Chapter 171: Returning to the Palace
Although it was expected that the Emperor wouldn’t be able to restrain himself for long and would send someone to bring Qu Chenzhou back to the palace, when Liu Zhongming saw the two figures in the main hall, it felt as if he had been struck hard.
Apart from the expected Ning Wang, there was also Huai Wang.
That faint smile remained as always, burning him like flames from h*ll, yet he had to act as if he knew nothing, as if nothing existed.
All that hatred.
He had to endure it all.
Before he even stepped across the threshold, Ning Wang dropped his teacup and hurriedly approached, asking, “Zhongming, where’s Little Chenzhou? We’ve come to bring him back to the palace.”
“So Qu Sitian has such a high opinion of himself, bothering the two Wang Yes to come and fetch him,” Liu Zhongming replied calmly, cupping his hands and smiling, “No wonder he looks down on me and Jinxiu Ying.”
Ning Wang became anxious, “Zhongming! Don’t be insolent! He is no longer under your care. If anything goes wrong, you won’t be able to bear the consequences!”
Liu Zhongming clicked his tongue and extended his hand to the two Wang Yes, invitingly saying, “How could I dare? It’s just that Qu Sitian has a temper, always wanting to run away. I can’t just let him go, can I?”
Huai Wang had originally intended to wait for someone to come, but seeing Ning Wang rushing out in a frenzy, he hesitated for a moment and immediately followed.
There were only a few rooms in Jinxiu Ying reserved for resting, and Liu Zhongming pointed at a red lacquered door. Before he could remind them, Ning Wang pushed aside the soldiers guarding the entrance and shouted in pain.
A book fell to the ground.
Liu Zhongming sighed and helped Ning Wang, who was covering his head, while picking up the book. “If Qu Sitian doesn’t like reading, he could have just ignored it. Why damage a good book?”
Huai Wang stopped at the door, scanning the messy room before finally setting his gaze on the bed in the east.
Qu Chenzhou sat on the bed, his long hair disheveled, covered by a blanket. When he saw the three of them, he struggled to move but couldn’t get off the bed. He could only sit and bow, saying, “I greet Ning Wang and Huai Wang.”
Ning Wang sensed that something was amiss from the situation and quickly lifted the blanket. He was relieved to see that Qu Chenzhou’s clothes were still tidy but then noticed a short iron chain fastened around Qu Chenzhou’s left wrist, locked to the headboard.
“Zhongming, what is the meaning of this? Release him immediately!”
He glanced at the mess in the room and anxiously turned his head to ask, “Little Chenzhou! Has Liu Er bullied you? Has he touched you?”
“No, thank you for your concern, Wang Ye,” Qu Chenzhou replied, his eyes slightly reddened. He pursed his lips, suppressing his grievances, and asked, “Are the two Wang Yes here to visit me or to take me away?”
“To take you, to take you!”
Huai Wang noticed Liu Zhongming leaning against the window, flipping through the brand new palace spring album out of boredom. He also spoke, “Zhongming, release him.”
Liu Zhongming took out the key from his pocket, but Ning Wang snatched it away, leaving him standing helplessly on the side. He said, “Please don’t blame me, Wang Ye. You saw it yourself. If I don’t secure him, and he escapes, and the Emperor blames me, I won’t be able to bear the consequences.”
Huai Wang put his hands behind his back and casually responded with a grunt, not inclined to say much.
Today, the Emperor casually mentioned his concern that others might not be able to control Liu Zhongming, so he asked him to come and retrieve Qu Chenzhou. Since Mu Jingzhao happened to be present, he naturally hastened to come along as well.
This made him feel extremely uneasy, as if he was being quietly observed by someone.
What was initially arranged properly was thrown into chaos by Qu Chenzhou’s escape to Cining Palace.
Now, it seemed that Qu Sitian was trapped in Jinxiu Ying, but he knew who the real target of scrutiny was.
This was a hurdle that the Emperor set for Qu Sitian. If he passed it, Qu Sitian’s favor would likely rise to a new level. If he failed, he would be destroyed.
And the person behind this hurdle was the person backing Qu Chenzhou…
——Mu Jingchen, who inadvertently saved Qu Sitian and presented him to the Emperor?
——Liu Zhongming, Qu Sitian’s former master?
——The Emperor, suspecting the movements of Xiao Liangzi and his companions, including him?
——Or was it this useless Mu Jingzhao?
He felt a sense of suffocation, unsure whether his luck had truly turned for the worse or if he had offended someone. He couldn’t see anything, but he could sense something entangling him, layer by layer, gradually making it difficult to breathe.
