Chapter 175: Provocation
“The Left and Right Valiant Camps, along with the Left and Right Imperial Guards, are responsible for patrolling the palace. The person who killed Miss Wen Lan earlier was from the Right Valiant Camp.”
The implication behind these words was very clear. The Emperor released these two units not only to show great trust but also to silence those who accused him. Furthermore, there seemed to be an intention to help Qu Chenzhou vent his frustrations.
“Qu Sitian, please come this way.”
Although Bo Yan was the Deputy Commander of the Southern Bureau’s Sixteenth Guard, his official position was still below that of Qu Chenzhou. Not to mention, Qu Chenzhou also had the Xuanmang Woven Golden Robe, so he followed slightly behind, extending his hand forward in an inviting gesture.
Qu Chenzhou nodded and stepped over the threshold first.
The black lacquered door studded with copper nails closed behind him. Along the path stood soldiers with spears, and as he walked by, they shifted their gazes from mocking, playful, and disdainful to quickly returning to their positions, as if they had never looked at him.
Qu Chenzhou merely smiled, listening to Bo Yan’s explanations.
“Qu Sitian is not familiar with the rotation, but the Chief Scribe Secretary will explain it to you later. I will also follow up for a while; it’s not complicated.”
“Because the responsibilities of the four units are similar, they also train together. To the east are the Left and Right Imperial Guards, and to the west are the Left and Right Valiant Camps. This road leads to the grand training field where the four units practice together.”
“Today, upon hearing that Qu Sitian is coming, both the Valiant Camps and the Imperial Guards have assembled at the training field to respectfully welcome you.”
Qu Chenzhou ascended the steps and could already see the open gates at the end. Suddenly, he asked, “Who is the current Commander of the Imperial Guards?”
“Ding Lekang. Both of your units are responsible for guarding the palace, and Qu Sitian will have considerable interaction with him later.”
Qu Chenzhou nodded knowingly—still Ding Lekang. The closer someone was to the Emperor, the more they became the target of Huai Wang’s schemes, and the harder it was to remove them from their positions.
A solution had to be devised.
With nearly a thousand personnel each, the Valiant Camps were now neatly lined up in the middle, while the Imperial Guards were positioned around the training field. As Qu Chenzhou entered the gate, all eyes were on him.
Someone approached briskly from the side—a square face with a broad nose, short stature. The rest followed behind. No introduction was needed from Bo Yan; everyone knew who this person was.
“General Ding Lekang, Commander of the Left and Right Imperial Guards.”
Ding Lekang gave a slight salute, not waiting for Bo Yan to say anything else. He immediately said, “General Ding Lekang pays respects to Qu Sitian.”
“General Ding, I’ve heard of your name for a long time. Your achievements are commendable.” Qu Chenzhou smiled faintly and turned his gaze to another person who stepped forward from the group.
That person spoke loudly, “I pay my respects to Qu Sitian! The Left Valiant Camp has five hundred and thirty soldiers, and the Right Valiant Camp has four hundred and sixty-six soldiers, totaling nine hundred and ninety-six. Currently, there are nine hundred and sixty-one soldiers present, lined up here!”
On the first day of his new position, he was already short by thirty-five soldiers, clearly aiming to embarrass the new official.
Bo Yan’s face showed a trace of displeasure, but before he could say anything, he saw Qu Chenzhou press his hand down, preventing him from speaking. Bo Yan stepped back, catching a glimpse of someone with a disdainful smile.
Those who could enter the Southern Bureau were of some background, not to mention the four units responsible for guarding the palace.
Despite Qu Sitian’s favored position, his background was less than admirable. While these people wouldn’t dare to openly criticize him, once they left the palace, after a few cups of wine, their tongues would loosen.
No matter how much the Emperor cherished Qu Chenzhou, could he control the crude conversations in the market?
However, no one had expected the sudden change—Qu Chenzhou had become their superior. For those proud and privileged aristocratic youngsters, this was an unimaginable humiliation.
Many of them had witnessed Qu Chenzhou kneeling and bowing submissively at banquets. Now, they were expected to kneel and bow to a mere slave.
The current situation seemed only natural. Those who weren’t willing to come were probably more interested in watching the spectacle.
