"I can keep him for a while, not for a lifetime."
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Three days after the Mid-Autumn Festival. Western Plains, Jia City.
Li Qingcheng woke up in a room.
As he opened his eyes, his first thought was that this was not the Palace. What's going on?
Li Qingcheng turned his head and cast a glance; the wooden room was damp and somber, with a burning brazier in the corner. On the floor lay a man, motionless and unwary.
He propped himself up on his elbows and looked to the floor, and saw someone he knew well — Zhang Mu, who was sleeping.
Zhang Mu's silver mask was gone. There was a bright red burn mark on the left side of his face. With Li Qingcheng around, Zhang Mu suddenly roused and sat up, looking at the Crown Prince.
Startled, Li Qingcheng stammered, "M-Mute?"
Hugging the quilt, Li Qingcheng gasped for a moment as his head pounded. "What happened? Where is this?"
The inn was utterly quiet, only the crackling sound of the burning brazier could be heard. Intermittently, Li Qingcheng recalled those recent events and dazedly asked, "How are things in the capital?"
The autumn rain fell outside as the climate turned wintry. There was an acrid smell of medicine coming from outside the room. Zhang Mu stood up to pour Li Qingcheng some water.
"Who rebelled?" Li Qingcheng asked. "Do you have a brush and paper? Mute, get your brush and ink and tell me about it."
Zhang Mu took a charcoal stick and wrote the word on the table: Empress.
Li Qingcheng gawked. Zhang Mu conveniently wiped the word off and gazed at the burning brazier, lost in thought.
"The medicine is ready." From outside was a woman's gentle voice. Without waiting for Li Qingcheng to answer, she pushed the door and entered.
Finally, he saw someone who could talk. Li Qingcheng hesitated for a moment and looked at Zhang Mu. The woman smiled and said, "Oh, you're awake?"
Zhang Mu solemnly took the medicine bowl. Li Qingcheng asked, "Where is this place?"
The woman sat down on the chair and replied, "Western Plains, Jia City. Are you feeling better? Hold out your hand."
"Ying-ge brought you from thousands of miles to here…" The woman pondered as she pressed Li Qingcheng's pulse. "You must be careful. The wind chill has already repressed your body. I will get the needle to relieve it for you. Do you have a headache?"
"Ying-ge?" Li Qingcheng was taken aback as Zhang Mu squinted at the woman.
The woman nodded in understanding. Li Qingcheng added, "What's your name? Is this your home?"
The woman faintly replied, "E'niang. What are you two going to do now?"
Looking at E'niang's appearance, Li Qingcheng presumed that she must have known Zhang Mu. Without thinking of asking her where she came from, he thoughtfully said, "Western Plains, Jia City… I came here when I was nine years old. Father Emperor took me to the river…"
E'niang said, "Your Highness, drink the medicine while it's hot. Listen to me."
E'niang said "Your Highness" with reluctance, showing that she really was not a common name. Though he was the Crown Prince, she regarded Li Qingcheng not as a superior, but as a little brother. Then, after a long deliberation, she opened her mouth and said, "The capital spreads out the news that you were burned to death."
Zhang Mu frowned and slightly shook his head. E'niang turned a blind eye and directly said, "In my opinion, after the burial of the Emperor and the Crown Prince in a few months, your mother…"
Li Qingcheng said, "The Empress is not my birth mother."
E'niang slowly nodded. "Another Prince will be appointed. I don't know who it will be. Does she have an heir?"
Li Qingcheng took a deep breath and replied, "She has."
Everything was premeditated. Li Qingcheng thought of the carriage outside the Palace that day.
Whereas the empress's descendants were still young, Li Qingcheng had several older brothers, all of whom were born of concubines.
The founding emperor of the Yu Country hadn't crowned an empress for nearly a decade ever since his first wife died of illness; only when the daughter of the influential Fang family entered the palace six years ago did Father Emperor confer her as one.
This was the usurpation that had been planned for six whole years. Li Qingcheng's limbs went cold and a chill surged in his heart.
Not thoroughly listening to E'niang, he instead asked, "Is the road from Western Plains to Beiliang sealed?"
Startled, E'niang asked, "You… What does Your Highness want to do?
Li Qingcheng said, "Fourth Uncle is in Beiliang. I have to find him. I must return to the capital before Fang…… Empress establishes a new Emperor!"
Zhang Mu immediately raised his hand, while E'niang's complexion changed as she said, "You must not!"
"How do you know that the Fourth Lord isn't with the Empress?" E'niang said. "In the three days after Ying-ge took you out of the capital, that woman executed more than ten clans. How could the Fourth Lord sit idly by if they had not been informed earlier?"
Li Qingcheng said, "He is my Father Emperor's brother! How could he sit by and watch our Li family's state fall into the hands of that woman?"
E'niang frowned and said, "You should drink the medicine first. I'll have someone ask about it."
Li Qingcheng said, "As you've mentioned, the situation must be tense outside. How can you ask?"
E'niang said, "You don't have to worry. The Jianghu people have their own ways…… Ying-ge?"
