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  1. #181
    Senior Member S Beaver's Avatar
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    Nangong Xu chuckled at Zhou He’s answer, “Looks like Mr. Yan takes life too seriously. Either that or you love hunting too much. Come now, don’t you do anything other than hunting?”

    Zhou He smiled and shrugged his shoulders, “I need to hunt in order to provide for the family, so there just isn’t much time to do other things. Master Ruan is still young. I assume you have not yet been married and started your own family? You’ll soon realize that the more people you are responsible for, the heavier the weight on your shoulders, and you’ll spend less time and make fewer decisions for yourself.”

    Nangong Xu smiled awkwardly. If he wanted to be lectured, he would have gone to his uncle instead. “Er, well if Mr. Yan enjoys hunting, then I will make sure you join us the next time we go for a hunt. It's getting late. I suppose I should be heading off, too. Perhaps tommorrow, if Mr. Yan feels better, we can wheel you out to the garden for some fresh air. I've grown some pretty rare breeds of flowers here. Perhaps you'll enjoy them."

    ************************************************** *********************

    Over the next few days, Zhou He’s health gradually returned to him. He began to feel more energetic and the pain and aches in his body slowly disappeared. However, due to the fact that he had to lie in bed for such an extended period of time to recuperate his injuries, his body became severely deconditioned and he required to more and exercises to regain his strength. When he was first able to leave the bed, he could barely move between the bed and the chair, even with assistance from the maids. During the first few days, he had to be pushed around in a wheelchair, but eventually, he was able to walk in short distances with assistance.

    Nangong Xu was not joking when he claimed to have a beautiful garden with rare breeds of flowers. Indeed there were plants of shapes and sizes that Zhou He would never have even imagined. He came by everyday to show Zhou He around the garden, giving a detailed explanation for each plant: its history, its ideal environment for growth, its various shapes and sizes, its references in literature, its medicinal uses, etc. In fact, he took so long to describe each plant that it took a week for him to go through the entire garden with Zhou He. Ruan Qianyu also joined them often, though she was noticeably cold towards Nangong Xu during the first few days that Zhou He wondered if the two had gotten into a fight. Though, the fight must have melted away quickly because by the end of the week, they appeared to be back in their usual moods, bickering and joking along.

    Despite Nangong Xu’s seemingly vast botanical knowledge, Zhou He was sure that he was no gardener by trade. He had never seen Nangong Xu actually taking care of the plants. It was the maids who spent time distributing fertilizers and watering the plants. In fact, he had never seen Nangong Xu in the garden outside of the visits to him.

    Zhou He also took notice to his surroundings: large buildings with wide courtyards, along with a vast garden, and surrounded by high walls on all four sides. The architecture was intricately designed and decorated. Surely, this would be a fine manor for even the wealthiest men. Strangely, it appears that no one else lived here besides him and perhaps a few maids. Neither Nangong Xu nor Ruan Qianyu lived here, and only came by to visit for a few hours a day. If this place was designated only for guests, then their family must be extremely wealthy. However, if they were indeed that wealthy, then surely their family would have more guests. However, the only people Zhou He came into contact with were Nangong Xu, Ruan Qianyu, and the maids who took care of them or worked on the garden. Never before had Zhou He felt so isolated from the world. He could only think of one type of place that could boast such wealth, yet also retain such seclusion...
    Last edited by S Beaver; 05-10-12 at 05:25 AM.
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  2. #182
    Senior Member IcyFox's Avatar
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    Pan's Expedition against the State of Feng

    The tiny State of Jin, having submitted to the Kingdom of Pan, had its overlord bestowed with rank and title of the Pan Court, and was allowed to retain autonomy over its lands. Jin duly paid tribute to Pan and allowed the Pan armies to use their cities as bases to launch attacks against other states.

    Pan, after restoring Prince Ying to the throne of Donghai, now turned its attention to the State of Feng. However, the Huangpu River, tributary of the great Yangtze (长江), afforded a natural barrier against invading armies from the north. Moreover, the people of Feng were mostly fishermen, and having led sea-faring lives, were able to muster a strong marine force to meet the Pan troops, many of whom were unfamiliar with naval warfare.

