The story continues at a break-neck pace with even more unexpected turns and I think you will like the developments. For readers who like “Pursuit of a Murderer”, rest assured that I have not forgotten it and will put up a new chapter in my next post. It is just that the plot of a “Straight Road” has reached its boiling point and I thought to settle the most intense part of the story at one go, before anyone falls of the “cliffs” as in cliffhanger of the past few posts. If the book was interesting up to now, the past few chapters are simply intriguing and I can’t wait to get to the last page!
As Yun Qing runs off, Zhao Zi Huan shouts at his retreating back. “Yun Qing! Come back you idiot! Since when have you managed to win Jiang Jiu in a sword fight! If you have not realized it, he has been giving in to you all along! Come back!”
When he did not turn back, Zhao Zi Huan gets angry at the hopelessness of the situation. “Zhou Wen Cheng is a scum! How dare he turn his greedy eyes on Xu Zhi after his father has killed so many Xi Xuan nobles! Is he trying to uproot our core now? Xu Zhi, rest assured that our family will stand behind you. And you guys, what are you waiting for? Hop on in or are you waiting to die?”
Back at the ceremonial stage, Zhou Wen Wu is busy warding off a never-ending stream of guards. It is too bad that Jiang Jiu managed to slip away just now but at this moment, he can only focus on keeping alive. He has sustained substantial injuries on his back and chest and knowing that the situation is disadvantageous to him if it drags, he nends to conclude this fight swiftly.
He darts his eyes to where Zhou Wen Cheng is standing and swirls his sword in rapid circles as he clears a path to his target. When he is near enough, he reaches out a hand to grab Zhou Wen Cheng’s collar and pin his sword to his neck. With him as hostage, the guards have no choice but to back off temporarily.
Zhou Wen Wu has not told Xu Zhi that when he woke up from the influence of the bell, his heart has felt like a lump of ice in his chest as if it has just experienced abject terror. If his suspicion is correct, someone must have told him that he has lost something of upmost importance to him when he is under the spell, and if so, what would be the thing that Zhou Wen Cheng fears most, that will jolt him out of the spell?
“Zhou Wen Cheng, Zhou Wen Wu has usurp your throne!”
“Zhou Wen Cheng, you are never meant to be the Crown Prince! You are not a righteous man and everyone has been hoodwinked! But we have all seen your cruel nature now and know that Yuan Tu is a liar! You are not a righteous king and never will be!”
As Zhou Wen Cheng continues to look blank, Zhou Wen Wu shakes him in frustration. “She is Xu Zhi, you bastard! Xi Xuan Xu Zhi! Are you trying to destroy what is left of Xi Xuan? You want to see our country go down in ruins? Are you trying to give Wei an excuse to send their army to attack Xi Xuan?”
<Note from Moonblossom: A Scholar during Xu Zhi’s era gives the title bearer international citizenship which means that all nations have a claim to her. Besides Xu Zhi is the sister of the Empress of Wei and Wei would have a legitimate reason to revenge her death if she dies. Furthermore, the Emperor and Empress jointly rule the country in Wei and it will be a simple matter for Xu Da to order an attack.>
The light slowly comes back into Zhou Wen Cheng eyes as his heart fills with dread. He cannot recall a thing of what just happened and all he sees now is an untidy, bloodied man next to him, jerking his shoulder with one hand while welding a sword in the other. Blood is dripping onto the sword… where did the blood come from?
“Ah Wu….” He flexed his muscles experimentally but there is no sensation of pain except for the ache in his chest. So Zhou Wen Wu is not here to kill him? “What excuse for Wei to send their army? Xu Zhi?”
Spinning around, he sees his courtiers on their knees and the royal guards around him. There are blood on the guards’ swords and bodies on the floor. What happened?
Who killed his guards and why? If Zhou Wen Wu is trying to kill him, why is he unharmed? Is he not the target? While he is still figuring out the possibilities, Zhou Wen Wu shouts into his ear. “You are finally awake? Issue a decree! Take back your order to kill Xu Zhi! She is being persecuted at this very moment and her life is in danger!”
Zhou Wen Cheng turns unbelievingly to the kneeling courtiers. “Is what he said true?”
The kneeling courtiers answer in chorus. “Yes, Your Majesty. You have indeed ordered Xu Zhi to be killed.”
“And no one tried to stop me?!”
One official bravely steps forward. “It is an Imperial decree and your loyal subjects dare not disobey. But we beseech Your Majesty to reconsider your order.”
Zhou Wen Cheng is incensed by their blind loyalty. “Pull pack! All soldiers are to pull back! If anyone dares to kill Xu Zhi, I’ll take his head in exchange! Xu Zhi, where are you? Everyone, help to search for her. If you find her hiding, tell her that it is safe to come out now and not to fear, everything is alright now.”
The official sighs. “Xu Zhi has escaped just now. But your order has also spread and Ting Wei has led his men to apprehend her. By now, he should have started a house-by-house search in the city.”
