Chapter 178: Seeking Guidance
The crescent moon had been nibbled by the days, and it was nearing the end of the month. The sky was overcast, turning both the heavens and the earth pitch-black, like the void without anything.
There were extremely light footsteps on the grass. The fresh and tender blades bent silently, producing only a faint rustle as they touched the ground.
Even so, someone hissed in a hushed tone, “Had enough? Be quieter!”
The footsteps became even more cautious and hushed.
“How much farther…” someone whispered, suppressing heavy breaths, “Is there anyone coming to support us?”
Someone answered in a barely audible whisper, “I’ve already sent out Wangye’s orders. They shouldn’t be far behind. We just need to advance a bit more to enter Ji Ping…”
Before he could finish, a faint, tearing sound broke through the darkness, followed by a cry of pain ringing out not far from them.
“Ambush!” someone exclaimed, “Protect Wangye and retreat!”
Mu Jingde had no energy left to curse. He had just placed his hand on his sword’s hilt when someone grabbed his clothes. “Your Highness, this way!”
Their numbers were already limited, and they couldn’t confront the opposition head-on no matter what.
He listened to the voices in the darkness and stopped futile struggling. In a sorry state, he resembled a defeated dog. Ignoring the piercing cries around him, he dashed into the woods, escorted by a few guards.
Although he had led troops for many years, he had never fought on a battlefield like the Bai family did, let alone flee in panic like this. In his anxiety, he sought reassurance from those beside him.
“Xingzhi, which way?”
Jiang Xingzhi wiped some mud off his face, instantly struck a flint, and quickly extinguished it in his palm. “This way.”
No one questioned him. Throughout the journey, they had relied on Jiang Xingzhi, who had squeezed them through narrow gaps multiple times to create a path. Otherwise, their numbers might have been even fewer by now.
The cries of battle never ceased; they seemed to have been chasing them all along. The opponents were obviously striving their utmost to cut them off before they reached Ji Ping.
All eyes were fixed on Jiang Xingzhi.
After igniting the flint two more times, Jiang Xingzhi finally stopped, and not far ahead, a thicket of bushes grew among the weeds.
He used his dagger to poke into the thicket, probing the ground, and pointed to a spot, urging them, “Clear this area!”
The group worked together to pull out the thicket, roots and all, revealing a small piece of ground. Jiang Xingzhi jumped in and began digging. Soon, he revealed a wooden board that could accommodate a person.
“Wangye, hurry inside,” he panted heavily, “We’ll keep moving forward to divert their attention. There’s a ladder below, and after daybreak, Wangye can come up again to meet with the people from Ji Ping.”
Mu Jingde also stepped inside, seeing the pitch-black entrance like a fearsome beast’s mouth. Although he reached down and felt a ladder placed there, his heart couldn’t help but race.
“Wangye, go down quickly. They’re catching up!” Jiang Xingzhi urged, “This isn’t an ordinary cellar; it won’t be stuffy inside. It’s safe.”
The approaching sounds behind them were indeed growing closer. They couldn’t afford any delay. Mu Jingde suddenly grabbed Jiang Xingzhi, who was about to leave, “Xingzhi, come down with me!”
In the darkness, he couldn’t see Jiang Xingzhi’s expression, but his quick response eased his racing heart.
He was the first to step onto the ladder, and he heard Jiang Xingzhi following him down. Jiang Xingzhi’s upper body remained outside, instructing the others to cover the hole with a thin layer of dirt and place the bushes back in their original positions.
The well was deep, and it wasn’t until he reached the bottom that he felt completely at ease.
Perhaps it had been a long time since anyone had attended to this place. The ground was somewhat wet, slippery, and sticky due to its underground nature. After a while, they heard some movement overhead.
Jiang Xingzhi hadn’t reached the ground yet, but they could hear the sound of dirt falling onto the wooden board above. Afterward, the surroundings gradually fell silent.
They dared not light a fire, so they each found a corner to sit in.
After about the time it takes to brew a pot of tea, many unfamiliar footsteps landed heavily on the ground above them. Not only were there footsteps, but also the sound of horses’ hooves.
Someone shouted, “Spread out, search carefully!”
In the darkness, Mu Jingde couldn’t help but curse, “D*mn it.”
“Your Highness, be patient. As long as reinforcements arrive, we won’t allow them to run wild here,” Jiang Xingzhi advised, “A gentleman takes revenge ten years later.”
