Early the next morning, when it was yet light and all was silent, the sound of cicadas in the small courtyard seemed to be particularly clear. Should one drink of the dewdrops that gathered overnight, perhaps that sound would last longer.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo was used to rising early. Within the Cold Palace, she had to use her own hands to get things done since there were times when An Xia was too busy.
A red candle that has yet to be exhausted still lit the chamber interior and the Ye Ming Pearl’s glow was gradually dimming. Tang Zhuo Zhuo turned over and slowly sat herself up.
An Xia and An Zhi came in to help her freshen up. Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s eyelids still felt heavy as she pinched up grains of scented salts and dried flowers with her fingertips. She casually asked a question, “Did His Highness return to the main palace yesterday?”
The one serving at her side was An Zhi. Though she felt surprised at Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s question, the superficial and faint smile on her face remained unchanged. Her voice was as sweet as honey when she spoke, which made those who heard become at ease.
“Replying to my lady, His Highness first left for the West Pavilion, and then returned to the main palace.”
Tang Zhuozhuo’s hand halted for a fraction. She tilted her head to the side and tucked a long lock of hair from her temple behind her ear. Her apricot eyes glowed like flowing water.
The West Pavilion was only an unnoticeable library building hidden away in the eastern part of the palace grounds. That place held all sorts of obscure and age-old books. With the exception of some travel journals, a majority were books on military, warfare, and principles of governing the country.
But as this was the case, other than Huo Qiu entering the West Pavilion, anyone else within the palace could only dream of accessing it.
Tang Zhuozhuo recalled in her previous life that not long after Huo Qiu rose to the throne, some mysteries gradually emerged into the open, including that of the West Pavilion.
Not only were there books within the West Pavilion, but people as well!
Some of these people naturally included Huo Qiu’s strategists. The aides and staff under him were plenty whose fame was known far and wide, besides the genius strategist Han Sunzi and Liu Hanjiang, who was as elusive as a ghost.
The former could be regarded as Huo Qiu’s teacher by half and the latter was referred to as the Imperial Teacher. Her impression of them was not deep, only that Liu Hanjiang was an utterly miserable person.
This person was quite scholarly* and was immensely talented since young. While he earned Huo Qiu’s high regard, unfortunately, he also looked highly upon himself.
*腹有诗书- literally ‘a stomach full of verse and books’. Basically, he might as well have lived, eaten and breathed literature.
At the most crucial moment, he turned his weapon and switched to the sixth prince Han Qi’s side. During this period, Huo Qiu locked himself in the study day in and day out to discuss countermeasures without sleep or rest, even to the point of falling severely ill a few times. Finally, he gained an upperhand first and snatched the emperor’s seat.
During that time, Huo Qiu came to look for her despite being dragged down by illness. He appeared wan and sallow, unlike usual, and yet Tang Zhuo Zhuo didn’t want to be bothered. He was delirious from fever and though he cried out ‘Jiao Jiao’, Tang Zhuo Zhuo only passively listened with a smile.
Afterwards, Liu Hanjiang’s fate need not be said. He was tortured mercilessly to become just white bones within the Chongjian Emperor, Huo Qiu’s hands. His bitter and shrill cries left even veterans who’d served several dynasties to tremble.
Upon calculation, the moment of Hanjiang’s defection was down to a mere four month’s time.
Tang Zhuozhuo’s eyelashes quivered softly as she exhaled a relieved sigh in her heart. She owed him so much but now, there was finally something she could aid him in.
The delicate crisp sound of a jade bowl making contact with the tabletop brought Tang Zhuo Zhuo back to the present and her brow became taut. An Xia smiled and spoke, “My lady, please have some soup.”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo nodded slightly as she gazed upon the carved depiction of small flowers on the bowl surface. The soup within was crystal clear and rich in fragrance; her eyes brightened at the sight.
After the morning meal, Tang Zhuo Zhuo changed into a dress embroidered with red peonies and cloud patterns before bringing along a few people to head directly to the West Pavilion.
