He Xia was located on a high ledge of the mountain, gazing eastwards with his hands behind his back.
In the heavy snow, in the quiet residence underneath his eyes, hid a person called Pingting.
Pingting, his maid of fifteen years, his playmate, and music critic. She who accompanied him as he read, watched over his sword practices, and clapped while cheering.
Who could easily give up fifteen years? From cute little children to a well-bred lady, Bai Pingting of the Jing-An Ducal Residence was also one of Gui Le’s two famous qin players. She had truly been a budding flower in the valleys.
So many people had looked out for her; so many people had praised her.
He had quietly protected, cherished and took her to all sorts of places like the battlefield. He took her to see the amoured calvary and the dancing sandstorms.
She was supposed to be his. In these circumstances, she was his.
But he’d never thought he’d be forcing her to stay.
His Pingting was a phoenix with brightly coloured wings who waited for a man of indomitable spirit to take her by the hand and from there, unite.
That was her wish, her happiness until the end of the world.
Only He Xia, rather than Chu Beijie, should have the greatest portion of Pingting’s heart.
Yet the one who had stolen her heart was Chu Beijie.
It could be anyone, anyone apart from Chu Beijie.
How could he allow his Bai Pingting to be with Chu Beijie, his sworn enemy? How could she stargaze with him, talk about life with him, sing for him and play qin for him?
He couldn’t accept it. His gentleness as he endured parting with Bai Pingting was exchanged for someone as cheap as Chu Beijie.
He could feel the snowflakes flying with the wind.
The sky was almost dark. It was already the sixth today.
“Master?” Dongzhuo walked to the high place and stopped ten feet behind He Xia.
“Dongzhuo, your voice is both heavy and sad.” He Xia’s voice became serious as he asked, “Do you think Chu Beijie will hurry back in time?”
“Are you upset that Chu Beijie is unable to hurry back.”
Dongzhuo shook his head, hesitating. He took his time before looking up and saying, “Master, please order us to attack. The residence has very little ability to defend and with Master’s skill, it isn’t difficult to capture Pingting alive. When she comes back with us, we can naturally persuade her to change her mind.”
He Xia did not answer. His back, illuminated by the setting sun in the west, appeared very distant.
“Master, don’t you feel any pity for her since we grew up together?” Dongzhuo had an unbearably sad feeling in his chest from watching He Xia’s back. He knelt down and bashed his head onto the ground, crying, “Master, you know that Chu Beijie is unable to return, yet why do make Pingting’s heart break by waiting?”
A dark light flashed in the depths of He Xia’s raven-black eyes, a twisted pain that mercilessly surfaced. It quickly skimmed over his eyes and was gone.
“Not only do I need her heart to break,” He Xia’s eyes reflected the little dots of fire over at the residence as he grinded his teeth, “I need her to lose all hope in Chu Beijie.”
As night fell on the residence, it became even quieter.
Even the outskirts of a graveyard could not be more silent. Not even the slightest sound of the snowflakes flying in the air could be heard. It seemed like an illusion to the eyes.
Like a dream. When one reached a hand, the dream dispersed, leaving emptiness.
Pingting watched the east.
Time was ruthless, slipping away little by little from her slender fingers.
She had been staring out there for a long time, not blinking at all, as if this was the most important thing of her life since birth.
The east was where Chu Beijie would return from. She could not see the main, straight road to the east since it was blocked by the mountain forests, where He Xia and his men were camped. Pingting did not worry. They could stop Chu Beijie’s progress.
Today was the sixth.
The moon had already risen, yet where was Chu Beijie?
Zuiju quietly opened the curtain. She had been standing outside the door for a long time, long enough to feel that the date of the sixth had been imprinted into her heart.
She approached Pingting, peeking at the beautiful and dignified, turned face in the moonlight. It sharply stabbed at her heart, causing her to momentarily lose her balance.
