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High above the tower, the jade bell and the sparrows begin their dance. Adorned with an imperial seal, the golden instrument rings at dusk and thus, the marks of the sky are unveiled.
Flowers fill the entire hall, intoxicating three thousand guests. One sword strikes, frost-cold, upon fourteen provinces.
Drums and horns rise high, revealing the coldness of the sky. Billowing winds sweep past the seas and mountains in a reconstruction of autumn.
Forever regarded as the golden pillar of heaven is the southeast—to envy the marquis, who even has the time?
On an autumn day, a fine drizzle swirled in the air. News of victory arrived at Jiangnan. Great General Du Jing had triumphed over his opponent and returned, shocking both the court and common people alike.
After seventy years of conflict, the struggles at the border had finally been resolved. It took Du Jing four years to end all opposition from the land beyond the Great Wall. And now, trouble regarding the Hus' prisoners of war in the country of Great Xia was no more.
However, plenty of rumors associated with Du Jing had come even earlier. Some said that he desired to be the king of Western Liang and had been assembling his own personal army. Others said he returned with 200,000 troops under his command, plotting a rebellion on the night of the Mid-Autumn. Still more whispered that he had been colluding with outsiders for a long time… These rumors had spread throughout the court and the ministers had become increasingly alarmed and desperate. It was as if the day Du Jing returned would be the day the entire court would fall to ruin.
"Enough!" Zhou Luoyang felt annoyed.
"The Great General has been at war for three years," Zhou Luoyang rebuked. "General Du and this king have also grown up together from the time we were children. Slander will benefit no one. Will this kind of criticism not disturb the hearts of our men?"
"Your Highness…" the assistant chancellor wiped off his sweat. "This subject believes that Your Highness is quite clear about what kind of person General Du is. Back then, His Majesty also sent him away...no, transferred him to the frontier because of this."
Zhou Luoyang’s head hurt. In the past, the old emperor had sent Du Jing's faction far away. Because of some tight knot that couldn't be unravelled, Du Jing's father had gathered an army and planned a rebellion, almost implicating his whole family. Fortunately, the Zhou clan had taken precautions which prevented the disaster. Before the Du family was able to raise an army, they had made the first move and swiftly ended the rebellion before it even began.
The old emperor, remembering a strand of their friendship, as well as fearing that the Du family still had some influence inside the army, kept Du Jing alive. After all, Du Jing and Zhou Luoyang were both still young at that time. The child wasn't guilty; he had no idea of what happened either and couldn't control his own destiny yet. There was also the fact that if word got out that a major official was plotting a rebellion, it would bring disgrace upon the imperial family.
Everyone told Zhou Luoyang that Du Jing would rebel one day and that he must cut out the roots of the rebellion at once after he succeeded the throne, so as to prevent more trouble in the future. Zhou Luoyang had heard it countless times, yet he was also unable to truly set his hands to carry it out.
Maybe he could dispatch him to the border and let him die of old age there. He would never see him again, and he wouldn't be this worried then.
But Zhou Luoyang never expected that not only did Du Jing not die, he also came out victorious in many battles. Every word of victory that reached the court had caused the young crown prince to have mixed feelings. What surprised him even more was the fact that the most common news he received from the imperial convey had stated that "Du Jing seems to have gone crazy."
He heard that during his exile, Du Jing demonstrated reckless and crazy behavior: asking for war, going to war, asking for war, going to war…repeatedly without stopping for countless days and nights. Every time the court sent him to his death, he stubbornly survived and came back. Did he know that the court was scheming against him? He must've known. Did he know the imperial family wanted to kill him? He must've known.
Now that there was nobody who could threaten him, he, at long last, succeeded in coming back. He had beaten those foreign countries to a pulp and returned to clean up the mess.
Zhou Luoyang walked through the inner palace and gave out a tired sigh. The current military strength of the court was weak; the Yulin Army was less than 20,000 strong. Against Du Jing's 200,000 troops, he would already be under Du Jing's complete control. Du Jing could wash the capital in blood with little effort.
Admit defeat? Become Du Jing’s puppet? Bide my time and wait for an opportunity? Zhou Luoyang still had a younger brother to take care of; he couldn't fight Du Jing to the death.