Besides, she had always been interested in ancient texts, so despite the uncertainty of whether she would be permitted to enter, at least it wouldn’t arouse people’s suspicions.
With each successive trip there, there surely would be something to discover; it’s not as if she wasn’t allowed to provide some clues to Huo Qiu.
In the eyes of the public, both strategists lived in seclusion up in the mountains. In reality, they belonged under Huo Qiu’s camp with their identities kept in the shadows.
What the situation is truly like can only be known once she was there.
The morning sun had only just risen, resembling a big, broiling hot, round brazier hanging upon the beam of a room. Tang Zhuozhuo’s forehead was perspiring, yet it made her appearance become more brilliant like that of fragmented sunlight. The people around her could not draw their eyes away from her.
The West Pavilion was located not too far from the main palace, but it was quite some distance from her Yiqui Palace. When Tang Zhuo Zhuo arrived at the West Pavilion, she was unexpectedly prevented from entering by someone.
That person also happened to be someone familiar.
In her past life, he was the eunuch who served by Zhang Desheng’s side, named Sui Chang. He was immensely intelligent, someone who was accustomed to surmising his master’s heart, and was quite capable.
Sui Chang’s eyes widened at this encounter. It was clearly not the hottest hour of the day yet, but sweat was already dripping down his face. This mistress was, customarily, hardly seen in public; normally, other than being at Yiqiu Palace, rare were the times she stepped out the door.
So why was she suddenly interested in visiting the West Pavilion today?
Surprised he may be, but Sui Chang dared not slacken for his master was quite firm in his command. He wouldn’t dare to let anyone trespass even if he had all the courage in the world.
“Your Highness, please halt your steps. His Highness’ order forbids anyone from entering as they wish.”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo knew within her heart that it was to be expected and in that moment, a strange sort of light entered her beautiful eyes. Sui Chang took one look at her visage and immediately lowered his head.
It was no wonder the master’s East Palace had so few concubines. With such a beauty as the Crown Princess, it was not hard to ensnare the soul of any person.
“I came to borrow a few travel journals to relieve boredom, why am I not allowed to enter?” Tang Zhuo Zhuo frowned and realistically saturated her voice with impatience.
Sui Chang’s face trembled in hearing this and lowered his head even further. Yet, his body refused to budge an inch.
Tang Zhuozhuo paid him no heed as she fiddled with her clear and glistening fingernails. Seeing that she was close to accomplishing what she came for, she quietly replied, “I will not make it difficult for you. You can first return to inform His Highness while I wait here. As to whether I can enter or not, I will obey His Highness’ decision.”
Upon hearing this, Sui Chang called for someone to head towards the main palace to notify Huo Qiu, while Tang Zhuo Zhuo headed towards a nearby gazebo to avoid the sun.
“Your Highness, actually, we still have some travel journals in our residence you have yet to finish reading.” An Xia thought she had forgotten and leaned over to remind her quietly.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo paused and immediately responded with an unchanging expression, “I have already skimmed through those but they are not detailed.”
“His Highness’ collection of books will surely be superior to ones I found offhandedly.”
An Xia’s complexion brightened and firmly attested to it.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo distantly concluded that it was about time someone returned and so rose from her seat, prepared to return to her residence.
Today ended with not being allowed entrance to the West Pavilion, but with this visit, she was able to indirectly confirm her conjectures. This trip couldn’t be considered a failure.
Thinking this way, Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s heart relaxed significantly and even her smile deepened further.
This was the scene he saw when Huo Qiu arrived. She was a woman who had shed the resentment and irritable temper of the past, whose smile was so bright, it was comparable to a peony within the Imperial gardens at the height of its bloom. His hand, held behind his back, couldn’t help but lightly clench a few times.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo heard the sound of approaching footsteps. She lightly touched the wrinkles on her cuffs as she called out, “Well? Am I allowed to enter the West Pavilion or not?”
These words seemed a bit forceful, but this had always been Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s style.
