The commander of the infantry had no idea what that meant, but anything concerning the fate of the nation made him break out in a cold sweat. He only pretended not to hear a thing as he personally collected the fake Long Feiye and Han Yunxi’s corpses.
He didn’t believe that the Duke of Qin was involved in this plot, but he still had to deliver the bodies back to White City so Emperor Kang Cheng could see for himself. Whether or not the emperor believed the same thing would be up to the man himself.
What would Emperor Kang Cheng think?
He already knew that the Chu Clan was planning to turn traitor once they had pushed out the crown prince as scapegoat for embezzlement. But he never expected them to make their move so soon. He couldn’t figure out where they could retreat to at a time like this. He’d been keeping an eye on Empress Chu’s movements in Western Liang, and that didn’t seem like a possible spot! Now the Chu Clan had not only rebelled, but kidnapped his beloved empress as well. How could he tolerate such a slight!?
An irate Emperor Kang Cheng would never believe anything the Chu Clan said ever again. While sending various merciless soldiers to suppress the Chu Clan’s renegade troops, Emperor Kang Cheng was also keeping an ear out for news from Thousand Buddha Cave. The Chu Clan’s mutiny had started from there, so it was closely connected to the thousand-year ginkgo tree. Messenger hawks brought an endless stream of messages to the palace, updating Emperor Kang Cheng on the latest news from the temple. The earliest missives described Chu Yunyi unmasking the fake Long Feiye and Qin Wangfei, then went on to speak of His Highness Duke of Qin in disguise as a masked man wearing black.
It was impossible for him to trust Chu Yunyi’s words now. As he saw it, the man was simply trying to sow discord between him and the Duke of Qin so as to ruin their already delicate relationship. When the bodies of the impersonators reached Emperor Kang Cheng’s palace a few days later, he was even more convinced that everything was part of Chu Yunyi’s grand scheme.
“The Chu Clan’s full of wishful thinking. Hmph, Zhen isn’t stupid enough to shift the blame to the Duke of Qin!” Emperor Kang Cheng harrumphed.
The Chu Clan had no place to retreat but Empress Chu’s stronghold in Western Liang now. In other words, Western Zhou and Tianning’s hundred years of peace through their marriage alliances were now about to fall apart. If Western Zhou could ally with Tianning’s south central regions, they’d have Western Liang all but surrounded on the western and southern fronts. Meanwhile, Tianan laid to the east and Northern Li to the north. In other words, Western Liang had simultaneously made enemies on all four sides, leaving it isolated and cut off from help!
To put it into perspective, Emperor Kang Cheng would still pretend he knew nothing even if the Duke of Qin really had gone to Thousand Buddha Cave that day. Making friends with the Duke of Qin was his best move now in terms of strategy!
“The thousand-year ginkgo tree vanished into thin air? Your Majesty, this is just too strange. As this old servant sees it, there’s a hidden mystery in all this!” his old eunuch proclaimed.
Emperor Kang Cheng was still stewing in his temper, so the words only fanned the flames. “Watch your mouth! Spread my orders: anyone who’s learned of the news must be killed without mercy!”
The old eunuch grew alarmed at his monarch’s words. “Your Majesty, this old servant doesn’t know a thing! I’ve forgotten everything! Please spare this old servant’s life!”
“Get lost. If news of this breaks out, Zhen will be the first to take your head!” Emperor Kang Chen roared.
The thousand-year ginkgo was Western Zhou’s holy tree and the treasure of the Thousand Buddha Cave. If news of its disappearance spread right after the Chu Clan’s uprising, it would only become an inauspicious omen and make the people as well as the army panic. Although Emperor Kang Cheng still wasn’t clear on the details of what had happened, the first thing he had to do now was to issue a lockdown on the news and silence all witnesses with death.
Western Zhou had already been thrown into chaos. No matter what, he wouldn’t let anyone or anything make a further mess of the situation!
The old eunuch half ran, half stumbled out of the room. For the sake of protecting the secret and his own life, he would definitely do a beautiful job. Once he was gone, Emperor Kang Cheng privately sent out a team of personal bodyguards to investigate the phenomenon in secret. He himself focused all his efforts in rescuing his empress and suppressing the Chu Clan troops.
Meanwhile, the masked figures who caused the tree to vanish in the first place were still in the little town situated to the east of Thousand Buddha Cave. That night, Long Feiye had only agreed to stay in the Chu Estate as part of a counterplot. Although they’d slept on Chu grounds while being monitored, he still managed to contact his guards and arrange for a switcheroo. There were plenty of chances to execute the switch in the journey between White City and Thousand Buddha Cave. If there was anyone to blame, it was Chu Yunyi and his overconfidence for underestimating Long Feiye and his methods.
Han Yunxi just finished explaining to everyone how she’d made the tree disappear with the effects of Perplexing Butterfly Illusion. Because of that, Long Feiye stopped connecting it to the disappearance of the poison pond in the past.
“Duke of Qin, they’re actually planning on inducing early labor on Chu Qingge!? It’s unthinkable!” Tang Li had updated them about the missive as soon as a lull came in the conversation. He always called Long Feiye by his title when Gu Qishao or other outsiders were present.
Long Feiye had guessed their enemies would move against Chu Qingge in one way or another, but never predicted this development. However, Han Yunxi was the most surprised of all. “Really!?”
She had read some foreign classics in the modern world that described how five-month old fetuses were the earliest premature babies to survive birth, but that was with the assistance of incubators and various medical tools and medicines to keep them alive. Still, it was easy for such babies to develop health problems later on in life. She never expected Cloud Realm Continent had the skills to induce early labor even without modern-day technology! The medical academy’s skills were indeed formidable if that was true.