Zhang Mu looked intently at the medicine decoction. E'niang sighed, her eyes showing a hint of pity.
Li Qingcheng saw the hint of that sympathy. He was in such panic that he just wanted to find a place to cry. However, now was not the time for it. It would be good if only Qingyu was here… Fang Qingyu.
Li Qingcheng suddenly felt utterly devastated. Fang Qingyu was the pawn buried beside him by the Empress and Zhang Mu was the one who had come to protect him at the behest of his Father Emperor.
Zhang Mu knew E'niang. What is their relationship? Who was Zhang Mu before he entered the Palace?
The taste of medicine made Li Qingcheng frown as the scoop reached his lips. Nevertheless the temperature was just fine.
"Mu-ge." Li Qingcheng looked at Zhang Mu and said in a low voice, "Thank you."
Hearing this, Zhang Mu seemed rather insulted that he put the bowl down on the table and went out of the room like a gust of wind.
"What's the matter?" Li Qingcheng hurried out of bed.
E'niang all but pressed him back down. "Don't get up. Drink the medicine."
Li Qingcheng said, "I'll drink it myself."
Li Qingcheng almost spilled the medicine decoction all over himself as a loud bang came from the courtyard outside. Trembling, he put the medicine down and asked, "You and Zhang Mu… What's your relationship?"
E'niang faintly said, "A relationship between a superior and a subordinate."
Li Qingcheng asked, "He's your subordinate?"
E'niang replied, "I am his subordinate. You have to recuperate for a few days. Don't wander about. Someone will bring your food." After that, she cleared up the medicine bowl and left.
Leaning over the window, Li Qingcheng looked out; the autumn rain was pattering. Against a tiny hill behind E'niang's home, a brick wall was built outside the backyard to obstruct the mud flow to prevent landslides. At this time, Zhang Mu stood in the rain, in his guards' robe that was covered with mud as he viciously punched the brick wall.
Standing in the courtyard, Zhang Mu burst into confused destruction, smashing the entire zhangs of a long brick wall in half.
In the end, he gave another vicious punch as he hit the parasol tree in the courtyard. E'niang shouted in the rain. Someone came out to drag him, but was savagely pushed aside by Zhang Mu.
After Zhang Mu vented, he squatted in the courtyard in exhaustion, dripping water all over, looking rather lonesome.
Zhang Mu had always had a quite strange temper. In the past decade, Li Qingcheng met him many times in the Palace. When he was a child, he mustered up the courage and tried several times to befriend Zhang Mu, but Zhang Mu almost never responded.
What he remembered most was that once, a eunuch secretly took Li Qingcheng out of the Palace to visit a low-grade brothel. Zhang Mu went out alone to look for him. For fear that Zhang Mu would be angry, Li Qingcheng asked the eunuch to order two ladies to accompany him to drink, saying that he was curious, would randomly look around, and would go back as soon as he could.
Zhang Mu beat the eunuch until the latter vomited blood, allowing no explanation, and brought Li Qingcheng back to the Palace.
Li Qingcheng lay down after drinking the medicine. What would he do in the coming days? The road ahead was murky, with only a famous guard around. The Empress had surely laid out a dragnet for him. Once caught… Li Qingcheng could almost imagine spending his life in the Cold Palace.
He couldn't just sit there and wait. He had to do something.
When the new Emperor ascended the throne, he had to offer sacrifices to heaven. If he appeared in front of all the officials at that time…… Infeasible. The court would probably be wiped out by the Fang clan and would only refer to him as a substitute.
Would the big officials who were loyal to the orthodox guess that he had escaped?
What would they do? Present a petition for a postmortem examination? Look for the Crown Prince? Those targeted for persecution by the Empress must have been more than a dozen families. He must act now and tell these officials that he was still alive.
Let them make a temporary concession, keep their wealth, and remain inside the court to inquire about the situation for him? Who was loyal and who was treacherous? What if he got betrayed again?
This tangle reminded Li Qingcheng of the courtly and gentle Fang Qingyu that had cut his heart like a knife.
Action must be taken, Li Qingcheng decided. Otherwise, the capital would be completely in the Fang's hands by the time all the upright and outspoken officials were killed.
The servant brought the food over; a bowl of herbal boiled congee, accompanied by a bowl of scrambled eggs, and a small dish filled with stewed shrimps and salted beanstalk. It was rowdy outside as the door opened.
Li Qingcheng asked, "Where is this place? Inn?"
The servant bowed and said, "Is Young Master feeling better? This place is E'niang's Qihuang Hall. A place particularly for treating brothers on the street as well as the people of Jia City."
No wonder there was a faint smell of medicine. Li Qingcheng was so hungry that he received the bowl and devoured it, clearing off the food on the table. He felt alive once again.
He tossed about in bed for a while before he got up, put on his robe, and went out of the room, still walking unsteadily like he was stepping on cotton.
