303 Help The Tiger
Imperial Palace, Hanjian
Yu Zhen solemnly sat in his private study, surrounded by stacks of neatly organized documents. The woody scent of the black ink filled his nose with each stroke of the brush on the parchment. Light and fluid, he made no mistake in writing.
He sat within the spacious room whose walls were lined with circular bookshelves and small, meaningful pieces placed upon the panels.
From the clay horse he had sculpted as a child to the broken arrow which he preserved to remind him of his first perfect shot, everything was arranged to his desire.
This room was always known to be serene and quiet. No one dared to cause a ruckus in here, not even his advisor and right hand woman.
The pleasant scent of eucalyptus with a hint of orange peel wafted in the air in the peaceful silence.
However, things were different beyond the doors leading to this tranquil paradise.
"Y-you tell him, Tiantian," Hu Dengxiao whispered in a panicked, and terrified tone. He didn't want to raise his voice and catch the attention of the ferocious beast beyond the enormous doors.
"No, you do it," Lu Tianbi hissed whilst pushing at his hands. He had grabbed her out of sheer terror.
"Our Commander is the type of man to kill the messenger! Forget about shooting the poor man, the Commander will murder him!"
"Really?" Lu Tianbi sarcastically bit out. "I didn't know our fiery-tempered Crown Prince was like that!"
"Please, please, please, I'm begging you, Tiantian. I'm so scared of being the one to tell him," Hu Dengxiao exasperated in a hushed whisper. He rubbed his palms together and bowed his head in a desperate plea.
"Y-you should be the one to tell him, Tiantian. He'll treat you much nicer!" Hu Dengxiao added on, ignoring the fact that she would really stab him in the eye if he continued to call her by that horrid nickname.
Lu Tianbi firmly shook her head.
"Be a man!" she exasperated in a quiet voice. "And you know he doesn't show favoritism to any gender! Not even during the training of the female soldiers."
"I'll drop to my knees and beg you if I have to, Tiantian. You go tell him—"
"Don't you have any balls?!" Lu Tianbi growled under her breath. "Gosh, I pity whoever you're going to marry because your—"
Hu Dengxiao puffed out his chest. "I have the biggest—"
"Just go in!" Lu Tianbi huffed out whilst pushing at the large puppy in front of her. He loved to bare his teeth and bark, but where was his bite?!
Hu Dengxiao's shoulders quivered and all hope fled from his eyes. "N-no, actually, one time I had the misfortune of entering the bathing room where the Commander had unclothed himself, and I think he truly has a larger set than me—"
"If this is your pathetic attempt of saying you're the size of a pea—"
"I do not!" Hu Dengxiao gasped. "Do you want to see? I swear to you, it's quite big and—"
"Yeah? Well it doesn't seem that way right now, does it?!" Lu Tianbi quietly yelled as she shoved his hands. "What are you doing, are you trying to take off your trousers right here—"
"You know what?" Hu Dengxiao cried out, knowing he would lose this verbal argument. "Let's do rock, paper, scissors, and then we'll find out!"
Lu Tianbi was infuriated by this manchild. She squeezed her eyes shut and breathed deeply through her nose, hoping to ease her anger. When her eyes snapped open, Hu Dengxiao jumped in fear.
"O-one round," he stuttered out. "Please, Tiantian, you know I'll never be able to win an argument against you."
"You make it seem like there is a lion inside the room or something," Lu Tianbi snarled.
"T-that reminds me of something terrifying, yet hilarious, that I heard about," Hu Dengxiao nervously said. "The new soldiers were so terrified by our Commander that they made up this quote about him."
"What is it?" Lu Tianbi asked, knowing this was an attempt to quell her anger.
"If you see our Commander fighting a tiger, then you better help the tiger."
Lu Tianbi let out a small laugh at his words. It was a mixture between a scoff and a chuckle. But then she wiped the smile off her face. The new soldiers were right. The lion would lose.
Hu Dengxiao peered at her and noticed her face was less red with frustration.
"So…" he trailed off in a child-like voice. "One round?"
Lu Tianbi scowled. "Fine, one round," she said whilst sticking out her hand.
"Okay, rock, paper, scissors, set shoot!" Hu Dengxiao called out whilst throwing out the paper only for her to flash him a very pretty middle finger.
