Time seemed to freeze for Ning Chen as the long sleeves of his robe were cut to pieces with a soft whoosh, showering his frozen body in an explosion of cloth, turning his robe short sleeved in an instant.
Ning Chen jumped back in shock as his mind finally caught up to his brush with death. His finger shot up and pointed at the old man instinctively, a swear word almost escaping his mouth had he not swallowed it back down at the last moment.
Ning Chen didn’t dare to scold him!
He indignantly returned to his seat and snatched up a nearby teapot, not stopping until he downed half of the tea within, washing down his rising anger. Doesn’t this old coot know that you have to venerate the old and love the young. That old coot clearly forgot the second part but he won’t hold it against him.
Endure! He must endure!
However, at least he learnt something from this; he found out that he really wasn’t a match for the old man…
Escaping was still a distant goal. In the meantime, his cultivation still required more attention.
And so, the rest of the days went by quietly. Ning Chen no longer pestered the old man, having given up on his infiltration plan. Instead, he focused the rest of his time into cultivating that golden scroll, revolution by revolution, slowly and painstakingly training his True Qi.
Having won his sought after peace and quiet, the old man naturally wasn’t going to care about Ning Chen’s endeavors. Besides, a first-grade martial practitioner was barely worth looking at.
On the tenth day, the marriage entourage entered a vast deserted plain 350km away from the Imperial City. Night in the plains was particularly cold and silent, giving everyone an inexplicable sense of leeriness.
The wolves let out a long howl at the moon, in the camp, the soldiers subconsciously gripped onto their weapons as the wave of tension washed over them. Everyone knew that the scariest predators on the plains weren’t leopards, but rather, a pack of wolves.
These wasteland wolves were cunning, ruthless and were particularly suited to hunting at night. Once one met with these devils, dying was nearly a certainty.
In this world, there were a number of creatures one should never antagonize. One of them were wasteland wolves. Not only were they ruthless, they also held grudges. These wolves would follow their enemies to the ends of the Earth until they achieved their goal.
Thankfully, the marriage entourage was sufficiently large enough to deter a wolf pack. At over a thousand men strong, not including the 500 members of the capital army, most wolf packs wouldn’t dare to target such a gathering.
And so it was that the night passed uneventfully.
The capital army was the personal army of the Emperor and their calibur was not like any ordinary army. Their harsh training gave them an oppressive aura that could be felt a mile away; even martial practitioners weren’t willing to come into contact with their unbridled sharpness.
These elites were usually found in the capital where they served a number of important roles; including guarding the palace. Normally, they would not be tasked with escorting a mere marriage entourage.
The fact that the Xia Emperor sent them on this mission showed how much importance he placed on this particular marriage. In order to deal with the Mongols in the north and the Eternal Night Cult in the west, Grand Xia needed a stable eastern frontier.
Grand Xia was the strongest military power in the world and could easily take on any one of these factions but that didn’t mean it feared no one. In its 1000 years of dominance, Grand Xia had not been able to capture the heart of the masses as it didn’t have a religion.
Grand Xia didn’t believe in a god, these thousand years of dominance were built on military conquest and Confucian governing. This was the basis of the thriving empire today.
Over these thousand years, the citizens of Grand Xia have slowly forgotten that 1000 years ago, the Divine Continent’s strongest faction wasn’t some marquis’s militia nor was it the Grand Yin Empire which got overthrown by Grand Xia. Instead it was the Eternal Night Cult which spanned the entire continent.
The rise of Grand Xia’s ancestors was like a comet, rapid and sudden. Their overwhelming might pushed the Eternal Night Cult to the brink of destruction, forcing them into hiding for a thousand years.
During their thousand year reign, the cult’s influence within the territories of Grand Xia had nearly been wiped out. Outside of Grand Xia however, the Eternal Night Cult’s roots ran as deep as ever.
The issue could be summed in that same sentence. Grand Xia wasn’t afraid of anyone but couldn’t force them to submit to it.
Of the three thorns in Grand Xia’s side, Zhenji was the easiest to settle. While they were the loudest of the three, they were also the weakest and most cowardly. As the saying goes, a dog that barks, doesn’t bite, especially a toothless dog.
Twenty thousand warhorses. Not only was this gift timely, it also crippled their own military might by half.
All they had to give up was a princess from their clan. Adding the numbers up, this was clearly a worthwhile trade.
Ning Chen had never seen this Princess Miaoyu before. However, the fact that she volunteered to be a pawn in this political machination, intrigued him.
If she wasn’t some saint, her choice was truly a fascinating one.