    Due to this, Pan made little gains in Feng despite numerous skirmishes across the river. Hence it was decided that General Wen and General Lu, who had assisted Prince Ying, were to march directly from Shouchun and attack Feng from the west. The 2 generals hurried off with 30,000 crack troops each, with orders to take Xuancheng.

    The Pan troops crossed the river on rafts at a narrow point near Chizhou, and the 2 generals split up, with Gen. Wen marching to attack Xuancheng head-on while Gen. Lu moved to blockade the road to prevent reinforcements from reaching the city.

    Despite their best efforts, the Xuancheng defence was tougher than expected because its strategic location opened the way to the heart of Feng, and the city was well-stocked in supplies had Feng's best veterans. Weeks passed and the city's walls and gates still remained intact. Pan reinforcements trickled in every week via Shouchun to replace the worn troops, and this was quickly draining Pan's recources as well as the King's patience.

    The 2 generals met to discuss the situation, and argued that even though Xuancheng was putting up a stiff resistance, the Feng capital ought to be rattled by the assault on 2 fronts - the marine battle at the north and here in the west - and would panic if Pan suddenly made a dash for Huzhou, the fort overlooking the Taihu Lake on the other side of the Feng capital, Wuxi. This should cause Feng to put pressure on Xuancheng to break out of the siege and come to Huzhou's aid. There the Pan troops would prepare an ambush for the Feng defenders, and victory would be swift thereafter.

    Such a move was risky, of course. If Feng got wind of such a plan, the Pan troops attacking Huzhou could be cut off and destroyed by the garrison from Hangzhou. After weighing the risks, the Pan generals decided to proceed with the plan, and Gen. Lu moved out for Huzhou...

  3. #183
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    A black figure leapt over the wall. The feet had barely touched the ground when he leaps again, into the shadows casted by the trees, buildings and walls. When someone approaches his way, he simply stopped and blended into the shadows. Two hours spent exploring the palace of Jianye, yet no one suspected anything.

    Jueqing smiled under his night mask. Too easy, and he had thought the palace would provide some excitement after seizing Lady Jia in broad daylight just a few days ago. Then again, it probably wasn’t that unpredictable. Most certainly the new King would send out his best to search for Lady Jia. Her escorting brigade was supposed to be part of the best soldiers in Donghai yet they had been overcome so easily. That would surely have ruffled the young King’s feathers, if the prospect of offending Pan weren’t terrible enough.

    He crossed into a brighter section of the palace and a lit room attracted his attention. Awake at this time of the night? Who was it? Certainly not the King... his quarters would have been much more guarded than this.

    Footsteps approached and he quickly ducked behind the wall of the quarters, just on time as palace guards turned in from the corner. Jueqing waited until the palace guards were a distance away before sneaking up to the window, poked a hole and peeped in.

    His eyes narrowed in surprise at the room’s occupant. Her. What was she doing here? Must be up to some mischief, possibly even political trickery. She had always been tricky and it wouldn’t be too farfetched if she had ‘upgraded’ her skill set to political level.

    But the question is, is she still game enough to play with him?

    He turned and crept to the eastern window, where the occupant’s back was facing. He gently opened the windows and slipped in quietly. Shutting the window behind him, he approached his quarry so silently it was almost he wasn’t there.

    Then in a swift moment, he covered her eyes with his hands, just like he always did back then.

    “Guess who I am?”
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  4. #184
    Senior Member IcyFox's Avatar
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    Yue Jiayan started and gasped, but recovered her composure almost instantly. Given that man's skill and audacity, it could be only one person.

    "What do you want?" she asked in a husky voice.

    Jueqing chuckled. "Still the same old Yan'er, I see. You could have the whole world at your feet yet you'd rather live as a peasant girl in this rotten town to carry out some evil scheme."

    She shook free and turned around to glare at him. "Our great nation is destined to gain the Mandate of Heaven, this is just a small sacrifice on my part. We don't meddle with your silly Jianghu affairs, why are you coming here to create trouble?"

    Jueqing replied, "Actually I'm just here on a tour, I didn't even know you were here. But since you said it, I guess I shall now march to the King's chambers and deliver you to him, eh?"

    Jueqing made a gesture to walk out of the room, but she immediately jumped and grabbed him, tackling him onto the floor. Jueqing expected her to do that, but let her have her way.