Since when had they become like this? Zhou Luoyang sat down in front of the long hallway, watching the Taiye Pond in early autumn. The kois were swimming around as the autumn leaves fell on the water surface, making sounds and causing ripples.
They were both still young when the matter with the Du family had taken place. That year, Zhou Luoyang was twelve and Du Jing was thirteen. Du Jing was in the garden scooping up crickets for Zhou Luoyang when he was suddenly taken away by the commander of the Yulin Army.
After that, Zhou Luoyang didn't see him for almost three years.
The moment he reappeared in front of him, Du Jing had become silent and uncommunicative, his eyes completely red. After that, the old emperor took him in, but he wasn't allowed to get too close to Zhou Luoyang. During the following years, Zhou Luoyang repeatedly discovered Du Jing standing in the corridor, looking at him from afar.
At the time, Zhou Luoyang didn't know what was happening. When he walked towards him, Du Jing started to back away. When Zhou Luoyang took several steps forward, Du Jing took several steps back. And when Zhou Luoyang stopped, Du Jing also stopped. He always looked at him from a distance and never said a word.
Life was full of upside-downs and had always been unpredictable.
Generally speaking, there was no lack of playmates by the crown prince's side, even if Zhou Luoyang didn't ask for them. There were also many people he could lean on, so gradually, Zhou Luoyang neglected Du Jing. It was only after a long time that he realized that Du Jing was under house arrest inside the imperial palace and was being watched over as a hostage.
Another year passed, and Du Jing finally left under the pretense of "being stationed outside the capital to gather experience," while in fact, he was being exiled to Ganzhou.
Zhou Luoyang, on the other hand, began to learn how to deal with the court. The first thing he was warned of was that he had to be patient in order to "dispose of" the Du family. At this time, not only did Du Jing not die due to some illness or from fighting, he even miraculously managed to gather his father's former subordinates. Until the death of the old emperor and Crown Prince Zhou Luoyang began to manage the government, the status quo had always been the so-called "one man's demise is another man's rise." Du Jing gained the upper hand at the cost of all the blood he spilled.
Now, Du Jing had already become the country's God of War; nobody could threaten him anymore. And so, bringing along 200,000 troops, he returned high and mighty in order to get his revenge. It went without saying that he would personally collect this blood debt himself.
"Summon him to the court," Zhou Luoyang finally made a decision. "Station his troops outside the city. This king would like to see what he dares to do. Will he pull out his sword and stab me on the spot? During our childhood, I was the only one stabbing him with a wooden sword, and never once did he stab me."
Thus, Du Jing entered the capital. Following him were 20,000 cavalry and infantry who encircled the capital city of Luoyi.
Zhou Luoyang nearly couldn't recognize Du Jing. After leaving for several years, he had grown taller and thinner. During their childhood, he had carried a layer of dark clouds between his eyebrows, which had now turned into an intense murderous aura. Even though he had always concealed that aura, Zhou Luoyang was well aware of it.
His looks had developed, becoming even more warrior-like. Amongst society, children of prominent families were unrivaled and there were also good fighters in scholarly families, but unlike Du Jing, they all became swordsmen. Du Jing was the only one whose momentum was like that of a monarch who ruled the land under heaven; it didn't show that he came from a family of generals at all.
Compared to Zhou Luoyang, he looked more like the ruler of a country.
"This subject salutes Your Highness."
Wearing his armor, Du Jing stood in front of the Taihe Hall. He was a head taller than Zhou Luoyang, and his momentum and aura suffocated the other officials. He lowered his head slightly in order to look at Zhou Luoyang, as if the crown prince was no more than a prisoner of war at his disposal.
Zhou Luoyang looked at him in silence. The scene was extremely offensive, and he thought that Du Jing was trying to give him a hard time.
"You have returned." Zhou Luoyang was wearing the Tianzi Sword and the crown prince's crown. He mildly said, "Welcome back, General Du."
A hint of a smile appeared at the corners of Du Jing's mouth. And finally, he slowly bowed and knelt on one knee.
The officials let out a sigh of relief one after another. This move meant giving face to the imperial family. At least, the conflict between the ruler and subject wouldn't be happening now. As long as both sides could hold it down, it would be easy to talk over.