More than nine hundred people were arranged in the training field, and Qu Chenzhou strolled among them.
No one knew what he intended to do, and no one cared to ponder it. This was the first time these people were so close to the renowned beauty of the capital.
That sandalwood-woven golden robe appeared like a wisp of gentle smoke, threading through a forest of steel spears. It carried a faint fragrance, as if invisible hooks were suspended in the air, stirring hearts with a restless desire.
Behind Qu Chenzhou, there were silent glances and winks.
Seemingly oblivious, Qu Chenzhou walked halfway before suddenly stopping.
The person on his left hadn’t anticipated this. He had just begun a lewd smile when it froze on his face. He saw Qu Chenzhou reach for the badge at his waist and flip it over.
Perhaps due to his wandering thoughts, the fair hand holding the dark badge caused him to involuntarily swallow.
“Your name is Liu Zhitao?”
Bo Yan was also present, so the person naturally didn’t dare to be too casual. He hurriedly replied, “Yes!”
“With a seductive face, slender waist, long legs, and a perky butt, they must be quite energetic when doing it, even more so than a woman,” Qu Chenzhou’s expression remained calm as he softly asked, “Did you say that?”
For some reason, Liu Zhitao’s scalp tightened.
Such vulgar talk flowed freely in taverns, but now being spoken by the main figure in front of everyone, he felt an inexplicable fear.
“Come with me,” Qu Chenzhou beckoned him with a crooked finger.
Liu Zhitao hesitated, knowing that nothing good awaited him.
“You’re in the Valiant Camp, and you don’t even know the rules?” Qu Chenzhou didn’t force him and gestured to the sides, saying, “Bring him out.”
The several individuals singled out exchanged glances and remained motionless.
Bo Yan had long grown impatient, but he understood that Qu Chenzhou had his own plan. To establish his presence in the Valiant Camp, it wouldn’t be enough to rely solely on Bo Yan’s assistance on the side.
The people behind him immediately stepped forward and pulled Liu Zhitao out, binding him to a wooden stake in the training field.
Liu Zhitao was now truly panicked. Everyone knew that Qu Chenzhou and he had the worst relationship. It was clear that Qu Chenzhou was using the surname Liu to make an example.
“Qu Sitian!” He struggled vehemently, shouting, “I didn’t say that just now! I’m innocent! I’m distantly related to the Shizi! You can’t vent your anger at others for matters between you and the Shizi!”
All eyes exchanged glances secretly.
Liu Zhitao was in terrible luck. Who would have expected that Qu Chenzhou would lack any sense of restraint and directly confront him like this?
However, by saying this, Liu Zhitao was guaranteed to face unfavorable consequences.
If Qu Sitian spared him, Liu Shizi would surely persist, and if Qu Sitian didn’t listen to him, he would be in an even worse situation.
“What’s all this talk about venting anger or not?” Qu Chenzhou tossed the handkerchief he had used to wipe his hands aside, accepted a longbow handed over by Bo Yan, and smiled faintly.
“Talking about the Shizi isn’t interesting. I’ve been learning archery from Commander Bo for a few days. My technique is still unrefined. Please, everyone, take a look and let me know if my stance is correct.”
Indeed, he had spent only a few days learning from Bo Yan. When he raised the bow, he couldn’t even fully draw the string. Yet, no one could muster a laugh. The arrow’s tip aimed directly at the pale-faced Liu Zhitao.
As expected, the first arrow went off course, producing a swooshing sound as it grazed his shoulder before falling to the ground.
“Qu Chenzhou!” Liu Zhitao suddenly grew hysterical, struggling wildly, and shouting, “Do you dare to harm me? I am a member of the Liu family! Marquis and the Shizi won’t spare you!”
Qu Chenzhou lowered his head to retrieve the arrow, seemingly indifferent. He casually called Bo Yan’s name. As he did, he saw Liu Zhitao’s curses muffled by a sackcloth.
Before releasing the second arrow, he took a few steps forward. The arrowhead wavered on the bow, pointing straight at Liu Zhitao.
Retribution would come, but the timing wasn’t right yet.
The saying goes, “The dragon has nine sons.” Not everyone in the Liu family was loyal and righteous, just as not everyone in the Bai family was upright.
