16th year of the Tongli Era, on the 15th of the 8th lunar month, Emperor Taizu was dead, the Yanhe Hall caught fire, and the crown prince was dead.
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Zhang Mu stood in front of the corridor as the crown prince and Fang Qingyu hung out together in the room —— their voices were coming through.
Fang Qingyu looked very handsome; his facial features were delicate, yet he still had a valiant aura. It was rare for him to be seen without his outer robe, but his body and muscle were that of a military man: he had a fair complexion, distinct figure, strong and well-built abdominal muscles —— he was similar to steel wrapped in silk.
Li Qingcheng was inexperienced in matters regarding "making love" at first. In the past 16 years, the empress had also never referred to his marriage. But, a few years ago, Fang Qingyu drank some wine and Li Qingcheng let him lie on the bed until the alcohol's effect dissipated. Fang Qingyu lied down, still very drunk, and the crown prince also lied down. Originally, nothing happened on that drunken night, until at midnight, the crown prince pillowed his head on Fang Qingyu's arm and started to talk about his marriage.
Fang Qingyu was half-drunk and half-sober, and only opened his mouth in order to coax him, but the baby dragon, who was nestling on his arms, meant another thing: the almost-adult Li Qingcheng was asking about that matter between men and women. At once, Fang Qingyu was half-provoked and half-jokingly turned over his body, then pressed the crown prince down.
By chance, Zhang Mu wasn't present during those days. Otherwise, Li Qingcheng's screams would've been enough to make the mute draw his sabre and send Fang Qingyu to the Western Paradise with one blow.
Nevertheless, despite the screams, Fang Qingyu was being very careful, as not to make Li Qingcheng feel the pain he was unable to endure. He would enter and stop, saying warm and gentle words in-between while using his hand to try the taste. Unexpectedly, after one night of teaching, the crown prince found it delightful and couldn't help but wanting more. He only felt that the excitement of Longyang was beyond the male-female relationship described by Fang Qingyu, and immediately had an unspeakable attachment towards him.
Fang Qingyu spared no effort to win Li Qingcheng's favor, trying all kinds of ideal positions for several days in a row. During the day, he still buttoned up his collar as before, talking and laughing as if he was bathed in the spring breeze, but at night, he became a hungry tiger on the crown prince's couch.
When Zhang Mu returned, it was also to this same sight. The crown prince threatened and coerced him, ordering the mute not to reveal this matter.
Zhang Mu had no choice, so he nodded with a complicated look. And thus, he began his bodyguard career of listening in the corner; it was the worst tragedy in his whole life.
On the 14th of the month, the full moon hung high, its silvery light sprinkling all over the palace hall.
A young eunuch blew off the lamp. Fang Qingyu straightened his collar and nodded his head towards Zhang Mu as a manner of courtesy.
Zhang Mu didn't return the courtesy; he stood with his hands on his side.
Fang Qingyu turned around and left. Li Qingcheng's voice came through from inside the palace hall, "Mute, are you still outside?"
The door of the palace hall slid open. A young eunuch took a glance and said, "Answering Your Highness, Lord Zhang is still outside."
Li Qingcheng's voice sounded lazy, with a hint of contentment and satisfaction, "The autumn is cold. Starting from today, there's no need to be on all-night duty." Having said so, regardless of whether Zhang Mu really went away or not, he wrapped the quilt around his body and turned over, lowly gasped, and slept.
The next day, the palace was preoccupied with the banquet for the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the crown prince got quite some time off his studies. Li Qingcheng wandered around the palace, plucked a rosemallow, then sat in the pavilion while supporting his ankle, looking lost in thought.
After a moment, Li Qingcheng said, "Mute, go and find Qing-ge for me."
Zhang Mu stood unmoved behind Li Qingcheng.
"Go." Li Qingcheng frowned. "What is that supposed to mean? Go and get Qing-ge!"
Zhang Mu just stood like before. Li Qingcheng said, "This flower is for you, it smells quite good. Go ba."
Zhang Mu took the rosemallow and carefully pinned it on the collar of his imperial bodyguard attire before turning around and leaving.
Idiot —— Li Qingcheng sneered in his mind.
Fang Qingyu came alone a moment later and they bantered for a while. Li Qingcheng plucked an osmanthus flower and bestowed it to him, then he led the imperial bodyguard into the palace hall.
On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, there were pearls in the sky. In the Qinghe Hall, there was a banquet to treat the emperor's relatives, and in the imperial garden outside, dozens of tables were prepared to treat high-ranking officials. The emperor's dragon body was ill, and he left after drinking three cups. Li Qingcheng waded from one table to the next; he didn't show an attitude suitable for his position as the crown prince. All the time, Fang Qingyu stood behind him, carrying his orders.
Li Qingcheng returned after making a round and said, "Where's the mute?"