"You may rise." Zhou Luoyang extended his hand to help him. When his fingers touched Du Jing's ice-cold, protective gauntlet, he could feel Du Jing visibly pause. The two sides separated as soon as they touched, and Du Jing took the opportunity to stand up.
"General Du has been fighting on the battlefield on behalf of the court." Zhou Luoyang gave a gentle smile. "Vanquishing the plunderers on the borders of my Great Xia, ensuring the peace and prosperity of my whole country for years to come, as well as establishing the foundation for great deeds in the future. This king truly doesn't know how to reward you."
"This subject only did what he was supposed to do," Du Jing replied stoically.
He's obviously not crazy and still appears to look good… Zhou Luoyang said in his heart. From the subtle reaction just now, he could feel that Du Jing was also more or less being careful with him, perhaps due to years of habit.
"General Du, please," said Zhou Luoyang in a magnanimous tone.
Du Jing wasn't crazy and appeared to still be very much sane. Zhou Luoyang gave a sigh of relief—sane people were easy to deal with, crazy people were not.
On this day, Zhou Luoyang followed the ceremonial rite that had been passed down since the founding of the Great Xia. He washed his hands, burned incense, offered sacrifice to the gods, and then removed the general's armor.
Du Jing also followed the rite. He stood in front of the ancestral temple and allowed Zhou Luoyang to take off his iron armor, exposing his snow-white unlined garment, and exchange it with a military robe. Normally, this step didn't require the royal family's full personal attention, and the crown prince had only needed to remove the general's helmet, and the rest would be done by an attendant.
But Zhou Luoyang had insisted on doing it himself.
"You still don't like to talk," Zhou Luoyang said in a low voice as he removed Du Jing's armor. "You've grown a lot taller."
"Your Highness is joking." Du Jing spoke in a humble and polite manner. "This subject should be respectful in front of the ancestral temple."
Following that, the court held a celebration banquet for Du Jing where all the ministers gathered. Both civil and military officials were all very careful to give Du Jing enough face, hoping not to utter any wrong word lest he go on a killing spree.
During the feast, Du Jing actually chatted and laughed as if he had always been like that. The grand chancellor asked about Ganzhou's geography and people, and Du Jing shared some interesting information about the frontier, which made the officials all smile.
"Why did His Highness think this humble general is reluctant to talk?" Du Jing said towards the officials, smiling.
"The General's tongue is as lustrous as a lotus flower," the grand chancellor jokingly said. "We might actually suspect he had talked the enemy into surrendering!"
Another burst of laughter sounded. Zhou Luoyang was very clear that Du Jing was answering his casual remark in front of the ancestral temple. It had always, always had been like this ever since their childhood. No matter what Zhou Luoyang said, even though it was unintentional, Du Jing would always take it seriously.
It was clear everyone knew that today, people were just putting up an act. Nobody said anything either; they all pretended that the host and the guests were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Next, the most important thing would be attempting to deprive him of his military power and put him on house arrest in the capital. This was a game—a game between the monarch and the general.
"Do tell." Zhou Luoyang smiled. "How should this king reward you? Du Jing, say it yourself."
Zhou Luoyang's eyes appeared to be smiling as he suggested this to Du Jing. This was what he had also discussed with the Three Ducal Ministers, which was to put aside all of his dignity to please Du Jing at all costs, as well as to make Du Jing understand that he could get anything he wanted now. Zhou Luoyang was willing to satisfy him as long as it wasn't too excessive, on the condition that he would not start a war in the capital.
Zhou Luoyang didn't care about the position of emperor that much. It was by no means easy to be the emperor, and whoever loved that title might as well get it; he didn't mind. But, if Du Jing seized the throne by force, the victims would be the common people. Although he was the crown prince who had yet to ascend the throne, he still had to protect them.
The banquet went still as everyone looked at Du Jing.
Du Jing had finished his third round of wine. He looked deep in thought, his long fingers fiddling with the tip of a chopstick and subconsciously twirling it a few times. This action, during the banquet with the monarch, was extremely rude; it was probably a bad habit he picked up in the army. Yet Zhou Luoyang could only act as if it was nothing and didn't say a word.
Everyone was nervous. This was asking Du Jing to declare his stance.
Would he say it? Based on Zhou Luoyang's understanding of Du Jing, if he was still the same person he was when they were still kids, Zhou Luoyang knew that he would.