    He smiled up at her and she suddenly realised that her body was pressed up against his. She blushed while still trying to look angry; on one hand she disdained Jiancheng for its insolence to the Xiwu Court, yet on the other hand she found Jueqing's boldness attractive and even erotic, for he was the only man who dared stand up to her.

    She shoved her face into his and kissed him roughly as they tossed around the floor. Jueqing then picked her up and carried her to the bed. He was about to kiss her again but she pushed him aside, saying, "I thought you were supposed to be having a duel with Lan Tianying, how did you get here anyway?"

    Jueqing put his arms around her and held her bosom, pulling her towards himself before replying.

  5. #185
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    “I’m finished with him.” He replied simply.

    Judging from his very plain answer and not sensing any form of injury on him, Yue Jiayan can only assume that he has won the duel. As usual. He had always been the winner. She had been present on the very day he defeated all the warriors in Xiwu court. It doesn’t matter who her father threw at him – not one of them could match up to him.

    She was no more than a child back then, but she recognised strength when she sees it, and she still remembers the instant attraction to him she felt the moment he struck down the last Xiwu challenger. And the fear in the fact that no one in the Xiwu court could handle him, who was a mere fifteen years old youth at that time.

    As she grew older, she realised what it was all about. It was Jiancheng intimidating the Xiwu court, forcing the court to admit its impotence against Jiancheng. It made her angry, but for some reason she could never be angry at Jueqing, at least not for long as he was always sweet to her. He was the only male who dared play around with her – hugging her and carrying her on his shoulders that she noticed got broader as they grew older.

    Still, there was a lingering bitterness in her - he never ever wrote her a letter in the past six years. She stared right at him, meeting his smile as his hands explored her body.

    “My… you’ve grown so much over the past six years.” Jueqing remarked. When he left the Xiwu palace six years ago, she was a girl whose beauty and physical maturity was just starting to blossom. She’s so different now. No longer just a girl, but a woman.

    And he loves women. Especially women like her.

    He gently kissed her on the lips and pressed down on her on the bed. He reached for her belt and started pulling it off; he wondered if she’d try to kill him for it. The last time he pulled the same stunt on a woman who was as cunning and subtle, that woman very nearly had his neck snapped. But then again, that woman was the Left Emissary of Jiancheng, a highly skilled pugilist who specialised in killing with her bare hands. Jueqing don’t doubt that Yue Jiayan’s skills have improved by leaps and bounds in the past six years, but he’s confident she’s not strong enough to pose the same threat as his Left Emissary did.
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  6. #186
    Senior Member IcyFox's Avatar
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    ...

    The next morning, Yue Jiayan woke to the cheerful chirping of the birds outside, realising that the sheets had been tossed in all directions, and she was amazed that her shoe had flown as far as the candle stand near the door.

    She smiled indulgently at the memory of her wild night with Jueqing, yet sneered at herself for always giving in to his wily charms and seductions. Naturally, he was gone, and without saying a word. She preferred it that way though; in fact she would have kicked him out had he been too clingy.

    Now that the party was over, it was back to work. She would be returning to Xiwu soon...

  7. #187
    Senior Member S Beaver's Avatar
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    Changsha

    The road between Chengdu and Changsha is a long and tedious one. The difficulty lies not within the lengthy distance of over a thousand miles, but rather the dozens of rugged mountain ranges that lie between the two cities. Some roads are so narrow and steep that only one person is allowed to walk across at a time. Other times, there were not even pathways to travel across. Furthermore, mountain bandits crouch upon every corner, hoping to feast on daring travelers.

    It took Mi Xiu more than half a month to complete the trip to Chengdu and back, but at least he was able to return unscathed. Though, he wondered whether it would have been better to be kidnapped by bandits as opposed to reporting the news of Xiwu’s rejection of Princess Biran’s marriage proposal in front of the Nanxi court. It didn’t help that Prince Rui was also present in the court this morning, as he and his daughter had just arrived in Changsha a few days ago for the ceremony of Nangong Biran to officially receive the title of “Royal Princess”.

    At least one couldn’t kill with one’s eyes, otherwise Prince Rui would have already sliced Mi Xiu into a thousand pieces. But even if he could not physically deliver punishment to Mi Xiu, he was not about to let Mi Xiu off the hook easily. He stepped forward and addressed King Nangong Xu, “Your Royal Highness, Mi Xiu’s careless proposal had in turn brought shame upon not just the Nangong Clan, but the entire Kingdom of Nanxi. The magnitude of such a crime is equivalent to treason and should be punished accordingly.”

