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His smile was so cheerful. I felt like the victim of his latest prank, my mind filled with a buzzing drone. He hugged me very tightly, enough for me to feel his body temperature…I took a deep breath and said in a shaking voice, “When did you find out?”
He paused, before dragging out the answer. “I’ve known you all my life.”
I’d be holding myself back all this time, yet he’d saw through me from the first moment.
“Very good,” I lowered my head, lips curving up into an ironic smile before laughing at him. It startled him…and I used a bit of inner qi to easily push aside his hand, pinching his chin while my other hand closed around his neck. Although surprised, he continued to smile, raising an eyebrow as if confident in his success. His eyes slanted sideways to look at me before lightly waving his hand, causing the wine cups on the table to clatter against the ground….
“Emperor, is anything the matter?”
The silence that had stretched on like dead water was immediately thrown into disorder. The doors were forced open, and a crowd of soldiers wearing armor entered, pointing their shiny weapons at me…this battle array…seemed to have been prepared ahead of time just to counter my move. Han Zichuan, did you even anticipate such a thing?
I looked at him, copying his earlier moves as I leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Do you think they can stop me?” My grip on his throat tightened. “With you here, I’m not afraid of anything.”
His eyes twinkled briefly before adopting an expression of deep sorrow.
“General Qi’s daughter has taken the emperor hostage and rebelled.”
“You traitor! Don’t think of doing anything to his majesty or hurting his body!” The people outside were rather clever, shouting one after the other without anyone taking a step forward. I squinted.
“Is there anything aifei wants to tell Zhen?”
“But Zhen has words to say,” Despite being held captive by me, he still raised a hand to pat my shoulder comfortingly, the other hugging me around my waist. “All of you, back down. Without Zhen’s commands, no one can come in.”
The crowd stood looking at each other. I grew angry and muttered in a muffled voice, “Leaving isn’t allowed.” At least let the two of us leave first…before you all scatter.
“You’re losing your temper again,” Though I had him in my grip, he still managed to look at me with a doting expression. Meanwhile, the various guards and servants had slowly started to back away. A damned servant sprawled on the ground to sneak a peek at me, before pulling the door after him in terror. It closed with a pah!, leaving the noisy rabble outside. What kind of situation was this…?
There were only the two of us left in this room. The lamplight flickered as noise resounded across the floors, making my expression turn black.
“Look at you, you’re always so muddle-headed when you do things so it’s easy to predict your actions,” he gave me a sideways glance, eyes roving from my face to my neck. I glared at him before speaking quietly.
“You’re not even worried about the fates of the Qi Family you mentioned? Conspiring against the throne isn’t a nice accusation.”
“So what?” he said.
Despite my smile, my eyes turned cold as from his words. “I’m only concerned with you. All matters of life-and-death from this incident rests in your hands. I’m not going to beg forgiveness on behalf of your aifei’s family.”
“You still don’t understand?” he took a deep breath before actually daring to caress my face. “Zhen only has one empress.”
Surprised, my heart began to pound–not from being moved, but from uneasy shock. “What did you do to her?”
“Zhen’s Shao’er really catches on quickly. That woman was originally bait to lure you out. Even though you hid her underneath the bed, I sent people to kill her to avoid future hassles. If General Qi discovered his daughter was replaced before the wedding and charged into the palace, how would Zhen be able to marry you? …and how else would you end up as Zhen’s one and only empress?”
No wonder Little Li had dawdled at the general’s estate after I’d gotten onto the sedan chair. Was it to make sure his men had enough time to get rid of the general’s daughter? I suddenly felt shaky on my feet, staring at the man before me in astonishment. He was smiling slightly as he sized me up. How could he speak so casually about a person’s life? This Han Zichuan, was he really the same youth that lived in the house amongst the bamboo grove with me?
“Zhen knows that you’d come back eventually for the wedding day. If you don’t want to take another’s place as empress, I’ll give you back your real identity. General Qi might be one of the founding members of the dynasty with military might, but after your little act, all those witnesses saw you wearing his daughter’s face to rebel against me. I’m afraid it’ll be impossible for him to deny it. This sort of crime can implicate nine generations of his family, so it won’t be long before military power returns to Zhen’s hands.”
“Formidable…you even calculated me into your schemes.”