Borrowing the tipsy feeling from the wine, many words usually left unsaid could be boldly said. Zhou Luoyang comforted Du Jing with utmost sincerity, giving both sides a chance to forget their previous differences. As long as Du Jing asked for it, the Three Ducal Ministers were very confident that he would let the court track down the chancellor who had betrayed the Du family back then, making them pay in blood.
"Regardless of this humble general's request, Your Highness will agree?" Du Jing smiled.
"A ruler won't go back on his word." Zhou Luoyang's face was also plastered with a smile. Now that the old emperor was gone, even though Zhou Luoyang hadn't officially succeeded the throne, he was also the monarch of a country.
Du Jing closed his eyes. He titled his head, pondering for a moment before he gave an "Ah! I got it!" kind of expression.
The tension in the banquet reached its peak. The grand chancellor's hands were sweating; he just needed to give the order and the executioner lying in ambush outside the hall would come over. They all said Du Jing's martial art was supreme, but their enemy was no more than a number of people; they still had a chance.
"My neck is a little itchy," Du Jing said. "I want to take a bath in the Huanqing Pool. Your Highness has personally changed my clothes before, might as well come and serve me in the bath?"
Zhou Luoyang: "........................................."
Silence befell the whole banquet. The grand chancellor was the first one to be enraged.
"General Du!" he said. "You truly are rude…"
"Naturally, this king is willing," Zhou Luoyang interrupted the grand chancellor. "The General has been soaked in the blood of our enemies, all for the sake of the nation. What does it matter if this king does this small gesture? Not only does this mean washing the blood off the General's body, but it also means serving the men who have defended the Great Xia. Why wouldn't this king be willing? This king is very much flattered. Someone, go make preparations."
Du Jing smiled and looked straight at Zhou Luoyang.
Zhou Luoyang gave another command, "Send over the clothes this king had made for General Du as well. This matter is too trivial to be counted as this king's reward for you."
Du Jing cheerfully got up and left the banquet.
Huanqing Pond was the royal hot spring garden. The weather in autumn was clear and refreshing. At dawn, white mist lingered in the woods, while the red and orange colors reflected by the maples and sunset intermingled as they bathed the rockery in gold.
Du Jing sat cross-legged in the pool, straightening his shoulders and back. Wearing an unlined garment, Zhou Luoyang sat on his knees at the edge of the pool as he served him, scrubbing his hair.
"I remember we used to come here to take a bath when we were kids," Du Jing casually said.
"You still remember?" Zhou Luoyang asked. "I haven’t come back here since I turned twelve."
Immersed in his thoughts, Du Jing gave out a "Hmm."
Zhou Luoyang originally thought that Du Jing had intended to humiliate him, but now, it didn't look like that was the case. Maybe, he just wanted to be alone with him and have a chat, so he dismissed all the attendants in advance and kept his promise to serve him in the bath.
"When I was at the border, washing once in ten to fifteen days was a rare occurrence," Du Jing continued. "Sand filled the inside of my collar; I rubbed it to the point of bleeding."
Zhou Luoyang had once thought to use their childhood bond to move Du Jing, although this move had been shot down immediately by the officials. "Childish!"
Whatever the case, the moment he saw Du Jing, Zhou Luoyang couldn't help but feel sad and sorry for him. Whether he wanted to take back everything he had or take his revenge, at least Du Jing was genuinely fighting for the sake of people in the country, and he did indeed return victorious.
"There are so many wounds on your body," Zhou Luoyang observed.
"When marching and leading the troops," Du Jing said indifferently, "this is normal."
"How did you get this one?" With the towel in his hand, Zhou Luoyang wiped over an arrow scar.
"Arrow from the Xiongnu's king," Du Jing replied.
"How about this?"
Du Jing had a slender, well-proportioned body brimming with power. Extended time pulling and shooting arrows made his shoulders broad and smooth, his collarbone distinct, and his back beautiful; he couldn't be compared to Zhou Luoyang who was living in the palace.
"And this one?" Zhou Luoyang asked again without paying too much attention.
"I cut it myself," Du Jing lifted his left arm, showing some obvious-looking dagger cuts.
"Why?" Zhou Luoyang asked.
