Chapter 161: Lies
The path ahead was the only way to the Star Gazing Pavillion, and there was no way to avoid it.
Qu Chenzhou stood on the steps, watching the two people approach without any ripples in his eyes.
Someone on the other side was already excitedly greeting him, “Little Chenzhou!”
“Wang Ye,” he bowed and saluted, “Qu Chenzhou pays his respects to Wang Ye!”
Mu Jingzhao seemed oblivious to the awkward atmosphere between the two, and quickly supported him, waving the waist token in his hand in front of him. “Little Chenzhou, let me tell you some good news—guess what this is?”
Qu Chenzhou raised his eyes and was slightly surprised.
He had been in the court for many years and, even if he hadn’t seen it before, he knew what this blue background with a gold border waist token was.
Ten Li Pavilion was a crucial passageway in and out of the capital city, and the stationed troops held great influence. They were always well-prepared and their numbers were not few. Previously, it had always been under the control of Qi Wang, and it was a piece of fat that Huai Wang had coveted for a long time.
Now it seemed that Qi Wang’s loss of power had become a foregone conclusion, but he didn’t expect this waist token to end up in the hands of Ning Wang.
Rather than saying that the Emperor appointed Ning Wang, it was more accurate to say that he harbored suspicion towards Huai Wang.
Perhaps it was because of the rouge case that the Emperor had lingering fears, or perhaps he had long been aware that he and Huai Wang were of the same kind.
Both had eyes as greedy as wolves.
He remained silent, and Mu Jingzhao, thinking that he was unaware, proudly announced his identity, “Starting from today, you can call me General Mu!”
Qu Chenzhou, from the corner of his eye, noticed someone approaching, but he didn’t divert his gaze and responded, “Congratulations, Wang Ye. You truly are impressive.”
“Oh, who is this?” Liu Zhongming had also changed his attire, with a waist token of the Jinxiu Ying hanging from his waist. He leisurely strolled over, “Who is this?”
Mu Jingzhao, acting as a peacemaker, stood in the middle and pushed him back.
“Zhongming, enough, it’s all in the past. Father just praised you for being steady and composed, able to remain calm. Little Chenzhou is now a second-ranking Si Tian Guan, so don’t cause any trouble.”
“What trouble could I cause?” Liu Zhongming’s lips curved into a smile. “I’m just asking, who is this? He looks quite presentable. How come I’ve never seen him before?”
“Si Tian Guan, Qu Chenzhou,” Qu Chenzhou lowered his gaze and bowed. “Greetings, Shizi.”
“He can talk,” Liu Zhongming smiled at Ning Wang. “I thought he was just a biting beast.”
Qu Chenzhou clasped his hands in his sleeves, slowly raised his eyes, and coolly retorted, “If you understand what a biting beast says, then what does that make Shizi?”
Mu Jingzhao, who was about to laugh, immediately sensed that the atmosphere was not right. Considering the pitiful sight of Little Chenzhou he had seen on the street that day, it was impossible for anyone not to bear resentment. He quickly turned around to mediate.
“Little Chenzhou, you should also say a little less. Zhongming isn’t someone to mess with recently,” he lowered his voice, “He’s gone mad, biting everyone he sees.”
“I know,” Qu Chenzhou still maintained eye contact with the person in front of him, without backing down. “I’ve seen the Shizi act even more insane.”
“When did you see me act crazier?”
Liu Zhongming pushed Mu Jingzhao aside and ascended the steps.
He was half a head taller than Qu Chenzhou, and his official robes added to his imposing presence, as if he could devour one’s life in the next moment.
Qu Chenzhou watched his trembling Adam’s apple, the suppressed rise and fall of his chest, and shifted his gaze to the side.
“The Shizi has always been like this, why ask me?”
“I’m asking you, when was I crazier?” Liu Zhongming took another step forward. “Was it when I was doing you?”
“Shizi, please be cautious of your words…” Qu Chenzhou bit his lower lip, his eyes slightly red. “I am no longer Shizi’s servant.”
Mu Jingzhao couldn’t bear to watch and pulled Liu Zhongming towards the exit. “That’s enough. As officials of the same court, speaking such vulgar words in the palace, are you tired of living?”
“Can’t I speak the truth?” Liu Zhongming sneered, being dragged away by Mu Jingzhao, while pointing at Qu Chenzhou.
“Qu Si Tian, let me teach you one more thing—serve the Emperor well, or if one day you get into trouble and fall into my hands, you will regret what you said today.”
Qu Chenzhou silently watched the two struggling, and just as Liu Zhongming was about to pass through the Moon Cave Gate, he suddenly raised his voice.