“It seems that’s the only way.”
Mu Jingde sighed, calming down. The darkness and silence made him uneasy. If he didn’t say something, he felt as if monsters with terrifying faces might jump out from any direction.
“Xingzhi, did you arrange for this place to be dug? Why wasn’t I aware?”
“Long ago,” Jiang Xingzhi’s voice was gentle, “I was afraid it would come to this one day. I made preparations in many places in advance, just in case.”
Mu Jingde remained silent for a long time before he sighed.
“I still don’t understand until now. Why did the Emperor explode in anger for just a few heads? We’ve killed many before, and the Emperor has never cared. What did Ren Rui do to provoke this?”
“Just… a few heads…” Jiang Xingzhi chuckled softly, “Your Highness, before you left the capital, I heard a theory that might explain your doubts.”
“They say that the Emperor was born weak, and he sought out many children with the same fate from the common people, raising them as substitutes. These substitutes grew up healthy and worry-free, and every bit of fortune they received was accumulated for the Emperor.”
Mu Jingde listened, feeling baffled.
He hadn’t heard of the concept of substitutes, but he could deduce a bit from the explanation. Wealthy families often raised less robust children as substitutes for themselves, seeking protection.
Sometimes, when he led troops outside, his mother would go to the temple to pray for wooden figurines, hoping to safeguard his well-being while he was away.
“And then?” he asked.
As soon as these words left his mouth, he jumped up in shock. His body trembled uncontrollably, and he finally understood the meaning behind Jiang Xingzhi’s words.
“You… you’re saying… the people Ren Rui killed in that estate… were the Emperor’s…”
This was the only possibility he could think of, but he couldn’t accept it no matter what.
“Impossible! Ren Rui clearly said he accidentally encountered Bai Shiyan, and chased after Bai Shiyan to that estate! How could such a coincidence occur!”
“Could it be Bai Shiyan’s intention?” He didn’t even think about lowering his voice, “Impossible! The Emperor couldn’t possibly let Bai Shiyan know about this!”
“Whether Bai Shiyan knows or not, does it matter?” Jiang Xingzhi answered him calmly, “There’s someone manipulating everyone from a higher position. Each person is just a pawn in his scheme, kept in the dark about what’s happening elsewhere.”
“Who? Who is it?” Mu Jingde roared in a low voice, “Jiang Xingzhi, where did you hear this theory? Why didn’t you say it earlier? Who’s plotting against me? Is it Mu Jingyan!”
“It’s not him. The pretty fox I made a deal with only told me half of the story. He told me about the substitutes, but didn’t mention that the estate was near Chengfeng hunting grounds. When Ren Rui came back with the severed heads, even I didn’t know what catastrophe he had caused.”
“Who is it!”
In the glint of Jiang Xingzhi’s brightened ember, he saw Mu Jingde’s enraged and distorted face approaching. The darkness quickly swallowed them as the spark extinguished. He could only hear the voice on the verge of madness.
“Who are you making deals with? What kind of deals?”
Jiang Xingzhi’s lapel was grabbed.
“Are you responsible for this? Did you harm me?”
“Your Highness is overthinking things,” Jiang Xingzhi pushed away the hand, “Your Highness, calm down. You instructed Ren Rui to take care of Bai Shiyan, and it was Ren Rui who killed the substitutes in that estate. What does this have to do with me? I only connected the dots after hearing that the Emperor was furious.”
Mu Jingde had been relentlessly pursued, already injured, and now being confronted like this, he fell to the ground.
“Is it fate that wants to end me…” He struggled to speak more words, but couldn’t muster the strength, “Jiang Xingzhi, are you saying that I can never return…”
“So, Your Highness had been hoping that one day the Emperor would summon you back to the capital?” Jiang Xingzhi gathered his hands within his sleeves, mocking, “I advise Your Highness to focus on waiting until the pursuers outside leave and then consider how to escape.”
The pillar that had been supporting Mu Jingde throughout their escape was gradually cracking, and after a while, a hoarse voice came, “Where did you… hear about this theory?”
“Your Highness is spot on with that question,” Jiang Xingzhi breathed out lightly, “Since we can’t get out for a while, would Your Highness be interested in hearing a story from me?”
There was no response from the other side, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to speak aloud.
“Many years ago, probably about eight years now, near the edge of Luocheng, there was a county called Kangquan. It wasn’t far from the capital and Luocheng, and although it was small, the people there could make a living.”