Under the gentle glow of lamplight, his smile was mesmerizing. It was the same smile as before…and yet, completely different. I knew then that the boy who was once bathed in sunlight as he smiled at me from the bamboo was never coming back…and the monarch standing in his place was so unfamiliar, I hardly recognized him.
“Shao’er, won’t you get tired if you keep choking me like this?” he paused, leaning against my shoulders with eyes shut to take a deep breath. “Would you like your husband to pour you a cup of water?”
“Shut up. I’m just going to ask you one question,” my back was stiff, and my tone was cold. “Back then…was it you who carried me out of the palace?”
“Not me,” he looked at me calmly, but added on, “It was me who told Little Li to send someone else to do it. Did they get you to Fang Hua’s house safely?”
Great, just great.
“Then I’ll have to trouble you to come back on a trip with me.”
He arched an eyebrow, looking at me in surprise, but I held him in place with my arm. The smile on his face faded. “That’s not very difficult…just tell me why?”
You should be clearer than anyone, Zichuan. If you could predict that I’d sneak into the palace and take General Qi’s daughter’s place for the wedding, why wouldn’t you know why I wanted you to see Fang Hua?
“I need you to go back and save my master.”
He suddenly smiled, lips parting slightly as he spat out one word: “Fine.”
My expression gradually relaxed.
“I just need you to help me finish one last thing.” He grasped my hand and gently took it off his throat, only to turn around and pour two new full cups of wine. “Drink these cups of marriage wine with me.”
I gave him a scornful look. The color of the wine was like jade, clear and pure. As it swayed in the jade cups, a cloud of sweet fragrance reached my nose. “You think paralyzing poisons will work on me?”
“I know it won’t. I added nothing to these because I was afraid of wasting the wine.”
I stared at the wine cup, my throat feeling puckery. “There’s no need.”
“We’ve gone to the ancestral hall and met the civil and military officials. Since we’ve completed the ceremony to confer you a title, we just need to share this wine before we become husband and wife.” He took my hand, picking up his own cup with drooping eyes as he drew closer. His breath was right by my ear, extremely itchy.
I didn’t move.
Yet he kept his grip on me, eyes never shifting from my face as he spoke in a low tone. “You can pretend this is just a dream and you’re acting a part in a play, all right?”
At that moment, my face changed slightly. He smiled and gave a shallow sip. I didn’t wait for him to finish, but struck him hard with my hand to knock him out. This scourge was definitely someone to guard against. The entire night he’d been doing nothing but making my heart pound.
With the emperor as my hostage, I took to the rooftops with my lightness technique, outrunning everyone who chased after us by means of twists and turns. The archers could only strain their eyes in vain. No one dared to aim their weapons towards the emperor in this time and age unless they wanted death. I heaved a sigh. By the time I dragged the unconscious man out of the palace, it was already beginning to get light. My movements naturally grew more leisurely after escaping the court. Who knew how chaotic things were inside?
The weight of his tall figure was pressed completely against my body. I walked towards the western city gates, passing over the chilly flagstones and desolate lanes. This place really was tranquil and still. A cough came from my side, where an unobtrusive old man sat atop a carriage. Seeing me approach, he rose to his feet and nimbly helped Han Zichuan into the carriage without a word.
Though his hands were emaciated, they were full of strength. It looked like this was a sensible sort of guy. He kept his eyes low and didn’t look around wildly. Han Zichuan was currently dressed in clothing from the palace. Although they were plain white robes, the dancing dragons against the fabric were very obvious, and the jade plate hanging from his waist spoke of his esteemed position. But that old driver didn’t raise an eyelid when he helped him inside, nor did he speak. After he was arranged neatly, the old man backed out of the carriage and drew down the hanging screen door.
He definitely deserved the title as one of First’s chosen men, with his prior experience and trustworthy character.
“Lord First received your letter and instructed me to wait here until Master you arrived. Everything’s been arranged for the road, so please set your worries at rest. As soon as day breaks, there will be 100 other carriages in the exact same colors heading to the north, south, east and west gates. The imperial court will naturally be too busy to keep track. Since time is pressing, please hurry on.”
“Please give thanks to your master on my behalf, I owe him one,” I sat atop the carriage and drew the reins. The old man made a small affirmative noise as I leaned down to clap the horse. Snorting, the animal swished its tail and broke into a gallop. I chanced a glance back, watching as his form grew smaller and smaller as he stood at the edge of the hazy horizon with a calm smile.
