The rolling hills of Baizhu rippled along the forested border on the west of the Hao Empire, making the area seem like the undulating surface of a green ocean frozen in time. Named after the rare white bamboo that made its home only in these hills, the Baizhu region was full of craggy cliffs, untamed wilderness, unexplored terrain, and narrow, uneven roads.
As the carriage jolted and shuddered along one of these uneven roads, Xie Rong felt the inhospitality of this place all too much. Resting his chin on a palm, he listlessly watched the monotonous scenery filled with green vegetation and bare grey rocks speed by through the window. After all these weeks of traversing these roads, he had more or less gotten used to the dreadful jarring by now.
Seated across from him was a young woman with a slim yet sturdy body, her dark brown hair gathered up in a ponytail. Holding the carriage’s seat with a hand to stabilize herself, she frowned at Xie Rong with worry. “Second Young Master, it’s already nearing evening and you haven’t had even a bite to eat the whole day. Will you please consider having at least a few fruits? And since it looks like today’s journey has been futile as well, why don’t we turn in early?”
Only silence echoed, the lack of assent itself an answer.
The young woman, Lian Ru, served as both Xie Rong’s attendant and his guard in this journey. A few weeks ago, her young master had chosen to leave the main residence to live in one of the Xie household’s mansions in a city near Baizhu. Every day since then, she accompanied him as her young master wore commoner’s clothing and snuck out of the residence to roam this dreadful place. If he didn’t hide his departure, then the well-meaning and hawk-eyed guards at the mansion would surely stop him to keep him from straining his body so much. Having seen how Xie Rong kept pushing himself all this time, Lian Ru’s concern inevitably grew until she couldn’t help but wish he would just give up and return home already.
Sighing, Lian Ru tried to speak some sense into him once more, “Second Young Master, your body has started to recover and grow healthy just a few years back. You will ruin all the progress if you keep going like this. Please, rest more. You only have to say the word and the first young master will be happy to do this in your stead.”
Xie Rong stayed still while only his gaze cut towards her. “Xiao Ru, I am aware of all that Brother will do for me and all that he is continuing to do. But he is currently very busy compensating at the palace, as we all know. I am more than willing to take on this task myself. After all, I am the one who has the biggest stake in―”
A flash of red, orange, yellow, and white suddenly zipped past the window, like the trail of a flame flying by the corner of one’s vision.
Xie Rong abruptly stopped speaking and whipped his head to look out the window more clearly. But the sight he’d caught had already slipped far behind the carriage.
“Stop the carriage! Now!” Xie Rong barked.
Answering his urgent tone, the driver jerked the carriage to a halt.
“Young Master?” Lian Ru called with furrowed brows.
But after instructing her to stay here in passing, Xie Rong quickly got down from the carriage and hurried along the road in the direction opposite to the one they had been travelling in.
After a couple of minutes of tracing back along the path just taken by the carriage, Xie Rong found a grouping of flowering bushes by the wayside. The bushes reached to chest height and bore glossy, dark green leaves. The healthy foliage cradled bunches of red, orange, yellow, white, and even a few peach colored dragon boat flowers. The blooms consisted of tiny, pointed- and four-petaled flowers, each held up on long stalks and arranged together in a hemispherical cluster.
Xie Rong looked at them with a dazed expression. It had been such a long time since he’d been home that just a look at these dragon boat flowers and the memories related to them were enough to make intense nostalgia squeeze his chest. The window in his room back at the residence had a view much like this. How long had it been since he was able to pull up a chair to the window and relaxedly appreciate the scenery outside? Xie Rong’s lips curved into a small smile tinged with melancholy and fond remembrance. The sight of those same flowers growing here in these hills was such an unexpected find, but a very welcome one.
Xie Rong crouched down by the flowering bushes and took a look by their roots. The ground surrounding the plants was clear. There were no weeds around them as if they were being pulled out regularly. Was someone taking care of these bushes? Had they been planted here by some person?
As Xie Rong pondered, three shadows silently crept towards him and cast him in shade. Xie Rong stiffened. But before he could move, he felt the press of a blade tip on his back.
“Who are you? What are you doing in the territory of the Qifeng organization?” a gruff male voice asked.