Zhou Wen Cheng freezes at the news and trembles at the thought that he may be too late. “Quick! Quick! Men, go and stop Ting Wei!” Both he and his late father have intentionally created a wedge between Ting Wei and Xu Zhi to prevent them from colluding. But never in their wildest dream did they imagine that a totally loyal Ting Wei could bring down the Royal Family.
Xu Zhi can die of old age or from illness, but not by his decree as it will create an uproar among the other nations! Besides he wants the glory she can bring to Xi Xuan, just that he needs a counter-force to curb her influence.
A shadow crosses his path and he sees some guards trying to block Zhou Wen Wu from leaving. Looking at his uninjured hands, he looks at his guards and waves his hand to indicate to them that they can let him go.
In a carriage rushing towards the city gates, Zhao Zi Huan is nearly “stabbed” to death many times over. Xu Zhi’s maid has helped to bandage her back but it should be hurting her as every time the carriage hits a bump, Xu Zhi would dig her sharp nails into his shoulder. Had his body been less sturdy, it would have been full of holes by now.
And her maid is also a weird creature. Why is she cradling Xu Zhi’s head instead of her back? He hears her reassurance to Xu Zhi that she will be fine and secretly hopes that the same can apply to him as well. When their carriage hits another bump and Xu Zhi digs her nails in his shoulders once more, Jiu Xing sees his wince and gently transfers her hand to his shoulder. “Da Gu Niang, if you are in pain, you can grab me instead.”
“Yes, I am Ah Jiu.”
“Where is Ah Wu?”
“Master Zhou will be here shortly. Da Gu Niang can tell me what you need and I will get it done for you.”
“What I want tell to him can wait until I see him in person.”
Jiu Xing dares not mention that the likelihood of ever seeing him again is extremely slim, but he is prevented from answering as the carriage pulls to a halt and their driver whispers to them. “Master, there is a contingent of guards at the City Gate.”
Bai Hua sticks her head out for a quick peep and draws her head back. “It is Ting Wei! And he seems to have spotted me! What do we do now? What do we do?”
Jiu Xing trembles but tries to assure her. “Don’t worry, I have an idea. Bai Hua, can you leave with me? We can try to distract him while Master Zhao makes a dash out of the City Gate with Da Gu Niang.”
Although Zhao Zi Huan is ten times unwilling to take part in such a foolish act, the loyalty of Jiu Xing and Bai Hua is infectious and he finds himself agreeing. Before they can do anything though, Xu Zhi speaks up. “His Majesty is under a spell now and when he wakes up, he will surely regret his actions today. If I am not around when that time comes, you can use his remorse to ask for some favours. Tell hm that Tong Mo is supposed to be buried with Zai Lin, but since I cannot bear to let her go after she has served me for so long. Tell His Majesty to bury her with me so that she can continue to serve me even in the after life.”
“As for Ah Jiu, there are still some Jiang family members around but if they are not around to collect his body, ask His Majesty to bury his body in my tomb too. For Ah Wu, I have promised to let him be buried in Xi Xuan, so that he can be reborn as a Xi Xuan man in his next life. If His Majesty objects, remind him that Ah Wu has been given to me, and mine he shall remain for this life and next, even if he can only be a man from my harem.”
“What about me, Da Gu Niang, what about me?”
“As for you Bai Hua, you are terrible at crosswords but I will give you one more chance to use your brains so listen carefully. Once I am gone, you must ensure that a copy of all my books is delivered into my grave. If no one contacts you before my burial date, you must find a way to arrange for substitute body to be buried in my tomb and hide my real body away. I have promised Ah Wu that I shall not be buried in Xi Xuan, so you shall leave with the Tu Yue Troupe and find a convenient place to bury me once you are out of Xi Xuan.”
“As for Jiu Xing, he still has family in the Capital so he shall remain here. Xu Da will send someone to contact you and when that day comes, just tell them truthfully for what they want to know. Xu Da is a perceptive woman and will know how to take things from there.”
“Da Gu Niang, why are you telling me all this!”
“Well, I am definitely in no shape to go on a long journey and looking at things, I see no need to drag you people with me.”
“Wait a minute,” exclaims Zhao Zi Huan. “You are Xi Xuan’s most famous daughter. If you are not buried in Xi Xuan, you will not be born in Xi Xuan in your next life!”
“Even if I am not reborn into Xi Xuan, will it mean that I will no longer be myself?” Xu Zhi gives him a small smile. “Alright, time to get off the carriage. Bai Hua, help me.”
When Bai Hua refuses to help, Xu Zhi mutters impatiently and tries to alight by herself. Her headache chooses that moment to strike and she is rendered immobile. By the time she recovers, they hear a voice outside. “Is this the Zhao family carriage? Is the person inside Zhao Zi Huan?”
Zhao Zi Huan is in awe of the stern man and has a habit of avoiding him whenever possible they cross paths. Such close contact is extremely scary and he forces himself to sound natural. “Yes, it is me. I am on my way out of the city. Is something wrong?”
“Leave the city? His Majesty has ordered to apprehend and kill Xu Zhi on the spot and we are searching for her. Have you seen her?” A hand appears through the curtain as Ting Wei sticks his hand in.
