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I felt on the verge of falling apart.
None of the other rooms were to Han Zichuan’s satisfaction, so now he was using mine. I lingered for awhile in the courtyard before shrugging my shoulders, ignoring the resentful stares behind my back from his men as I headed to the main hall.
The door closed, and the air in the room turned icy.
All the residents of the household were already awaiting me inside as I gave them an embarrassed smile. Little Sixth suddenly rose to his feet, blowing away the heat from cup of tea before handing it to me. He even earnestly raised his sleeve to wipe away the cold sweat that had broken out across my forehead. Yet the more he rubbed, the more my throat felt blocked up.
This is what was called a guilty conscience.
First was in a chair at the head, holding the lid of his teacup as he sat deep in thought, in no rush to try his drink. Fifth sat the furthest away on the side, slumping in his chair as he hugged the broken flute. His eyes seemed filled with icy resentment before they swept my way.
“Master, are you cold?”
“No, not cold.”
“Then is it too hot? Look at how much you’re sweating…” the Poison Prince sprawled casually over a chair, waving his garish purple sleeves. “Let’s fan our Master more, it’d be best if the wind whipped her to death.”
Did I provoke you or something? Offend you somehow?
Fourth was busy with something on the side, brushing the mole by his eye with a secret smile as he narrowed his eyes to glance over. He picked up a piece of paper that had been held together with plaster and handed it to First. That paper…it was so familiar. Wasn’t it the same one that Han Zichuan tore in half?
The game was up.
First put aside his tea and swept his gaze over the painting in his hands. Second couldn’t keep still, but stuck his hands in his sleeves as he stood behind him, speaking softly. “The mole looks like Little Fourth’s, the eyes like Little Fifth’s. The figure and bearing are even more enchanting than you, the eldest, while the expression is a bit like Little Third’s. Who exactly is in this picture?”
This painting had been splashed with wine into a spotty mess, but they could still distinguish these similarities…how impressive. I kept my head lowered and continued to pretend I was deaf. First slowly lowered the paper to the table. His movements were gentle, but the entire table had started to shudder…
“Who was it that came tonight?” his voice was cool and crystal clear.
I grew a little braver as I rose to meet his eyes. “Uh…you’re the one who received the guest, you don’t know who he is?”
“Don’t get smart with me. He was looking for you, not me, and I couldn’t ask him much under the circumstances.”
Oh…so you’re asking me instead.
As soon as he glared, I grew weak and bowed my head, adjusting a corner of my robes in an unnatural fashion. My answer came out like a mosquito speaking. “A personal enemy.”
“How big of a grudge do you have with him? As soon as the two of you met, there was holding and hugging.” I felt a chill as his hand slammed the table, freeing a layer of dust. A small section of the wood chipped and fell off. “You never told me your personal enemy was the current reigning emperor.” He was so angry, his whole body was trembling.
“Well, you never asked. Not to mention, this isn’t something all that great,” I shrugged my shoulders, picking up the fallen piece of wood and blowing on it a few times before pressing it back onto the table. From a distance it almost looked…as whole as it was before. “You should know life will be harder now under the emperor’s eye. Economize where you can, and don’t break things as you please when you’re in a temper.”
He glared at me again.
I smiled. “Of course, if you want to go back on your promise now and scatter, you can still divide up the goods in this house. None of you will be shortchanged.”
The young Fourth Prince actually snorted, his mole attractive as ever. “The things in this house were all bought by First or myself. How could we let you take charge of handing them out?”
“Like hell we’ll split the goods,” the Poison Prince was unusually composed. He had held himself back before bursting out now.” An esteemed guy like me isn’t lacking for anything.”
“We’ve all been saying, we’ll go wherever you go.” Second stood before me, deftly clutching my sleeve to grasp my hand beneath the cloth. My heart softened.
First stood up, waving his sleeves as he issued some orders. “Little Second, Little Third. Guard the front and back doors and don’t let a certain person escape tonight.” He held his hands behind his back and leisurely strolled off, not even sparing me a glance.
“And also…” I spoke up again, even though my next words would ruin the atmosphere. There was no other way around it, though, I couldn’t figure it out myself. My voice lowered as I muttered, “Where do I sleep tonight?”