"To remind myself," Du Jing replied but didn't elaborate any further. He then rose stark-naked from the water, exposing his own body in front of Zhou Luoyang. Zhou Luoyang fetched an inner garment and trousers and helped him put them on. Then, he straightened Du Jing’s martial robe and fastened his belt before finally lowering himself to help him arrange his lapel and tie the strings of his hunting boots.
Zhou Luoyang used the same satin material as the royal robe to make this suit for Du Jing, whose upright back figure looked particularly good-looking.
"Thank you, Your Highness," Du Jing said with a smile. But there was a mocking look in his eyes, and it made Zhou Luoyang uneasy, so he nodded and didn't say anything in response.
"It's the Mid-Autumn Festival."
The moon was climbing above the mountains to the east. Zhou Luoyang thought for a moment and said, "In the coming days, rest well in the capital. The Ministry of War has prepared a residence for you. When you have spare time, you can enter the palace whenever you'd like. You'll be able to come and go unhindered. Think carefully about what you want. When you've decided, come tell this king."
"Yes, Your Highness," Du Jing replied, and left without looking back.
In the morning, there'd been the banquet, and in the evening, he'd waited upon Du Jing. By nighttime, Zhou Luoyang was utterly exhausted. He returned to the residential palace and sat blankly for a while.
Just as he was getting ready to lie down, a guard reported, "Your Highness, General Du requests an audience."
"I'm sleeping," Zhou Luoyang said. "I'll see him tomorrow."
Though night had only just fallen, the palace was quiet. The Yulin Army had dispatched extra guards tonight. But from what he'd seen of Du Jing that evening, Zhou Luoyang really didn't think he was planning on staging a revolt right away.
"Your Highness." The imperial guard's voice shook a little; Du Jing was holding a knife to the back of his neck. "General Du insists on seeing you."
Zhou Luoyang could hear that something was off about his tone.
"Are you out there?" Zhou Luoyang called out.
"Yes, Your Highness," Du Jing responded. "Your Highness invited me to enter the palace when I had the time, so I've come."
It had barely been over four hours since Zhou Luoyang and Du Jing had parted in the evening. At that moment, he realized that many of the guards at his bedchamber seemed to have been sent away.
"Come in," Zhou Luoyang said, taking down the Tianzi Sword and placing it on top of his knees beneath the table.
Du Jing released the imperial guard at the door and sauntered inside. He closed the chamber doors and carefully bolted it shut.
Zhou Luoyang unwaveringly watched his every move. If he were to suddenly plunge his sword into Du Jing's back right now, he might be able to take Du Jing's life, thereby resolving the court's greatest worry for good.
But he didn't.
If Du Jing weren't Du Jing, they wouldn't be this way now. After Du Jing had left the capital and traversed beyond the Great Wall, Zhou Luoyang would always recall bits and pieces from their time together as children. He'd once read in the Book of Songs, "For life or for death, however separated, with you I made a promise; I grasped your hand; together with you I was to grow old." If it weren't for what happened, he and Du Jing were supposed to grow old together.
A long, long time ago, the Zhou family and the Du family had conquered the nation together, and they had pledged a union through marriage. If Du Jing weren't male, he would've become his imperial concubine. But even though they became brothers instead, they could have still accompanied each other for a lifetime. So why did the Du family try to seize the throne?
"Still awake?" Du Jing took a few steps forward and carefully scrutinized Zhou Luoyang.
"I was just about to go to sleep," Zhou Luoyang replied, his patience thinning. "What, General Du? The bath wasn't enough, and you wish to spend the night in the imperial bedchambers?"
"I wouldn't dare. This humble general often can't fall asleep, so I wondered if Your Highness couldn't fall asleep either. I was presumptuous."
I can't sleep because I'm scared of you, Zhou Luoyang thought.
But when he considered Du Jing's year-round campaigns among golden spears and armored horses, he realized that perhaps Du Jing had never gotten a good night's sleep in all these years, and his temper eased. Du Jing rolled up the sleeves of his uniform, revealing clusters of scars along his right arm. Zhou Luoyang said, "Come sit, General Du."
Du Jing walked up to the reading divan and took a seat next to Zhou Luoyang.
Zhou Luoyang set aside the Tianzi Sword. Du Jing glanced at it and did not comment.
