The next day, unfortunately, a sky-piercing scream jolted the whole ship awake. In front of everyone on board, Sima Rui rushed out from his room, yelling, "My medal is gone!"
Chaos set in as Sima Rui quickly sent his soldiers to guard the ship and search all villages by the shore. Countless villagers were being interrogated but to no avail. In fear of delaying his mission, he had only managed to stay at sea for three days. Still unable to locate his medal after that, he had gloomily headed back to court to plead for forgiveness.
The accompanying soldiers weren't feeling as dejected. Instead, they discussed fervently about the women they had met during their search, agreeing that while they had average appearances, the fishes they were capable of cooking up were unparalleled.
The fishes were so fresh and delicious, but because of the overwhelming steam, no one could see the ingredients that were hidden in their stomachs.
As for the harvest Meng Fuyao had reaped a few days back, it was merely a coincidence that she had bumped into a lone, flustered bandit. Seeing that he was acting weirdly, she had rummaged through his belonging and found Tiansha's medal.
Meng Fuyao was in possession of Xuanyuan, Tiansha and Taiyuan's medals. She aimed to travel to Evergreen Shrine in the future to gather all seven medals. That way, there was a higher chance of receiving assistance from the gods.
Because the relations between respective nations were different, not every nation would release a medal. As such, Meng Fuyao would have to plan her route strategically. She drew out a map to indicate the ties between nations and to calculate her moves. In the process, Zhan Beiye, who was ferociously pursuing Tiansha's medal, came to mind, leaving her sighing over her bleak future.
Suddenly, she heard another sigh coming from above.
Shocked, Meng Fuyao swept all three medals back into her clothes. Her heart was drumming, and she cursed at herself for being negligent. 'How did I miss that presence?'
On second thought, something wasn't right. There wasn't enough space on the roof beam to hide anyone, so how could she have missed it?
She looked up and spotted Lord Hamtaro, who was looking straight at her and baring his big front teeth.
"Why are you sighing for no reason. Don't you know a rat can scare people to death?" Meng Fuyao raged, only to be ignored by Lord Yuan Bao.
Between more scolding, she suddenly felt that something was amiss. She mumbled, "Have never heard of an animal sighing though... ah!" Pointing at Lord Yuan Bao, she accused, "You! Did you just release gas?"
Lord Yuan Bao simply revealed more of his pearly whites.
Black-faced, Meng Fuyao glared at that shameless, farting beast. Again, Lord Yuan Bao dismissed it by spinning around and sticking his bum out.
A long scroll of paper hung from his tail, rolling out and swaying in the air. On it were small words that read, "Climb wall, enter room, moon tan, happy life, nothing better."
Meng Fuyao tore it down and read it over and over again, bursting into uncontrollable laughter.
She hastily added a few more words and swung it in his face. Lord Yuan Bao gave her ugly handwriting a contemptuous glance before wiggling his bum and waiting for her to hand it over. Meng Fuyao flicked his nose before roaring with laughter and heading to the roof.
On the roof lay a certain someone, using an arm as a pillow while comfortably basking in the moonlight. With the other hand, he leisurely fiddled with a white jade cup.
The night breeze was refreshing and carried a light fragrance, consisting of a blend of laurel and chrysanthemum. Looking down from the deep-green eave, she saw a row of laurel trees in the courtyard. On them were yellow, grain-sized flowers that rested beautifully amid the darkness. Not wanting to let their youths wither away, however, they scattered their scent all over the night. Petals occasionally landed on Yuan Zhaoxu's face, enhancing the fairness and suppleness of his skin.
With his loose robe fluttering in the wind, he remained as elegant as ever. Meng Fuyao sat quietly on the eave, observing him and recollecting the night she was trapped in the Mystic Essence Cave, where despite her sorry state she had enjoyed watching the mysterious figure dance a graceful sword dance.
A smile, as delicate as an osmanthus flower, appeared on Meng Fuyao's face but vanished the next moment.
She strode over abruptly and snatched the wine pot beside him, gulping its content down before stuffing the paper into his hand.
He unfolded it and raised his brows, laughing.
"Dig graves, raid tombs, extinguished lamps, sad life, nothing worse."
Meng Fuyao thought back to that terrifying night when Fatty was rubbing his bum and wailing in pain. Years had passed, and she wondered if the Five Region Continent in parallel universes had aligned and thought about how Mother was doing...
She continued drowning her sorrows, feeling every ache in her heart, as though something was blocking her throat.
"You've dug graves before?" Yuan Zhaoxu's low voice sounded.
Meng Fuyao narrowed her eyes and turned to him, smiling. "Yeah, sort of. I've seen a lot of corpses and bones."
Yuan Zhaoxu asked thoughtfully, "Are you living in a tough situation? Graves of noblemen are heavy and complicated, so how do you do it? You're a lady after all."