    Nangong Xu smiled uneasily at Prince Rui’s request. The punishment for treason is death penalty to the entire clan. The Mi Clan is prominent in the local area and in politics. Killing all of them, or even just Mi Xiu, would surely cause a certain amount of unrest within the internal politics.

    Chancellor Ruan Xichou quickly stepped in, “Your Royal Highness, although Minister Mi is guilty for bringing shame to Nanxi, his intentions for the proposal were for the benefit of Nanxi and not of treasonous nature. Therefore, Minister Mi is not guilty of treason but instead guilty of carelessness. However, when he originally stated his proposal, no one on this court had made any objections to the proposal. Therefore, everyone who was present at court on that day, including myself, is also guilty of carelessness and should be punished accordingly.”

    As if on cue, nearly all of the officials kneeled over and bowed, “Your Royal Highness, please order our punishment accordingly.”

    Prince Rui scoffed at the scene, “Chancellor Ruan would not feel the same pain. He is not part of the Nangong Clan. Your Royal Highness, regardless of Mi Xiu’s intentions, his actions brought shame on to the Nangong Clan and should not be let off lightly!”

    Before Nangong Xu could reply, Chancellor Ruan cut in, “I may not be part of the Nangong Clan, but I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Nanxi. Any misfortune to Nanxi brings me more pain than misfortune to my own clan. However, no matter how much pain I feel, my faults cannot be wiped away. I did not bring up any objections to Minister Mi’s proposal and therefore, I am also at fault for his carelessness and his failure. If I have made a mistake, then I will take responsibility for it.” The intentions behind Chancellor Ruan’s statement were clear. At the time of the initial proposal, Prince Rui did not make any objections either.

    “So you are saying it’s my fault that shame was brought on to my daughter?!” Prince Rui’s face turned pinker by the second.

    “Royal Uncle, please calm down,” Nangong Xu finally spoke up. “Please do not take Chancellor Ruan’s words out of context. I’m sure he does not mean it that way.”

    “But, Your Royal Highness, he—“ Prince Rui began to protest, but paused as he saw King Nangong Xu motion for him to quiet down.

    Nangong Xu continued, “Punishment will still have to be delivered, but death is never a pretty sight. How about this, for all of those who wanted to be punished for not bringing up objections to Minister Mi’s proposal, half a month of salary will be cut. Since Chancellor Ruan wants to take primary responsibility, one entire month’s salary will be cut. Minister Mi is still the initiator of the proposal. His official rank will be lowered by one and he will have three months of salary deducted. Any objections?”

    Chancellor Ruan bowed to accept his punishment. The other officials quickly followed suit to accept their punishment. Though not all were happy about losing salary, the King has spoken.

    “Well, Royal Uncle, what do you think? Should I add more penalties for them?”

    Prince Rui stayed silent. Although he did not voice any approval, he also did not state any condemnation. The King has already decided to punish everyone related to the incident. He could no longer target Mi Xiu alone.

    Nangong Xu smiled. He was willing to take Prince Rui’s silence as a signal for consent. “Of course, the person most affect by all of this is Princess Biran. She will still receive the rank of Royal Princess. It is the Xiwu Prince’s loss to not have her as bride, not our loss. I’m actually glad Xiwu didn’t take our offer as I am now a bit reluctant to let her go away to such a far away land. Wouldn’t you all agree?”

    The officials all looked to each other and then towards Prince Rui, who still remained silent. Once the officials were sure that Prince Rui was not going to speak in disapproval, they quickly muttered in agreement.

    **********************************************

    It wasn’t until after the morning court had finished that Prince Rui spoke again. After all the other officials had exited the hall, Nangong Xu approached Prince Rui in private. “Royal Uncle, what are your plans after today?”

    Prince Rui rolled his eyes, “Since, there is no reason for me to stay Changsha anymore. I will return to Guilin immediately.”

    “Come now, Royal Uncle, I know you are still angry about what happened, but must you leave so abruptly? I haven’t seen you and Sister Biran for more than a decade and it would be a shame for you to leave so quickly.”