“Any one of you that dares to shelter and serve Master tonight will be dealt with family law,” First spoke in spite of his gloominess, before stepping out the door. Under the flickering lamplight, I watched him leave in a daze. By one side, Little Sixth tugged on my clothes until I regained my senses and smiled. Though he couldn’t speak, I could tell he was alarmed and very uneasy.
I reached out to caress his hair. “I’m not going anywhere. It’s all right…don’t worry about me.”
Since the emperor had caught me, there was nowhere to run. Five years of living in the jianghu had been rather lonely. Whenever I saw someone who resembled him, I would have an urge to bring him with me. Year after year, this went on until I took in more and more people. Han Zichuan wasn’t wrong. From the very beginning, I had no way to forget that person…
Being able to raise the young Princes by my side meant I could look at them everyday, and pretend I was back in my happy life at the house. Beautiful days would pass by my eyes as if Fang Hua was still by my side, looking after me, living a peaceful and comfortable life.
In this way, I convinced myself that I was living well, even if I was alone.
Too many things had happened tonight for me to go back to bed. Besides…there was no place for me to sleep. Every single one of them had cut me off, not even leaving me with spare covers as they walked off, yawning. The last one even shut the doors of the main hall behind me.
I sat on the stone steps to the hall for a long time, but couldn’t decide where to go. Technically, we had guest rooms in the residence, but they were only guest rooms in name. Nobody had disturbed me for years, so those few worn-out rooms had never been tidied up. The floorboards were all rotten, and we didn’t even have bedsheets. I couldn’t exactly go to sleep hugging a bundle of dry grass for warmth, that felt a bit too pathetic.
I rested a chin in my hands and knitted my eyebrows, thinking over First’s parting words. What did he say? Something about…‘any one of you that dares to shelter and serve Master tonight will be dealt with family law’?
I slapped my thigh. ‘Any one of you’ didn’t include himself. Like I said, his words were sharp as knives but he had a heart like tofu, so he definitely couldn’t bear to see me freeze. Visibly pleased, I groped past the doors in the darkness until I saw the only point of light coming from his chambers. Looks like he really wanted me to keep him company…why not tell me earlier?
I quietly pushed open the door. By the pale yellow lamplight, a person sat at his table, robes draped over his shoulders. He seemed to be studying something. That figure and the slope of his shoulders…I stood by the threshold, a little stunned.
He didn’t look back, but only said softly, “You were finally willing to come back…”
Hearing his voice, and the desolation in his tone, my mind seemed to burst inside, the events of the past and present mixing together. My eyes grew hot, and I rubbed them with my sleeves, walking over to embrace him. Tears poured from my eyes as I buried my face between his shoulders.
“Master?” First trembled as if frightened. It was his first time speaking so respectfully, as if he was at a loss.
“Call me Shao’er.”
He fell silent and stiffened, a bronze mirror reflecting a tender, indescribably sorrowful expression on his face. The loneliness emanating from his being was so much of the same, sinking into my bones and marrow. Yifu, I miss you very much. Why can’t I forget you even after all these years?
His voice was steady as he spoke, word for word: “Shao’er.”
My heart shook, and my arms held him with considerable strength. His warmth was unfamiliar and he lacked that nostalgic scent, but his figure and voice were identical. First turned around, but I awkwardly lowered my head and just held him tighter.
“Don’t move… Just let me hold you for awhile, even if it’s just a moment longer.”
First, I’m sorry.
This really was the last time. I had tried so hard to forget that person, but how could you forget a memory seeped into your very marrow? Perhaps something had injured my state of mind, because qi suddenly started churning wildly within my chest, causing me pain. I only kept holding on, forcing myself to ignore the chaos inside my body as I embraced his warmth.
“Shao’er,” he couldn’t discern my struggles, but only spoke softly. “What exactly is the relationship between you and that personal enemy of yours?”
“Are you jealous?”
He didn’t reply.
Very good, you knew how to be jealous. My good yifu would never be jealous on account of me.
He would only say, ‘Shao’er, let Zichuan have his way for a while.’
He would only say, ‘It’s Zichuan and I that are going, not you…we can’t bring you to the palace.’
In a flash, I held onto his shoulders, softly rubbing my cheek against his robes. “Tell me, yifu, should I enter the palace this time?”
