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Chapter 1: Despair and Rebirth
Hong Zheng era, year twenty-four, winter seemed colder than all of the previous years. It was only today that heavy snow stopped falling.
Thirty li outside of the capital, a black horse carrying two people galloped passed a person who was searching for someone's whereabouts. Horse hooves continuously struck the snow-accumulated earth and the distance increased. Shortly after, it began to snow again.
"Your highness, the horse cannot run much longer while carrying the both of us… set me down here." The voice of the person sitting behind him was faint but the tone was gentle as usual.
"No, you are heavily injured, if thrown into the snow, you will die shortly after." Jing Shao wiped his face and then urged the horse to continue galloping. After he was released from prison, he realized the situation was not quite right. He and the injured prince consort were being pressured. If he had not killed a lieutenant and stolen a horse, he suspected that the two of them would have been beheaded just a short distance away from the capital.
"My body is already at it's limits, sooner or later I will die. You should quickly let me down." The person behind him sounded anxious. The horse was a colt, they had been riding for a while now and the horse was beginning to tire. If the two of them continued like this, neither of them would survive.
"No. If we die, we die together." Jing Shao said loudly against the cold wind. This person was his prince consort. He had favored his side consort and neglected his official wife. But in the end, the one who accompanied him in prison was this person, the person he had neglected for over 10 years!
Jing Shao was the second son of Empress Yuan. At the age of fourteen he joined the army and entered the battlefield, securing victory and earning his title. He was allowed to take a wife. In order to maintain peace within the family, there was an unwritten rule that all children born from side consorts and concubines must marry a male wife. He was birthed by Empress Yuan, yet Empress Wu unexpectedly forced him to marry a male wife, which ruined his qualifications to inherit the empire. Therefore, he was resentful and never gave his prince consort the respect and honor he deserved. He also refused to help his older brother obtain the throne…
"Haha, what qualifications do I, Mu Han Zhang, have to have your highness die together with me?" the person behind him laughed bitterly.
"I am sorry. If we survive this ordeal, I will listen to you." Jing Shao comforted the person behind him while tightening his grip on the reins. Another 5 li and they will reach Wang Yue slope. There, there is a narrow trail, he discovered while hunting, that could be used to escape.
"Ke ke…" because Mu Han Zhang had spoken in the harsh wind, he could not help but cough on the Prince's back. A wisp of blood trickled down the corner of his pale lips. While in prison he had blocked an attack for Jing Shao and injured his internal organs. The pain had already subsided but now due to the coldness, he began to cough up blood. He could not help but offer a wry smile, simply lying on Jing Shao's back.
After so many years, none of his maids or concubines dared brave this difficulty with him, not resenting them was impossible, but this person had insisted on accompanying him until death. Just then, Mu Han Zhang almost tumbled off.
He was the son of a noble family, born to a concubine. He had never asked for a title, instead, only asking for the chance to make a name for himself during the civil examinations. However, his father and step-mother had married him off to the Prince of Cheng as a male wife a year before his test! He was a man, yet his freedom had been taken away and he was confined to stay in the house. He would no longer be able to achieve his goals. After so many years, he did not know whether to resent his step-mother or blame his irresponsible husband.
"There, in front!" Behind them came the sound of hoofbeats and colliding armor, as well as disorderly shouting.
Jing Shao used the whip to urge the horse to run faster towards Wang Yue slope.
Swish ~ Swish ~ The sound of iron tipped arrows breaking through the air came from behind them. Jing Shao moved sideways to avoid the arrows, taking the person behind him with him.
"Hold on to me tightly!" Jing Shao shouted.
Mu Han Zhang wrapped his hands around Jing Shao's waist and leaned on his back in order to match his movement.
After reaching Wang Yue slope and going into the forest trail, it would be easy to avoid arrows. Jing Shao skillfully maneuvered the horse into the forest, leaving the men pursuing them behind.
"Does the wound hurt?" Jing Shao asked after he yanked the bridle to help the horse jump over a large rock and land on the ground.
"No… pain…" The response was becoming weaker and weaker.
"Mu Han Zhang, don't sleep!" Jing Shao frowned, anxiously calling him. "Just finish crossing Mount Feng Yue and we will reach Yan prefecture, the territory of my former subordinate. They will help us avoid capture." He comforted while trying to encourage himself. He had been in prison for so long his clothes were tatty and his body, thin. Making it this far had been out of sheer willpower alone.
"Nnnnghh ~" the horse under them suddenly neighed madly. Jing Shao quickly pulled the horse to a stop and unmounted. It was unknown who had laid an animal trap there but, looking closely, the horse's hoof had gotten caught in it.
"You should leave me here." Mu Han Zhang made an effort to prop himself up on the clear road.
"We've already crossed half of Mount Feng Yue. We only need to finish crossing, I will carry you down the mountain on my back!" Jing Shao looked around, on one side was a cliff and on the other was a steep slope of thick grass. The mountain road would make it difficult for their pursuers to catch up. Without saying anything else, he carried him on his back and ran towards the steep slope.
"Over there! Seize them!"
"The first to take the Prince of Cheng's head will be rewarded one thousand liang of silver!"