"Isn't that him?" Fang Qingyu smiled.
On the distant pavilion at the side of Taiye Pond, with his foot stepping on the railing and his back leaning against the pillar, Zhang Mu was lost in thought.
Zhang Mu's resolute face was facing the east, and under the lights, his eyelashes were covered in a faint, yellow glow. It's such a pity, Li Qingcheng thought, that once he turned his face, in addition to wearing a mask on the other side of his face, he was also quite an eyesore.
Were he not disfigured, he would've been an outstanding and attractive imperial bodyguard as well.
Fang Qingyu softly said, "Your Highness, would you like to take a stroll outside the palace?"
Li Qingcheng's heart stirred. At this moment, Zhang Mu turned his head and took a glimpse of him.
"Go." Li Qingcheng smiled and pulled Fang Qingyu's hand; they turned around in front of the hall's winding corridor, pretending to return to the banquet, and headed for the palace's back door.
Yu Country's agriculture was well-developed, its lands fertile.
After the founding of the country, the dynasty's emperor rapidly expanded trade and commerce. The country was prosperous, the people were at peace, and thousands of nations sent their tributes; the capital city was the most comfortable place in the Central Plains, the people's clothes and food were rich and plentiful. On the night of the festival, the lights along the streets were great in numbers. Li Qingcheng was draped with indigo robes, and he comfortably traveled with Fang Qingyu hand-in-hand, just like an ordinary young master from an official family and an imperial bodyguard.
This evening, there were many soldiers patrolling in the city. Li Qingcheng strolled around for two shichen, fixing his attention on the regular festival scenery. He knew that once the palace realized the crown prince was missing, they would look for him frantically in all directions, just like ants inside the hot pot, and thought that he shouldn't play too much, so he said, "Let's go back, Qing-ge."
Fang Qingyu bought a pair of small brass fish and put them inside the robes over his chest. He smiled and said, "Shall we go again next time?"
"Notice from the City Defense! The night market will close one shichen earlier!"
"Everyone go back! Night curfew, the street will be closed at once!" Someone shouted very loudly.
Li Qingcheng tiredly yawned. The cavalry came over and ordered the night market to close ahead of time.
"Why is there a curfew on the festival day?"
Fang Qingyu was keen at discerning mood from mere hints or words. He quickly said, "Let's go ba, something probably caught on fire. Let's return to the palace."
Li Qingcheng squeezed an answer out of the bodyguard. "Who did you buy that small toy for?"
With a deadpan face, Fang Qingyu said, "Of course it's for my lover."
Li Qingcheng: "Lover?"
Fang Qingyu smiled. The two of them went to the palace's side gate, which was tightly closed. There were very few lights all around. Fang Qingyu took out the small brass fish from his chest and then gave it to Li Qingcheng. Li Qingcheng was very happy at this moment. He had wanted to knock and shout at the door, but Fang Qingyu hurriedly hinted that it was okay and easily leapt past the wall.
Li Qingcheng waited in front of the palace gate in a lazy manner; everywhere around him was painted in black.
The autumn wind blew, carrying the fragrance of osmanthus flowers from the imperial garden. It was as if one's face was covered in silk satin; one frivolous pull and it would slip past the nose and disappear without a trace.
Fang Qingyu hadn't opened the gate even after a while. Li Qingcheng shouted, "Qing-ge!"
After half of a quarter-hour, three death knells came from inside the imperial palace.
"Dong! Dong! Dong!"
Li Qingcheng stared blankly at the imperial palace, as if he was struck by the thunder right in the face. The sound of weeping could faintly be heard, and a sense of dread instantly enveloped him.
The death knells stopped. A bangzi sounded, and from within the palace, came a hoarse mourning wail, "The Emperor is dead——"
Li Qingcheng's limbs were frozen. At that moment, he could only feel the sky spin and the earth go round, and he almost fell straight to the ground. When did it happen? The death of the emperor? He wasn't aware of this at all, and only felt that this matter wasn't real at all.
"It's impossible! Who's spreading rumors?!" Li Qingcheng rushed forward and fiercely banged on the gate. "Let me in! I'm the Crown Prince!"
The sounds of weeping were everywhere. The whole imperial palace was covered in darkness, but not long after, a burst of flame soared into the sky, and people cried in a loud voice, "Yanhe Hall is gone——"
As if within a dream, that one flame burned down Li Qingcheng's mind. He forgot where he was and just continuously pounded on the gate while shouting, "Let me in, I'm the Crown Prince!" The aged voice of the grand secretariat came through from outside the imperial garden.
"The former emperor's imperial edict has yet to be made——"
A blood-curdling scream of someone at the death's door.
Rebellion! Li Qingcheng subconsciously took half a step back and almost fell down to the ground. People inside the palace were noisy, some were shouting "fire!" and some were wailing. The entrance was suddenly flung open, and Fang Qingyu pulled him inside.
