can assist and remind him of what matters and what is urgent.”
“If he truly wants my life, once the dust settles, let him have it.”
“As for the rest, big brother doesn’t need to say anything more. Our past life was both fate and calamity. Perhaps we are destined not to walk together, so let’s not force it.”
He turned around and bowed to Bai Shiyan with difficulty.
“From now on, I entrust Zhongming to you, big brother.”
“You… Don’t worry,” Bai Shiyan hurriedly supported him, many words stuck in his throat, but he struggled to ask, “Do you have any words to leave for him?”
“Yes,” Qu Chenzhou whispered, “Do you remember the third request I mentioned before…”
“In this life, I never expected to reunite with Shizi. To have Zhongming’s affection for the past two years is my good fortune.”
“If everything goes well from now on, and if I am still alive, please allow me to leave and see the outside world.”
“If there comes a day when Chenzhou dies, please grant me a simple coffin. Don’t let me reborn again.”
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