Pingting turned towards her and smiled. The collected smile was more heartbreaking than hysterical crying.
But this thing had become something that had to be said now.
Zuiju stared at her, not letting any hesitation into her eyes. She felt a cold north wind sweep into her chest. It was cold enough to freeze her solid.
She thought her words carefully before opening her mouth. “Because of the death of the two princes, the King is currently without an heir. It would be good if the King’s other concubines are able to give birth to a prince that can succeed the throne. If not, the Duke will one day become the owner of Dong Lin.”
Just a few phrases sent Zuiju’s chest heaving as if fearing that her own will was not strong enough. She didn’t dare let her gaze waver and continued to firmly look at Pingting.
“Go on,” replied Pingting in a light voice.
“If Miss’ unborn child is a boy, then he will be the oldest son of the Duke.”
“Zuiju,” Pingting’s eyes finally became serious as they rested on her face, “what are you trying to say?”
Zuiju stiffened and bowed her head in deep thought for a few moments. She suddenly bit hard on her lip, letting the bloody taste flow through her teeth. She lowered her voice, “Miss clearly understands that this child’s identity is important to Dong Lin. He Xia is a formidable man, so Miss must not ever let the Duke’s flesh and blood fall into his hand.” Her words were straight to the point, no room for disagreement. She turned towards the bowl of warmed medicine on the table behind her and brought it to Pingting.
Pingting’s gaze fell on the murky black concoction, and her first reaction was to take a step back.
“Miss, your child is very young, and the Duke does not know yet. You and the Duke are still young.” Zuiju carried the medicine and took another menacing step.
Pingting’s vision was suddenly blurred. She protected her lower abdomen and hurriedly took four or five steps back until she met the wall. As her backbone hit the cold wall, she managed to calm down. She stood up a little straighter, looked at the medicine and said, “By the end of the sixth, the Duke will definitely hurry back.”
“And what if he doesn’t?”
Pingting grinded her teeth, stressing each syllable, “He will definitely be back.”
“But what if he really can’t hurry back in time?” Zuiju hardened her heart, remaining ruthless.
The silence was choking, overpowering everything.
Pingting glared hard at Zuiju.
Her nails had dug into her palms, oblivious to pain.
Her eyes were no longer rippling gentle waves. They were more like flowing black mercury gradually solidifing into black stones. Her eyes were strong and decisive with the faint flickering of light.
“If he really doesn’t arrive in time,” Pingting lifted her white neck proudly, “and the moon passes half the sky, then I shall drink it.”
Zuiju studied Pingting carefully, exhaling a deep breath.
She put the bowl of medicine on the table, knelt down and heavily thumped her head three times. She then went out the door, without saying another word.
The physician then stumbled into the side room, fell onto the pillows on a small bed and wept.
Chu Beijie was still wildly galloping in the darkness. The hills rolled past him, each one creating the illusion of the secluded residence that was still out of sight.
He didn’t dare imagine what it would be there when he arrived.
Had the plum bossoms opened?
Was there still the bright timbre of qin?
Was there smoke?
Three thousand and seven hundred soldiers galloped behind him. One thousand of his original elites were too exhausted and had returned to the capital, leaving two thousand with Chen Mu’s one thousand seven hundred soldiers.
Hundreds of horses.
The rumbling sound of the cavalry’s hooves could be heard beyond the mountains and rivers.
The reins had already been dyed red from Chu Beijie’s bleeding blisters.
He rode horses since childhood and bolted as fast as he could, employing every tactic he could. Shockingly there was someone who could ride even faster than him, who had ridden through the troop, reached his shoulders, faced the same cold wind asking, “Are you the Duke of Zhen-Bei, Chu Beijie?”
Chu Beijie hadn’t answered, just grinded his teeth and surged forwards.
He knew that this fresh horse was already tired. Although it was still galloping, it had slowed down significantly.
He couldn’t deny it, it had slowed down. It made him anxious.