When the Liu family suffered hardship, many branches were implicated. Struggling for survival was instinctive, there were a few who didn’t hesitate to push others into the water, just to save themselves. Self-preservation took precedence.
Liu Zhitao was a prime example of this. He fabricated false accusations in order to invite merit and protect himself, even at the expense of implicating more innocent people.
Before leaving the courtyard, he had compiled a list of names for Liu Zhongming and Bai Shiyan, warning them to beware of schemers within the branches.
This minor matter had been long forgotten, but who could have guessed that a piece of parchment would be sent to the Star Gazing Pavillion in time? It included the words and errors of Liu Zhitao and several others from their previous conversations, concisely and accurately summarized.
No further guidance was necessary. The subsequent course of action was evident.
Qu Chenzhou had always fought alone in his past life and never managed anyone, let alone close to a thousand people. After taking up leadership of the two units, he had indeed pondered over how to proceed.
Some people were not only adept at managing others but also understood him better than he understood himself. Moreover, they had handed him the target.
The concept of making an example of one to warn a hundred—was there a better candidate for that?
The second arrow whistled out, still lacking power, and lodged diagonally into Liu Zhitao’s upper thigh, splattering half his body in crimson.
Qu Chenzhou took a few more steps forward, his beguiling smile still intact.
The third arrow pierced through his left side, pinning him loosely to the wooden stake.
The fourth arrow struck his lower abdomen. The arrow technique wasn’t great, but it accurately disabled that part. Gasps of shock echoed all around.
Nearly half the arrows missed their mark, while the other half penetrated flesh and bone, embedding into the wooden stake.
At first, Bo Yan seemed shocked and suspicious, but he gradually calmed down. He didn’t utter a word of advice, just repeatedly filled the quiver with arrows.
Initially, the stifled cries of agony filled the training field, but soon, all that remained was the sound of bowstrings twanging. Other than that, it was so quiet that even breathing seemed absent.
Finally, Qu Chenzhou shook his sore wrist, tossing the bow on the ground. He smiled at Bo Yan, saying, “It’s really quite difficult. It seems I need more practice.”
Bo Yan glanced at the blood-red stake, where it was nearly impossible to make out the figure still bound to it.
He waved his hand, signaling for the unrecognizable remains to be dragged away. Then he replied, “Qu Sitian managed to hit over half the time after just a few days of practice. That’s impressive progress.”
“Commander Bo is too kind,” Qu Chenzhou humbly responded, turning to Ding Lekang with a smile. “I apologize for the spectacle, General Ding.”
Ding Lekang’s astonishment was still etched on his face. Even though he had commanded the Imperial Guards for many years, he had never witnessed such audacity and arrogance.
Within the military, there were many aristocratic youths, and many faced discipline when they erred. Most punishments didn’t involve taking lives.
No one had ever used a few words to torture someone to the point of being mangled flesh.
Moreover, this victim was from the Liu family.
“Qu Sitian…” He answered stiffly, “Your archery skills are impressive.”
“Your praise is too much,” Qu Chenzhou’s lips curled, and he pointed with his finger, saying, “There are three more.”
He was pointing at those who had previously refused to bind Liu Zhitao.
This time, he didn’t call Bo Yan, but simply lifted his chin at those three individuals, then nodded at a few others around them. “Bring them.”
With unimpeded authority, no one was willing to be implicated before such audacity.
The three were awkwardly dragged out by a group of people. The more timid one left a damp trail on the ground.
“Bo Yan, I’m tired,” Qu Chenzhou took a few steps back and allowed himself to be seated in a chair.
“Ask them if they have any ailments. If they’re deaf, cut off their ears. If they can’t move their hands, cut them off. If they can’t walk, break their legs.”
He gestured to the side, and someone handed him a booklet. As if he hadn’t heard the agonizing screams on the training field, he watched as the scribes transcribed the names of the thirty-five individuals marked in red circles.
“Where has everyone gone?” he asked the deputy commander.
The deputy commander’s face turned pale. Qu Chenzhou’s lack of restraint meant that lying about being ill could lead to suffering in their stead.
He didn’t even dare to look at Bo Yan’s expression and quickly stood at attention, replying, “They… went to drink.”
