Chapter 165: Solitary Courage
Before Yu Dexi could speak, Qu Chenzhou had already stood up, his forehead covered in fine sweat, making his smile appear even more innocent and naive.
“The Emperor is sleeping?” Yu Dexi was somewhat surprised.
The Emperor had suffered from insomnia for over ten years. He would often wake up in a fright during the night, calling for Yu Dexi. It had been a long time since he had seen the Emperor sleep so peacefully.
“Yu Dexi, is it?” Before Qu Chenzhou could respond, Emperor Yu turned his face, his voice still carrying traces of drowsiness.
“Your Majesty,” Yu Dexi hurriedly stepped forward, patting his chest lightly, and replied in a soft voice, “This old servant has returned.”
Qu Chenzhou noticed Yu Dexi glancing at him out of the corner of his eye and was about to tactfully step back. However, he heard Emperor Yu call him, “Chenzhou.”
After this call, Emperor Yu didn’t say anything more. Qu Chenzhou stood by with his hands hanging down, and when he saw Yu Dexi take out two golden-red porcelain bottles from his embrace, his heart skipped a beat.
Liu Zhongming had already told him about it when he returned from the palace last time.
Those sin children who served as surrogates were not only provided with food and clothing. Since their birth, they had to have their blood drawn regularly to “connect their blood and flesh” with the Emperor and “ward off disasters and misfortune.”
That was why the sin children in Jinping Manor had always been nurtured with medicinal herbs.
Years of effort and emotional support had been destroyed in an instant. Emperor Yu’s physical and mental condition deteriorated overnight. How could he not seek a scapegoat for his anger?
No wonder Yu Dexi was not by the Emperor’s side today. He must have found a new “surrogate” through Liu Zhongming.
Qu Chenzhou remained silent for a moment, observing Emperor Yu as he drank the contents of the two porcelain bottles with his warm tea, before beckoning with his hand.
“Chenzhou, come here.”
With his head slightly lowered, Qu Chenzhou softly acknowledged and passed by Yu Dexi before kneeling in front of the couch, gripping Emperor Yu’s foot.
“Yu Dexi, wait outside.”
Yu Dexi stood in the corridor, looking at the fresh tiles on the red walls. A branch of a begonia extended from the neighboring wall.
It was still early spring, and only a faint layer of green could be seen from afar, enveloping the branches in a hazy manner. The flower buds had probably not even awakened yet.
Lost in his thoughts, Yu Dexi was about to be assisted in sitting down by a clever little eunuch who brought a cushion over.
He waved his hand, seemingly casually asking, “How long has Qu Sitian been here?”
The young eunuch pondered for a moment and cautiously replied, “It’s been a little over two hours.”
“He has been serving the Emperor all this time?”
“Yes,” the young eunuch nodded, “After the Emperor summoned Qu Sitian for a conversation, we didn’t dare eavesdrop. But in the middle, it seemed like the Emperor became angry, and Zhao Gonggong brought some medicine inside.”
“The Emperor rarely has the patience to talk with someone for so long. It seems that Qu Sitian has truly captured his favor,” Yu Dexi smiled and glanced sideways. “What do you think of Qu Sitian?”
The young eunuch was taken aback by the question. He knew that Qu Sitian was currently highly favored by the Emperor and didn’t dare say anything negative. He hurriedly replied, “This humble servant wouldn’t dare to comment on Qu Sitian.”
“Just asking casually, as if we were chatting about everyday matters. I’d like to hear your thoughts.”
The young eunuch couldn’t avoid it and noticed the benevolent smile on Yu Dexi’s face. He answered, “Qu Sitian is a good person. He is young, innocent, and naive. He speaks softly and kindly to everyone. It’s not surprising that the Emperor likes him.”
“Yes,” Yu Dexi slowly spoke, “He is truly likable. Excuse my audacity, but I can’t help but like such a child.”
The young eunuch nodded in agreement, and then he heard Yu Dexi seemingly murmuring to himself.
“When was the last time I didn’t serve by the Emperor’s side?”
They stood outside the door for about half an hour when Qu Chenzhou finally came out. Upon seeing Yu Dexi, he respectfully bowed.
“Yu Gonggong, you’ve worked hard.”
“Qu Sitian, you’ve worked hard too,” Yu Dexi hurriedly returned the gesture and asked, “Has the Emperor fallen asleep?”
“He slept for a while and woke up again. He’s waiting for you, Gonggong,” Qu Chenzhou remembered something and fumbled in his sleeve, taking out an embroidered purse. He handed it over with both hands, saying, “There’s something I would like to trouble Gonggong with.”
Yu Dexi reached out as if to support it but didn’t take it. “Qu Sitian, there’s no need to be so polite. If there’s anything I can help with, please let me know as soon as possible.”
“When I went to divine for Ning Wang earlier today, Ning Wang rewarded me with some things. I live in the palace, so I don’t have much expenditure…”
Yu Dexi guessed that the purse contained gold and silver bestowed by Ning Wang. He was about to refuse, but then Qu Chenzhou continued, “If Gonggong has the opportunity to leave the palace, could you please… bring back some interesting and fun trinkets for me? It would help pass the time.”