“Duke Chu, please stop for a while. I am from Bei Mo and have an urgent letter from Bei Mo’s General Ze Yin…”
“Go away!” Chu Beijie growled. He had to hurry, hurry, not a single minute could be wasted and not even the tiniest drop of energy could be wasted.
That person was annoyingly persistant too. Perhaps it was because he had been looking for Chu Beijie for a long time and refused to leave him. He desperately followed him, the cold wind filling his mouth as he yelled, “The General has an urgent letter to give to the Duke. Because General was worried that the letter would not arrive by the time Duke left the capital, he wrote two letters. One was secretly sent to the Royal Residence, the other to me. I was asked to wait along the roads to the the outskirts.”
“Go away!” Chu Beijie glared at him, but rested his glare on his horse.
“Duke!” There was no way the man who dared to sneak into Dong Lin to deliver a letter to Chu Beijie would be afraid of death. He refused to give up, loudly yelling, “Please just read General Ze Yin’s letter about Bai Pingting…” but his words were interrupted as his figure shook. Chu Beijie had already changed onto his horse midflight and grabbed the reins. His voice was serious. “Lend me your horse.”
As expected of one of Ze Yin’s best men; his skill was not bad. Although he had been suddenly pushed back by Chu Beijie, he twisted and bounced upwards, successfully avoiding being thrown off.
With one hand holding the horse and the other extending into his pocket, he took out the carefully hidden handwritten letter of Ze Yin, quickly saying, “The one who murdered the princes was He Xia, not Bai Pingting. This letter is personally written by my General and can be used to prove Bai Pingting’s innocence.”
Chu Beijie’s expression remained unchanged as he took it over, without looking before flinging it randomly.
“Ah!” The messenger yelled, looking as the letter he had delivered with so many hardships disappear into the rumbling torrent of cavalry soldiers. He stared at him and said, “You…”
“It doesn’t matter whether she’s innocent or not.” Chu Beijie’s eyes were decisive and his tone was serious. “Even if her tactics aren’t wicked, she is still my Bai Pingting.”
He then pushed him, forcing the messenger to jump off and roll safely to the roadside.
Chu Beijie now had a new horse that galloped faster and pulled away from the troops behind.
He was crazy with longing, drenched with worry and hellish torment. All this would only stop until he embraced that thin frame.
Dear Pingting, Chu Beijie admits his mistake.
Clever Bai Pingting, stupid Bai Pingting, kind Bai Pingting, evil Bai Pingting were all the Bai Pingting that Chu Beijie loved.
Forever and ever.
The moon came out.
In all of Pingting’s memories, she had never seen such heartbreaking moonlight.
It gently shone on the world, casting the same pale light regardless of their pain or sadness, offering more depression.
“Let’s swear to the moon, never turn our backs on each other.”
Also under the moon, she had been delicate and charming, while he was gentle as water.
“Yes, from now on, you will be my Duchess and I will be your husband.”
“I am only… a qin maid.”
“I like your qin.”
“I’m not good enough for Duke.”
“I’m good enough for you.”
“I’m not pretty enough.”
“I think you’re fine to look at.”
These words rang in her ears.
Do you remember, moon? On Mount Dianqing, Bai Pingting reached out, inch by inch, across the mountain of national hate, through the flames of war between the two countries’ armies and gratitude from fifteen years of upbringing.
She knew that she had crossed the flames, and she knew that she had spent fifteen of each season at the Jing-An Ducal Residence.
She knew that she had really stretched out her hand and crossed over the impossible mountain of national hate.
Was there really no place for feelings to hide in national pride?
Pingting shifted her gaze to look at the moon at the side of the sky.
The cruel moon had stealthily crept until it was nearly sitting on the branches of the forest trees.
Yet, there was still no movement from the east.
The sky slowly pressed down and the earth seemed to be as quiet as death, or simply everyone wating breathlessly.