Xie Rong wanted to sigh. So he ended up running into them after all. Well, this could be beneficial.
The Qifeng organization had started as a small group of bandits terrorizing the roads in the Baizhu region a few decades ago. They’d slowly grown into a band of thieves and mercenaries before spreading their roots into other, more reputable ventures like trading and weaponsmithing. Though they hadn’t yet managed to carve out a name for themselves as a respectable organization under the control any of their previous leaders, matters had changed almost as soon as the current leader took the reins four years ago.
Within those few years, the Qifeng organization had started and developed several businesses in the surrounding cities, using the white bamboo growing in the hilly region of Baizhu and related products as their main object of trade. They also sponsored business start-ups in return for a part of their profits, had deep influence with the local powerful families, and were owed favors by many prestigious people. But despite all these aboveground undertakings, many still speculated that the Qifeng organization hadn’t yet stopped their disreputable practices.
And now that its members had found Xie Rong in their territory, he knew that matters could get troublesome. Keeping his tone steady, Xie Rong replied, “I simply alighted from my carriage for a bit to admire some flowers by the wayside. Am I not allowed that?”
“Oh, what an adorable reason! Turn around and let us take a look at you, lad,” another man said, his voice sounding younger and more excitable than the one before.
The blade poking Xie Rong’s back reluctantly withdrew. With slow and careful motions, Xie Rong stood up and turned to face the group who’d cornered him against the bushes.
There were two men and one woman standing behind him. The man Xie Rong assumed was the first one to speak was scarred, grizzled, and slightly stooped, looking to be in his forties with thready hair in shades of dark and light gray. His squinted eyes bored into Xie Rong with distrust and dislike. The hilt of a short and worn, single-edged sword was gripped in his hand.
Beside him stood the second person who’d spoken, a light-brown-haired young man who was dressed sloppily and exuded a carefree vibe. His arms were folded behind his head as he assessed Xie Rong with a lively and curious gaze.
Next to him was a tall woman wearing a long, nondescript grey cloak with the hood down. A black scarf was wound around her neck, the coils of cloth pulled up to hide the lower half of her face and revealing only a pair of unfathomable black eyes. Her black hair was braided and tucked under her clothes as if to avoid serving as a handle to her opponent during combat. Two straight and long bulges by her waist indicated the presence of weapons, most likely swords. With just a look, it was easy to deduce that she must be a secret operative of some sort, maybe an assassin or a spy who’d just gotten off work.
After taking in Xie Rong’s appearance, the young man grinned to reveal a set of even, white teeth and exclaimed, “Whoa, this one’s a beauty! What an unexpected find right by our hideout! Maybe he’s worth a try.”
The scarred man turned his gloomy gaze to him. “Yu Jun, you haven’t given up on that bet yet? Don’t you remember how it turned out for you the last time?”
Instinctively rubbing his backside as if feeling some phantom ache there, Yu Jun laughed, his expression blithely untroubled. “But Old Man Ran, I’m sure that I’ll win the bet this time! No one has ever presented this flavor of beauty to the leader yet. Look at him! He’s so calm and collected even now, and he doesn’t seem all that weak. And yet he has such a handsome face on top of that well-maintained hair and smooth, fair skin like some pampered noble. I say it’s worth a try. Maybe the leader will really take a liking to a beauty this time.” Rubbing his hands together as anticipation gleamed in his eyes, Yu Jun turned to the young woman on his other side and asked, “What do you say, Sister Wan?”
Wan Yingyue cast a disinterested glance at this overly cheerful colleague of hers and said simply, “Do what you want.”
“Then I’m taking him with us!” the young man Yu Jun declared cheerfully.
Old Man Ran pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head with resignation.
Xie Rong observed them all in silence. Though he seemed unmoving, his gaze only flitting over the group before him casually, he had in fact already begun thinking of the best route to use to break through the encirclement of this trio and how to signal to his attendant Lian Ru that he needed help. To test how much leeway he had in this situation, Xie Rong lightly turned his right foot on its heel by a fraction of a centimeter.
A sharp blade immediately poked his chest. “Boy, you better not try anything!” Old Man Ran snarled.
Yu Jun gave Xie Rong an easy smile and added, “As long as you don’t resist and obediently accompany us to meet our leader, we won’t hurt you. So it’s better to cooperate with us, isn’t it?”