Yu Dexi smiled, and naturally, the purse was handed to him without being declined.
“Qu Sitian, there’s no need to be polite. Even for these trivial matters, I will definitely take care of it for you.”
The purse was not light, and Yu Dexi flipped it in his hand a couple of times. He glanced at Qu Chenzhou’s departing figure and chuckled, “Articulate and competent, truly a likable child.”
He paused for a moment, and his voice gradually turned colder.
“Huai Wang was right. Since he can be so likable… why can’t he win the Shizi’s favor?”
Qu Chenzhou was led by someone and returned to the Star Gazing Pavillion.
The Wenlan Pavillion was originally a place for storing books, with two floors. His room for resting and reclining was on the second floor.
As he stepped onto the final step, away from all the prying eyes, his legs finally began to tremble. He used up the last bit of strength to barely curl up in bed, wrapping himself entirely in the blanket.
He had been so close just now… but he hesitated.
If he had applied a little more force with the hand pressing on his chest, the Emperor, whose body had long been weakened by elixirs, would have been unable to withstand it. Once that mouthful of vermilion-tinted blood was expelled, he would have had the perfect argument to persuade the Emperor to entrust him with the task of refining elixirs.
At that time, he only needed to switch to nourishing herbs and add some Aforia petals. The Emperor would undoubtedly trust him even more.
But it was also a gamble.
The Emperor might not have truly been asleep; he might have been silently observing him.
If he had failed to convince the Emperor before the Imperial Guards took him away, the only thing waiting for him would be a sharp executioner’s blade.
In the past, he would have unquestionably gone forward even if he was alone. But now, he unexpectedly felt a sense of fear… and hesitated.
He was no longer the reckless and desperate fugitive he used to be. He had people he cared about and attachments he couldn’t bear to give up. He could no longer muster the determination to burn the bridges behind him.
Qu Chenzhou’s breathing became heavy, and he could only bury himself deeper under the blanket, unable to stop his trembling body.
He whispered softly, then covered the sound with the blanket.
—400 Shouyuan-Piercing Nails that would pierce through every vein before the blood dried up, gathering his essence and an Emperor’s life, offering him a chance to be reborn.
“Don’t… don’t save me… I’ll be afraid of death…” Qu Chenzhou hugged his head, desperately trying to forget the echoing words in his mind, silently sobbing, “Zhongming…”
Liu Zhongming abruptly woke up, and most of the candlelight in front of him was blocked by a cloak draped over him.
In the past, whenever he accidentally fell asleep at the desk, someone would always cover him with a cloak like this.
He couldn’t utter that name, but he saw Bai Shiyan sitting on the chair by the window, looking at him. His throat tightened, he wiped his face, gradually waking up, and chuckled self-deprecatingly.
“Shiyan, I dreamt of him again, dreamt that he called my name. I dreamt that he missed me.”
Bai Shiyan had heard him say this more than once, but every time he saw his desolate appearance, it still didn’t sit right with him.
His cousin in front of him seemed no different from before, yet he could never return to the past.
“Chenzhou is in the palace,” he tried to comfort him. “When… when that day comes, we’ll be able to bring him out of the palace, and you two can have a good talk. He cares about you deeply, and I’m sure he wouldn’t want to see you like this.”
Liu Zhongming forced a smile, not daring to think too much, and simply replied, “Don’t worry, I understand.”
It was already dark outside, and after he woke up, the lights in the study were lit.
There were stacks of books on the table.
The various shops in different regions were his main sources of money and information, and he couldn’t afford to be negligent in any way.
Many of the miscellaneous matters of the Jinxiu Ying had been delegated, but there were still many things that required his judgment.
He had to keep an eye on the rhythm of finding the sin children and handle it according to the Emperor’s reactions.
The myriad of trivial matters kept him from being distracted, and fatigue was inevitable. He couldn’t even remember when he had fallen asleep.
Bai Shiyan hadn’t arrived at that time.
“Do you need anything?” he asked.
“Qi Wang will be leaving the capital in a few days. I came to ask about your arrangements,” Bai Shiyan gestured outside, “Jiang Xingzhi is here too. Let’s meet him.”
Liu Zhongming pressed his temples.
“Qi Wang has asked the Emperor for several hundred men, and they will be setting off together. He knows very well that this journey won’t be peaceful. There are two other families even more anxious than us. We definitely need to send people to follow along, but we don’t need to show ourselves too soon. We’ll wait for the right opportunity to make a move.”
Bai Shiyan and Liu Zhongming walked side by side out of the study and headed straight for the reception hall.
“The Emperor has ordered my father to escort him to Qingxi. It’s still another half month’s journey ahead to reach the fief, and it won’t be easy for anyone to make a move there,” Bai Shiyan explained.
“But isn’t he leaving in a few days?” Liu Zhongming gestured with his chin towards the reception hall.
“Does Qi Wang feel at ease leaving under my father’s protection? With thousands of Bai family troops surrounding him, can he eat and sleep well? If we let Jiang Xingzhi intimidate him a bit, he won’t hesitate to go to the Emperor and decline the offer. It’s already a great opportunity for my father to accompany him to Ten Li Pavilion,” Bai Shiyan scoffed.