I had the sudden feeling that I knew that man.
I couldn’t help but take another look back. Right at this time, something pressed against the hem of my robes as a steady voice spoke from within the carriage, his tone a little strange. “You’ve already left, but you still begrudge parting with him?”
I lifted open the hanging screen to look inside, where my hostage was leaning comfortably against the seat as if he hadn’t been kidnapped at all. He lifted his head to give me a look, his legs stretched out so the heels rested on my robes.
“When did you wake up?”
“A while ago. I never expected aifei would take this many pains to kidnap me.”
I didn’t answer, but concentrated on hurrying the horse along.
He actually came to hug me from behind, drawing closer to speak in a soft voice. “It’s warmer inside. Don’t worry about making haste on the road. How about Zhen issuing a decree to stop them from posting arrest warrants everywhere?”
I curled my hands into fists, dearly wanting to knock him out again. He curved his eyes into a smile.
“Zhen knows that aifei wants to spend time alone with Zhen, and that’s why she put on this farce. Kidnapping is charming in its own way, I suppose.”
I refused to be distracted and kept urging on the carriage, even as he gave an exclamation of surprise.
“What’s in this first row of cabinets?”
“Was this gauze made by silkworms? What can you do with this, wear it as a head wrap?”
“It’s for tying you up.”
There was the sound of someone sifting through things before his voice rose again. “Why does the last compartment have nothing but yellow papers, are they for going to the toilet?”
“…those are for writing charms to seal your mouth.”
He wanted to say something else, but I stopped the horse, threw aside the reins, and entered, preparing to paralyze his acupoints. My glance was cold. “Are you done messing around yet?”
Han Zichuan didn’t avoid me, but gave me a happy smile. “Not even for the rest of our lives.”
I was completely speechless. Instead of wasting words on him, I sealed the acupoints in his upper and lower body to keep him paralyzed. He’d already made a mess inside the carriage. Various snacks and pastries were lying on the ground, all things I was familiar with…it was definitely snuck in by the other princes while First wasn’t looking. I was running for my life after a kidnapping, yet they were treating it as a tour of the country…stepping past the items, I retrieved the reins again and gave Han Zichuan a threatening glare.
Perhaps I’d used a bit too much finger strength when paralyzing him, but Han Zichuan was now lying motionless on the seat, his hair fanning about his shoulders like a pool of water. He gave me a mild look, much less lordly than before, as sunlight passed through the screen to leave patterned shadows on his face. The smile on that face was gentle and soft.
“Shao’er, doesn’t this feel like we’ve gone back to the old days?”
I gave a dry smile and silently drove the carriage. Even if those old days were beautiful…it was a place I could never return to again.
As long as I opened my mouth to ask First for something, he’d always find me the best. This time was no different. Though this horse didn’t look like much, he was a colt who could run 1,000 li. The two of us escaped from the palace to the little village by Fang Hua’s house in only one and a half days. I glanced at the immobile Han Zichuan lying docilely in the carriage and laughed in spite of myself.
He really was being very cooperative at the moment.
With the emperor missing after an attack by the assassin, various city gates were all on high alert. I expected these level of difficulties when I left, but before I could force my way through, the emperor leisurely stuck out his head to impatiently wave his hand. He ordered the guards back and angrily issued a decree to revoke all orders for carriage and body searches. It was not only immoral, but seriously interfering with the lives of the common people. Then he used a brush to write a letter to the imperial court, saying that he was visiting the common people to drive away his cares, so there was no need for the officials to take such pains to rescue him. Afterwards, he sealed the missive with a fiery red stamp and a pleased look in his eye.
Even a simple letter called forth his imperial jade seal…I really didn’t know how he managed to sneak that thing on him when we left.
When a shivering guard knelt by the carriage to inquire whether he’d like a page to drive the carriage instead, I finally lost my patience, paralyzed him again, and dragged him back inside. And thus, the rest of our journey continued without troubles. I could count on my fingers the time we’d arrive at home. If he didn’t keep staring at my back with so much tenderness and love, I’d probably be in a better mood.
