Chapter 176 – Toppling the Pagoda
The leaves on the tree branches had grown large in response to summer’s urging, but they still couldn’t shield against the gradually intensifying heat.
Bai Shiyan watched the glaring white sunlight in the courtyard, opting to remain in the shadow of the drooping flowers, not wanting to move forward.
These past few days, he hadn’t come to the separate courtyard as often as he used to.
Perhaps it was due to his busy schedule, or maybe it was because he didn’t know how to interact with his younger cousin as carefree as before. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t bear to see his younger cousin struggle day after day, shedding layer after layer of his youthful innocence.
The newly formed skin still bore the marks of blood and flesh.
Or perhaps it was because someone was missing from this courtyard, and the atmosphere no longer carried the same ease.
Sometimes, he would repeatedly ask himself whether he would still agree to Chenzhou’s methods if he had known it would lead to the current situation. But no one could provide an answer without regrets, including himself.
These days, his Mother frequently took Shiqing to the palace, keeping Big Sister company r. When she returned, she would say that elder sister’s labor was imminent, and that everything was safe.
She had also specifically mentioned that Chenzhou would visit her elder sister every few days by imperial decree. Over the past few months, things had gone extremely smoothly, and with Chenzhou’s care, they were all at ease.
Moreover, it wasn’t just his elder sister who was well; after returning from the hunting grounds, their pace had suddenly quickened. Qi Wang had been sent out, and Jingchen had been granted a noble title. With Liu Zhongming taking over the Jinxiu Ying and Qu Chenzhou not only holding a high position but also commanding the Valiant Camp, everything seemed to be thriving.
However, both Chenzhou and Liu Zhongming had changed, and they couldn’t return to how they used to be.
Liu Zhongming had naturally noticed him and waved him over.
The map, dotted with marks, was spread out on the desk. Liu Zhongming threw his pen onto the table and leaned back in his chair, sighing deeply.
“How’s it going?” Bai Shiyan asked.
He knew what Liu Zhongming was brooding over—the Thousand Child Pagoda.
When he entered the palace, he happened to run into Chenzhou. Taking advantage of a moment when no one was paying attention, he had asked about it. Chenzhou had been dazed for a moment before uttering just two words.
No one knew what Chenzhou intended to do; perhaps even Chenzhou himself didn’t know. The more vague the divination, the more it indicated the multitude of variables.
To achieve this turning point, they had to act according to Chenzhou’s instructions.
Bai Shiyan felt that Qu Chenzhou’s idea was simply absurd; after all, it concerned the Thousand Child Pagoda.
Especially after learning how important those sin born children were to the Emperor, he dared not even think about what might happen if the Thousand Child Pagoda were to collapse and provoke the Emperor’s wrath.
Moreover, how could they even topple the Thousand Child Pagoda, given its size and complexity?
But Liu Zhongming was even more daring. If Chenzhou asked him to ascend to the heavens, he would likely agree without hesitation.
Although Bai Shiyan didn’t know what Liu Zhongming had been up to, he was aware that ever since receiving this command, Liu Zhongming hadn’t slept well and had lost a significant amount of weight.
When Bai Shiyan occasionally inquired, the response was always “there are some clues,” yet he couldn’t extract any further information.
Qu Chenzhou had, in the most drastic way, led them to the edge of the storm. The only one who could keep up with his pace was Liu Zhongming.
It left him uncertain about what to say.
His Mother had chatted with Liu Zhongming behind closed doors for quite a while. When she came out, Liu Zhongming appeared calm, but his Mother’s eyes were red.
Afterward, she had said that both of these little brothers were resourceful, so they should be left to their own devices.
“The situation is fine,” this time, Liu Zhongming’s response seemed somewhat more relaxed: “It’s fortunate that it’s the Thousand Child Pagoda in the south.”
“What’s special about the southern one?” Bai Shiyan was puzzled.
“I had someone survey the terrain over there.” Liu Zhongming pushed the map toward him, propping up his head with a tired expression.
“There was controversy over the location when it was chosen. It’s said that there’s an underground river beneath the tower, and the foundation is unstable. The soil is primarily composed of sand and gravel, so the construction was inherently unstable.”
“At the beginning, when it was being built, there were many dissatisfied people. Because the emperor was distant, the local gentry bribed the Ministry of Works’ inspector and had the tower erected on open ground.”
“In the first few years after it was built, it was struck by lightning almost every rainy day. They said it had already collapsed twice before, but they didn’t dare to report it.”
