Chu Yunyi was wary of Gu Beiyue’s slow-healing wounds, but he had no way to speed up the recovery. He could only suffer under the yoke as his team continued eastward.
Long Feiye’s group was heading east as well. Gu Qishao wasn’t uninterested in the royal power struggle. Initially, he’d planned to leave once his affairs with the Wood of Ten-Thousand Poisons were complete, hoping to gather intel on the Fire and Metal poisons. For the sake of defeating the medical academy, he’d done extensive research into the Poison Sect and had absorbed all knowledge pertaining to the organization. Unfortunately, he still knew nothing about the Metal or Fire of Ten-Thousand Poisons. Nevertheless, Gu Qishao decided against leaving the group once he discovered that Head Elder Ling was in Western Liang as well. Although he couldn’t destroy the medical academy just yet, he didn’t mind striking Head Elder Ling first. He had even planned out exactly how he’d torment the man, and he couldn’t wait to get there soon!
Meanwhile, Long Feiye was still making inquiries over the kidnapped whiskered man at Thousand Buddha Cave. However, Chu Xifeng hadn’t been able to unearth any new information.
“Your Highness, besides our men and Chu Yunyi’s people, everyone present that day at Thousand Buddha Cave...has been silenced. Not a single survivor remains,” Chu Xifeng reported. “Even the monks were killed.”
Long Feiye wasn’t surprised. During times of chaos, one feared rebellion from the masses and military the most. Emperor Kang Cheng would certainly forbid any news of the thousand-year ginkgo tree’s loss from spreading around. This would benefit them in the long run, because it spared them trouble as well. Chu Yunyi’s men wouldn’t be able to verify whether they’d successfully taken the Wood of Ten-Thousand Poisons, either. The world was so vast, there were bound to be other people who’d heard of the Perplexing Butterfly Illusion. If news of their exploits managed to spread, it would only hurt them in the end.
Long Feiye was more curious to know of Emperor Kang Cheng’s reaction upon discovering the Chu Clan’s connection with the Nether Clan. Han Yunxi wanted to know too. “Things are so chaotic right now,” he said. “Emperor Kang Cheng definitely won’t reveal the Chu Clan’s secret until he’s regained full control of the situation!”
It wasn’t clear when this had happened, but everyone had stopped responding to her declarations unless Long Feiye reacted first. Her words were met with silence, making her wonder whether she’d turned into some sort of mood-killer for the group. In truth, everyone was afraid of her after all of her successful bets. They were worried that a casual conversation could turn into another gamble with a tragic end for them.
Finally, Chu Xifeng ventured to speak. “Esteemed wangfei, Emperor Kang Cheng shouldn’t publicize the Chu Clan’s secret for the world to know, right? The Nether Clan betrayed the West Qin imperial clan in the past, so they already have a terrible reputation! Surely there will be people who’ll hit them while they’re down.” He was simply expressing a different opinion, but spoke in a modest tone while Tang Li snickered off to the side.
“If there are people who’ll hit them while they’re down, then others will seize the chance to help! Heheh, once the news breaks, all of the dog whelps that served the East Qin imperial clan will rise up in retaliation!” Gu Qishao gloated.
Chu Xifeng stole a glance at the Duke of Qin after that comment, but he was expressionless as ever. Despite this, Chu Xifeng still felt his hairs standing on end.
“Dog whelps?” Long Feiye asked with interest.
“Heheh, both the masters and their servants are the same. What’s so glorious about fighting for power and profit?” Gu Qishao wore a disdainful smile.
With that statement, Han Yunxi discovered that the simple and unthinking Gu Qishao held cynical views about the world, too! She herself wasn’t too concerned with East or West Qin, either. If not for that Shadow Clan man and the Chu Clan’s secret, she probably wouldn’t think about them at all.
When Long Feiye didn’t speak, Gu Qishao purposely moved to sit beside him and tilted his head to one side. “Hey, how many noble clans were on the East Qin’s side in the past? Not many, right?”