    “If Your Royal Highness wants to see us more often, then you can call us forth later. There’s no need for me to stay in Changsha while I am the laughing stock of the entire city and kingdom.”

    “Royal Uncle, if anyone dares to laugh at you or Sister Biran, I will behead them for you. In a month or so, it will be the Duanwu Festival and Lake Dongting will be a splendid sight to see. Even if Royal Uncle is not interested, I’m sure Sister Biran will enjoy the scenery. Hopefully, it will also lighten her mood, as I am sure she won’t be too pleased with the recent events either.”

    Prince Rui replied coldly, “I really don’t think it is necessary for Your Royal Highness to go through the hassle to do all that for her. She will get over it in time.”

    “But I insist. I don’t want her to think that I am a heartless person. Here in Changsha, there are many beautiful places that I would like her to see and fun people that I would like her to meet. I am sure she would enjoy them.”

    “Fine. Whatever Your Royal Highness says, I will follow then,” Prince Rui sighed in exasperation. It seems that Nangong Xu was intent on keeping them in Changsha and would not quit no matter what excuse was given.
    Last edited by S Beaver; 06-18-12 at 11:22 PM.
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  8. #188
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    Continued from post #186

    Yushen leaned against a tree, her legs stretched out straight, and her sword resting on her chest beneath her folded arms.

    Jueqing had been gone for two nights and she had faithfully waited for him where he said he would meet up with her. As she waited for her master, she wondered if Jiancheng was fine.

    Jiancheng never had to deal with a missing Lord, especially when one of the two Emissaries was not around. With both Jueqing and Xingye gone for extended periods of time, the power balance is most likely to shift… if it hadn’t already happened. She was a little apprehensive of Jueqing and her future return to Jiancheng. What kind of Jiancheng would they be returning to? More than that, she was worried about her mother Xingye.

    Yushen didn’t know all the details since she was only promoted to Jueqing’s sword carrier shortly after Xingye left for a long-term mission at the north. Her departure was so sudden Yushen did not even get to say goodbye or see her off. It had been a year since… they had not met for the past one year and had not exchanged even a word for at least two years. Yushen did not even know if the mission at Liangzhou is going on well.

    She sighed.

    // Stop worrying about her. You don’t need to worry about her. She’s always been perfectly fine being all alone. She didn’t need anyone… never needed anyone. How can such a person not be okay? //

    “A penny for your thoughts?”

    Yushen looked up with a start, the Zixia Sword already half pulled out but relaxed when she saw who it was. “My Lord!”

    It was Jueqing and he smiled at Yushen as he towered over her.

    “You look troubled,” Jueqing commented. He extended his hand to her but she hesitated.

    “Come on now. What are you shy about? We used to hold hands and hug a lot, didn’t we?” Jueqing grinned.

    “That’s… that’s when I was a child!” Yushen blushed. She took Jueqing’s hand and immediately felt herself lifted up. “Which wasn’t so long ago,” Jueqing smiled and Yushen felt her cheeks burning hotter.

    Her memories of childhood had two primary figures – Xingye and Jueqing. Xingye was often busy with Jiancheng business and had little time for Yushen, and during those times, it was always Jueqing who took care of her, even playing with her. She was sad when Jueqing left for the Xiwu court, and by the time he returned he became the Lord and the distance between them drifted further apart.

    “Where’s that lady?”

    The question jolted Yushen back to reality. No matter what, he was no longer the Jueqing she knew and she too, had become a different person. He was just teasing her… just like how he loved to tease the other women in Jiancheng. No difference between them.

    “I did as you instructed,” she replied stoically.

    “Good.”

    Jueqing turned and started to walk away.

    “My Lord… where are we going next?” She asked meekly. // You’ve had enough fun in Donghai, right? Perhaps our next stop will be Liangzhou? //

    “Oh… I don't know. Maybe I will stick around Donghai a little bit longer,” came the reply.

    Yushen felt her heart drop.

    // What? Still? Why are we spending so much time wandering around this heaven forsaken land?! Why did we even leave Jiancheng in the first place? Do you have any idea what you are doing?? //

    Yushen took a deep breath and pushed all those thoughts out of her mind. No. She can’t think like this. She must trust the Lord and his decisions.

    But Jueqing already sensed her feelings and he couldn’t help the smile from breaking on his face.