On the small table beside her, the black-coloured medicined had already cooled.
The bright moon was heartless, the shadows too. She raised her head and saw the moon refusing to pause its pace. Little by little, it reached the tops of the trees.
Numerous bloodstains had been left on her lips from her teeth and her palm was slowly darkening from her pinches.
A sour taste swelled in her eyes, gradually heating, but she refused to let a single teardrop fall. She feared that when she cried, her nightmare would come true.
She stood by the window, her back straight, as if her backbone were made by a sword. She could only stand strong for so long. It seemed that she would no longer be supported with just the slightest movement. If so, she would crumble and be swept away by the north wind, not leaving the slightest trace.
“From today on, you mustn’t neglect yourself, nor harm yourself.”
She could not forget Chu Beijie’s words and could not forget the warm feeling that swelled in her chest when she looked into his deep eyes.
Why fear a country’s hate if there was true love?
If it was a genuine, stubbornly persistent love with respect, no matter the hundreds or thousands of twists and turns, one should never change their mind.
After all, what was more important than looking at the person you love every day and night?
Time continued to quietly trickle by.
Dear moon, I beg you, don’t disappoint me.
Just this once, in my entire life, please don’t disappoint me!
Her slender fingers clutched onto the cloth at her chest.
Yet the moon had no ears. Perhaps it heard Pingting’s voice but harshly ignored it.
There remained no sound from the east.
Desperation slowly flooded and penetrated her once sparkling eyes.
The moon had passed half the sky.
Pingting looked at it, directly above the trees, glowing its relentless light.
At that moment, she forgot that it was the sixth, forgot about the surrounding soldiers, forgot about Zuiju, forgot about He Xia and forgot her vows.
She forgot everything.
Everything was as empty as a hole. Her limbs were attached, but they were no longer supported.
There was only the sound of her heart cracking, slow and harsh, piece by piece.
Like a crystal lotus, its petals began to be torn ruthlessly until not one was left.
Broken into a myriad pieces.
Pingting slowly turned to see Zuiju’s very mournful expression.
Her gaze fell on the bowl of black medicine on the table.
Zuiju looked out from misty eyes as Pingting walked over, who then picked up the bowl. The bowl seemed to weigh a ton. The bowl trembled in her hands, causing strong ripples at its surface, spilling onto the sides and onto the top of the table. The silence in the room made the atmosphere even more suffocating.
The gentlesss had gone.
The joy had gone.
Only despair and pain remained in her eyes, churning constantly. Her eyes were wide as if watching someone slowly taking out her heart and liver.
Zuiju knew that she would never forget Pingting’s expression at that time.
Pingting brought the medicine to her lips and paused, as if she no longer had any energy left. The coldness touched her lips. She was reminded of the immense sense of loss she felt which made her shake, causing her hands to slip.
The bowl broke into numerous pieces, and the black potion poured all over the floor.
The bitter tears she had forced back for so long finally rolled out like broken pearls from her trembling eyes.
Pingting fell to her knees, crumpling to a tight ball. Painful spasms ran through her body as her hands clutched tightly to her shoulders.
Her cries tore out of her soul, desolately honest, from her bloodied lips.
Zuiju sadly stroked her head but this seemed to shock Pingting even more. She suddenly looked up, her face full of tears. “Zuiju, don’t force me. Please, please, don’t force me like this!” she begged.
Zuiju felt like she was bitten by a snake and was reduced to touching Pingting’s hand.
Was this the romantic, joyful Bai Pingting?
That person who could go several days without food or drink, leisurely read on the couch and asked her, “Can you smell the scent of snow?”? That Bai Pingting?
That romantic, fairy-like person had been ruined.
Ruined by He Xia, ruined by the King of Dong Lin, ruined by Chu Beijie and ruined by Zuiju herself.
This bloody world could not tolerate the proud, dedicated Bai Pingting.
She was there before her eyes but in reality, faraway. Just a gentle touch would cause her to disperse like smoke without warning.