Liu Zhongming’s feet seemed rooted to the ground, standing still, with an air of constantly looking for trouble. Mu Jingzhao was frightened and hurriedly pushed him forward, gesturing to Qu Chenzhou to leave quickly.
“Shizi, all the expenses in the separate courtyard were bestowed by you, and there is nothing I’m attached to except for the jade pendant given by Wang Ye. I hold it dear and hope that the Shizi can return it to me.”
Liu Zhongming’s pupils contracted. “What… did you say?”
Mu Jingzhao’s scalp went numb from listening and he scolded the palace attendants, “Hurry and take Qu Si Tian back,” while repeatedly nodding at Qu Chenzhou.
“Hey, what precious thing did I think it was? It’s just a jade pendant. I’ll give you another one another day, I’ll give it to you.”
As Qu Chenzhou walked farther away, he forced a smile and dragged Liu Zhongming towards the palace gate, laughing awkwardly.
“Look… look at this Little Chenzhou, quite good at joking around. It’s just a broken jade pendant…”
“Wang Ye,” Liu Zhongming’s face turned as dark as the bottom of a pot. “Did you touch him?”
“No! No!” Mu Jingzhao quickly defended himself. “I didn’t touch him. I just thought he looked pitiful at the time and was thinking that if he had an emergency, I could help. It’s not meaningful to bring that up now since Little Chenzhou has already… “
“Escaped the sea of suffering, right?”
Mu Jingzhao realized he misspoke, but before he could appease the situation, Liu Zhongming had already freed himself from his grasp and mounted his horse, galloping away.
“This Zhongming, has he gone mad? Even though he no longer possesses him, he still bites onto it like that.”
Mu Jingzhao found it meaningless and turned back to think about how Qu Chenzhou still held him in good regard. He grinned, “After being unlucky for so many years, is this year finally turning around?”
Liu Zhongming spurred his horse and rode wildly. When he reached the entrance of the separate courtyard, he dismounted in one leap, not even looking back, and headed straight to his chambers.
The door slammed shut behind him, as if in that fleeting moment, his trembling and loss of composure would have escaped through the crack beneath the door.
He curled up at the doorway, resting his head on his knees, pressing his chest tightly, afraid to take another breath, as if his wildly beating heart would leap out of his throat.
It had been over two months since they parted.
Night after night, he tossed and turned, forcing himself to sleep, dreaming over and over again about their past.
Whether it was the Qu Chenzhou from the past life or the Qu Chenzhou in this life, whether it was their Jinxi Academy or the separate courtyard under the tree.
In the dreams, they unknowingly studied and wrote, tended to flowers and played with grass.
Sometimes it was the Qu Chenzhou who was locked in the separate courtyard two years ago, lying outside his study with a cluster of flowers.
Or it was the Qu Chenzhou who promised to accompany him through life and death, leaning against the window of the study with a blossoming smile, mischievously singing him love songs.
In the dreams, that Liu Zhongming remained oblivious to how sweet his days were.
Only he, the tormented guest in his dreams, watched everything that was once warm and tender, everything he had destroyed with his own hands, and silently wept in pain.
Again and again, he watched as Qu Chenzhou was dragged through the streets, perishing upright on the execution platform, struggling and fainting in the branding chair, and repeatedly recalling their bloody wedding night.
He often woke up to the sound of his own hoarse and agonized screams.
An empty bedroom, an empty separate courtyard, they were the nightmares he couldn’t escape from in reality.
But he had to force himself to eat, force himself to sleep, force himself to stand tall and radiant in front of everyone.
He kept pondering.
Why didn’t they give him a clean end? Why did they block even the path of death?
He thought everything in his dreams was already cruel enough to gradually numb him, but when they unexpectedly met today, all the disguises were torn away.
He couldn’t die because there was someone who needed him.
All the things he used to desire, the embraces, the kisses, the inseparable togetherness, the growing old together, he dared not hope for any of it anymore.
Qu Chenzhou had waited for him for so long, and he never caught up. He had no right to ask someone to turn back.
Now, all he wanted was for this person to live well.
Liu Zhongming sat with his head lowered for a long time, then fumbled and reached into his embrace, taking out a small carving knife from his belt.
The lighting in the room was poor, but he seemed completely unaware, carving away bit by bit in the dimness.
It was a piece of soft jade, with a few strands of grass flower delicately carved into the shape of a jade ring.
He had searched the ground frantically, but the shattered jade pendant couldn’t be pieced back together. It was beyond repair.
The jade bell that made a crisp sound was also missing. Even though he had searched every shop, he couldn’t find another piece of jade with the same color or a bell that made the same sound.