    “I’m just trying to give it a little more time. Don’t worry, Yushen. Our travels will be over soon.” He assured.

    Yushen looked up at him and nodded. So he has agreed to end their travels soon, but something about the way he worded it made her feel uneasy.

    // Maybe I’m just oversensitive… //
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  9. #189
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    King Pan glared at his officials angrily, but most of his fury was directed at the shaking Donghai envoy who was standing in his court. When the messenger first delivered the news that Donghai could not deliver Lady Jia because she had passed away from an illness mid-route, he immediately knew something was up.

    Interim reports found that Lady Jia was indeed dead, and Donghai had even held her funeral. However, a little persistent digging revealed that Lady Jia had not passed away, but had in fact, ‘disappeared’.

    “Well, if King Ying is so stingy that he didn’t want to give me a woman, just say so! Why go to this length to lie and cheat?! Taking me as a fool?!” King Pan slammed his palm on the table so hard the atmosphere vibrated and all the officials flinched.

    “With all due respect, Your Highness…” the Donghai envoy began but was sharply interrupted by King Pan.

    “Silence, you imbecile! I know what your King is up to! On the surface he acts all friendly to me, but at the back he stabs me! Now he’s even copying me by proposing a marriage alliance with Xiwu. Does he think that changes anything, huh?! He must be a fool if he thinks so!”

    The Donghai envoy trembled, unable to say a word.

    “And how goes the war with Xiang?! If there is no further progress since the last time, I swear, heads will roll!” King Pan roared.

    At that threat, the Minister of War hurried out.

    “Your Highness, your lowly subject is about to report…”

    “Well?!” King Pan barked.

    “All is going extremely well! Following Bing, Yizhou has also fallen to our great army!”

    “Congratulations, Your Highness!” the Ministers said in unison.

    Upon hearing the good news and the congratulations, King Pan’s anger faded and he finally smiled.

    “Good. Finally a good piece of news. Those Xiang buggers should just surrender… they should know they have no chance against me.” King Pan scoffed.

    He peered at the Donghai envoy and sneered. “And because I’m now in a good mood, your punishment shall be minimised. Men! Throw him into the cell!”

    “Huh?! Wait… Your Highness…!” the Donghai envoy was alarmed. Guards came in and dragged him away, ignoring his pleas and protests as the Pan ministers watched on with disturbed expressions.

    “Well, court dismissed!” King Pan shouted as he stood up and left.
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  10. #190
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    Huo Yuan couldn’t sleep. Try as he might, he could not forget Xiangfeng’s fate and the look on her face when she turned him away. Determined but sorrowful. How hard must it be for her to choose the path she did?

    // No, I must not think of such things. I must only think of how I can help Master Wu and Donghai. This is for the peace of the land and for Xiang. //

    He stood up, picked up his spear and went to a quiet spot where he could practice his skills.

    Huo Yuan trained hard, putting all his anger, frustrations and anxiety into his spear as he put whatever Wu Haocun had taught him so far into use. He did not notice it but his spearsmanship, which was originally already excellent, become faster and more powerful.

    When he finally stopped, his body was burning hot in perspiration, his throat parched dry and his muscles sore. He begins to walk to the location of the stream where the party had passed by earlier in the day.

    As he walked on, he heard a soft splattering sound. Curious and alert, he tensed and approached the sound quietly. When he got closer, he was surprised to see the person causing the sound.

    It was Xingye, and she was pouring a bottle of water onto the earth. He couldn’t understand what she was doing… her action and at this hour of the night. What’s more, the usual gentle smile was not present on her face. Instead, her expression was solemn. As the last drip of water fell onto the earth, Huo Yuan stepped forward.

    “Madam... Are you all right?”

    Xingye turned to look at Huo Yuan, unsurprised to see him as though she already knew he was there.

    “Yes, Master Huo. I am all right. Thank you for the concern,” she replied with a faint smile that made Huo Yuan feel somewhat relieved. Perhaps nothing was wrong after all. I must have been oversensitive after the hard work, he thought.

    But Huo Yuan was still curious about Xingye’s action, particularly now that he noticed there were another similar bamboo bottle lying opened beside her feet.

    “Madam… can I ask something?”

    “Hmm?”

    Huo Yuan looked at the slim bamboo bottle at her feet and she understood immediately.