Xie Rong’s half-lidded eyes didn’t betray any emotion. “I have a question that I hope can be answered. May I know who planted these bushes of dragon boat flowers here?”
Old Man Ran lowered his short sword and exchanged a puzzled look with Yu Jun. Neither of them knew. But the woman with them, Wan Yingyue, tilted her head and peered at Xie Rong with an incisive gaze before replying, “It was our leader who personally planted it here. Why do you ask?” It was well known in their organization by now that these bushes were to be used as a marker to find the beginning of the path leading up to their hideout, but she didn’t intend to give that away. However, it did make her cautious about this young man’s reason for asking after it. Did he guess its true purpose? If he’d figured out the presence of the hidden path here, then she would have to ensure his silence by killing him.
However, remaining unconcerned, Xie Rong turned his head to show a gentle smile to the blooms behind him as they bobbed and waved in the breeze. “I like these flowers. I was merely curious since it appears that they were planted here by someone, that’s all.”
Wan Yingyue arched an eyebrow. “What a coincidence. Maybe it’s a sign that you and our leader have connected fates. Why don’t you come with us to meet him and find out?” If he came with them, then even if he’d realized that the path to their hideout lay through here, he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it. While he was trapped at their hideout, she would be able to find out what he knew and whether or not he needed to be silenced in the time it would take for their leader to reject him like the rest and send him back. Of course, if he truly knew something, their leader might not allow him to ever leave alive.
Unaware of the woman’s thoughts, Xie Rong gave a light laugh and said wryly, “While I would like to agree that it indeed might be the case, it is not like I have any choice in whether or not I come with you, do I?”
Wan Yingyue shrugged while Yu Jun happily supplied, “You do have a choice in whether you walk with us of your own will or get dragged up by us while tied into a dumpling.”
Xie Rong cast him an unamused glance and was just about to reply when he heard the sound of hurried footsteps nearing them. The four people turned to see a steely-faced woman marching towards them, focused purpose in every step. With just a look, Xie Rong could already tell that she was thinking of all possible ways to cut down each of the people surrounding him and free him.
Xie Rong sighed and spoke, “Xiao Ru, I see that you’ve come to fetch me. But…” …It was too late. He couldn’t return with her now.
Old Man Ran scowled. “Who’s that? Your lover?”
Shaking his head, Xie Rong answered, “No, she’s only a companion I met on my journey.” Turning to the three people who’d cornered him, he entreated, “Since she doesn’t have anything to do with this, I ask that you let her leave.”
Wan Yingyue nodded. “Very well. We will not harm her as long as she doesn’t interfere.”
Lian Ru froze in her steps, feeling conflicted. As a loyal attendant, she knew that she should follow along with her young master’s act of behaving as if they were merely strangers who’d met during a journey and let him do as he pleased. But as someone who cared for him as she would a brother, Lian Ru also wanted to protect Xie Rong and drag him away from these unsavory looking fellows.
Understanding her dilemma, Xie Rong smiled at her. “Xiao Ru, I’m fine. As long as I don’t try to fight or escape, they won’t harm me. Please leave.” Though his expression was warm, his words were firm.
Lian Ru looked at her young master, her gaze roving over his face as if trying to understand what he was thinking. Whatever she spotted in his eyes made the stiff line of her shoulders slump in defeat. “Fine,” she sighed. “But please take care of yourself and…don’t let yourself be wronged. Some things are not worth it.”
Xie Rong nodded, his smile widening at both at the care in her voice and the way that she seemed to have guessed the true purpose behind his current actions. “Yes, I know.”
Lian Ru hesitated for a moment more before finally giving a deep bow and heading back to the carriage. As much as she wished the second young master well, she couldn’t help but despair. She didn’t know what excuse she could give the first young master, who also happened to be the current head of the Xie household, to explain the sudden disappearance of his younger brother. If she couldn’t keep him at bay, then whatever her young master aimed to accomplish by following those goons from Qifeng would be put in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, after he allowed his hands to be bound together with rope and his eyes blindfolded, Xie Rong was led up the hill by the trio, taken to the hideout of the Qifeng organization and its leader.