Zhang Desheng had been hurriedly following behind Huo Qiu. His mouth twitched at these words. He observed his master’s facial expression from the side and shrank back his neck.
Huo Qiu’s sleeves swayed in the wind. His gaze was deep as he tapped his long fingers on the railing, then spoke with indifference after a while. “What do you want to enter the West Pavilion for?”
He deliberately suppressed the depth of his mood from his voice, leaving it seemingly dull and no longer mellow. Instead, it was mixed with a bitter coldness.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo was astounded and jolted in place before turning around to bow towards Huo Qiu in a curtsey. “Greetings to Your Highness.”
Though the smile on her face quickly faded, she only showed her uncertainty and hesitance in her voice.
A gloomy light skimmed over Huo Qiu’s eyes, as if a haze had shrouded over his gaze. He looked at the woman before him, who was delicate and lovely like the dewdrops of the early morning. When he brought to mind again her smile just now, his mind became jumbled.
Even now, she continually stirred his heartstrings.
“This one already finished perusing the books in my residence. Since I had heard that Your Highness’ West Pavilion contained books in abundance, I thought to borrow a few.”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo kept her head bowed, the aura she displayed earlier now completely gone, though she kept her voice calm. When she didn’t hear a sound from Huo Qiu, she quickly raised her head to meet his gaze and then continued speaking. “I originally bid someone to enquire Your Highness, but I didn’t want to trouble Your Highness to make a trip in person.”
Huo Qiu nodded lightly, not knowing how much he believed her, turned around and left without uttering a sound.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo was left a bit dumbfounded as she wasn’t sure what he meant by this. Though he came in person and yet would not offer her a single word, did this mean she could enter the West Pavilion or not?
She had not held much hope from the start though.
Huo Qiu had taken a few steps, but when he didn’t hear footsteps behind him, he turned around to find Tang Zhuo Zhuo still standing under the gazebo. Her hair glistened in the light and her figure was straight and graceful, appearing just like the pampered young lady she was when she had fallen into the waters during a certain year.
She had still been a child who was entirely soaked through with her eyes closed tight and body trembling. When he had fished her out, Tang Zhuo Zhuo was unbelievably meek and subdued, fumbling to wrap her arms around his neck. His heated body was unexpectedly soft.
He had never been this close to a girl before so her faint, delicate fragrance caused him to be unbearably panic-stricken. Once he set her down, he hastily fled.
After that, he saw her by another person’s side laughing with abandon, proud as the scorching sun in the sky, and yet that person couldn’t be entrusted with her for life. When he witnessed her pass her coming-of-age ceremony, he couldn’t resist executing tactics to marry her.
Consequently he also suffered thoroughly, her disregard and loathing.
Dazzling light reflected upon the tree leaves, and then fell atop Huo Qiu’s eyelids, bringing him back to himself. His eyes became ice cold and with a voice that cut like a knife, “Are you not coming?”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo met his indifferent gaze with a bashful smile, realizing he was allowing her to enter. So no longer feeling reserved, she followed behind him with confidence. Yet even at the distance of a few steps, she could still feel the coldness emanating from him.
His dark green attire embroidered with clouds patterns, swayed with his unhurried steps. She was unsure if it was due to the torrid weather or some other reason, but the palms of Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s hands were sweaty. As she was keeping her head lowered, stepping on a pebble by the roadside, she did not notice that Huo Qiu had come to a halt with furrowed brows and bumped into him in full view of everyone.
“Ah!” The cool scent of mint pierced into her mind along with the feeling of pain on her forehead. Tang Zhuo Zhuo staggered a little as tears began to appear in her eyes.
Huo Qiu calmly released his hand from around her waist. Even with the barrier of clothing, he could still feel the softness of her body. His fingertips suddenly felt a bit numb and he lowered his gaze.
“Your Highness.” Tang Zhuo Zhuo caressed her forehead as she lifted her head to look into his eyes but was only met with a pair of depthless, dark pools. His whole body emanated an unyielding, pressing aura and the sweet scent of refreshing mint. Tang Zhuo Zhuo hurriedly took a few steps back, her bright apricot eyes brimming with tears.