The medicine she personally brewed was now stained to the ground, looking like a spill of thick black blood. Zuiju looked at the crying Pingting, her distressed heart.
She never knew that she could be so cruel.
Moran’s figure appeared at the door.
“He Xia has sent a carriage and is currently at the residence’s entrance.”
This was another heavy stone that pressed her scarred heart.
Pingting raised a hand, groping the wall to help her slowly stand up. She wiped her tears, her face deathly pale in the moonlight. She murmured, “I know.”
Oaths must be abided.
Moran’s face remained determined as he took out rope from behind his back. He tossed it to Zuiju whose face had yet to dry from the tears. He instructed, “Tie up Miss Bai.” This incredible command was shockingly delivered in a very firm tone.
“Miss Bai, it won’t be because you didn’t abide by the oath, but forced by my abduction instead.” Moran’s hands were firmly pressed on the sword by his waist. “I promised the Duke that as long as I exist, you must exist.”
Chu Beijie had already pulled more than half a mile away from the rest of the soldiers.
He kept a close eye on the moon’s movement, scratched it deep into his heart. The higher the moon rose, the heavier his heart sank towards a knife that sent his blood surging out, unstoppable, with every movement.
But the hands held the reins harder, tighter. Sweat stained his heavy armour and the cold wind did not pause in cutting his handsome face and bloodied mouth.
The moon had passed half the sky.
Had already passed half the sky.
He raised his head, looking at the mountains in the west in the distance. The snow he saw there befittingly froze at his heart and lungs.
Wait for me Pingting!
I’m willing to give up all of the blessings I’ve had in this life.
I beg you to wait for me this one time.
I beg for a little longer.
From now on, I will never leave your side.
From now on, even country and family affairs cannot separate us.
From now on, I promise that in Chu Beijie’s eyes, the most important treasure is only Bai Pingting.
I beg you to wait for me a little longer.
Chu Beijie was exhausted as he zoomed into the mountains, his horse riding as fast as it could over numerous branches and shady trees until his figure began to emerge.
Beyond the mountain forest, lay the secluded residence.
The gallops sent the snow flying at his sides as he rode.
After the gloomy forest, where only patches of moonlight were filtered through the trees to fall onto the snow, Chu Beijie could no longer smell its fragrance beyond it, just the smell of gunpowder.
I am back!
Pingting, please look up, so that I can see your figure.
I’ll swap my whole life for the two hours of my lateness.
Chu Beijie’s expression did not waver, his hand tightened around the sword at his waist as he encouraged the horse to move even quicker.
The horse shot out like an arrow from the dense forest.
The secluded residence finally appeared in his sight.
Fire filled the sky.
The smell of blood floated in the night sky, more chilling than the sight of actual blood.
His limbs stiffened and his heart stopped beating from that moment on.
The cruel coldness penetrated to his bones.
With one final surge of courage he rode into the residence. Piles of bones, some familiar figures, all of them were young guards.
People who had trained day and night with him, troublesome but good natured, and people not afraid of dying.
Their four limbs had been cut off and their blood had become cold.
They had no regrets on their faces and beside every guard, there were always a few corpses of the enemy soldiers.
Chu Beijie stepped on the blood-soaked ground. He had been to battlefields hundreds of times crueller than this, but had never known such a vivid colour of blood that chilled his heart like this.
Where are you?
He quietly whispered in his heart, as fearing a loud voice would scare away the slightest trace of life.
In the corner of his eyes, he found Moran.
Moran had bleeding wounds everywhere and a shar arrow had pierced firmly into his right shadow, nailing him to the ground. An enemy soldier’s corpse was pressed against his belly.
He was still breathing.
“Moran? Moran!” Chu Beijie kneeled down, urgently calling him.