He tugged my hand, brows knitted as he asked me, “Who exactly are you taking me for?” The papers on the table rustled, my painting among them an enchanting sight beneath the candlelight. “He, was he the reason you took us all in?”
My eyes widened, then curved into a smile. “If I say yes, would you accept it?”
He carefully studied me before listlessly releasing my hand, laughing in spite of himself. There was a sense of giving up in his tone, and a bit of loneliness. “Master, things that need to be resolved should still be resolved. Even if you stop thinking about it, some things can’t be forgotten as old dreams…”
“If he’s in the palace, then you should go.”
Early morning, when the skies were still dim.
A covered carriage was waiting by the front gates. Before it stood a middle aged man who looked to be a high-leveled expert that bowed politely as he spoke. “Fellow Princes, your servant is here on his master’s orders to receive the lady.”
The atmosphere around the breakfast table was oppressive. The Poison Prince, who had been silently eating his food, slapped his chopsticks on the table and grumbled, “Even if you guys don’t eat, our Master should. What’s the rush? Careful I don’t feed you poison.”
I took a bite of my meal.
“Little Third, don’t frighten him. Sixth, give Master more porridge.”
I timidly glanced at Little Fourth, who had given out the order. Ever since he had sat at the table, he’d only moved his mouth and not his bowl. At most he’d wave his chopsticks around with his head bowed, as if trying to do a divination. I quietly decided to keep eating.
“Master, eat more. I added special ingredients to this porridge and these side dishes,” Little Second added from the side. I did a spit-take, and he quickly rose to wipe the mess with his sleeves.
“Little Second, ah…you’ve been clean and honest for so long. Why did you copy Little Third at the crucial moment and add poison?”
He rolled his eyes, sitting next to me and squeezing out Little Sixth. Holding up the bowl, he fed me a big spoonful of porridge. “I did learn all my poison knowledge from you. But after you enter the palace, I won’t have a chance to take care of you anymore, so I added lots of antidotes to this porridge. It’ll give you immunity against temptation drugs, mosquito bites…”
I began to tremble. “These are all antidotes. It’s not like I’m poisoned, and they’ll lose effect after half a day anyways. You…”
“It’s still fine if it’s effective for half a day, Master…there are people as ferocious as wolves and tigers in the imperial court who have designs against all and any emperors. Come…have another spoonful.”
From the side, someone coughed. That high-leveled expert couldn’t take it anymore, and his face was starting to twitch…
“It’s getting late. Stop feeding her and just let her go.” First stood up with a long face, and fished out a package from his robes, tossing it into my lap. “These are all essential items we’ve prepared like clothing and daily articles. Don’t play around for too long and remember to come home once in a while.”
There was a certain charm to those two words that made me treasure them…especially since his voice sounded so much like Fang Hua’s. I gave a start as someone next pressed on my sleeves and looked up to see Little Fourth’s face.
“I’ve divined an inauspicious omen but I think you can handle it, so I won’t dissuade you.” Even as he spoke, the mole at the corner of his eye trembled, making him especially cute. “These are a few of the charms I draw on a daily basis, they might come in handy in an emergency.”
I took a glance and saw a thick stack of papers. Did he really draw this many on a daily basis? Why did some of the ink look half-wet, as if he’d drawn them recently?
“Then, I’m going.” Yet I couldn’t move. Someone was clutching at my robes.
Fifth, who had been silent all this time, held onto me with his head bowed, the broken flute still dangling by his waist. It seemed like he was about to cry. I lightly drew him into my arms and patted him, as if I was comforting a child.
“When I return, I’ll definitely heal your face.”
“It’s fine if you don’t, you…just have to come back.” The voice was extremely stiff.
“Only these blasted servants would be so ill-behaved. It’s easy to get hungry and nauseous on a bumpy, tilting carriage like that, so I’ve prepared some pastries and porridge. I’ve put them in this bamboo steamer so Master can eat them on the road.” Still the worrywart, Little Second had packed away the antidote-laced breakfast. I raised my arm and personally accepted the package.
With a bow, I left my life in this house behind, and stepped towards the carriage. After just one step, someone grabbed my collar and hauled me inside, nearly making me fall on my face. What the heck…
Who else was in here?