“Drinking? Not a bad idea,” Qu Chenzhou chuckled. “Starting tomorrow, take these thirty-five people to the Moonlit Pavilion. They’ll each get ten jin of wine per day, my treat. If they can’t finish it, pour it down their throats. After seven days, report back to me.”
The deputy commander caught sight of the blood-soaked ears that had fallen to the ground nearby. He immediately replied, “Yes, sir!”
When Cao Shilang arrived at the morning court, it wasn’t considered too late. It took some time before the morning court would begin, so he habitually sought out a seat.
Although the morning court was not small in size, the Emperor was aging and only held court every few days. The number of officials attending was substantial, and while there were many benches, there were not enough bamboo chairs. If one arrived late, they would have to stand and wait.
With a single glance, Cao Shilang spotted a bench with only two people at either end, leaving a large gap in the middle. He felt fortunate, wiped his sweat, adjusted his clothes, and sat down.
Once seated, he noticed the expectant gazes from his colleagues across from him. These gazes seemed to hold a thousand words, but no one dared to speak.
“Gentlemen, good morn—”
Before he could finish his sentence, he heard the person sitting to his right lazily greet him, “Cao Shilang is early.”
Cao Shilang hadn’t even seen the person next to him, but he caught sight of a cane leaning against the side of the bench. His heart skipped a beat as he realized whose voice it was. The cold sweat replaced the previously wiped-off perspiration.
“Shizi… Commander Liu… good morning.”
Knowing who was on his right, he didn’t need to turn his head to look. He could already imagine who was sitting on his left.
Not long ago, Qu Chenzhou had taken over the leadership of the Valiant Camp and accomplished something incredible. With the opportunity presented by a new appointment, he had practically stepped all over Liu Zhongming’s face.
After that, this matter had been surprisingly suppressed by the Emperor. It was clear to everyone that in their few confrontations, Liu Shizi hadn’t gained any advantages.
Between these two individuals, it was obvious whose favor with the Emperor was stronger and who was prevailing.
No wonder no one was sitting in this spot, and no wonder their colleagues were signaling with their eyes for him to flee.
Running away right now wasn’t possible, so he awkwardly turned his head, squeezed out a smile, and greeted the other person, “Qu… Qu Sitian… good morning—”
A pair of entrancing eyes shifted his way, coldly grunting.
Cao Shilang felt like he was sitting at the border of ice and fire. He was half sweating and half trembling. After holding on for a little while, he quivered and stammered, “I… I suddenly have a stomach ache.”
But before he could leave, Liu Zhongming half-smiled and mockingly retorted, “Oh, what’s this? Cao Shilang, is it because I’m here that you don’t want to sit next to me?”
Cao Shilang hurriedly shook his head, saying, “No, no, that’s not it at all!”
On the other side, Qu Chenzhou asked coldly, “Is it because of me?”
Cao Shilang took a deep breath, his eyes rolling back for a moment, and then he collapsed, finally being carried away by someone to the other side.
Not long after, another person entered the morning court. After surveying the room, he calmly sat down on the section of the bench that had been left vacant. He pulled out a scroll from his sleeve and silently began to read through it.
Everyone’s gaze shifted to that person again. Someone murmured, “Ling… Ling Shaoqing.”
Ling He raised his head indifferently, watching the swift gestures from across, then realized and glanced beside him before calmly greeting in return.
“Qu Sitian, Commander Liu, good morning.”
The two people sitting on either side turned their faces away in disgust, as if they hadn’t heard anything and didn’t respond.
Palace rumors couldn’t be contained, and everyone knew that Ling Shaoqing had interrogated Qu Sitian not long ago. As for the Shizi, they hadn’t forgotten the dispute between the criminal and civil divisions at the Dali Temple last year.
The relationships between these three individuals were far from amicable.
Ling He didn’t seem to care about the cold reception from the public eye. He lowered his head and carefully studied the case files.
Before, with the two individuals sitting on either side of the bench, everyone thought the atmosphere was tense enough. However, they didn’t expect Ling He to sit so indifferently in the middle, bringing this peculiar atmosphere to a climax.
They exchanged glances for a while, and someone sincerely complimented, “Ling Shaoqing, my apologies.”