There was a long line outside the medicine hall. Behind the counter, E'niang and several senior physicians checked the patients' pulses. Seeing Li Qingcheng, she said softly, "It's good that the Young Master comes out for a walk to aid digestion. Don't go far. It's raining and cold outside."
Li Qingcheng nodded, looking at the worried patients in the hall. It was true that each had their own hardships, himself included.
In the side courtyard outside the hall, Zhang Mu was squatting in front of the porch, digging into the food in the very large bowl he was holding.
Wasn't he E'niang's superior? Why wasn't he served better? Li Qingcheng thought in his heart, walking towards Zhang Mu.
Zhang Mu's handsome right face was facing Li Qingcheng at first, before he'd turned his head and tilted his face quickly at the sound of footsteps.
"You can talk," Li Qingcheng said. "Mute, why do you never speak?"
With his mouth full of food, Zhang Mu kept chewing without answering him.
Li Qingcheng squatted down and earnestly said, "Mute, I have to go to Beiliang to look for my Fourth Uncle."
Zhang Mu slowly shook his head. Li Qingcheng said, "This can't drag on any longer! I'm already well."
"Fang is purging the court. Once the old minister of the vassal state is killed by her, everything would be too late…"
Zhang Mu put down the bowl as he drew a "four" in the mud with the end of his chopstick, before then crossing it out.
"What do you mean?" Li Qingcheng asked. "He won't care?"
Zhang Mu nodded, picked up the bowl and continued eating.
Li Qingcheng said, "Impossible! What good does it do him to ignore the Fang?"
Zhang Mu said nothing. Li Qingcheng stood up for a moment before he ran out of the backyard and mounted a horse.
Zhang Mu gave a sudden start. Li Qingcheng said, "Go? To Beiliang."
Zhang Mu frowned. Li Qingcheng no longer said anything as he resolutely turned the horse and hurried out of Qihuang Hall in a drizzle, picking out the road ahead and galloping towards the North.
As the galloping horse gradually disappeared into the distance, Zhang Mu chased, leaving half a bowl of food in front of the courtyard.
Li Qingcheng rode through the rain for a long time, the horse's hooves splashing the muddy water everywhere. He searched through his body and found a jade pendant, a gold lock, and the brass fish given to him by Fang Qingyu. He put away the brass fish and considered the gold lock as silver.
As the rain grew heavier, Zhang Mu came rushing in the deluge, following Li Qingcheng at a discreet distance.
Li Qingcheng had never noticed that after escaping from the capital, he was on the road on an empty stomach for three days. After taking the medicine, he went on his way again without recuperating his weak and powerless body.
There was heavy rain, thunderclaps and lightning flashes, and the darkness between heaven and earth when he passed the mountain that separated Western Plains and Xiliang.
Li Qingcheng lingered in front of the boundary marker for a long time. Finally losing all his strength, he slowly fell down into the water, his despondent eyes staring at the sky as he gasped for breath.
Zhang Mu stepped out from behind a tree. Carrying the Crown Prince once again, he mounted the horse, and turned around back to Western Plains.
This time, the rain was fatal. Li Qingcheng had gone out again despite being bogged down from all sides by the cold, anxiousness and illness, which caused him to have a high fever. With E'niang's magical hands of acupuncture and medication, he was finally brought back.
After this serious illness, Li Qingcheng opened his eyes again, remembering nothing.
"Who are you?" Li Qingcheng asked, at a loss. "Where is this?"
Zhang Mu gawked at the Crown Prince.
Li Qingcheng propped up and looked from Zhang Mu to E'niang, his eyes glazed over. "Why am I here?"
E'niang said, "Ying-ge? How could you let him go out like that in this rainy weather?!"
Zhang Mu's voice was somewhat shaky and his pronunciation was unclear. "I can keep him for a while, not for a lifetime."
E'niang, unable to say anything more, packed up the silver needles and left the room.
Zhang Mu quietly looked at Li Qingcheng as Li Qingcheng also looked at Zhang Mu. They stared at each other for a full quarter of an hour in the silence of the room. Li Qingcheng's eyes were clear, and the furrow on brows that had lasted days unfurled.
"What's your name?" Li Qingcheng hesitantly asked. "I remember you were… someone I knew very well."
Zhang Mu took a small brass fish from the table. Li Qingcheng reached out and touched the warm, wide palm of Zhang Mu's hand before touching the brass fish.
"Remember?" Zhang Mu asked.
Li Qingcheng blankly shook his head. Zhang Mu turned round to get Fang Qingyu's "Yunshu."
Li Qingcheng asked, "What is this?"
Zhang Mu answered, "Sword. What about this one?"
Li Qingcheng shook his head.
Zhang Mu put down the sword. "Don't you remember at all?"
Li Qingcheng reached out his hand to touch Zhang Mu's face. Zhang Mu sat motionless and silent on the bed, letting the Crown Prince's cold fingers touch the red traces on his face. After a long, long time, Li Qingcheng asked, "What happened to your face? Can it be healed?"
"You've entirely forgotten about the burning fire from back when we were together as children," Zhang Mu said.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Joyce.