As if waiting for Chu Beijie’s voice for a long time, Moran quickly opened his eyes, which he struggled to keep open. Until he realised that it was Chu Beijie’s face, his sluggishness was replaced with obvious excitement. “Duke…you finally came back…”
“What happened? Where’s Pingting?” His voice was solemn, “Where is Pingting?”
He stared at Moran, his sharp eyes were now trembling timidly. It seemed that just one word from Moran’s quivering mouth was enough to cause the heavens and earth to crack.
“He Xia took her away.” Moran breathed rapidly, twisting his face. He closed his eyes and summoned his remaining strength before opening them wide. He spat out, “Chase after them!”
Chu Beijie immediately stood up and rushed out of the entrance.
He was greeted by Chen Mu and their fastest subordinates who had just arrived, but his feet did not stop. In a deep voice he commanded, “Put out the fire. Leave the medic and two hundred people to treat the wounded! The rest, follow me!”
While he spoke, he got onto the horse.
The horse seemed to be aware of Chu Beijie’s overpowering confidence. It neighed loudly, readied itself and stood dignified on the snow.
He Xia, Yun Chang’s He Xia.
Chu Beijie’s directed his piercing gaze towards the direction of Yun Chang.
Pingting was there.
She was on the road leading to Yun Chang. At least another day and a half would be needed until they left Dong Lin territory.
Wherever Pingting was, even if it were the end of the world, it wasn’t far at all.
“Duke!” Chen Mu hurriedly ran out from the residence, reporting, “There are a few enemy soldiers who haven’t died yet. I woke a ranking soldier. He said they came along the Hengduan Ranges to get here and will most likely be going back the same way. There are quite a lot of them, a full eight thousand.”
Perhaps Chu Beijie was paranoid, but he could feel the familiar sense of crisis. Chu Beijie calmed the maid down and returned to his usual calmness on the battlefield, “He Xia has probably not guessed that I have already returned to the residence. It’s likely that they arrived in small groups and will return the same way, meeting up back at Yun Chang.”
The thundering sound of the horses approached as the rest of the troops who fell behind had finally caught up.
Chu Beijie didn’t wait for them to dismount, before pointing his sword in the sky, loudly saying. “Men of Dong Lin, Yun Chang has stolen the Duchess of Zhen-Bei. Do you still have the strength to chase on?”
The Duchess of Zhen-Bei?
Who dares to steal the Duke of Zhen-Bei’s beloved woman?
There was a brief moment of silence, when a thundering answer that could shake mountains broke out from the gathering. “Yes!”
“They have eight thousand men and we only have three thousand weary soldiers who have gone without several nights of sleep.” Chu Beijie’s gaze slowly swept across the crowd of young men of Dong Lin. His deep voice resounded in everyone’s ears. “If we can’t get her back, you may die a worthless death so you may choose to chase or stay.”
“Chase!” The thunderous roar was without hesitation. The echo that bounced back was enough the send the branches on the snow jumping.
Chen Mu also offered a few words of encouragement. He mounted on his horse and rode to Chu Beijie’s side. His voice was firm, “No one feels intimidated when following the Duke. Please make your command, Duke.”
Chu Beijie lowered his voice. “Let out all of the pigeons you have, so that the Dong Lin troops at the border can be aware of the Yun Chang army in the Hengduan Ranges. As He Xia dared to venture so deeply into Dong Lin territory, it’s likely that he has many more troops apart from the eight thousand with him prepared for ambush on Yun Chang’s border. Warn them to be careful.”
After these commands, Chu Beijie raised his sword against the north wind, directing it at the sky. “Let’s chase!”
“Chase!” The three thousand or so polished swords came out of the scabbards, gleaming the cold light.
It seemed as if thunder was crashing.
The sound of hooves seemingly smashing apart the earth sounded once more.
The cold wind once again greeted Chu Beijie’s wounds on his face, but his eyes were full of determination.
I’ll go to the end of the world, as long as you are there, Pingting.
It’s not far at all.
As long as you are there.