I carefully guarded my basket of food that had nearly spilled over as I staggered to my feet. Someone actually grabbed the back of my collar, and a grip tightened around my waist before I was pulled back to sit on something warm. I shifted around a bit…
Actually, it felt pretty comfortable.
There was a light laugh, and a voice spoke intimately by my ear. “Don’t move around…I’m hungry, you know.”
I clutched the person’s robes as I twisted my neck to see a face wearing a wholly respectable expression. In the dim morning light, his pupils glittered like stars, and that mouth was curved in a smile full of profound meaning. Stunned, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. “You didn’t sleep in my room last night? What did you go do?”
Han Zichuan laughed, leaning against my ear as he hugged me, a hand reaching into my bamboo steamer basket to feel around. “What kind of food do you have here…”
There was plenty to eat. “Sweet jujube cakes, scallion rolls, mantouwith candied dates, millet porridge…”
Wait, why was I telling him all this?
Without a hint of manners, he picked up a piece of meat wrapped in sticky rice and started chewing, every movement as graceful as an aristocrat. When he was finished, he even had the gall to add, “It doesn’t taste any worse than the palace food, though the flavor is a bit strange.”
Of course it was, there were things added in. You’d compare this with the palace in the same breath?
A whiff of this scent was enough to tell me it was a drug designed to eliminate and reduce the desires. I shifted in my seat again. “Move over, you’re crowding me.” Glancing at him, I carefully got off to sit by his side. Though his eyebrows furrowed, he didn’t say a word. Little Second had really thought things through. This drug was very clever.
“It’s a long trip from the palace here. You’re just running off and ignoring things back at court?”
“There’s not much happening at court. Taking you back is more important.”
Well, thank you. He actually considered me important. Now that I thought of it, something didn’t feel right.
“You’re in such a rush to bring me back to the palace this time. Don’t tell me something’s wrong with that person?”
“That person?” Han Zichuan’s lips curved into a disdainful smile. “You’re still worrying over him.” The air around us abruptly turned cold. He suddenly leaned over to speak in my ear, raising his voice.
“What is this?”
There was an open bundle before me, filled with a thick stack of glistening yellow charm papers and two or three pitch-black pills. Fourth had prepared the charms, but as for the pills…
Han Zichuan frowned. Reluctant to touch them with his hands, he wrapped the pills in a silk cloth and hid it in his robes. He cast me a suspicious glance as he spoke in a calm voice. “Zhen will hold these for you.”
He probably thought it was some type of nefarious poison. Truthfully speaking, I’d forgotten most of the formulas for my most terrifying ones. Besides, who would put poison into such large, unwieldy pills? It’d be too hard to dissolve them in water, and it wasn’t like you could feed your victims directly without them resisting. I smiled wryly and leaned against the window, my face turned away as I huddled up against the cushions.
…who knew what Little Fourth saw in his divinations? He probably snuck in the pills here because he worried too much. It’d be best if I never had to use them.
Leaves and branches flitted past the carriage window, a little distracting. The interior of the carriage wasn’t very spacious, and I could hear someone paging through sheets of paper. Turning, I saw that Han Zichuan had let down the bamboo blinds to block out the light. Shadows fell across his upper robes, which were embroidered with layers of clouds and falling flowers. He was sitting cross-legged with his chest wide open, the contours and shape of his body an alluring sight. One hand propped up his head while the other flipped lazily through the stack of yellow charms. I lost interest and gave a yawn, and he smiled at me.
“Looking at you now, I can’t tell how you made such a mysterious name for yourself in the jianghu for the past five years.”
There’s plenty of things you can’t tell with a look…such as being blind to how much Fang Hua likes you while always thinking of me instead. I’m letting you do as you want, not because I fear you, but because of Fang Hua.
As the carriage rattled across the roads, Han Zichuan held onto the side of the carriage for balance and raised his eyebrows. His tone was remarkably sovereign-like as he spoke in annoyance. “Little Lin, slow down. Don’t fool around and jolt this carriage so much.”
“Sire, please hold onto your seat. “I’m afraid there’s an unexpected surprise up front.”
Han Zichuan gave a sound of ridicule and reached forward to open the curtains. “Looks like it’s another ambush. Just focus on charging through and defending this carriage, you don’t need to pay them any mind.”
