Chapter 179: Intoxicated Bone Fragrance
The sound of clattering horse hooves echoed at the end of the street.
Those who conducted business on this street quickly packed away the tables and chairs set up on the side.
It had become a routine over these past few days. Around this time, a prominent figure would pass through here on their way back to the palace, and pedestrians would make way for them.
The elite soldiers cleared the way along the street, forming two lines and waiting for the person being escorted to pass through.
As if indifferent to the scorching heat, Qu Chenzhou gently squeezed the horse’s sides, counting the green stone slabs as he moved forward at a leisurely pace.
The bamboo curtain hanging on a door by the side of the road was lifted with a swish, revealing a person with a delighted expression. That person was focused on counting the silver in their hand, but upon hearing the shout from the soldier, they quickly raised their head and met Qu Chenzhou’s gaze.
Panicking, the person dropped the silver onto the ground and fell to their knees, not daring to lift their head.
With a chuckle, Qu Chenzhou didn’t bother with them and nudged his horse forward, asking, “What place is that?”
An adjutant on the side quickly answered, “Responding to Qu Sitian, that’s a gambling establishment.”
“A gambling establishment? Interesting place.” Before anyone could react, Qu Chenzhou dismounted with a graceful movement, “It’s still early today. Let’s take a look.”
As the trembling person knelt at the entrance, the noise from inside had already reached their ears. As the elite soldiers entered and arranged themselves in formation, the people within the gambling establishment all turned their heads towards the entrance.
The gambling establishment was lit with lamps, bustling with activity. Only a few remaining rays of light penetrated through the window gaps, illuminating the dust particles that danced within the columns of light.
As Qu Chenzhou swept in, his cloak wrapped around him, it was as if he had brought light into the room. The people’s vision suddenly brightened as if he had introduced a ray of sunshine.
His soft boots crushed the debris scattered on the ground, making a crisp sound.
He lightly lifted the tip of his foot and kicked away the debris, surveying the surroundings. As his gaze swept over, the area immediately fell into silence.
Sensible people quickly stepped back, creating a path. It was like a cleaving axe splitting water, extending all the way to the table closest to the inside.
Sitting at the other end of the table was a person, and behind them stood the soldiers of Jinxiu Ying. Seeing him walk straight towards them, they didn’t stand up, only offering a faint smile, “Qu Sitian, such great official authority.”
Qu Chenzhou lifted his robe and sat down by the table, responding indifferently, “Shizi, it’s only natural for us to treat each other with respect.”
The shopkeeper came over personally and was about to pour tea for Qu Chenzhou when Liu Zhongming stopped him with a raised hand.
“What’s the taste of this tea? Go to the teahouse across the street and fetch the finest Junshan Yinzhen tea.”
The shopkeeper hurriedly agreed, and someone went to get it.
The dealer seemed like they were being roasted by two flames simultaneously. Holding the dice cup, they looked conflicted as they glanced back and forth between the two sides, ultimately fixing their gaze on Liu Zhongming.
“Why are you looking at me?” Liu Zhongming gestured towards the opposite side, “Qu Sitian is a guest. Naturally, we should consider the guest’s preferences.”
Qu Chenzhou was currently inspecting the gambling tools on the table. Upon hearing him, he raised his head and asked, “Is this a gambling establishment opened by Shizi?”
“These are just some informal things, not worth mentioning in front of Qu Sitian—why did you have the mood to come here today?”
“Fresh,” Qu Chenzhou looked at the dice cup in the dealer’s hand, “Since Shizi says to indulge me, then I’ll respectfully comply. Shizi, care to join me for a game?”
A small commotion rose among the crowd.
By now, word had spread everywhere—everyone knew why the Emperor favored Qu Chenzhou. People also remembered how the crowd at Qisheng Building had come to witness Qu Chenzhou’s fortune-telling, which had made him seem like a deity.
Now, a deity was suggesting a gambling match. For anyone else, they might have declined, but considering Shizi’s temper, it was impossible for him to back down.
Many still remembered the upheaval that had occurred last year between the Southern Bureau and Jinxiu Ying, the destruction caused, and the injuries inflicted.
Now, the leaders of both sides had changed, but the atmosphere between these two individuals seemed even more daunting than last year’s.
“Sure,” Liu Zhongming revealed a toothy smile, as expected, not refusing. He cast a glance at the dealer and chuckled, “Let’s play something simple. There are two dice in the cup. After shaking, Qu Sitian will announce the combined point value. If you guess correctly, you win; if not, I win.”
The surrounding people stifled their hisses.
