Considering the current company, she could only use Huangfu Wu Shuang as an excuse for her presence in the carriage.
Hearing this, Xiao Yin could only sigh deeply. His slender hand then reached out to envelop Hua Zhu Yu’s. It was as though he wanted to convey all the unspoken feelings in his heart through this single contact.
“Humph, who would’ve thought the grand Northern Crown Prince actually had a broken sleeve. And to even take interest in a lowly eunuch at that. Ha ha …” Sitting on the side, Wen Wan’s cold remark was brimming with ridicule.
Startled, Hua Zhu Yu quickly brushed Xiao Yin’s hand aside. Her cold gaze then locked onto Wen Wan as she said, “Miss Wen, you have misunderstood!”
“Misunderstood?” At this moment, Wen Wan held her head high, her tears completely wiped clean. Though her hair was slightly disheveled, she was still a vision of beauty. The corners of her lips perked in a callous smile as she turned to face Xiao Yin, slowly asking, “Does Crown Prince Xiao think I have misunderstood as well?”
His slender brows slightly creased as he turned to face Wen Wan with a seeming smile. His purple eyes, gleaming and deep; his lips, ever so slightly raised. A person that rarely smiled oftentimes had a smile that was devastatingly fatal.
But whenever Xiao Yin displayed such a smile, Hua Zhu Yu knew something was bound to happen. She had not forgotten, that time when he had given orders to throw her into the red tent, just how brilliantly his smile was back then. As anticipated, Wen Wan had yet to regain her senses from Xiao Yin’s smile before he callously replied, “Yes, you’ve certainly misunderstood!” Once he spoke, his hand shot out to block Wen Wan’s sleep acuipoint.
“I know that even if Imperial Father is ill, you still won’t return with me right?” He gazed at her with a complicated look, as though he already knew her answer. “I’ve said I won’t force you to return since you are determined to remain here. However, Southern Kingdom’s current standing is unpredictable and highly dangerous. I truly don’t feel at ease leaving you here. As for this person….”
Glancing at the currently unconscious Wen Wan, Xiao Yin quietly continued, “She’ll be useful leverage. Even if they become suspicious of you due to me saving you the other night, with her as a bargaining chip, they certainly won’t dare do anything to you!”
A wave of warmth suddenly enveloped her. She never expected she was the reason Xiao Yin was bringing Wen Wan with him.
“How could the Emperor agree to let her go with you?” Hua Zhu Yu still remembered her wedding day. Just because they could not bear to let Wen Wan marry off, they had elected her as the substitute. Moreover, Wen Wan was already a xiu nu(refined lady).
“At present, the civil discord within Southern Kingdom is tumultuous, yet there’s no general up to Hua Mu’s caliber to guard the border so they are apprehensive of me. Besides, the Emperor already agreed at the banquet to let whoever I like marry off to Northern Kingdom. Even if he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t have a valid excuse to decline. Don’t mention a small xiu nu, even if I asked for an Imperial Concubine, he would have no choice but to yield,” Xiao Yin declared imposingly.
Xiao Yin was right, at the current pressing situation, the Emperor had no choice but to concede.
“Then you intend to make her your Crown Princess Consort?” Hua Zhu Yu brazenly asked.
“Crown Princess Consort?” His lips curved into a faint smile as he said, “Yatou, I’m afraid in this lifetime, I’ll never have a Princess Consort, even a concubine, I’d rather do without.” As he spoke, his voice gradually became more faint, mixed with unspeakable melancholy.
A heaviness enveloped Hua Zhu Yu’s heart, making it difficult to even breathe. After a long silence, she looked up and tried to lighten the mood, “Elder brother, it couldn’t be that you’re suffering from an illness right? Are you not interested in women?”
“Illness? That’s right I’m ill, perhaps it’s an illness that can never be treated, ever. But even if there was a cure, I’d rather not cure it,” he replied with a mournful smile, eyes rippling with sorrow. But that kind of sorrow was something he must conceal in the depths of his eyes, never to let her witness.
Perhaps if she had never listened to the drunken words he spoke that night, she would not comprehend the reason for the sadness shrouded in his eyes, nor the illness he spoke of.
From the carriage window, a breeze swept by, free and unrestrained, carrying with it the slight chill of the night. It seemed as though time had suddenly stilled. Her eyes absentmindedly traveled to the corner of the carriage and she saw the qin, Rao Liang, that she had played that day when her identity was but a qin slave. The brilliance of its black frame was uniquely calming and solitary beneath the gloomy light within the carriage.