“At first, they tried to repair it diligently, but later, it became easier to conceal the issues. They simply compromised and focused on keeping it standing. They planted cedar trees around it to prevent lightning strikes.”
Bai Shiyan listened with some confusion, “And then? Even if it’s not very stable, it’s not something that can be pushed over by a single person.”
“As they say, money can make the devil turn the grindstone.” Liu Zhongming smiled, “Cedar trees are good, right? If the purchase price is raised several times, there will be many people willing to take risks and cut down the cedar trees.”
A rough outline finally formed in Bai Shiyan’s mind. When supply couldn’t meet demand, people were bound to start cutting down the cedar trees around the Thousand Child Pagoda. As a result, the pagoda would once again be exposed on the open plain.
And the rainy season had already arrived.
He couldn’t help but click his tongue, “This plan… isn’t it a bit extravagant?”
“No one is spending the money, so what should I keep it for? If all else fails, I can have someone impersonate bandits and forcibly knock it down.” Liu Zhongming put away the map and looked down at the paper he had just finished writing. There was no longer anyone forcing him to copy the household rules, but if he didn’t write several pages a day, he felt empty inside.
He quickly waved his hand, not wanting Bai Shiyan to see him in such a disoriented state. He hurriedly shifted to another topic.
“And also… Shiyan, that Thousand Child Pagoda isn’t far from Dingling Hill.”
Bai Shiyan’s heart skipped a beat. He couldn’t possibly forget what had happened there in the past. It had been Liu Zhongming’s obsession for a long time.
“Are you saying that Chenzhou chose to stir up trouble with the Thousand Child Pagoda here for Big Brother? Is the ‘turning point’ you mentioned related to this?”
“I don’t know, but I…”
Liu Zhongming was about to say “I believe him,” but he self-mockingly interrupted himself. He didn’t have the qualification to utter those words now.
“But I think his divination won’t be wrong.”
Liu Zhongming packed up his things and stood together with Bai Shiyan in the shaded area of the corridor. It wasn’t too hot or too cold. He used to stand here often.
Not far down the steps ahead was the gushing spring, originally built for its soothing sound.
Around this time last year, he had often stood here, watching the person lift their clothes and walk barefoot across the spring, splashing sounds accompanying their every step. It was a refreshing and pleasant experience.
Then the person would leave damp footprints on the dry ground and playfully walk back. After wading in the water, they would splash their feet in the spring and put on their damp shoes, turning back to smile at him.
A set of neat, small white teeth and a pair of eyes resembling blue glass that curved into crescent moons.
He always found it amusing how someone so grown up could seem like a naive child.
Only now did he understand that it wasn’t just about breaking free from constraints, it was also about being completely defenseless with him. That person had shown him their truest and purest self, their most vulnerable side.
But he hadn’t accepted it.
This separate courtyard had become his prison, every corner prickling with thorns.
Bai Shiyan looked at him carefully, “Zhongming…”
Liu Zhongming came back to his senses, wiped his face harshly, and regained his composure. “I’m fine. I almost forgot to tell you that when my people investigated the Thousand Child Pagoda, they discovered something strange.”
“The locals said there were ghosts and monsters, claiming they saw trees eating people.”
Bai Shiyan couldn’t help but chuckle, “Rural residents often lack experience, so it’s inevitable that they’ll spread tales of ghosts and spirits. It’s probably just a homicide, and the local authorities aren’t handling the case well.”
Liu Zhongming pondered for a moment before shaking his head.
“Shiyan, one of my men didn’t come back either. His companions said they heard screams, but when they turned back to look, they only found his hat. The soil on the ground looked disturbed. Later, they heard the local rumors and didn’t dare to linger, so they returned.”
Bai Shiyan was stunned, “There’s something like this?”
“I asked Jiuan. He’s well-read and said he had seen similar accounts in the collection of strange tales.”
“Underneath the roots of some trees, many dead bodies are buried. If the terrain and timing are unfavorable, the trees can produce wood spirits. These spirits can become ‘yin wood’ and extend their roots toward inhabited areas underground.”
“The ordinary ones might devour passerbys, while the more formidable ones can nurture dead bodies and use them as food.”
Even under the broad daylight, Bai Shiyan found himself covered in goosebumps. “Don’t scare me. How could such a thing happen?”
“I don’t know if it’s just scaring people or not,” Liu Zhongming regained his composure: “But I think when you put the Thousand Child Pagoda, Yin Wood, and Dingling Hill together, he might be looking for the right opportunity to send me over there.”