Astonished, I looked as he lowered the bamboo blinds, the movement quick and graceful. There was a glimpse of the driver’s back, dressed in ordinary, coarse clothing as he sat at the reins to whip the horse. The guards that had been riding ahead of the carriage had all vanished, but there were sounds of combat coming from the woods.
Who had the gall to ambush the emperor’s carriage? Did they want to die? Han Zichuan smiled at me, sitting calmly by my side. He stroked my hand and gave it a pat. “Don’t worry, I’m here.”
Before he’d even finished speaking, there was a tearing noise. I squinted and grabbed Han Zichuan’s sleeve, pressing him against the seat. Something ripped, and an object burst through the bamboo blinds. Cold air rushed inside in the wake of an arrow that lodged itself into the woodwork.
A second later, and the arrow would’ve pierced through Han Zichuan’s back.
“Sire, are you all right?” the driver anxiously turned his head.
“Uninjured. We have to shake them off,” Han Zichuan’s face was ghastly pale as the carriage rattled even more severely. I prepared to go out but was dragged back to the seat and into his lap. Sounds of fighting rang out around us as I looked at his expression, still handsome and resolute. The eyebrows were imposing, and a fierce strand of killing intent shone in his eyes.
Was he trying to protect me? I turned my face away, suddenly finding the situation rather funny.
“Who dares to rob this carriage?” Our ride gave an obvious jolt as his heavy voice spoke. Amidst the sounds of fighting, the carriage shook heavily as it raced forward. Blood suddenly splashed against the bamboo blinds, staining a large section red.
A man covered in wounds barged inside, body leaning against the walls. In his hands he held a sword, thrusting at us with a desperate air. Han Zichuan reacted swiftly and avoided the blow, catching the attacker’s sword arm as he blocked me from sight. His gaze was icy as he grit his teeth, as if having trouble holding him in place.
I took the chance to strike the attacker with my palm, causing him to stagger. He gave me a venomous glance and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, seemingly unhurt. Shocked, I looked at my hand. I’d used all of my force in that last attack. If this was the past, the force of the blow would’ve stunned him even if I missed. But now…not only was he unharmed, but the backlash had hit my internal energy, sending my body into chaos…
Couldn’t I even use the third tier of internal energy now?
“Shao’er, watch out!”
Han Zichuan’s shout brought me to my senses, just in time to see a sword headed my way. Curses, if I realized I’d lost my skills earlier, I wouldn’t have bothered showing off and getting involved. This guy could’ve stabbed whoever he wanted. I dodged left, then right, my agile movements constrained within the cramped space. A moment of inattention had me bumping against the edge of the seat, sending a wave of pain through my body. Ow. My hand groped around until it found a certain bundle.
In a moment of desperation, I pinched the bundle of charms between my fingers and waved it before my face. I didn’t even bother to look at it before chanting a fire incantation. The attacker raised his sword…
And I smiled calmly as I raised my sleeves, revealing the blazing charms. All of them shot towards his forehead as blazing streams of fire, the force strong enough to blast his body out of the carriage. The remnants of the flames formed a gigantic fire dragon that soared into the skies.
Lowering my head, I dusted off my robes. It looked like I had used too many charms. I held onto the carriage walls for support as I helped up a dumbfounded Han Zichuan, assisting him to his seat. Copying his pose from earlier, I patted his shoulders and said in a low voice, “Don’t worry, I’m here.”
He looked at me in surprise, and I smiled.
Did you really think I passed my days ignorantly these past few years? With so many Princes, of course I’d picked up a few of their tricks. After learning from Little Fourth, I didn’t need to collect firewood anymore. A single charm gave me enough fire to roast my sweet potatoes. It was also much more convenient. This time…since I used them all at once, there was no doubt the assassin was dead.
The wind blew in from the broken blinds as we rushed along, leaving the sounds of fighting far behind us in the woods. I sat thinking with my brows knitted. My technique had been effective, but it’d startled the horse…
Han Zichuan sat calmly on the seat, silent for a while before he looked over and spoke flatly, “Have you realized? Our driver Little Lin already died from falling off the horse.”
 family law (??) ?jiafa, rules and punishments dealt out to family members by the head of a household, using involved corporal punishment like caning or flogging. Also a popular method for first wives and mother-in-laws to use against their new husband’s wife/daughter-in-law.
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