“You even brought along Rao Liang?” Hua Zhu Yu asked in a soft voice.
“That’s right, I had wanted to listen to you play it once more,” Xiao Yin replied with a faint smile.
“You should’ve said so sooner, how about I play a piece as my farewell.” Hua Zhu Yu smiled and her hands reached out to place Rao Liang on the carpeted floor, her fingers naturally moving across the strings. The sound of the qin instantly resounded inside the carriage. The song she played did not contain the slightest hint of murderous spirit. Rather, it was full of parting sentiment, heartrending and moving. The melody was pleasant to the ears and completely different compared to Sha Po Lang which she had played on the battlefield.
Along with the sound of the qin, she softly recited, “Beyond the pavilion, where the old road lies, the fragrant lake so blue, it reaches the skies. With the evening wind waning the liu qin’s trills, the sun sets behind the mountains of hills. At the brink of the skies, and beyond the ends of the earth, dear friends scatter and depart. A cup of wine to conclude the little happiness that remains, tonight’s parting, but a forlorn dream.”
Xiao Yin was slightly shaken, listening to her as he reclined against his seat. Once the song came to an end, Hua Zhu Yu softly placed her fingers over the strings, silencing them and enveloping the two in silence.
Facing him, Hua Zhu Yu finally said, “Have a pleasant journey! As for Miss Wen, I ask that you not make things too difficult for her.” In any case, it was because of her that she was forced to the Northern Kingdom.
“Alright,” Xiao Yin agreed. Glancing at Wen Wan, he sighed and said, “Wasn’t she supposedly weak and ill? Looking at her now, the frigid North won’t be enough to break her. You don’t hate her? If not for her, you wouldn’t have had to suffer through so much.”
“How could I not hate her?” Hua Zhu Yu calmly replied. If not for her, Jin Se wouldn’t have died. But she was not the real culprit and Hua Zhu Yu was a person who was clear between gratitude and grudges. Forcing her to the north this time could also be considered her punishment.
Lifting the curtain, Hua Zhu Yu intended to leave but the burning gaze fixed behind her back halted her steps. After thinking it through a bit, she suddenly lowered her head and said, “Back in Northern Kingdom, I did you wrong. When you return, ask Bao Ma furen, she knows the whole story.” Once she was done speaking, she did not dare to look back at Xiao Yin, nor did she pay attention to how much he heard as she quickly jumped down from the carriage. She did not have the courage to speak of that matter. She didn’t know how he would respond if she told him so she couldn’t be completely open and truthful.
Standing fixed beneath the ancient tree, she continued to watch Xiao Yin’s entourage depart along the winding mountain roads, gradually getting farther away until it was but a speck in the distance that could barely be seen.
With the setting sun, the curtain of night slowly descended, enshrouding the skies and earth in its darkness. A band of birds fluttered their wings as they flew towards the forest, heading for their nests. As for her, she could not even compare to a little bird, for she did not have a home to return to nor a place to shelter her.
After heading back to Qing Jiang Palace, Hua Zhu Yu first went to the stables where the bodies of the beasts were detained. She had instructed An Xiao Er to quietly send some people to set fire to the stables once it was dark. But before it was dark, she had received news from him that the stable was heavily guarded and that the Minister of Justice, Zhang Qing, had personally came to examine the beasts.
The Minister of Justice was originally still in Yu City. He was not one of the ministers who joined the trip to the Qing Jiang Palace. If one were to travel from Yu City to Qing Jiang Palace, it would take at least 2 days by water and at least 1 night by land, at the fastest. Yet the incident had only just occurred yesterday night and the Minister of Justice was already here. Hua Zhu Yu had a foreboding that something was about to happen. She had planned to set the stables ablaze once it was dark but the other party didn’t leave her that opportunity. She had fallen into a defensive position. Abruptly, she turned around and swiftly rushed towards Qing Yuan.
Huangfu Wu Shuang was not at Qing Yuan. The guards said that he brought along Jixiang and went to find Empress Nie. It seemed even he knew the dire circumstances he was in, so no matter how much hatred he held in his heart for his Imperial Mother he had no choice but to plead for her help.
“Hey, come here, quickly go search His Highness’s quarters for any suspicious object!” Hua Zhu Yu ordered with creased brows. Though she didn’t know what it was that made the beast only attack the Emperor and Huangfu Wu Shang, she was certain that whatever it was, it was definitely inside Huangfu Wu Shuang’s room.