    “It’s rice wine.“

    “Rice wine? Why does Madam pour out the rice wine?”

    “Master Huo, do you know where this place is?” Xingye asked in return.

    Huo Yuan shook his head. He had never been here before. This was part of Donghai, but still borders Pan.

    “This place is Sifangyuan (四方原).”

    Huo Yuan recognised the name. Who wouldn’t? As a member of a military family, he would be ashamed if he didn’t know Sifangyuan.

    Thirty years ago, the Xiwu army joined forces with the then Qi Kingdom to launch an attack at Pan.

    Pan initially with the assistance of its longtime ally Xiang was already locked in a long and difficult battle with Qi. With Xiwu joining the fray, the allied forces of Pan and Xiang found themselves overwhelmed and rapidly losing ground. Pan then requested help from their strong neighbour – Donghai.

    Once Donghai joined the war, the tables turned almost instantly. Sifangyuan was the place where the joint forces of both sides met for the decisive battle that would decide the final victor of the war. The allied forces of Pan, Xiang and Donghai won, but it was a bloody battle that took countless lives that the earth was said to have turned red and the skies dark from the vultures that fed upon the dead.

    The war crippled Qi Kingdom, but Xiwu despite losing their King, wasted little no time in betraying their former ally by absorbing Jingzhou, effectively ending Qi Kingdom’s existence. But Xiwu did not enjoy their new lands for long, as Donghai troops took Xiwu troops by surprise and drove them out of Jingzhou. From then on, Jingzhou had been part of Donghai.

    Huo Yuan never imagined he could be at the almost legendary Sifangyuan. The mere thought of how thousands died here sent chills down his spine. The place must look very different back then from the current lush glades.

    “So this is Sifangyuan. I’ve often heard about it and the fierce battles that took place here,” Huo Yuan said quietly. His father had been part of the Xiang troops that were fighting on the frontlines alongside Pan and Donghai.

    Xingye nodded. It was then it occurred to Huo Yuan. He wasn’t born back then but Xingye and Wu Haocun were. They must remember how the war was like. Then the rice wine must be for…

    “It’s an offering… to the dead?” Huo Yuan asked.

    Xingye turned away, saying nothing as she closed the bamboo bottle with a stopper.

    “For the dead Xiwu soldiers?”

    Xingye looked at Huo Yuan. “… No, for those who were dead. They sacrificed their lives for what they believed in and deserved respect for that. It’d be a little too sad if they are still judged by the state which they served when they are already dead.”

    “But enemies are enemies, isn’t it?” Huo Yuan questioned. He was unable to think of Xiwu soldiers as the same as others, especially those of Xiang. He had always thought of Xiwu as the enemy. It was hard to think otherwise.

    “If you take away the states, they’d just be people like you and I. Normal average folks who’d be working hard to feed their families, fathers who’d rather spend time with their wives and children than to be at war. Who’d want to live a life filled with bloodshed and constant threat of death if they had the choice?”

    “I see,” Huo Yuan nodded, unable to disagree with her. Soldiers like him were conditioned to think of soldiers from enemy states as nothing more than military-trained thieves and bandits. They never had to stop to think that those soldiers were just like them – they had families and friends, and had people who loved and cared for them as well. As he stopped to think, yes… if he had the choice, he’d rather live in peace and quietness. Maybe he still had the choice, but it was hard to ignore the danger his country and his fellow countrysmen were facing.

    // I see… so this is what Madam Xingye was speaking of… we are only acting as we are right now because we are disunited by the idea of states… // Huo Yuan thought, impressed with Xingye’s intelligence and kindness that transcends beyond states. So this was why Wu Haocun thought so favourably of her despite her being from Xiwu.

    “You are so kind, Madam Xingye,” Huo Yuan said. He remembered what Xue Qian said about Jiancheng. The man must be misinformed and biased. How could someone as kind and sweet as Xingye be as evil as Xue Qian described all Jiancheng members to be? Then again, his claim that all Jiancheng people being evil was too exaggerated to be believed.

    “Kind?” Xingye looked at Huo Yuan, with an almost amused expression.

    “Yes, you are very kind, Madam Xingye, to think of even others and the dead,” Huo Yuan said earnestly. As he looked at her, he felt a growing affection for the older woman. She reminded him of the motherly warmth he had lost as a young child. If his mother was still alive, she would probably have the same kind and motherly feeling as Xingye.