"What happened?!" Anxious, Li Qingcheng shouted.
Fang Qingyu protected the crown prince with his body. "I'm not clear about it. Follow me, don't talk!"
Fang Qingyu brought the crown prince past the imperial garden. There were palace maids and eunuchs wailing all over the place, the banquet was overthrown, the whole palace hall was in a mess. Yanhe Hall was raging in flames, half of the sky projecting red.
"Where's the Crown Prince?!" A palace guard searched all over the place while holding a torch. "The Emperor is dead! The Empress orders His Highness the Crown Prince to hurry to the Yanhe Hall!"
Li Qingcheng subconsciously stopped moving. Fang Qingyu suddenly covered the crown prince's mouth and moved behind a pillar.
Fang Qingyu: "Be quiet!"
Li Qingcheng was alarmed; he looked at dead bodies in front of the corridor.
After the imperial bodyguards passed by, Fang Qingyu let his hand fall. Fortunately, at this moment, Li Qingcheng was still able to deduct things rationally. He opened his mouth and said, "Isn't Yanhe Hall on fire? Why do they want me to go there? Where's the Empress? How can this place catch on fire?"
Fang Qingyu slowly took a breath before moving his finger left and right. "Go to Minghuang Hall and take a look. Your Highness, please stay calm, this subject will certainly protect Your Highness."
Li Qingcheng said, "Wait, if the palace catches on fire, why are there dead people inside?"
Fang Qingyu said in a low voice, "Your Highness the Crown Prince, please don't think too much."
Li Qingcheng frowned. "Someone is rebelling! Someone must be scheming, I'm sure of it. Father Emperor could still be alive. Qing-ge, take me to General Fu. The Yulin Army is personally chosen by Father Emperor. Find General Fu and everything will be okay!"
Fang Qingyu's expression changed several times, as if he wanted to say something. All of the sudden, he discovered that there was another person in the corridor. He and Li Qingcheng turned around at the same time.
Zhang Mu stood at the end of the long corridor. Half of his imperial guard robe was all covered in purple and black, his left hand carrying a sabre drenched with blood.
Fang Qingyu pulled the crown prince behind him and took a step forward, drawing the long sword from his waist.
"What were you doing this evening?" Fang Qingyu slowly said.
Zhang Mu didn't reply and only slowly shook his head.
Li Qingcheng shouted, "Mute! What are you doing?! Move!"
Zhang Mu's expression seemed to soften at that moment. Li Qingcheng had already gone through the panic from the sudden death news, and at this moment, he had gradually calmed down. Father Emperor's life or death is uncertain, Mother Empress is missing, I must not continue panicking.
Li Qingcheng strode forward and said, "Zhang Mu, who's the mastermind behind this rebellion?"
Zhang Mu made a gesture with his hand for the crown prince to move aside. Li Qingcheng pursed his lips. After a while, he said, "Zhang Mu! Why are you doing this?"
Zhang Mu fixed his eyes on the long sword on Fang Qingyu's hand, narrowing his eyes. Li Qingcheng wanted to ask again, but in the blink of an eye, the two guards simultaneously made their moves!
Fang Qingyu's divine weapon casted a snow-white reflection, Zhang Mu's long sabre swirled, and the two people clashed!
At that time, all Li Qingcheng could see was one owl-like grey shadow in flight and one sparrowhawk-like azure shadow maneuvering with ease. The pillar collapsed with a loud rumble, tiles and bricks flew in all directions; they were wrapped in both sabre and sword glares and it swept across past his face!
Zhang Mu's sabre technique was bold and decisive, yet secretly hid thousands of steep momentum as well as the sound of winds and thunders!
Fang Qingyu's Yunshu Sword shook open, filling one's view with cuts akin to willow leaves as it wove back and forth amidst Zhang Mu's gale-like sabre technique. Fang Qingyu stepped backwards —— a direct stab to his chest!
"Look out!" Li Qincheng shouted. "Someone! Catch this traitor!"
Fang Qingyu retreated, and at that moment, Li Qingcheng moved in front of him. Zhang Mu forcibly stopped his sabre midway, changing directions to the side. Fang Qingyu found an opportunity; he pushed Li Qingcheng and said in a clear voice, "Thanks!" Then, the sword thrust straight onwards!
Zhang Mu jumped over the railing. Then, all of the sudden, he used the Iron Bridge technique. The sword that was able to cut iron like the mud grazed across his face, peeling off his silver mask. Zhang Mu didn't dodge nor flee —— a thunderous stab!
Fang Qingyu truly didn't expect that Zhang Mu would use this life-for-life move; he failed to stop the blade, and one sabre and one sword interlocked and simultaneously greeted each other's body.