Zhou Luoyang had Du Jing place his hand atop the table, and he gently took his pulse. Not only was he capable of ruling a nation, he also understood medicine.
It was very quiet within the bedchamber. Tonight, the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the moonlight shone into the room through the patterned gaps of the window, spilling onto their bodies.
"At night, you think too much and too hard, which keeps you awake," Zhou Luoyang said placidly. "This king will write you a prescription that will help."
Du Jing gazed at him quietly. Zhou Luoyang asked, "Why do you cut your own arm?"
"These last few years," Du Jing said, "with the passing of each season, spring, summer, autumn, and winter, I would write you a letter."
Zhou Luoyang had been writing the prescription. Now, his brush suddenly stopped moving, and he turned toward Du Jing.
"But you never wrote back to me," Du Jing continued insipidly. "Every time I sent a letter, it was like tossing a stone into the ocean and having it sink right to the bottom. It could never elicit a response. After each season, I cut my arm as a reminder to myself that your letter never arrived."
"I never received them." Zhou Luoyang said tremulously. "What did you write to me?"
Du Jing scoffed.
"I'm not lying to you," Zhou Luoyang anxiously insisted. He set down the brush and grabbed Du Jing's hand. "What letters did you write to me?"
But just then, they heard a battlecry coming from outside the bedchamber, and the look on Zhou Luoyang's face changed instantly.
"You…" Zhou Luoyang's voice shook. "Du Jing, what are you trying to do?"
"It's too late," Du Jing said dispassionately.
Zhou Luoyang came to a prompt decision. He opened his mouth to yell, "Assassin!" But Du Jing suddenly shot up. With one hand, he dragged Zhou Luoyang toward himself by the wrist. With the other, he grabbed the Tianzi Sword. He shook it free from the scabbard and pressed the sharp edge of the blade to Zhou Luoyang's neck!
"Du Jing! You bastard!" Zhou Luoyang cursed. "You wretch! I should never have trusted you!"
Du Jing callously gathered Zhou Luoyang to his chest. He held the sword to Zhou Luoyang's throat with one hand and practically hauled him outside.
The Zhengbei Army charged into the palace like floodwater.
"Make way!" Du Jing coldly commanded. "Or else His Highness the Crown Prince will lose his head!"
Zhou Luoyang: "......"
The Yulin Army had been slow on the uptake. Only once the city gates had already been taken did they rush to the palace in a panic. Du Jing had already made all the necessary preparations for tonight, while the imperial court was caught wholly unprepared!
"Step aside," Zhou Luoyang ordered, finally giving up. "Don't block General Du's way."
Du Jing forced Zhou Luoyang into the Taihe Hall. The commander of the Yulin Army was protecting the emperor's second son, Zhou Leyao. The soldiers readied their crossbows, one after another.
"Obey my orders," Zhou Luoyang commanded levelly. "Lower your weapons. Do not resist."
"Brother!" Leyao cried.
"Obey my orders," Zhou Luoyang repeated.
Du Jing was suddenly a little surprised. He started to laugh, and lowered the Tianzi Sword from Zhou Luoyang's neck. But Zhou Luoyang did not move to escape. The battle had already been lost, and this day was bound to come sooner or later. Besides, where could he even run to?
"You win," Zhou Luoyang told Du Jing. "I'm no match for you, Du Jing."
Du Jing narrowed his eyes and studied Zhou Luoyang. He didn't respond.
"So I won't be the emperor. That's fine," Zhou Luoyang said. "If you want to avenge your father, you can kill me. Whatever makes you happy. But I'm begging you to treat Leyao well, in the same way my father spared your life. And please treat the common people well. I truly never received those letters."
The Yulin Army surrendered their weapons, and the Three Ducal Ministers were detained in the palace hall. A soldier held up a wooden tray, offering up a stack of old, yellowing letters.
"Reporting!" the soldier said. "These are your letters, found in the bookshelves at the Grand Chancellor's home!"
Zhou Luoyang and Du Jing looked at the stack of letters at the same time.
Du Jing sneered. He leafed through the stack briefly, and then looked at the kneeling, trembling Grand Chancellor.
"Do you still want to read them?" Du Jing held up the letters and arched an eyebrow at Zhou Luoyang.