But he had no other choice. It was only when he was fumbling and carving the jade pendant that his mood gradually calmed down.
There was only a palace wall separating them, and it was expected that he would meet Qu Chenzhou again sooner or later.
The meeting had already made him restless, but what shocked him and nearly caused him to lose composure was… the words Qu Chenzhou spoke to him.
“I value the waist token bestowed by Wang Ye greatly, and I hope Shizi can return it to me.”
Qu Chenzhou had indeed shown him the jade pendant of Ning Wang.
At that time, it was obvious that Ning Wang didn’t attach much importance to it. It was more like a casually picked piece of jade, without any patterns or names.
Not to mention using this jade pendant for anything, even selling it wouldn’t fetch much money.
Naturally, Qu Chenzhou didn’t think highly of such a thing. He had played with it, skimmed it across the water, and let it sink to the bottom of the pond. Where did the “greatly valued” come from?
Liu Zhongming’s breath became heavy, and he had to stop the carving knife in his hand.
Although many details of the past life were already fuzzy, having spent two lifetimes together, there was one thing deeply ingrained in his mind—Qu Chenzhou was a speaker of truths, incapable of telling lies.
Only this sentence…
Pressing against his wildly beating heart, he contemplated this sentence repeatedly, becoming more and more certain that these words were specifically spoken by Qu Chenzhou for him to hear.
It was a clear message, telling him that the current Qu Chenzhou had broken free from the shackles of being a speaker of truths.
He felt no ecstatic joy, only a bitter resentment he couldn’t vent.
If it were before, he would have had no idea what had happened in between, but after recalling many past events, Qu Chenzhou’s words became increasingly clear to him—Once, by a fortuitous coincidence, I obtained a power unimaginable to ordinary people.
In two lifetimes, there had been two extraordinary changes in Qu Chenzhou. The only possible cause he could think of was Shuoye.
Every word, every sentence that Qu Chenzhou calmly uttered in the past, became an insurmountable hurdle for him now.
“I am willing to risk my life for Shizi, without regret even in death.”
From the past to the present, every step he had taken was paved with Qu Chenzhou’s own flesh and blood.
He had actually envied Jingchen for having Jiang Xingzhi, but he hadn’t seen the person who had been injured all over for his sake.
The rough jade slipped from his hand and fell to the ground, a crack resembling snow spreading through it.
Liu Zhongming held his head, afraid that he would also split open like that.
“Shizi.” Someone called him from the outside corridor, separated by a door.
He had to go back, back to the inescapable reality.
“Shizi,” it was Steward Lin’s voice outside the door, “There’s news from the south that the person you were looking for has been found.”
The chaos in his mind gradually settled.
Indeed, he should go back.
After the massacre of the sin children in Jinping Manor, only three people remained, kept alive as the emperor’s greatest spiritual support to prolong his life.
The responsibility of finding the other thirty-five individuals rested solely on him.
Fortunately, this time, Yu Dexi was no longer able to investigate each one individually. Everything hinged on his words alone.
From north to south, he only needed to hold the thread of hope for the emperor and find those infants who were abandoned from birth.
Yes, he had important matters to attend to, a path to walk, and someone… he couldn’t disappoint.
Liu Zhongming wiped his face, took a deep breath, and got up to open the door.
Something hanging behind the door was bumped, making a clanging sound. It was the bell that used to hang in the gauze cage.
Liu Zhongming glanced up, and as he closed the door and walked away, it seemed as if he could still hear it.
The crisp sound of the bell was like a ripple, slowly awakening Qu Chenzhou.
Outside, the sky was still dark.
There was no bell hanging overhead, only an auditory illusion in his trance.
He had lived in that gauze cage for a long time.
He never slept well in the Star Gazing Pavillion. Only by closing his eyes and imagining himself still in the gauze cage could he barely sleep for a moment.
The light reflected on the window paper changed from gray to warm red. The palace maids arrived on time, carrying a copper basin outside the door.
Washing up proceeded as usual. When the steward led the servants in to set the table, he finally looked up.
It was this person again, someone he had recognized before, Shi Gonggong.
The Empress still didn’t want to tolerate him after all. Perhaps it was because of the unsavory deeds of the Tang family, perhaps because of Ning Wang’s admiration for him, or perhaps because his existence challenged the Empress’s dignity.
Qu Chenzhou pursed his lips, lowered his head, and took a sip of soup, not touching the bowl of ginseng porridge beside it. The Empress’s old trick, it never got tiresome.
Since he was no longer a person to be casually manipulated, the palace was no different from before.
He couldn’t stay here permanently anymore.
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