"This is my version of scissors, so get your butt inside and be a man!" Lu Tianbi argued. She didn't give him any time to rebut or beg for a rematch. In a rough shove, she sent her best friend through the doors.
Hu Dengxiao stumbled through the door with an awkward smile. His eyes were large with fear as he clasped his hands together.
"U-uhm… Your Highness?" Hu Dengxiao addressed whilst lowering himself into a deep bow. He would rather remain close to the ground when all hell broke loose, which was precisely why he was kneeling before the Crown Prince, even though he didn't have a hand in all of this mess.
Yu Zhen didn't lift his gaze from the parchment. He continued working.
"P-please don't kill me after I tell you this, please I beg of you, Zhenzhen!" Hu Dengxiao rambled out as his shoulders began to shake. He couldn't bring himself to tell such terrifying news. Even his tongue started to tremble with fear.
"What is it?" Yu Zhen slowly said. He reluctantly paused, not because of his silly advisor, but because the ink had dried.
Usually, the task of grounding the ink was reserved for a person Yu Zhen favored, but Xueyue wasn't around, so he did it himself. At times, the person would patiently wait by his side and grind the ink.
Often, Lu Tianbi did it for him, but she never waited by his side. She only grounded the ink when he needed her too and then she was off to do another errand.
Of course, Yu Zhen could always ask for a servant, but he'd rather not give a specific one false hope.
Yu Zhen calmly pulled back the sleeves of his black robes embroidered with gold and silver. He lifted the small slab of volcanic rock harvested not far from Hanjian.
But at the exact moment, Hu Dengxiao chose to deliver a piece of startling news.
"B-by the borders of Hanjian, a soldier had heard a ruckus but brushed it off as the nearby town was having their fun. That is until he decided to ride through the forest a-and discovered s-s-something."
Hu Dengxiao nervously wiped the cold sweat that broke out on his forehead. He was about to die young from the stress placed upon his shoulders. He swallowed hard and eyed the rectangular grinder in the Crown Prince's fingers.
"T-there were t-three f-f-flipped," he said and gulped, "C-carriages."
Hu Dengxiao cleared his throat, hoping to calm his racing heart. "And it seems like the carriages belonged to a wealthy family, so the soldiers wanted to check for any survivors, in case it was one of our aristocrats, b-but…"
Yu Zhen wondered if Hu Dengxiao ate something that he was allergic to. It would explain the odd stuttering. He continued to peacefully grind the ink.
Hu Dengxiao lowered his body into a deep bow until his forehead nearly brushed against the floor. He instinctively shifted into a position that would protect himself. Additionally, he wouldn't have to see the look of pure wrath on his Commander's face.
"It was discovered the carriages actually belonged t-t-to…"
Hu Dengxiao squeezed his eyes shut. He began to pray to the high heavens and every single god and goddess that could be recited within the few seconds of life he still had.
He let out a shaky breath and cried on the inside. He was only two years younger than the Commander. Hu Dengxiao was too young to die!
He held back a sniffle. He knew he should've written a will before becoming an advisor even though there was no one to inherit his wealth.
Maybe he could leave it to Lu Tianbi, but then again, the love of his life had sent him to his doom. Thus, maybe it would be better to leave all his money to the Commander, but then again, this man was going to kill him today.
Hu Dengxiao had no one to leave his will too.
"Hurry and spit it out. Which aristocrat died?" Yu Zhen murmured in a patient tone.
Yu Zhen was in a pleasant mood today, especially because he had finished another stack of documents. Soon, he'd have an entire two weeks to spend with his beloved in pure bliss.
Though, such a great mood would be ruined by an aristocrat's death. He held back a sigh. It would be so troublesome to inform the aristocrat's family of a tragic death at the hands of a bandit.
Depending on how important this aristocrat's family was, Yu Zhen would decide whether or not he'd inform the news in person.
Yu Zhen nodded in satisfaction upon seeing the ink was to his preferred texture. He was about to place the ink slab down but was rudely interrupted by his advisor.
Hu Dengxiao made one last prayer under his breath before blurting out the unfortunate news.
"The carriages belonged to the Imperial Family of Wuyi. Princess Li was using one of them to travel to Hanjian."
It took Yu Zhen less than a second to register what his advisor was implying. And it took less than a second for all hell to break loose.