Thinking about it carefully, it’s not as if this was some untraceable mystery either. All the intrigue in the world could be traced to a single word, interests. As long as one operated along this line, the clues would surface sooner or later.
Grand Xia had a total of 19 prince and princesses, but the ones who truly held influence were just five.
The four Kings and the Ninth Princess.
At the back of these four princes who were crowned Kings, was the shadows of the Royal Clans.
(TL Note: In ancient China, princes were given the title of kings or “Wáng (王)” eg. 亲王 Qīn wáng or 君王 Jùn wáng. Instead of being referred to as Princes (皇子Huángzǐ), they would instead be referred to as X** Wáng, where X** refers to their territory. In short, X** King.
The brother of the Emperor is also referred to as Prince(亲王Qīn wáng or 王爵 wáng jué). Of interest is the fact that, a duke is called 公爵 Gōng jué. The use of wáng (王) denotes the difference between the two where the former is of the royal family while the latter, a nobility.
Another interesting fact is the difference between 皇子（Huángzǐ) and （王子)Wángzǐ. Both translate to Prince but they aren’t interchangeable.
皇子（Huángzǐ) refers to the son of an Emperor which is why the word 皇 is used which stems from 皇帝 （Huángdì） or Emperor.
国王 （Guówáng) refers to a King. Thus, （王子)Wángzǐ refers to the son of a King rather than an Emperor.
子(zǐ) can translate to son depending on context. Eg. Child of Light (Guang Ming Zhi Zi) 光明之子
Often, Chinese words do not translate easily as the constituent words contain meanings not transmitted in the English equivalent.)
With that in mind, this newly minted princess didn’t seem as detached from politics as first impressions would suggest.
Her sacrifice in this matter would have rippling effects across the empire. As recognition for his daughter’s sacrifice, the Xia Emperor would have to make substantial concessions to Prince Hua. Given that, the support of Prince Hua would be a massive boost to either of the Four King’s agenda.
A lackadaisical prince suddenly turning into a key figure in politics; even an idiot wouldn’t believe that this was a coincidence.
Even more interesting was the widely known fact that the Ninth Princess and Xia Miaoyu had a really good relationship, at least when compared to the other so-called friendships in the palace.
Plus, the Ninth Princess’s brother was also the oldest prince and like her was born of Concubine Huang. With his prestigious background and the backing of Zhang Sun, he was in every way, the successor to the throne.
And that is why this marriage, no matter how you looked at it, had an inextricable relationship to the Eldest Prince.
However, this was also the most inexplicable point.
Everyone knew that the Eldest Prince, Xia Ziyi was a successor to the Confucian school of thought. He hated such political maneuvering the most and if it wasn’t for his imperial background, he would’ve likely been the prime candidate to be the successor of Grand Taishi’s Confucian school of thought.
Not only was Ning Chen unable to figure this out, the masses weren’t able to as well.
The one who knew this answer the best was currently sitting in that opulent carriage, having hidden her face since the very beginning of the trip.
It was this behavior that made Ning Chen the freest person in the entire entourage.
The deserted plains were exceptionally vast. Even after an entire day of traveling, the end seemed nowhere in sight.
Most of the time, Ning Chen would spend his time in the old man’s carriage, cultivating. Men’s natural instinct was to seek fortune and avoid danger; given the choice, anyone would gravitate towards the safest area.
Clearly, to Ning Chen, that old man was the strongest person in the entourage and thus his vicinity was the safest in the entire camp.
Not even for a second did he think that this marriage would proceed without a hitch. There was simply too many people in the world who didn’t want Zhenji and Grand Xia to enter into a marriage together; more than he could count with his hands and feet.
The fact that the Xia Emperor dispatched 500 soldiers of his personal army and a martial expert to secretly follow them was proof enough.
Overtly dispatching troops clearly wasn’t an option within the territory of Grand Xia. Thus, the only option was to ambush the marriage entourage with a martial expert.
Even now, he still couldn’t grasp the full strength of a martial practitioner. However, if Qing Ning’s impressive display despite her severe injuries was anything to go by, it wasn’t something an ordinary person could stand up to.
He didn’t know how strong this old man was, but his instincts told him that this old coot was definitely stronger than Qing Ning.
Just yesterday he experienced the old man’s strength firsthand. Given the speed of his sword, he would’ve already been sent back to his hometown in a bodybag if the old man even had the slightest intention of killing him.
Suddenly, a chorus of wolf howls echoed across the Desolate Plains, sending the marriage entourage into a panicked frenzy. In front, the officer in heavy armor halted his horse with a pull of its reins. Behind him, the 500 soldiers halted their march, surveying the area warily as they awaited further instructions.