“Appearing so undignified, how unsightly.” Huo Qiu said in a deep, low voice. His sharp brows furrowed tightly, yet his fingers couldn’t help but twitch at his sides.
He knew she originated from a family of generals with a proud disposition and was pampered. He had never seen her tearful visage before, except during their wedding night.
She’d been trapped beneath him wearing an expression of suffering and forbearance, and even a sliver of loathing. Until the end, she cried like a child abandoned by the world.
He too, didn’t feel much better, feeling hurt and at a loss of what to do. He couldn’t bear to see her in tears, so he could only postpone it and kissed away each drop of her tears.
Experiencing that bitter taste in his mouth spreading into his heart, that night became particularly long, Huo Qiu thought. Her suffering was caused by his own hands.
But what does it matter? Since he had already made this decision, he should provide well for her, and give her the dignity and nobility she deserved.
Only she was as proud as a peacock. Even if he crossed a thousand mountains and bodies of water, her splendid feathers would never be displayed for him.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo had become accustomed to singing contrary tunes with him, to habitually refute whenever she opened her mouth. Yet, when she looked at the sadness hidden in his eyes, her momentum weakened and she became silent as she bit her lips.
Huo Qiu’s sharp brows furrowed even further. Without looking at her again, he headed towards the pavilion in large strides. Those tasked with guarding couldn’t hurry fast enough to kneel on the ground as Tang Zhuo Zhuo left An Xia and An Zhi outside, and followed behind Huo Qiu alone.
As soon as she entered, the arid, hot feeling on her face was overcome by the oncoming damp coolness, and even the air she breathed in carried a deep chill and musky smell of books.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo was faced with a dozen shelves of books and her apricot eyes rounded in incredulity. She turned to the man a few steps away from her and exclaimed, “They say that Your Highness’ knowledge and martial art skills are incomparable. Now that this one has seen, that reputation is well-deserved.”
If he wasn’t truly passionate, then he would never have gathered so many ancient texts and singular books into this hall to repeatedly read all the time. It was no wonder that he was so outstanding.
Her every word was clear, every sentence full of praise; the astonishment in her voice could not be doubted. Huo Qiu halted his steps. “It is only exaggerated praise of an underserved reputation.”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo lowered her eyes and lightly laughed, while subtly glancing about her surroundings. The interior of the West Pavilion was expansive with the books seemingly arranged randomly, while the bricks and stones making up the wall were old and plain. Tang Zhuo Zhuo chose a book at random and taking a look at it under the faint light in the pavilion, saw that it was a text on the tiger seal.
She rapidly lost her interest. Huo Qiu observed her changing expression and a sliver of a smile flashed across his eyes and disappeared just as quickly. He spoke with a voice as mellow as decades old wine.
“Were you not originally a mighty general’s daughter? Unexpectedly, you are unable to read military books?”
He spoke plainly, yet Tang Zhuo Zhuo could hear the mockery within, and so waved the book in her hands in front of him, saying with a ridiculing tone, “Then this one will take this back to Yiqiu Palace to read for a few days. I hope Your Highness won’t miss it.”
Huo Qiu rarely saw her look so lively and an unidentifiable sense of serene light entered the depths of his chilly eyes. He responded with a low ‘hmm’ and turned his eyes away from her head of jet-black hair.
“I did not collect many travel journals, you can just come to have a look.”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s body was slim and though shadowed in the dimness, her small face was alluring and beautiful. Though she followed obediently behind Huo Qiu, she was not being simple-minded; she observed her surroundings carefully and noted in her memory places she felt amiss.
With this visit, she planned on exchanging a few books every three to five days. Huo Qiu, who would come and go, should probably begin to relax his vigilance after a time. Should there be no evidence in the West Pavilion, then she c ould find a method to follow Huo Qiu around. Whatever the case, she must seize evidence of Liu Hanjiang’s weakness.
At least, she owed him this.
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