"It's too late," Zhou Luoyang said. "What's the point in reading them now?"
"You have a point," Du Jing said coldly. He threw the letters into the brazier, burning them all.
"Guards!" Du Jing called out in the end, pressing the sword against Zhou Luoyang's back. "Come with me as I personally escort His Highness out of the palace!"
Zhou Luoyang: "......"
Du Jing removed Zhou Luoyang from the Taihe Hall. There was a horse-drawn carriage already waiting at the Wu Gate of the palace.
"Where are you taking me?" Zhou Luoyang asked. Before he had even finished speaking, he was blindfolded with a strip of black fabric.
On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Du Jing abducted the crown prince, sending great waves of unrest throughout the realm. Yet this act of treason did not lead to a single death.
Zhou Luoyang fell into a hazy sleep in the carriage. By the time he woke up again, it was already midnight. He could feel someone carrying him out of the carriage and into a residence.
Warm fingers gently stroked his brow, tracing down along the bridge of his nose, and then his lips, before finally brushing the line of his jaw.
"Is it you?" Zhou Luoyang was already awake.
Du Jing slipped off the blindfold. The two of them sat facing each other in the dimly lit room, both in simple, unlined robes.
"Your father killed my father," Du Jing said.
"If you want to kill me, then kill me."
"But it's okay," Du Jing continued coolly. "I forgive you, Luoyang. From childhood to adulthood, you've always been the most important person to me. Besides, that affair had nothing to do with you."
Zhou Luoyang's eyes widened.
Du Jing watched Zhou Luoyang with rapt attention. He raised his eyebrows ever so slightly. Quietly, with a hint of menace, he said, "When I first returned, I was angry—angry that you never wrote back to me. But now I know that you didn't do it on purpose…"
You really are a bit crazy, Zhou Luoyang thought.
But at that moment, Zhou Luoyang suddenly picked up on something from Du Jing's words.
"What exactly was written in those letters?" he asked.
Du Jing refused to answer. Instead, he said, in a non sequitur, "Do you still remember those preposterous promises you made to me when we were children?"
Zhou Luoyang immediately flushed bright red. "Don't...don't bring that up!"
Du Jing took out a sheet of gold brocade and spread it out in front of Zhou Luoyang.
"Come, abdicate the throne." Du Jing placed a brush in Zhou Luoyang's hand. "And pardon the soldiers who revolted with me from punishment."
Zhou Luoyang gazed at Du Jing, but Du Jing didn't waver at all.
Zhou Luoyang knew that his life was now in someone else's hands. Resistance was futile. Even if Du Jing forged an edict, no one could oppose him.
So he had no better option than to write down his abdication edict. Yet once he wrote the words "surrender the throne to," Du Jing pressed down on his hand, took the brush from him, and wrote, "the Emperor's second son."
Zhou Luoyang's head jerked up, and he looked at Du Jing in disbelief.
Du Jing said nothing. He collected the abdication edict and imperial pardon and left the room.
Zhou Luoyang remained seated in the middle of the room. He didn't know why, but he actually sighed in relief. Ever since he'd taken a seat on the imperial throne, he'd felt weighed down by an inescapable burden. Du Jing had actually freed him.
He and Du Jing had once agreed to one day leave the court and freely roam the land. He hadn't thought that things would turn out contrary to his wishes, and now it was Du Jing who was trapped behind high walls.
Will he let me leave? Zhou Luoyang could hear sounds coming from outside. There seemed to be someone among the army reciting the edict, followed by a chorus of voices saying, "Farewell, General," like thunder cracking across the night sky.
After that was complete silence.
After a long wait, Zhou Luoyang pushed open the door. To his surprise, he saw Du Jing harnessing a horse in the moonlight. In this short span of time, the 200,000 soldiers had all vanished.
Du Jing turned around and glanced at Zhou Luoyang.
"You…" Zhou Luoyang began.
"Your promise to me...I've made up my mind."
"What do you want?"
"I want the rest of your life," Du Jing finally said.
Silver moonlight spilled onto the earth. Two horses galloped across the boundless plains, heading towards the end of the horizon.
—— Extra: A Wave of Silver Light Reflects the Passing of Years · Tiandi · End ——
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Cat.