While Mu Jingyan was lost in thought for a moment, Ning Wang had already personally helped Qu Chenzhou up from the bed and was holding his hand tightly with a smile on his face. He furrowed his brows.
In the corner of his eye, someone’s expression turned even more frosty. If they couldn’t hold back any longer, they might kick Mu Jingzhao to the ground.
Huai Wang’s heart stirred.
With just this subtle expression, he confirmed that Liu Zhongming truly cared about Qu Chenzhou, whether it was due to the unwillingness of betrayal, the face he saw, or his infatuation with this body.
Liu Zhongming never completely gave up on Qu Chenzhou.
This left him somewhat perplexed.
With this realization, everything fell into place. From Qu Chenzhou secretly seeking their help when he was a slave, to Liu Zhongming’s uncontrollable anger when he escaped, to Mu Jingchen sending Qu Chenzhou to the Emperor’s side—the safest refuge. It even explained why the two of them were at odds, which also affected Lady Liu.
Everything seemed natural, and his suspicions felt baseless, almost laughable.
Meanwhile, Qu Chenzhou had put on his shoes and socks, bowed to them, and stepped over the mess to stand in front of Liu Zhongming.
Ning Wang, who had seen a lot in the world, quickly stood between the two. “Little Chenzhou, let it go, let it go. It was also just business for Zhongming. Look at the mess you’ve made here. Let’s call it even, call it even.”
Qu Chenzhou was pushed back by Ning Wang and raised his chin, sneering over Ning Wang’s shoulder. “Commander Liu, I haven’t had a chance to thank you for your hospitality these past few days, so let me give you a divination.”
Huai Wang held his breath, listening to Liu Zhongming’s mocking laughter. “Qu Chenzhou, you still think your divinations can scare me?”
“Within seven days, a calamity of bloodshed.”
Huai Wang saw that the situation was deteriorating and quickly pulled the two of them out of the room.
As Qu Chenzhou was being pulled away, he turned back and said, “Commander Liu, if you’re afraid, just be a good little turtle and hide at home. I won’t laugh at you.”
Liu Zhongming stood on the steps, bidding farewell with a cupped hand gesture and retorted, “If you have the ability, then calculate more divinations for yourself. Pray that the heavens protect you and that you won’t fall into my hands again.”
The carriage was waiting outside the gate, and Ning Wang dragged Qu Chenzhou onto it. He turned and waved behind before getting in as well.
Mu Jingyan was the last to leave. After mounting his horse, he leaned forward with a smile and said, “Zhongming, let bygones be bygones. We’re both officials in the same court now. Don’t make it so ugly.”
Liu Zhongming’s gaze shifted from the carriage to Mu Jingyan, and he smiled brilliantly. “You’re right, Your Highness.”
As he watched the receding carriage, he realized that his fingernails had dug into his flesh, leaving behind purplish-red marks.
How could the past simply be left in the past?
“Your Majesty, look, look!” Huai Wang pulled Qu Chenzhou’s hand, lifting it up and extending it forward.
“Liu Zhongming has gone too far. Everyone knows how much you care for Qu Sitian, and sending him away was just to have a conversation, not to treat him so badly!”
“He insisted that Qu Sitian wouldn’t stay put and kept saying he wanted to run away. How could Qu Sitian not listen to your words? Where could he possibly run to?”
“Look at these hands, they used to be delicate and tender, but now they’re so worn out. Liu Zhongming is really…”
Before he could finish his sentence, he wisely swallowed his words upon seeing Emperor Yu raising his eyes. It seemed like he mumbled something under his breath.
“Chenzhou, come here.”
Qu Chenzhou followed the gesture and crawled forward a few steps, softly responding, “Your Majesty…”
“Ling He has been busy lately. It’s not appropriate for him to handle the matters in the Imperial Palace. That’s why I assigned this task to Zhongming.”
Emperor Yu slightly leaned forward and lovingly touched Qu Chenzhou’s head. “This boy Zhongming is a bit of a troublemaker, but he also listens to me. He didn’t give you a hard time, did he?”
Ning Wang’s previous complaint was ignored, leaving him with a flushed face and feeling somewhat embarrassed to look at Huai Wang’s expression beside him.
“Your Majesty…” Qu Chenzhou prostrated on the ground, uttering only two words, his voice choked with suppressed emotion. “Shizi… spoke the truth.”
Emperor Yu frowned. “What did Zhongming say?”
Qu Chenzhou pursed his lips, his eyes already moist and reddened.