“You think like a villain,”
“We are already villains,” Liu Zhongming reminded him. “Do you even want him to survive until he reaches the fief?”
The reception hall was illuminated with lights, and Jiang Xingzhi stood in the corridor, his shadow stretching from the doorway all the way to the stone path.
As Liu Zhongming’s foot stepped onto that shadow, he suddenly felt like he had been struck.
This scene seemed familiar.
A few months ago, there was another person beside Jiang Xingzhi. At that time, he naively believed that as long as he looked up, he would always see that person’s shadow, until the end of time.
But now, it was gone.
Every empty space in the room was telling him that it was gone.
“Shizi, General Bai,” Jiang Xingzhi swiftly descended the steps, without any intention of exchanging pleasantries with them. He went straight to the point, “Two days ago, Qu Chenzhou went to Qi Wang’s residence to divine the future. The divination said, ‘The spear will be leveled, returning west, near the mountains but not the waters.'”
Liu Zhongming furrowed his brow and looked at the map unfolding in Jiang Xingzhi’s hands under the lantern’s light.
“Qi Wang consulted with me about the route. It’s certain that he will take the Spear Pass, but there are a few different paths he could take. He’s considering whether or not to trust Qu Chenzhou’s divination.”
“I must say, the Emperor has appointed countless Si Tian Guans, yet only this one not only breaks the rules by serving in the palace but also managed to obtain the Xuan Mang Woven Golden Robe within a few months. He must possess exceptional skills.”
“So, the final route is decided, avoiding the waterways and taking the Xingshui route to Jiping,” Liu Zhongming’s finger traced along the line Jiang Xingzhi mentioned, extending westward.
“That road is also desolate. I will have Fang Wuyang go ahead with a team of people, and you can stay in contact with him throughout the journey,” Liu Zhongming said.
Bai Shiyan lifted his gaze from the map, looking somewhat surprised as he asked Jiang Xingzhi, “You were doing well at Taishi’s, so why do you want to accompany Qi Wang?”
Jiang Xingzhi made a sound of affirmation, as if confirming himself, and replied, “Yes.”
Liu Zhongming looked at the map, and because of that divination phrase, even the words “spear levelled” had gained significance.
“It will be no later than next month,” he said, looking at Jiang Xingzhi whose gaze had also dimmed. That place in his heart, which had been hollowed out, seemed to collapse further. “Jingchen is about to receive his title. Don’t you want to stay and witness it?”
Jiang Xingzhi seemed to be staring at the map intently, and after a moment, he smiled sadly. “The congratulatory gift has already been given in advance. It’s a done deal, even if I don’t go to see it.”
“Why do you want to leave?”
Liu Zhongming gripped the map, pressing it against his pounding chest, fearing it might explode at any moment. He didn’t even know if he was asking Jiang Xingzhi or the person who had already departed.
“Why do you want to leave? You clearly said…,” Liu Zhongming trailed off.
Bai Shiyan and Jiang Xingzhi looked at him.
The people around him knew about his recent situation, but they were all outsiders. None of them could provide a definitive answer, and even their own opinions differed.
Bai Shiyan was the closest to him, caught between both sides, unable to blame either. Whenever the topic came up, he would sigh. But when asked if he regretted it, after much consideration, his answer was no.
They were all adults, each with their own means and goals. Who could say who was the stepping stone and who was the blade?
Ling He refrained from discussing right and wrong. While accompanying Liu Zhongming for a drink on one hand, he also made a request to the Emperor on the other, inviting Qu Sitian to assist in Dali Temple.
Behind closed doors, the two conversed about matters unbeknownst to others. All that was known was that before Qu Sitian boarded the carriage back to the palace, he turned back and solemnly saluted Ling He.
Compared to Ling He’s attitude, Rong Jiuan’s partiality towards Qu Chenzhou was evident.
—If it were me, I would do the same.
Jiang Xingzhi agreed with this sentiment, yet lacked the courage to bid farewell to Mu Jingchen.
Their sole consensus was that the person who set the trap must also unravel it, whether it was for Liu Zhongming or Qu Chenzhou.
As they were about to pass through the Hanging Flower Gate, perhaps realizing they might not return here again, Jiang Xingzhi unusually turned back and added a few more words.
“Shizi, I once asked Qu Chenzhou a question. If he were given two choices—one to give up hatred for the sake of love, and the other to forsake love for the sake of hatred—what would he choose?”
Liu Zhongming, initially lost in thought, gradually awakened to these words. “What did Chenzhou choose…?”
“He said that in the past, he would have chosen hatred. However, now he has people he wants to protect, so he’s willing to let go of anything.”
Jiang Xingzhi turned his face away.
“I’m not trying to console you. Although he’s the only person I can’t fully understand, I know he’s not content with mere love.”
“If you truly understand him, you should think about what he truly desires.”
Jiang Xingzhi felt a tightness in his chest.
It seemed that people were often like this—able to advise others while ensnared in their own chains.
“If you see Jingchen, convey my congratulations.”
Author’s note: The Emperor is the most useful weapon now; we certainly can’t let him go to waste.