Within the entourage, the Zhenji emissary who had been quiet these past ten days was visibly affected by this development. His eyes glowed with anticipation as his expression betrayed an unusual excitement.
If Princess Miaoyu were to die within the territory of Grand Xia, the responsibility would be placed squarely on Grand Xia. The marriage would have to be renegotiated and the emissary might even be able to use this as an excuse to skirt the issue of those twenty thousand warhorses.
The officer shouted in a deep voice. This situation wasn’t a normal one. Wasteland wolves possessed a degree of intelligence; such a suicidal attack simply didn’t happen without a reason. This was exactly what the 500 strong army feared. The fact that they dared to show up meant that something was controlling them from behind the scenes.
Amidst the silence, the rustling of the dried grass as the wolves brushed past them was conspicuously loud and clear. Slowly, the rustling became louder and louder. One wolf, two, ten, a hundred…
In the short span of a few breaths, a sea of wasteland wolves could be seen galloping from every direction, their numbers too many to be counted.
The low melodious sound of a xiao (Chinese flute) cut through the galloping in the background and the wolf pack began to form up, their attention fixed on the opulent carriage in the center of the entourage.
The flute sound rang out once more, the wolf pack howled into the air in response, their eyes turning red with bloodlust as they galloped towards the carriage in a frenzy.
“Protect the Princess!”
The armored officer shouted as he waved his hands, the 500 troops behind him rushing into formation, blades glistening and shields raised.
The Capital Army and its guards were the elites among the elites, as long as one held the pass, even a horde would find it difficult to pass through unscathed. As the sea of fur collided with the soldiers, a rain of wolf blood painted the ground blood red.
However, the wolf pack was simply too numerous for the guardsmen. As the mass of black fur swarmed in, even the stalwart guardsmen began to crumble under their relentless attacks. Soon, cracks began to form in their defensive formation.
Ning Chen got off his carriage and took up position beside the princess’s carriage. At this very moment, her life was of utmost importance. If she were to die here, none of them could get out of this with their heads intact.
As for the old man, he sat there as calm as always, the sword on his lap, as cold and still as ever.
Ning Chen knew exactly how scary that sword was once it moved. He was the only one in this entourage who experienced it firsthand. That was why he knew that the key to their survival was that very sword.
The ferocity of the wolves was something even these seasoned warriors couldn’t predict. Under the relentless slaughtering of the guardsmen, the wolf pack continued throwing themselves into the fray without any fear of death. Finally, the first batch of wolves managed to break through their defense, albeit with severe injuries.
With the guardsmen stalled and the old man not showing any signs of interfering, there was suddenly no one left to stop the charging wolves. The sudden development instantly increased the pressure on the defenders.
As the closest person to the princess, Ning Chen was right in the path of the wolves and could be said to be her last line of defense.
However, everyone knew that Ning Chen was no martial expert, even an ordinary guardsman was stronger than him. And yet, this eunuch was the last thing standing between the wolves and the princess. If they wanted to attack the princess, they had to first get rid of this humanoid hindrance.
Ning Chen was completely caught off guard by this turn of events. He simply didn’t expect that the old coot would actually not help. As he stared at their bared fangs and bloodshot eyes, a chill ran down his back.
At this distance, it was too late for him to run. Even if he could, with the princess’s carriage right behind him, doing so would only lead to an execution for him.
As the plain wolves stared at him with their emerald green eyes, they gave out a threatening growl and with a slight twist of their claws, leaped forth.
Before his mind could react, his body instinctively tumbled to the side, dodging the blow from the wasteland wolf. Or so he thought. A sharp ripping sound echoed in the air as the wolf’s razor sharp claws tore through his robe, shredding the better part of his shoulder.
In that moment of life and death, Ning Chen stood and with a reckless pounce forward, latched onto the wolf’s head, locked eyes with the bloodthirsty animal and then…
The wolf howled in pain as its body furiously struggled. However, Ning Chen held on as tightly as ever, unwilling to give up on his prey.
There was a limit to a person’s strength and yet at times, it was limitless. In the face of impending death, mankind’s potential was brought to bare by his overwhelming survival instinct. Ning Chen was afraid of death, more so than anyone else and so he bit. With body wrapped around the wolf and his hands latched firmly onto the wolf’s head, he bit. No matter what, he didn’t plan on letting go.
The wasteland wolf struggled. Out of pain, anger and especially out of fear.
Whether it was man or beast, they all had a carotid artery at the side of their neck. Given enough blood loss, even living becomes a difficulty.
Naturally, he knew of this and so he bit. Even harder than he did just seconds ago.
And then the wolf died…