“In Kangquan County, there was a family of three. The mother did needlework, the father did some carpentry work, and the son learned some martial arts, but they only wanted his son to study well.”
“The son lived up to everyone’s expectations and was a top student in the academy. People in the county said he had the potential to become the top scholar.”
“Later, bandits emerged on the road from Luocheng to the capital, and the court sent officials and soldiers to suppress them.”
Jiang Xingzhi’s voice paused for a long while before he continued.
“The officials and soldiers broke into the homes of the county’s residents, conducting searches house by house. The father clashed with the officials and soldiers because he was protecting his wife and son and ended up being arrested as a bandit.”
“Early the next morning, the son witnessed his father’s head hanging outside the county. He couldn’t face his mother and wandered for a long time. When he returned home, he found out from someone else about the tragic news, his mother had hanged herself from the rafters, her body cold.”
“You!” Mu Jingde finally reacted. Others might not know, but he knew how his subordinates operated.
“Later,” Jiang Xingzhi didn’t hear the growing fear and anger in his voice, and continued in a calm tone, “Later, the son went to the capital in stubborn pursuit, but the capital was vast, and he had no idea where to go or who to seek revenge from.”
“Fortunately, he had a stroke of luck and encountered someone important. And later… he found his enemy and became that person’s… strategist!”
“Jiang Xingzhi!” Mu Jingde felt as though he had been bitten by a venomous snake. He wanted to jump up, but his entire body was frozen, unable to move, “Jiang Xingzhi! Is it you… are you here to take revenge on me?!”
“Before, I was too greedy and too weak to take action. I couldn’t find a suitable target. So… I made a deal with that fox.”
Jiang Xingzhi smiled lightly, “He said he could help me, and all I had to do was persuade you to take Ren Rui to the hunting grounds. Now, Your Highness, have you figured out how you’ve angered the Emperor?”
Trembling hands, Mu Jingde had no energy left to argue with the person in front of him. In the pitch-black darkness, he groped for the ladder.
Finally, he realized that this well wasn’t a hiding place for his escape, but a burial place meticulously prepared for him.
The ladder was still there, standing right in the middle, one end planted on the ground. But as he climbed up, he stumbled and fell along with the ladder.
“You can’t go up anymore,” Jiang Xingzhi patiently advised him, “There’s a mechanism on top of the ladder, and I removed it when I came down. It won’t hold the weight of another person.”
A spark ignited amidst Mu Jingde’s hysterical roar and fell to the ground.
In an instant, darkness was almost completely expelled as the spark ignited the oil that had seeped into the soil, and the orange flame lapped at the wooden board that was just out of reach.
Like a madman, Mu Jingde crawled to pick up his sword, his voice hoarse and roaring, “Jiang Xingzhi!”
Jiang Xingzhi remained seated in his original spot, without any intention of evading. He watched as the blade pierced his body, but he threw his head back and burst into maniacal laughter.
“Mu Jingde! Today, you’ll accompany me on the journey to the underworld. I, Jiang Xingzhi, shall die without regrets!”
For a moment, his mouth was filled with a taste of both metallic blood and sweetness, and each word was accompanied by a surge of blood from his wounds.
He clutched his chest with his hand, feeling the warmth spreading, and Mu Jingde’s curses gradually faded into the distance, replaced by the voice of another.
Asking him—Xingzhi, would you be willing to come with me?
“En,” after such a long time, he relaxed his shoulders for the first time and looked calmly at the void, “Jingchen, I…”
A bamboo stick shot out of the container and, at an untimely moment, landed on the incense in front of the Buddha, breaking it in two.
A young monk nearby hurriedly stood up to retrieve it from the ashes, only to retract his hand in pain from the heat.
The abbot also stood up, calling someone to fetch another container and bowing to the young man before him.
“Your Highness, please forgive us.”
The edge of the bamboo stick in the incense burner gradually turned black, and the abbot, noticing that Mu Jingchen was staring without blinking, anxiously had someone bring a new container.
“Your Highness need not overthink it. Over these past few months, the travelers who Your Highness sought guidance for all received excellent fortunes. This time was merely due to Your Highness’s impatience and exertion. Please allow this old monk to draw a new stick for Your Highness.”
Suddenly, Mu Jingchen’s eyes reddened, and he turned around without saying a word and left.