Both Chu Xifeng and Tang Li blanched at that statement. In truth, they were alarmed over nothing, because Gu Qishao didn’t know about Long Feiye’s true identity at all. All he suspected was that the man was on good terms with the Tang Clan, since he was previously acquainted with Tang Li. Gu Qishao wasn’t much interested in Long Feiye’s origins to begin with; he was simply curious about the full extent of the man’s abilities.
Nobody knew what the blank-faced Long Feiye was thinking, but he replied truthfully, “It was just the Black and White Clans.”
The White (Bai 白) Clan was also known as the Shark Clan, though that was an internal moniker. Their members were once surnamed Bai, and none aside from themselves and the East Qin imperial family knew they hailed from an ancient branch line of sharks who could leave the water for long periods of time and live on land. Without a doubt, the White Clan’s cheat code lay in their diving arts. They were undefeatable in the water! The Tang Clan’s people tracked down the White Clan, which had begun slipping into Tianning as members of its royal navy, boosting the country’s military might.
Neither the Tang Clan nor Long Feiye had ever heard news of the Black Clan after the fall of the Great Qin Empire. Still, they were secretly searching for information on the sly. The Black Clan had never been loyal or righteous in the past, and had only supported East Qin because they had no alternatives. Because of that, Long Feiye was quite cautious while seeking them out.
“Just the Black and White Clans? In other words, West Qin held popular support!” Gu Qishao chuckled.
“The Shadow, Di, Nether, and Wind Clans were all on the side of the West Qin imperial family, right? The Nether Clan didn’t betray their masters until the very end,” Han Yunxi continued, before adding, “Only the Li Clan had a centrist faction!”
“Poison lass, you know quite a bit!” Gu Qishao grinned.
“So once the Chu Clan’s secret gets out, the Shadow, Di, and Wind Clan’s descendents will definitely go to seek revenge!” Han Yunxi said, supporting her own views.
But Long Feiye just laughed.
“Do you think everyone follows ideal of ‘loyalty?’” he asked.
“The West Qin imperial clan has already died out, but the Shadow Clan, who were loyal to them until death, still exist to this very day. Where is the so-called loyalty of the Seven Noble Families?” Gu Qishao added with a laugh.
Long Feiye didn’t speak. Han Yunxi knew that she’d overestimated both the Seven Noble Families and human nature as a whole.
“Aiya, why are we haggling over all these petty details? Let’s make a bet. See when that old crafty Kang Cheng exposes the Chu Clan!” Gu Qishao suggested, silencing Chu Xifeng and Tang Li before they spoke up. Long Feiye, too, remained silent.
“I’m not betting!” Han Yunxi declared. Chu Xifeng and Tang Li looked at her in simultaneous surprise.
“What?” she looked back.
“Noth…” Chu Xifeng quickly bowed his head again.
“Was I looking at you?” Tang Li snorted coldly before averting his gaze.
Han Yunxi felt that only these two people had problems! As for bets, she would never gamble on such an uncertain thing. That was why she never lost! In spite of it all, the group kept tabs on Emperor Kang Cheng’s movements, the Chu Clan’s various battles, and news of Empress Xue as they journeyed east.
One month later, all of the Chu Clan forces had retreated eastward, while Emperor Kang Cheng still remained mute on the truth of their identity. He transferred nearly all of Western Zhou’s troops to face the Chu Clan, forcing them into successive defeats and withdrawals. How could a single clan, which had yet to spread its wings, hope to contend against the strength of an entire nation?
Although everyone was certain the Chu Clan was going to lose, shocking news came from Western Liang, shaking the entire continent to its core! Empress Chu had tripped in front of Emperor Tianhui’s sickbed, triggering an early labor. Her son was only seven months old in the womb, but still he managed to survive. He was born that night with none the wiser. By next morning, all of Western Liang heard rumors that the entire palace was aglow with a golden, shining light on the night before.