Following her order, the guards quickly began searching with Hua Zhu Yu. After turning the place inside out, they still could not find anything suspicious. There had to be something, but why couldn’t she find it? Suddenly the sound of barking dogs could be heard approaching from outside.
Startled, Hua Zhu Yu quickly motioned the guards outside.
Entering through the Moon Gate was the Minister of Justice along with a group of Imperial guards leading several hunting dogs.
“Zhang daren, what are you doing?” Though Hua Zhu Yu felt apprehensive inside, her face was a picture of serenity.
Attired in his official robes, he coldLy looked at Hua Zhu Yu and asked, “Bao gong gong, is the Crown Prince inside?”
“His Highness went to look for Her Majesty. Don’t know what is the matter, Zhang daren?” Hua Zhu Yu said with a smile.
Taking out a token he announced, “On orders of His Majesty, this official came to search Qing Yuan!’ He then slanted his eyes at the Imperial guards, motioning them to begin the search.
Inside, Hua Zhu Yu’s heart which was originally in turmoil began to calm down. It seemed, in the end Huangfu Wu Shuang could not escape this calamity. Naturally it was only after a moment that a guard came out carrying a box and announcing, “Zhang daren, this is what I found.”
“Alright, take it away.” Zhang Qing never even opened the box and quickly left Qing Yuan with the guards.
Huangfu Wu Shuang was imprisoned.
In the box taken from Qing Yuan was a painting that Wen Wan had painted that very day in the bamboo forest. On that painting there was a fragrance that was exceptionally similar to the one on the Emperor’s and Huangfu Wu Shang’s robes when they were attacked. According to the coroner, the beast must have been provoked by this scent and thus only attacked them.
This scent originated from the unique magnolia flower. The scent was very faint, thus hard for ordinary people to detect. But the beasts were very susceptible to this scent and it must have gotten a whiff of it from afar, making it go berserk. After the incident occurred, they had discarded all the fragrant powders and anything that was scented in Huangfu Wu Shuang’s room. But this painting given to him by Wen Wan, he was not willing to part with and ultimately was the evidence used to convict him.
After listening to this testimony, even Hua Zhu Yu was somewhat convinced. If a fragrant powder was found in Huangfu Wu Shuang’s quarters, people would assume that he had been framed. Who would be foolish enough to leave such incriminating evidence behind? This painting was different though. The scent was very faint so perhaps even Huangfu Wu Shuang was unaware that he had left it on the painting or perhaps he knew but could not throw it away since it was a gift from his sweetheart.
Despite being the painter, Wen Wan was never a suspect. This was because she painted it in front of so many people and the ink and paper themselves were provided by Huangfu Wu Shuang.
Hearing the Minister of Justice’s findings, the Emperor was thoroughly angered, even Empress Nie’s pleadings were to no avail. At once the Emperor gave order to detain Huangfu Wu Shuang and imprison him once he returned to Yu City. As his servants, Hua Zhu Yu and Jixiang could not escape punishment either.
Escorted back to Yu City, their journey on water took a whole 2 days and nights. Their journey back felt very different, gone was the leisurely atmosphere they had earlier and in its place was a strong sense of oppression. Though Huangfu Wu Shuang was yet to be deposed of his Crown Prince title, with such a grave crime hanging over his head, many troops had been mobilized to escort him back.
Finally, on the evening of the third day, they arrived at Yu City.
Along the journey, Hua Zhu Yu had always been by Huangfu Wu Shuang’s side who had his face downcast the whole time. After encountering such an ordeal, he seemed to have matured somewhat. Or perhaps because he had shed far too many tears in front of the Emperor that he no longer had any left, like her at that time, whose tears had completely dried.
The carriage headed straight back and arrived at the Imperial Palace after 2 hours.
But they did not return to Eastern Palace and instead were escorted west, to the most remote area within the Imperial Palace-Nie Cheng Yuan(Inner Punishment Courtyard).
It was the coldest area within the Imperial Palace because it was a prison designed to detain members of the royal family who committed grave crimes. Compared to the Cold Palace in the north, it was gloomier and scarier, causing people to pale in fright at its mere sight.
When they arrived, it was already the middle of the night. Getting down from the carriage, the first thing they saw were the countless trees, towering and ancient, with its branches inclining downward, it was a vision of complete wilderness, giving off the impression that evil spirits dwelled within. Near the tree tops, the mournful cries of black ravens could be heard, causing one to tremble in fear at the eeriness.
Beyond the forest of trees, one could spot the prison with its strange architecture, looking worn down. Every now and then, screams of misery would resound from within. Who would’ve thought that such a place existed within the majestic Imperial Palace?