His Highness was really being sly; why did he need to act all coy and make others guess? Why not just ascend to the heavens directly?
“I’m in,” Qu Chenzhou didn’t hesitate in the least, immediately agreeing.
As soon as the words fell, they elicited uncontrollable cheers, followed by the volume lowering again under Liu Zhongming’s gaze.
“Let me see the dice,” Qu Chenzhou signaled to the dealer, “Shizi doesn’t have the best reputation; I’m afraid there might be cheating even on your own turf.”
Liu Zhongming scoffed, “Cheating depends on who you’re dealing with. I wouldn’t dare with others, but for the sake of Qu Sitian, it’s worth it.”
The die twirled on the dealer’s fair fingertips.
“How so, Shizi?”
“If we’re gambling, there should be stakes,” Liu Zhongming chuckled, “This Shizi is a straightforward person. If I lose, I’ll offer ten thousand taels of gold. If I win, Qu Sitian will be my guest in my residence for a month, at my beck and call. What do you say, Qu Sitian? Are you brave enough?”
“If I win, Qisheng Building belongs to me,” Qu Chenzhou tossed the dice back, reaching for a token at his waist and slapped it onto the table, “If I lose, the Valiant Camp is yours.”
People around dared not utter a word. They exchanged glances, fearing that the slightest noise might ignite the spark of conflict between these two.
“Is Qu Sitian afraid?” Liu Zhongming propped up one leg, “Why not compromise? If you win, I’ll hand over Qisheng Building to you, property deed included. If I win, Qu Chenzhou, how about accompanying me to my residence?”
Qu Chenzhou didn’t even blink. “I’m in.”
People began to whisper to each other—this gambling wager truly pinched Qu Chenzhou’s sore spot. Qisheng Building was a shameful matter, and he was likely determined to reclaim it no matter what.
The dealer shook the dice cup. The mischievous dice collided and made a clear sound, leaving hearts in suspense.
Liu Zhongming glanced casually and asked, “Did Qu Sitian already know I was here outside and specially came to offer yourself?”
“I did know you were here,” Qu Chenzhou’s gaze was locked on the dice cup, replying coldly, “I thought Shizi had too much ill-gotten wealth and wanted to get a piece of the pie.”
Before the battle even began, sparks were already flying between these deities. Mortals, feeling the impending conflict, all remained silent.
The dice cup fell with a snap. A quiet settled, and everyone’s gaze landed on Qu Chenzhou.
Qu Chenzhou surveyed the surroundings and then lightly uttered the second number, “Four.”
The dealer deftly lifted the dice cup with a copper rod, revealing a skilled technique. On the table, the two dice remained motionless—clearly displaying a six and a four.
It was as if they had won the jackpot themselves; cheers resounded around.
Qu Chenzhou put away the token, pressing his hands down to quell the crowd’s clamor. He smiled faintly, “Thank you for your hospitality, Shizi. Everyone in the building can withdraw. I only need Steward Lin and the property deed. Send it to the Valiant Camp another day.”
Liu Zhongming didn’t speak, his eyes fixed on the two dice all along. Just as Qu Chenzhou was about to rise, he suddenly pounded the table. The soldiers behind him swiftly advanced to encircle Qu Chenzhou.
The soldiers of Jinxiu Ying immediately unsheathed their blades as well.
In an instant, the temperature seemed to drop to freezing point. No one dared to run amidst the tension; they could only hunker down, watching in trepidation as the situation unfolded.
“Is Qu Sitian trying to bully people…?”
Liu Zhongming’s words weren’t even finished when they heard people rushing into the gambling establishment from outside, their voices filled with urgency. Distracted, Liu Zhongming didn’t notice the heightened tension.
“Shizi!” The person knelt down with a thud, “The Emperor summons Shizi to the palace immediately!”
Liu Zhongming took the crutch from the person’s hand, his focus elsewhere. He had no more energy to quarrel. As he passed by someone, they exchanged a discreet glance.
Both understood why the Emperor was summoning him.
At this time, the news of Qi Wang’s death was probably being hurriedly sent back to the capital.
The death of Qi Wang, Mu Jingde, left believers silent and skeptics relentless.
The fire that had surged from underground blazed throughout the entire day, reducing the wooden board and shrubs covering the well’s entrance to charcoal, leaving behind a smoky hole.
Those who had turned to search for bodies could only wait for the thick smoke to disperse before descending into the well. But inside, the walls had burnt away in layers, revealing only two charred masses. A gentle touch would cause skin and flesh to disintegrate, rendering any attempt at identifying the shapes futile.