They had the confidence not only to birth a premature baby, but to keep it alive as well.
But with all the care and attention that child would need later, would it ever actually live to the age where it took the throne? Most likely, the Chu Clan weren’t planning to keep around the baby for long. He would be a pretence for their plots until the situation in Western Zhou stabilized. Then the Chu Clan would replace him with one of their own sons!
“It looks like the induced labor will succeed…” Long Feiye trailed off coldly.
“In other words, the Chu Clan will enter Western Liang for sure?” Although Han Yunxi had a bad impression of Emperor Tianhui, she still didn’t want to see Tianning fall into the Chu Clan’s hands.
“Have there been any movements from that Noble Consort Ning?” Chu Xifeng couldn’t help but ask.
“Noble Consort Ning has no son,” Han Yunxi replied lightly. She still knew some details regarding Emperor Tianhui’s harem thanks to having been summoned to the palace so many times in the past.
Noble Consort Ning was one of Emperor Tianhui’s four noble consorts, but the most unassuming of the lot. She would spend all her days behind closed doors praying to Buddha while remaining aloof from worldly affairs. At first, Han Yunxi thought this was because she had no backing and was afraid of being bullied in the palace. But after asking around, she discovered that Noble Consort Ning had the strongest support of all the consorts in the palace---enough to even eclipse the empress’s own family.
That was because her older brother was none other than one of Tianning’s three Great Generals, Great General Ning Cheng.[1. Ning Cheng (宁承) - Ning is a surname that means “peaceful, tranquil,” Cheng is “to bear, hold, carry.”] Perhaps Noble Consort Ning was just placid by nature. If she really had a mind for harem power struggles, no other consort could be her equal!
But it was a pity that she couldn’t give birth to a single son, much less a daughter. Otherwise, Great General Ning would definitely vie for power in her name under these circumstances, even if Chu Qingge sat by and did nothing!
“Then the only one left is the fourth imperial son. He still has his share of support in the royal court and Emperor Tianhui’s trust,” Chu Xifeng remarked.
Long Feiye’s own plans were precisely aimed towards this fourth prince and General Ning. “Chu Xifeng, make arrangements to set out after noon. We’ll be going to Western Liang!” Long Feiye declared.
His current actions had two goals: 1) to obtain the Wood of Ten-Thousand Poisons and 2) to start a rift between Western Zhou and Tianning. With the Chu Clan’s troops and the Nether Clan’s background, they’d only be trouble if they found another place to take root! Moreover, as old supporters of West Qin, he would never spare them or their clan! He had shouldered the burden of his kingdom’s vengeance for over twenty years. He hadn’t given up in his youth, so he certainly wasn’t giving up now. Besides Han Yunxi, no one could hope to gain mercy!
Since they were heading out after midday, everyone prepared to split up and get some rest to make up for the past few restless nights. Yet, on the verge of leaving, Gu Qishao paused and asked offhandedly, “Hey, did you guys notice that bearded man that Chu Yunyi took away with him? What are his origins? Why was he shot in his shoulder and leg?”
By the time Gu Qishao’s trio had arrived on the scene, Gu Beiyue had already been taken into custody. They had no idea what had happened beforehand, but he still noticed the strange man. Meanwhile, Han Yunxi hadn’t paid attention to anything except for Long Feiye, Chu Yunyi, and the thousand-year ginkgo tree. She didn’t even realize Chu Yunyi had come back for another man after kidnapping Empress Xue.
If she knew that man was none other than the white-robed gentleman who’d risked his life to save hers, or that he’d been injured again this time for her sake, or that he was still worrying about her after his wounds---what would she feel?
Unfortunately, even Lil Thing had been sleeping in the poison storage space during all the chaos, thus completely missing the chance to scent his gentleman. If he had caught whiff of that blood, he’d probably rush towards him without even a second thought.
On the other hand, Chu Xifeng and Tang Li were both so occupied with fighting off archers that they’d hardly noticed the whiskered man’s existence. Both of them shook their heads at Gu Qishao’s question.
Han Yunxi was only curious. “Who did he capture?” She glanced at Long Feiye. “Was it one of our men?”
“Definitely not!” Long Feiye was certain. Although his two agents were already dead, the fake Han Yunxi had sent up two signal flares before her death. One was to alert them that they could proceed with the plan, while the other confirmed that the Shadow Clan man had appeared on the scene. Actually, it was that second signal that puzzled Long Feiye the most. He had planned to incite discord between the Nether and Shadow Clans as well so he could force the man into the open. But he didn’t expect the Shadow Clan man to show up at Thousand Buddha Cave of all places.
What had he come there to do? And what had happened between him and Chu Yunyi to cause him to be so seriously injured? With that man’s skills, it would have been difficult, but not impossible, to escape Chu Yunyi and the Nether Clan’s arrows.
Just what happened before we arrived at the scene?
“Then who was he?” Han Yunxi pressed on.
“He was just like your impersonators, someone who slipped in incognito with the guards!” Gu Qishao declared.
Long Feiye’s eyes flashed unhappily, but he had hid expression well. Still, Chu Xifeng had long caught sight of his master’s look and hastened to say, “Maybe he was aiming for the thousand-year ginkgo tree as well. In any case, that’s with us now, so who cares about him!”
“You should all go rest. We’ll set out for Western Liang this afternoon,” Long Feiye intoned before pulling Han Yunxi away with him.
The three men left behind all looked stunned. Did Long Feiye eat the wrong thing today? He actually told us all to rest! What next, will the sun rise from the west tomorrow?