    “Master Huo, do you know there are two types of kind people in this world?”

    “Huh?” Huo Yuan was confused by the question that came out of the blue. “Two types of kind people? What are they?”

    Xingye smiles mysteriously. “Well, I will leave that for you to figure out. You are welcome to share your answer with me once you figured it out.” She picked up the remaining bamboo bottle from the ground and slotted in the stopper.

    “I shall not be in your way any further, Master Huo, if you’d excuse me.”

    “Oh! It’s dangerous for you to go back alone so late. Let me escort you,” Huo Yuan offered.

    “It’s all right, Master Huo. There is no danger here, do not worry,” Xingye reassured.

    “I insist. If anything happens, not only will I not be able to explain myself to Master Wu, I will also not be able to forgive myself,” Huo Yuan persisted.

    Xingye smiles and nodded. “… Thank you for the trouble then.”

    “No problem,” Huo Yuan smiles.
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  11. #191
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    “I’m not listening! I want to go back to Guilin! I WILL go back to Guilin now!”

    “Wait… Biran!”

    Doors were slammed and the palace servants dared not intervene when Princess Biran rushed past them and out of the chambers where her father Prince Rui and her were accommodated.

    So the proposed marriage to Xiwu’s Prince of the Golden Spring was rejected. Now the whole of Nanxi… no, the whole world knows about this. How is she supposed to face anyone now that she’s become a laughingstock, a rejected good?

    Allowing her to keep the title of Royal Princess? Wasn’t that just a convenient move so that they can continue looking for new targets to marry her off to?

    “Those hypocrites! None of them cares about me…” Princess Biran wept as she ran as fast as she could. She ran until she could no longer run and stopped to catch her breath.

    “Hhhh…” she panted as she observed the place. She had not watched where she was running to, and she had run to some part of the palace she did not know.

    She thought of her father, and felt sorry she had threw such a bad tantrum at him. How could she even think that he didn’t care about her? He fought the hardest against the suggestion of the marriage.

    “I… I have to apologise…” Biran mumbled. However, not watching her step, her foot caught on a crack in the pavement and she fell. The moment she heard a soft crack, she knew she was in big trouble.

    “Ahhh!”

    **********

    Zhou He was resting in the small courtyard, enjoying the sun when he heard a cry from behind the wall.

    A series of sobs followed.

    “Who’s there?” He asked.

    “What? Is there someone? Please help me. I think I broke my foot,” a woman’s voice said pleadingly.

    “All right. Please hold on,” Zhou He said. It may be rude to his hosts to venture outside his chambers without their permission (seeing their secretive intentions), but this woman does sounds like she’s in serious trouble.

    For the first time, Zhou He walked out of the arch of his courtyard and turned around the corner. Seeing the sobbing young woman sitting on the floor, he went over and went down on a knee.

    “My lady, what happened?” He asked gently.

    “I told you! I broke my foot!” Biran sobbed.

    “Ah.”

    Then quite suddenly, she felt his hands on her foot.

    “Wha… what?!” Biran was alarmed. How could a stranger man touch her like this? As if the marriage proposal fiasco wasn’t enough, if words get out that a male stranger had touched her…

    However, she forgot all her concerns the moment she set eyes on him. She had never seen such a handsome man before. His expression was gentle and his eyes bore strength.

    As she stared at Zhou He, she did not even notice him pushing her foot into position.

    He looked up and smiled at her. “There you go.”

    “Huh?”

    Confused, Biran looked down at her foot and discovered in surprise that it no longer hurts and she can even move it! Carefully, she pushed herself up from the floor… and she could stand perfectly well, even if her foot still felt a little numb.

    “Wow… wow…! How…” Biran was impressed.

    “Don’t worry, my lady… your foot wasn’t broken. There was only a slight dislocation and it’s been fixed. You should not have any problems walking now. Of course… you should still be careful so that it won’t dislocate again.” Zhou He explained patiently.

    “Uhh…” Biran was speechless.

    “Since my Lady is all right, I shall take my leave.” Zhou He bowed respectfully as he turned and walked away.

    Biran tried to call out to him but for some reason the words were stuck in her throat and she could only watch him leave.

    “Who are you…?” She uttered.
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