Meng Fuyao shook in realization. The wind had clouded her mind. Not wanting to divulge any more information she quickly digressed, "Eh, why are you helping me?"
Meng Fuyao did not push it. She looked up at the moon, so bright and clean but appearing rather cold.
"I saw what happened," Yuan Zhaoxu expressed vaguely, but Meng Fuyao understood what he was referring to. "But it was the expression on your face when you fell off the cliff that made me act."
Silence resumed, and Yuan Zhaoxu sipped on his wine. That night, the hardened expression on her youthful face contained a sharpness and coldness that did not belong to a lady that age.
That depth, subtle yet profound, did not match her tender face. It was a heart-wrenching sight.
At that moment, he too had been shocked by the fact a stranger's expression had evoked such feelings within him.
"Oh..." Meng Fuyao let out a delayed response, her voice sounding increasingly odd. "Thank you, then. I, Meng Fuyao, will repay your kindness one day," she continued, taking four mouthfuls of wine in between.
Yuan Zhaoxu swiveled his wine, stopped, and continued again, with no readable expression on his face. "Yeah, alright," he answered in a consistent tone.
Having waited worriedly for his reply, Meng Fuyao was dumbfounded. 'That's it? No more?'
She whipped her head toward him but stopped herself midway. It happened so quick and forcefully that she could hear the cracking of her neck. 'He mustn't see that I'm unnerved. What would become of me?'
'It's... for the best.'
Half the pot was emptied when a hand reached out to stop her. "No more," Yuan Zhaoxu said in a low, charming voice.
"Eh?" She crooked her head.
Her hair fluttered messily in the breeze, behind her slightly flushed face. Her usually sharp gaze was gone, and she looked exceptionally dreamy, as though being enveloped in a layer of mist. Yuan Zhaoxu looked at her with glistening eyes.
Immediately after, he smiled, saying, "Look."
Meng Fuyao looked to where he pointed and saw multiple horses galloping past the street outside.
The horsemen rode anxiously, releasing arrows into the night sky and vanishing into the other end of the street.
Lying sprawled out on the roof, Meng Fuyao whispered, "Who are they?"
"Qi Xunyi's secret troop activated to contact and deliver commands to respective influential powers."
"You're a citizen of Wuji so how would you know this?" Meng Fuyao turned to look at him with her fluctuating gaze.
"I'm the advisor of Wuji's Crown Prince and top officials of Top Sun Palace, so I'm well-informed."
"Wuji's Crown Prince?" Meng Fuyao laughed. "I've heard this name so many times ever since I came over. Heaven-sent prince, child prodigy, exceptional wisdom and presence... is he even human?"
Her heart trembled for a second as she vaguely recalled something, but that thought escaped her in a flash, and she couldn't recall it again.
"Yes, he's human," Yuan Zhaoxu answered briefly and smiled.
After a short pause, his tone turned serious, "Fuyao, Yanjing will fall into chaos soon, and I might not be able to guard you once we enter the capital. Are you able to fend for yourself?"
Yuan Zhaoxu rarely revealed such a cautious expression, but Meng Fuyao wasn't going to give up on her journey. High officials from all nations would be attending the Taiyuan Emperor's celebration, so it was the perfect chance for her to steal more medals since some nations required them to cross certain borders to get there. For example, the officials of Fufeng would need to pass through Wuji to get to Taiyuan. If she was lucky, she could possibly seize most, if not all, of the medals.
"I've never thought of relying on you for life," she stood up and patted the dust off her robe. "I can manage, so don't worry."
She walked down fearlessly, and Yuan Zhaoxu watched her back view, pondering deeply.
Far away, the first glimmer of dawn presented itself over the horizon.
The morning sun rose, but a storm was about to be unleashed.
Meng Fuyao guided her horse along as she stepped into the Yanjing's city gate. Still feeling somewhat nervous, she focused on the loosely-robed passerby, appearing excited yet calm, and instantly felt better.
'What's there to be afraid of? No matter how things turn out in the imperial household, they won't have anything to do with a lowly citizen like me, isn't that right?'
Because the emperor's 50th birthday was approaching, venues had been set aside in the capital and all provinces for celebratory rituals to be performed. Craftsmen had also decorated both sides of the main street with color paintings. The whole of Yanjing looked luxurious and beautiful.
Five kilometers into the city, Yuan Zhaoxu and Meng Fuyao went their own ways. She knew very well that participating in his affairs wasn't necessarily good for her, and was determined to continue her journey alone.
Yuan Zhaoxu had looked calm and smiley as usual when bidding her farewell, but there was an unreachable depth to his emotions. Lord Yuan Bao, on the other hand, looked genuinely happy and took great efforts to show it. He hopped around energetically, joyful that he could finally shrug off the fellow who had been following behind their bums.
Irked by his cheeriness, Meng Fuyao plucked three strands of fur from his bum to keep as souvenirs.
Whether or not he would harbor hard feelings, she simply couldn't care less.