“The Shizi said that even if I wear the finest golden garments, I am fundamentally a shameless slave and that he wants me to serve him as I did before.”
Before returning to the palace, he had tied up his hair, and by tilting his head slightly, the fading red marks on his neck could be seen.
“This official refused to comply at the cost of my life. It was only through using my life as leverage that I prevented the Shizi from succeeding.”
“This official didn’t flee out of fear of punishment; it was because the Shizi was constantly watching me, and I was terrified. My mind became confused, and I wanted to escape.”
“This official begs for Your Majesty’s forgiveness.”
Emperor Yu hummed with a furrowed brow. “This Liu Zhongming has gone too far! I’ll speak to him properly another day.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Qu Chenzhou kowtowed, pleading once again. “Your Majesty, I have been wronged. I did not lie. That night, someone indeed delivered a decree from Your Majesty, but the path I took didn’t lead to the Imperial Bedroom.”
“I know that the Imperial Harem cannot be freely wandered. In a moment of panic, I looked around and couldn’t keep up with the eunuch’s steps. I intended to find my way back to the Star Gazing Pavillion but unintentionally disturbed Empress Dowager.”
“I didn’t see Lady Wen Lan that night, and I didn’t harm her! I implore Your Majesty to investigate this matter.”
“Shizi didn’t ask me much, and he even…”
“Do you think Liu Zhongming would falsely accuse you?” Emperor Yu suddenly interrupted his words.
Qu Chenzhou hurriedly shook his head. “…I’m afraid…”
Emperor Yu glanced at the scrolls on the desk and then looked at his two sons standing behind Qu Chenzhou. He raised his voice and asked, “Jingzhao, Jingyan, what did you witness?”
Ning Wang immediately responded, rubbing his hands inside his sleeves and slightly shifting the tone of the conversation.
“Seeing the person trying to run away, locking him up and causing a mess, it’s indeed something that Zhongming would do. But I’ve known him for more than a day or two, and he’s just straightforward, without any ill intentions.”
Emperor Yu’s gaze then turned to Huai Wang.
“I won’t dare to show bias,” Mu Jingyan arched his hand. “It is true that Zhongming placed Qu Sitian in a guest room, but the room was in a mess, things scattered everywhere. When I entered, I saw Qu Sitian sitting on the bed with one hand locked to the headboard, and there were no other peculiarities.”
Emperor Yu nodded, waving his hand at both of them. It was time for Qu Sitian to perform divination, and they should withdraw.
Ning Wang retreated to the corridor, about to leave when he noticed a faint smile playing at the corner of Huai Wang’s mouth. He couldn’t help but wonder, “Jingyan, what are you smiling about?”
“Nothing,” Mu Jingyan’s smile extended at the corner of his mouth. “This Qu Sitian… is quite interesting.”
“…Interesting?” Ning Wang didn’t understand but never received an answer.
It was only after he left that Mu Jingyan muttered to himself.
“A different face in front of others, a different face behind their backs. Such a young age, yet so scheming. No wonder Liu Zhongming both dislikes him and finds it difficult to resist him.”
The sound of the beaded curtain outside had already quieted down, and then there was a chuckle that broke the silence.
“These kids, quite interesting.”
Yu Dexi concentrated on studying the ink, cautiously asking, “Your Majesty, are you referring to…”
“These kids,” Emperor Yu laughed lightly, unfolding the document he hadn’t finished reading. “They’re quite clever. Each one of them is eager to distance themselves from Chenzhou.”
Yu Dexi nodded and responded obediently, not daring to delve further into the topic.
Emperor Yu had only wanted someone to talk to. Although he didn’t expect any answers, he felt that something was different from usual.
He threw the document with his annotations aside before finally understanding.
If it were Qu Chenzhou accompanying him, the conversation wouldn’t be so dull—it seemed that the young lad, though straightforward, was more in line with his preferences than Yu Dexi.
He let out an almost imperceptible sigh, catching a sidelong glance from Yu Dexi, who softly picked up the interrupted conversation.
“The Shizi is young, yet he acts swiftly and efficiently. He has already made progress on the matters concerning Xiao Lianzi and Wen Lan. It’s truly remarkable for someone so young.”
Emperor Yu made a sound of agreement and listened to Yu Dexi say, “I just didn’t expect the Shizi to actually bring Qu Sitian back safely…”
His words were interrupted by the sound of the document being closed.
“Yu Dexi, after so many years, you still haven’t learned to keep your mouth shut,” Emperor Yu’s weary eyes raised slightly. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking.”