Soon enough, the phrase “a golden aura in the sky, heralding the birth of a sage emperor” began to spread throughout the city. It took only a few more days before the news was all over Tianning Country. Emperor Tianhui had personally witnessed Empress Chu’s fall and the blood resulting from the tumble. He had no doubts that it had triggered her early labor, and was still marveling at the fact that his son survived at all, when the phrase reached his ears. Delighted with its connotations, he promptly named his son Zun (尊), or ‘venerated and respected.’
Although all of his imperial sons pleaded otherwise, some others even risking their lives to advise the emperor that premature babies rarely lived long, Emperor Tianhui was adamant. He was determined to make Chu Qingge’s son the crown prince. Emperor Kang Cheng was holding his morning court assembly when he heard the news, and he promptly leapt his chair. His sudden motion startled all of the gathered officials and ministers into prostrating themselves on the ground.
“A golden aura in the sky heralds the birth of a sage emperor! Could it be…” Emperor Kang Cheng trailed off as he recalled the Thousand Buddha Cave’s abbott and his words of ‘predestination.’
The disappearance of the thousand-year ginkgo tree might have been predestination, but what about the birth of a sage emperor from a Chu Clan daughter? Is Western Zhou going to start its decline with my reign...no, it cannot!
Emperor Kang Cheng shook his head as he lost himself in his thoughts.
“Your Majesty, these are all fallacies spread to deceive the people! As this old subject sees it, that ‘premature son’ must be a fully-grown baby! The Chu Clan has long since gained control of Western Liang, and they’re attempting to further their influence with this farce! Your Majesty, you mustn’t lose your own power and prestige because of their blustering!”
“Your Majesty, forget about the empress and slaughter the Chu Clan’s armies!”
At last, someone had officially brought up the option of discarding the empress. If not for the fact that she was in Chu Clan hands, Emperor Kang Cheng would have been more vicious in his assault against their armies.
“Your Majesty, if you don’t move now, it’ll be too late to protect the three prefectures in the east! If Tianning sends reinforcement troops across the border, we won’t stand a chance!”
“Your Majesty, Emperor Tianhui has many soldiers in his hands. Now they’ll all be under the Chu Clan’s command!”
All of the ministers were admonishing their monarch, but Emperor Kang Cheng simply sat there with a dignified, contemplative expression. He needed more time to think.
Long Feiye’s group wasn’t much surprised by the news.
“A golden aura heralds the birth of a sage emperor! They certainly know how to make things up!” Han Yunxi smiled coldly. She’d seen such tricks recorded in the annals of history. Still, the act was enough to blind people and monarchs alike.
Long Feiye disbelieved it as well, naturally; not only because he knew the truth of induced labor, but because he didn’t believe in auspicious signs in the first place. Meanwhile, Gu Qishao was more concerned with Head Elder Ling, and how long the old man would continue to stay at Western Liang. At the very least, he should still be around when we come knocking!
Soon enough, all of the Chu Clan’s forces congregated at Western Liang. “The Chu Clan seized the three prefectures of Youyun, Fenglin, and Yaoshui on the Western Zhou - Tianning border. Soldiers from Western Zhou soldiers attacked them to the base of their city strongholds, up until the Chu Clan threatened them with the welfare of Empress Xue, thus forcing the conflict into a stalemate! Empress Xue is their collateral!” Tang Li spoke, looking like a scholar in his white robes.
“Emperor Kang Cheng’s going to have a headache now!” Chu Xifeng grinned.
Han Yunxi paused before speaking out loud. “The crown prince is under house arrest, but isn’t the princess going to try and save her mother?”
Duanmu Yao might not be princess of Western Zhou anymore, but she was still part of Celestial Mountain Sword Sect, which had substantial power. Would she be so cruel as to abandon her own mother?
As Long Feiye prepared to answer, another piece of unexpected news reached their ears...
Reuploaded with Edits: 12/12/2020