They could only find one person pressing against Qi Wang’s token; the other had Qi Wang’s sword embedded in their chest.
No one could determine which was Qi Wang, nor could anyone fathom what had occurred there.
Consort Ming fainted multiple times, refusing to believe that Qi Wang had died in such a manner.
The Emperor not only summoned Liu Zhongming but also several Wang Yes and key officials to the court. Finally, the responsibility of judgment was bestowed upon Qu Chenzhou.
Twenty-four divinatory statements were laid out before them. The Emperor decisively accepted the outcome, ordering Consort Ming’s maternal family to send an envoy, and accompanying Mu Jingchen, to visit Ji Ping.
Although Liu Zhongming couldn’t predict who would be sent in advance, he knew that he wouldn’t be the one chosen.
In a few more days, it would be the sixth day of the sixth month. Chenzhou’s divination would not be wrong, and the palace physician had also indicated that his sister’s delivery was imminent. Regardless of the situation, he could not leave the capital.
Intoxicated Bone Fragrance.
He hadn’t heard of it before. His aunt and sister had told him that such things existed in the palace, hidden among the palace’s secret items.
The name suited it well; inhaling it could make one’s very bones intoxicated. For a woman in labor, smelling it could leave her without any strength. At the moment of delivery, if the fetus stayed trapped in the womb for too long, there was an eighty to ninety percent chance that it would result in a stillbirth.
For a while, it spread like wildfire, but later on, everyone became wary of it. The Empress Dowager had even taken measures to deal with it when she was young, and it hadn’t appeared for a long time.
Those who used poison were wicked and ruthless. If this had happened before, he would have immediately suspected the Empress.
However, if it were the Empress, she would be more inclined to keep the child and abandon the mother. Just like the Empress Dowager, by nurturing the bloodline of the Liu family by her side, the Liu family would have no choice but to stand on her side.
To have the mother remain while abandoning the child was another person’s wish, a desire that made him sick to his stomach.
Liu Zhongming stood in the courtyard with his hands behind his back, his gaze fixed on the door not far away. The lanterns around him cast deep and shallow shadows under his feet, like he was stepping on flowers.
Aunt had already gone in for quite a while. She had only come out once, mentioning that it was the first time for his sister to give birth, and the time expended would undoubtedly be longer. She asked him to be patient.
Now that Mother was absent, having someone from home guarding the pregnant concubines was a standard practice in the palace. Father couldn’t appear at this time, so he had seized the opportunity to bring his trusted personnel from Jinxiu Ying and searched Li Jing Palace front and back.
In his sister’s room, every item was a palace necessity. He couldn’t easily replace them, so he carefully checked everything, ensuring that all was in order.
The opposing party either had to back off or had to be someone who entered from the outside.
Outside the palace gate, people carried buckets of hot water across the threshold. Soon after, a basin of blood was brought out. The old midwives, along with palace servants carrying empty buckets, moved towards the exit.
Inside the room, there was a chaotic commotion. Some spare items were stored in a side room, and they had to be fetched multiple times.
Liu Zhongming watched them disappear outside the door. Suddenly, he heard a sharp cry from inside the room. He clenched his fists in his palms, his breath caught in his throat.
The calm voices of the midwives provided him some comfort.
“Your Highness, please don’t shout! Push down with all your might!”
“Use more force! Use more force! I can feel the baby’s head!”
Suddenly, someone exclaimed, “What is this?”
Almost simultaneously, a bamboo curtain was lifted, and Madam Bai threw a handkerchief out, shouting at him urgently, “Zhongming! Intoxicated Bone Fragrance! The one who just left!”
Without hesitation, he waved his hand. “Go after her!”
Soldiers rushed out from behind him. The old midwife, who had barely managed to reach the end of the road, suddenly pushed aside the palace servants and vanished into the night.
Liu Zhongming moved swiftly, stepping onto the nearby rocks.
In a series of nimble leaps and bounds, he didn’t manage to catch up to her. However, his target wasn’t the midwife. He threw himself into the low shrubbery at the side of the road, embracing the person who had been waiting to spring into action within the foliage.
Both of them rolled deeper into the thicket, finally coming to a stop when they collided with a fake rockery.
The midwife’s voice came from the path. “Shizi?”
“Keep running, don’t worry about it!” Liu Zhongming snapped in a low voice. From the corner of his eye, he saw a hand about to slap his cheek. He deftly caught the hand.
“Don’t move.” He lowered himself, keeping both of them in the shadows. “Once we change location, I’ll let you have a free hit.”
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