Fang Qingyu had exhausted his power. The long sword swiped under Zhang Mu's rib, cutting open a half-chi wide gash.
Zhang Mu's sword-style was extremely fierce. The heavy sabre was forged by using otherworldly meteorite irons, and with vigorous internal force to control the blunt-edge iron sabre, he ran it into Fang Qingyu's chest, at once making him spurt blood and falling backwards.
"Qing-ge——!" Li Qingcheng roared.
Fang Qingyu struggled to get up and spurted yet another mouthful of blood. He glanced at Li Qingcheng and stumbled off.
For a moment, Li Qingcheng just stood where he was.
Zhang Mu stepped forward, as if wanting to chase. Li Qingcheng turned around to run, but he stumbled and fell.
Li Qingcheng took a breath, trying to calm down. He knew that struggle was futile, and moreover, he was unarmed. He fished up Fang Qingyu's Yunshu Sword and shakily pointed it at Zhang Mu.
Zhang Mu sheathed his sabre on his back, turned his body, and walked closer. His mask was gone; on one half of his face, the one that had been covered with the mask before, was a glowing red burn mark, which, under the spreading inferno, appeared even more terrifying and made Li Qingcheng's hair stand on end.
Li Qingcheng: "You… You traitor, I misjudged you."
Zhang Mu looked at Li Qingcheng in a trance, but suddenly a eunuch's dying scream woke him up. Zhang Mu moved forward as swiftly as the wind and picked Li Qingcheng up.
"Someone help!" Li Qingcheng shouted.
Zhang Mu gently struck Li Qingcheng's nape with the back of his hand, rendering him unconscious.
Fires were raging over the place. The gash opened by Fang Qingyu's sharp sword was still dripping blood, yet Zhang Mu kept running. The four palace gates were all locked; the cavalry shuttled back and forth, shouting with loud voices, and the imperial guards rushed in with torches in hands to verify.
Zhang Mu looked into the distance; he dared not force a dangerous breakthrough. He carried the crown prince into the middle of the imperial garden and jumped head-on into the Taiye Pond.
When the guards stopped to search the imperial garden, on the banks of Taiye Pond, a rosemallow floated back and forth in the water.
At the bottom of Taiye Pond, there was a waterway constructed by the previous dynasty which led outside the city. Zhang Mu swam under the pond, looking for an exit inside the pitch-black waterway.
As soon as Li Qingcheng entered the water, he was awakened by the cold. When he desperately struggled again, Zhang Mu tapped his sleeping acupoint with his finger.
Zhang Mu, whose wound had yet to heal, carried Li Qingcheng and staggered through the underground passageway. He dove into the pond for a second time, and rose to the surface a moment later, a line of blood dripping down one side.
The bright moon was up in the sky; the soldiers outside the moat shouted back and forth, and the capital city's gate was slammed shut.
Zhang Mu placed the crown prince on the grass before bending over and pressing on his chest, putting his lips onto his. Li Qingcheng began to cough fiercely.
Zhang Mu at once signaled him to not make a sound.
Horse hooves sounded; the capital city had begun sending out cavalry to patrol. Zhang Mu tore off his outer robe to wrap the wound under his rib. He carried the crown prince on his back and walked with much struggle towards the mountain outside of the city,
Li Qingcheng had regained consciousness, but was still in a long daze. He only felt that Zhang Mu was carrying him on his back as they continued to stride forward.
"Father Emperor…" Li Qingcheng muttered. "Mother Empress…"
He still couldn't believe it up until now. Last night's melodious music and fragrant osmanthus wine, the royal court, his father and mother, the Li clan's land and country, in the blink of an eye, they were all gone.
Li Qingcheng was in a trance, as if he was caught in a very long dream.
He felt that he was being placed behind the bushes, and he could hear the soldiers' sorrowful shouting and horses neighing in his ears. A moment later, he was put on a horse's back. A man held him, and the horse set off.
"I'm not leaving…" Li Qingcheng was drenched from head to toe, and when the autumn wind blew, he shivered all over.
"This subject is incompetent," a dry and hoarse voice came from behind him. "This subject's crime deserves a thousand deaths."
They were surrounded by mountain ranges; trees and underbrush rapidly swept past them under the moonlight. At that moment, Li Qingcheng's blurred vision suddenly cleared.
"Mute, did you just talk?" Li Qingcheng stammered.
Zhang Mu wrapped Li Qingcheng in a cloak, and that very night, they escaped the capital.
16th year of the Tongli Era, on the 15th of the 8th lunar month, Emperor Taizu was dead, the Yanhe Hall caught fire, and the crown prince was dead.
On the 18th of the lunar month of that year, the empress held a court. She acted as the regent and announced the imperial edict to the world, saying that the old and great General Fu had formed a rebel group, and ordered the execution of all of his relatives.
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