Swish ~ Swish~ Following the command, an upheaval number of arrows cut through the forest, Jing Shao evaded the arrows in extremely dire straits.
Woosh~ A stray arrow pierced his right leg, Jing Shao staggered and Mu Han Zhang tumbled off of him.
"Your highness!" Mu Han Zhang struggled to get up to support him.
Jing Shao looked at him and discovered, to his surprise, that his previously pale complexion had gain a bit of color and his spirit, which was previously resigned to death, had also improved to a good state. Naturally he knew that this was his final effort. He could not help but feel a pang of sorrow in his heart, abruptly pulling the out the arrow and dragging the person with him to flee.
"Hahaha, let's see where you can escape to," a forth ranked soldier with a broadsword, laughed as walked over. The two of them frantically escaped into the forest until they reached a dead end. In front of them was a cliff and behind them, the pursuing troops. They were trapped. Jing Shao placed Mu Han Zhang between himself and the cliff before turning around and sweeping a kick at the fourth ranked soldier, who was caught unprepared and fell to the ground. Without giving him a chance to recover, he seized the broad sword and stabbed him. Gripping the sword, he swung at the soldiers and slashed at the cavalry's horses, causing the horses to trip, and the soldiers on top of them to fall off the cliff.
Woosh~. The troops that followed behind saw the ground littered with corpses and in front of them was the bloodthirsty Prince of Cheng, they didn't dare move forward, opting instead to draw their bow and arrows.
"Hmph…" What did it matter if he had a sword or not? Jing Shao ripped out the arrow from his shoulder and threw it back. The screams of soldiers were heard as he charged into the battle array. He killed remaining troops but was also left in a devastating condition. Overlooking the cliff, he could clearly see the second wave of pursuers that were already heading their way. Looking at the sword in his hand, he could kill ten but he could not kill the hundreds of soldiers pursuing them.
With a bloody sword, he returned to the edge of the cliff. The blood on the blade and the blood on him were all mixed together, leaving a bloody trail. He took the person who was leaning on the stone into his embrace, the person's face was pale and he was on his last breath.
"Jun Qing, have you ever had complaints about me?" Jing Shao carefully wiped the blood at the corner of that person's mouth. For the first time, he looked at this person, his prince consort, and finally realized that this person was more beautiful than all of his consorts and concubines. He did not have the charm of a seductress but more of a prideful beauty that was suitable to him. Currently, that pair of beautiful eyes was reflecting his stubbled face. How ironic, that in prison, through senseless chatter, he would find this person to be a loyal confidante. If he hadn't wasted this opportunity in last 10 years would things have been better?
"How could I not have complaints? If it wasn't for you, I would have already made a name for myself in the civil examinations and entered the imperial court." Jun Qing was his courtesy name, but this man has never called him so. Mu Han Zhang smiled slowly and wiped away the blood on Jing Shao's face, "But I can't blame you. You are a capable person. It was I, who ruined your chance to inherit the kingdom… ke ke…"
"Hahaha! I am capable? What capabilities? I've been muddleheaded my entire life. Instead of enjoying my days in leisure and comfort, I tried to obtain something that was beyond my abilities, and now that I want to enjoy my days leisurely it is too late. I am a fool… ha ha ha…." Jing Shao held the person in his arms tightly. Looking up at the heavens, he smiled bitterly, thinking about the past. His entire life was filled with battles and schemes. He had favored a consort and allowed her to undermine his wife's authority. Ultimately, it was this person, who he had neglected for 10 years that stood steadily by his side. Out of spite, he had refused to help his older brother ascend the throne, yet his brother had painstakingly kept assisting him in the dark. Regrettable, pitiable, in the end his life was a joke!
"My entire life… it is also a joke…" Mu Han Zhang sighed lightly, "if there is… an afterlife…" He did not get to finish the sentence as his breathing had stopped. His beautiful eyes slowly closed and his slender hands fell onto the green and black stone, lifeless. Jing Shao was unaware that the sky had once again began to snow, until a snowflake landed on that person's long eyelashes and melted. As he gave a sorrowful cry, his tears fell.
"If there is an afterlife, I must treat you well. I will spend my entire life making it up to you…" Jing Shao said softly, carrying that person into his embrace. Looking into the distance he saw the Empress's troops approaching… He heard the sound of hooves behind him and slowly stood up. He had been invincible his entire life, even if he had to die, he would not die in their hands.
He jumped down the cliff. The mountain breeze brushing past his ears, Jing Shao held the person in his embrace tightly, "I won't let go of you, we will meet again shortly at Naihe Qiao…"
Opening his eyes from he darkness, he did not see a heavenly paradise nor did he see fierce looking ghosts that demanded his life. Instead his surrounding was completely covered in red silk and the remnants of used candles. He brought his hand to knead his temple. He was suffering from a severe headache. Slowly sitting up and recovering his senses, he immediately discovered the presence of someone lying next to him. That person's bright red robe was torn, their black hair disorderly scattered on their exposed chest, revealing smooth and fair skin covered in bruises.
Stretching his hand over to brush aside the hair that was covering the person's face, revealed a distinctly beautiful face… Jun Qing!
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