“You’re going? Even though you heard that things are eating people?”
“Life and death are fated. Wherever Chenzhou wants me to go, I’ll go.”
Liu Zhongming realized he had casually mentioned that forbidden name, hesitated for a moment, then asked, “But that’s a matter for later. I’ll prepare in advance, manage Jinxiu Ying well, so that no one gets any ideas about it. You came over today, is there something you need?”
“Yes,” Bai Shiyan remembered: “Fang Wuyang had Shilei send a message back. They’re likely to meet up with Jiang Xingzhi and the others in a few days.”
“How’s Qi Wang now?”
“He’s weak and surrounded from all sides. It’s impossible for him to survive Ji Ping.”
“Why is Shilei outside?”
Liu Zhongming furrowed his brows. He had been busy lately and hadn’t seen Bai Shilei for quite some time.
“Nothing major, my father just had him lead troops over to take a look. It’s probably to gain experience.”
Bai Shiyan hesitated for a moment before whispering, “My father said that since Chenzhou entered the palace and Niang Niang is about to give birth, there might not be peace for a short while. It’s good to have someone stationed outside in case of anything. If necessary, Shilei also has troops at his disposal.”
The last sentence hit Liu Zhongming like a heavy blow.
Troops at his disposal… Back then, without the tens of thousands of elite soldiers brought by Shilei, how could he have held his ground?
He owed so much, how many lifetimes would it take to repay it all?
As usual, Qu Chenzhou was led into the Lijing Palace.
There was still half a month before the sixth day of the sixth lunar month, when Consort Liu was expected to give birth. The emperor cared deeply about this child and had ordered him to come to the Lijing Palace every five days for divination, without fail.
“Official Qu Sitian…” He stood outside the screen, offering his customary bow, but when he caught sight of the figure behind the screen, his throat tightened. He almost had to force himself to speak through the difficulty: “I respectfully request an audience with… the noble concubine.”
“Come in.” The voice of Liu Qingru rang out.
He had just turned around the screen when someone embraced him tightly.
The person was nearly half a head shorter than him, their shoulders trembling intensely. They buried their face in his chest, but didn’t dare to make a sound of sobbing.
Qu Chenzhou bent down, his arms tightening around the person as he rested his head on the crook of their neck. He slowed his breathing several times, barely suppressing the crimson at the corners of his eyes.
“Mother,” he softly called: “Mother, don’t cry. Your face will get all blotchy from crying.”
Madame Bai clutched his clothes, choked up for a long while before slowly calming down. She looked up and examined him carefully, touching his cheek, tears unknowingly streaming down her face again.
Qu Chenzhou used a handkerchief to wipe her face, “Mother, don’t cry. I’m doing well here.”
Liu Qingru also chimed in with a smile, “Aunt, haven’t you noticed that Chenzhou has grown quite a bit taller compared to last year? You should be happy.”
“Yes,” Madame Bai wiped her tears, forcing a smile: “Yes, he has grown taller, almost like an adult. You are doing well all on your own now, better than your older brothers. Your mother is so happy.”
Her tears flowed again, and she examined Qu Chenzhou from head to toe before asking softly, “Chenzhou, the scar on your waist… has it healed?”
Qu Chenzhou stiffened.
A long time ago, Liu Qingru had given him Yulin Ointment. He didn’t take it and he knew all the people who cared about him wanted to ask, but didn’t dare.
The birthmark in that area hadn’t healed; the skin was uneven, forming the character “ming”.
This character, this person, was an obsession he couldn’t break free from.
“Mother,” he replied softly: “The past… should not be revisited.”
Madame Bai didn’t ask further, knowing he shouldn’t linger too long here. She said a few more words and was then assisted by palace maids to rest in the inner chamber.
He calmed his heart. Divining for Liu Qingru was the most urgent matter at hand.
Although the palace intrigues had restrained themselves somewhat due to fearing his presence, this child was a matter of great importance. It was hard to guarantee that no one would take a risk.
“Ill omens in the divination—’Intoxicated Bone Fragrance’. Be cautious!”
Author’s Note: Knocks on the table: Mentioned the Wood Spirit, Yanshi Anning, will make an appearance here. Those who have read Yanshi should know that the reason Qu Chenzhou can divine is because Anning gave him a piece of Wood Spirit (friendly reminder). Ah ah ah, why isn’t it finished yet?! I dreamed last night that two silly brats drowned while swimming in the sea. The story is complete. Almost going mad.
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