The hand moves unerringly towards Xu Zhi and to everyone else’s surprise, it gently soothe her pale face that is beading with perspiration. Before Ting Wei retracts his hand, he catches her hand and writes a word on her palm with his finger. From his angle, Jiu Xing can see that he is writing the word “活” (stay alive).
Ting Wei retracts his hand and continues to interrogate Zhao Zi Huan from outside the carriage. After a while, he proclaims that the person inside the carriage is indeed Zhao Zi Huan and lets the carriage through the gate.
The moment they left the city, Zhao Zi Huan remembers Ting Wei’s parting remark that they should travel along the main road and hesitates if they should follow his instruction. Xu Zhi has more faith and gets them to travel along the main road. “Stop after we have gone a fair distance and we will wait for Ah Jiu to catch up. If Ting Wei is able to make it to the City Gate in such a short time, perhaps, perhaps….”
“No way!” Zhao Zi Huan exclaims. “Ting Wei may have let us go just now, but who knows if he is just putting up an act? He is so loyal to His Majesty, there is no reason why….”
“Zai Lin is not my first personal attendant.”
Her statement catches Zhao Zi Huan by surprise and he tries to recollect some old history. Xu Zhi may look like his age which is why he forgets that she is actually a near decade older than him. For as long as he can remember, her first personal attendant is called Li Zai Lin. But if he thinks back a little further…
He swallows uncomfortably that the man he holds in such high esteem has also served as Xu Zhi’s man.
The sound of an approaching rider makes everyone uneasy as they wonder if the newcomer is a friend of foe. Zhao Zi Huan cannot see the face of the newcomer clearly as most of his face is covered in a bushy beard. When no one reacts and let him approach, he mutters unnecessarily. “Uh, is he one of us?”
The rider paid him no heed and looks at Xu Zhi for a good long while before reaching out a hand to cup the back of her head and carries her carefully out of the carriage.
“Hello Zai Lin, you are back.”
“Da Gu Niang, I just know that I cannot keep it from you. Some time ago, I received a message from Jiang Jiu that you will be leaving Xi Xuan today to seek treatment and I have arranged with him to meet you guys once you have left the City Gate. However, I heard rumors that Ting Wei has arranged for some performing troupe to meet with you along the main road outside the gate and I guessed that there must have been some change in plans. Da Gu Niang, does your head hurt?”
When she mutters an acknowledgement, he continues. “Do not worry Da Gu Niang, you will get better. After years of searching, I have finally found Sun Shi Yang and brought him to you.”
They stop as they hear the sounds of another approaching rider but the new comer is riding very fast and before they can see the person clearly, a man has hopped off the horse and strides over. “Xu Zhi, why do you need to be carried? Are you hurt or are you having another headache?”
“Ah Wu, so you are alive.”
He strides up to her and unmindful of the rusty smell of blood on him, he interlaces his fingers tightly with her cold ones. “Xu Zhi, if you think you can dump me aside, you can stop dreaming!”
Xu Zhi gives him a look over and notices several deep cuts on his shoulder, chest and abdomen. 3 of them are so deep that she can see his bone and must have hurt like hell. Bai Hua is worried that his grip will cause pain to Xu Zhi and tugs at his hand to let go. “Da Gu Niang, now that Zhou Wen Wu is here, I am sure Jiang Jiu…..”
Zhou Wen Wu shoots her a look that clearly says ‘shut up!’ and she choke back her tears at the impossibility of it. “Da Gu Niang, you mentioned that you have something tell Master Zhou when he shows up?”
Xu Zhi gives an “Oh…” and looks with him. “Zhou Wen Wu. My head is splitting. It really, really hurts and I am afraid I cannot take it anymore.”
Ohhhh, so many things, where to start? (1) So, her so-call #1 enemy in court used to be her servant. Ting Wei is obviously still loyal to her, just like Tong Mo and Zhi Jin Wu so they are all nice people afterall. They are not pretending to be nice to her while selling her out to the Royal family. (2) Zai Lin is not dead? And where did he find Sun Shi Yang when he is a man from a different era who has died? (3) Xu Zhi has changed. She may be reacting to Zhou Wen Wu’s request that she must speak up if she is in pain, but her way of sassing is so… nerdy! Cute, but nerdy.
I bet Zhou Wen Wu must be happy like a lark that she is willing to tell him her pain when she does not share the burden with any other. And I’m so glad that Zhou Wen Wu survived the fight. Hopefully, with Ting Wei helping them secretly and with them out of the city, they will be safe from henceforth.
If she does not die from her headache first, that is.
Just a Straight Road – Part 17
Just a Straight Road – Part 16
Just a Straight Road – Part 15
Just a Straight Road – Part 14
Just a Stright Road – Part 13
Just a Straight Road – Part 12
Just a Straight Road – Part 11
Just a Straight Road – Part 10
Just a Straight Road – Part 9
Just a Straight Road – Part 8
Just a Straight Road – Part 7
Just a Straight Road – Part 6
Just a Straight Road – Part 5
Just a Straight Road – Part 4
Just a Straight Road –Part 3
Just a Straight Road –Part 2
Just a Straight Road – Part 1