I pulled on the reins to stop the carriage before the bamboo grove, before drawing aside the curtains to help him off. This part of the journey had to be taken on foot. He was breathing heavily, probably because I’d been too quick to paralyze him these few days, so I’d obstructed his circulation. I could even feel that his body was cold beneath all the clothing. He was leaning almost entirely against me as I carefully supported him by the arm, yet still stubborn enough to rest his head by my ear.
“Shao’er, can’t you just unseal my acupoints? I’m afraid of being a deadweight.” he suggested helpfully.
I ignored him and quickened my pace. I feared that once I unsealed his acupoints, he’d do more than simply be deadweight. The wind brushed past my cheek, carrying with it the cool and refreshing air of the mountains. It was very tranquil. Returning to the place where I used to live made my heart surge with emotion.
“See that yellow dirt hill? We went there once when we were younger. I vaguely remember there was a grave there, right? And you were the one that helped me down back then, too.”
“You liked to take baths in the pond behind the house. I used to see Fang Hua ladling the water there for his tea, too.”
“Don’t push me away so far. You’ve sealed my acupoints, so I can’t walk by myself.”
“What is it?”
“We’ve already spent a day and a half on the road,” I reminded him helpfully. He wore a ‘and so?’ expression on his face.
“Sealed acupoints usually unseal themselves after 24 hours,” I patted his shoulders and shoved him aside again. So you see…don’t take advantage of things to get close to me. If he was really paralyzed, could I still support him to walk this far? Even Immortals would have some trouble. Moreover, Han Zichuan’s blood was as precious as gold, perhaps with the key to save Fang Hua…I wouldn’t risk stopping his blood flow for long periods of time. Maybe I jabbed him with more force than necessary, but there was no real power behind it. With his abilities, he could break through in the time it took a stick of incense to burn, but he insisted on clinging to me instead. I turned to give him a vicious glare. “Don’t play tricks with me.”
He only smiled and said softly, “I really can’t walk any further.”
Han Zichuan stood unmoving. Not far behind him was a house hidden in the bamboo. My eyes darkened as I grabbed his sleeve and kicked off into the air, dragging him through the forest. A light breeze greeted me as I travelled between the shadows of the bamboo. He didn’t say a word but raised his head to look at me, his gaze sharp and complicated. My heart felt light and cheerful.
Fang Hua…I can’t wait to see you again.
As soon as we landed, I threw Han Zichuan on the porch. He seemed to be in a bad temper as he lowered his head to straighten his robes, retying his sash as he smoothed out wrinkles along the fabric. The words he spoke came from between gritted teeth. “Ever since we grew up, you’ve been the only person who still dares to mistreat Zhen and gives us the cold shoulder.”
He was probably really angry if he was using ‘Zhen’ again.
I gave him a passing glance but didn’t bother arguing. I rapped on the doors of room after room, calling out, “Fang Hua…” with no response.
The rooms were cold and cheerless.
Han Zichuan’s form was immeasurably elegant as took a leisurely stroll around the grounds. He suddenly stopped before my old room and raised a hand to knock on the door. My heart leapt up as I ran over to push him aside. Not bothering to see whether he fell, I kicked open the door with my foot to run inside. “Second…are you here?”
The room was completely empty. There was no tea in the pot on the table, and a layer of dust on one of the stools
“Master…” But there was no reply. A roaring started in my head. Now everything was a mess, and I’d lost my sense of time. I turned to make my way past the dividing screen, only to see Fang Hua’s bed had nothing but his disordered covers. There was no sign of Fang Hua himself. When I dug my hand deep into the covers, they were cold…
A perfectly good person had disappeared. What was going on…wasn’t he too weak to move? Didn’t Second promise to take good care of him…? So why was he gone now? Could it be…
“Shao’er,” a voice called from outside. Han Zichuan’s slow and steady steps led to the bed by my side.
There was no time to think, so I grabbed him by the collar as tight as I could. “It was you, wasn’t it? Where did you hide him?” Surprised, Han Zichuan gave me a blank stare, hurt showing in his eyes.
“Shao’er, I’m only interested in you…the one person I care about. Since I agreed to let Fang Hua leave the palace back then, how could I hide him away now? Would I really agree to come here with you if I did?”
My mind turned blank. Somehow I released him without realizing it, all the energy gone from my body. I collapsed onto the bed…as a hand came to rest upon my shoulder. It gradually tightened its grip as Han Zichuan spoke in a kind tone.
“Let’s look around a bit more.”
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