When Zhang Shi Lan woke up the next morning, the first thought that entered his mind was that today was the day they would act. The rest of his life would depend on how he managed to play his role in the hunt later on.
His heart beat madly at that thought. He closed his eyes again and took a few deep breaths, calming himself down. He could do this. There was no need to get nervous. After all, this wasn’t a real ambush. It was just something that they were doing so he and Yu Huang Rong would be able to get married. Nothing could go wrong.
Zhang Shi Lan exhaled again, got up and put on his clothes. His father left early on to go and talk with some of the other ministers that he knew while Zhang Shi Lan stayed back alone, waiting for the plan to begin.
Since this was the first full day they would spend at the hunting grounds, today everybody would set out in the morning, going into the woods before they returned in the afternoon to present what they had hunted so that it could be prepared for the dinner.
The procession would stay at the hunting grounds for four days counting the one when they arrived and departed but Yu Huang Rong had told him that it would be best to let the problem arise today since most others would be bound to stay at the hunting grounds. Thus, he would have two days to get into his role without people inquiring too much. After that, he could still refuse most of the visitors under the guise of recuperating from his injuries but sooner or later, he would need to meet others. Giving him a bit of time to get into this act couldn’t be bad.
Because of the same reason, the ambush was scheduled for not long after they went into the forest. Before that, they first needed to prepare though. Yu Huang Rong had told him that there were some things that needed to be done to make this ambush look more convincing but he didn’t know any details yet. When they had spoken about it, the autumn hunt had still been quite a while away and Yu Huang Rong hadn’t wanted him to worry too much so he had only told him the general plan and not explained any further. Now, Zhang Shi Lan wondered how things would proceed from here on out. Should he go and meet Yu Huang Rong? But that might also be suspicious.
Just when he pondered, a light cough sounded from the flap of the tent and a hoarse voice sounded. “May I come in?”
Zhang Shi Lan raised his head and got up, wondering just who might have come over at this time. He could only hope that it wouldn’t impede their plan. “Of course.”
The flap was lifted and a man in a dark robe stepped in. Zhang Shi Lan didn’t have any impression of him.
She Ning looked at the scholar and noticed his blank expression. Obviously, he hadn’t taken note of him yesterday. Well, it was to be expected. Zhang Shi Lan had looked terrified because of meeting the emperor. He probably hadn’t taken any time to look around. Thus he nodded in greeting. “I’m She Ning, one of His Majesty’s secret guards. I was told to come and help you prepare.” He took the bag down that he had slung over his shoulder and motioned over to the table.
Zhang Shi Lan blinked but still motioned over as well. “Ah, I’m honored to be able to meet you. Thank you very much for your help. Please, have a seat.”
She Ning went over but still shook his head. “Take off your outer robe and sit down.”
Zhang Shi Lan stared at him, at a loss of what to do.
She Ning didn’t care though. He put down the bag, opened it and took out some things. There was a small pouch that looked very thin and as if it had been filled with some dark liquid, as well as some thread. Zhang Shi Lan had no idea what this might be about.
She Ning saw his gaze and sighed. Well, this person was a scholar through and through. He couldn’t expect him to be like Yu Huang Rong or Luan Xin who were able to recognize this kind of thing and understand what was going on. “I reckon General Yu didn’t explain very much?”
Zhang Shi Lan shook his head. “No, he just said that there was something that needed to be be prepared. So … Might ask what this is? I don’t want to do anything wrong and risk that the plan fails because of me.”
She Ning looked at him, his gaze complicated. After the first shock of seeing Zhang Shi Lan, Luan Xin had already calmed down somewhat. It was expected that after a while when Yu Huang Rong and Zhang Shi Lan had gotten married, he probably really wouldn’t care any longer.
Anyway, it had already been a long time. But still, right now, he couldn’t help but feel that the sooner this plan was completed, the better. Even if he could never openly be together with Luan Xin, he still wanted to at least be the only person in his heart. If he could help with that, then he certainly would do his utmost to do so.
Thus he patiently explained. “This is a blood pouch. Later on, we naturally don’t want to injure you for real. But we still have to make sure that it looks like we did. Nobody can be allowed to find out the truth. To make it seem believable, we will strap this to your body. The pouch is filled with blood and when my men attack, this blood will pour out and create the illusion that you have been grievously injured, to the point where your life is in danger.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded. “So do I have to do anything so that they are able to make it work?”
She Ning shook his head. “Just throw yourself in between Yu Huang Rong and one of the attackers. They will know where the pouch is so they will act accordingly. Afterward …” He looked at Zhang Shi Lan’s face again, feeling a little complicated. This person was probably an upright and honest man. Participating in this kind of scam … probably wasn’t easy for him? “Do you think that you will be able to fake the pain?”
Zhang Shi Lan tightened his lips. Naturally, he had never tried anything like that so he couldn’t rashly promise. “I will try my best.”
She Ning looked at him and furrowed his brows. “Trying is good but I’d rather have some more reassurance. Let me think about it. My men and I will certainly find something to make sure it won’t fail because of that.”
She Ning motioned at the chair again. “Alright, then take off your outer robe and sit down.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded but he still felt awkward when he opened his belt and then took off his outer robe. After all, he hadn’t even taken off his clothes in front of Yu Huang Rong. Now, in front of a stranger …
His cheeks flushed and he had to lower his bead, not daring to meet this man’s eyes. Although he was still wearing his inner robe, he felt that this wasn’t the right thing to do. He sat down without the usual elegance, his whole body tense.
She Ning didn’t care about his mood. He was just glad that he hadn’t asked him to take off his inner robe as well. This scholar might have had an even more difficult time to comply then and it was obviously hard for him already to do this much. If they lost precious time because of that … Well, things would work out.
He picked up the blood pouch and tied it to Zhang Shi Lan’s back. This kind of person who wasn’t very skilled would probably jump toward Yu Huang Rong instead of the attacked to shield him with his body. Thus, it was much more likely for him to be struck at the back. Anyway, it would also help later on when he had to pretend to recuperate. After all, his back would be covered by his clothes all the time. If his chest was supposedly injured, someone might see something they shouldn’t if his lapel ever opened too far. It was much better to do it this way.
She Ning stepped back as soon as he was finished and gave a curt nod. “Alright. I’m finished. You can put the robe back on but be sure not to move too much. The pouch won’t break just because of some slight movements but make sure that you don’t bump into anybody or fall. We wouldn’t be able to explain it when your clothes suddenly got bloody from just that.
Zhang Shi Lan gave a small smile. “Thank you.”
She Ning shook his head. “It’s what His Majesty wants.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded and then bowed. “Then if this isn’t too presumptuous, please give my thanks to His Majesty. This means a lot to me and … to Yu Huang Rong as well.”
She Ning continued to look at the scholar for a moment longer before he nodded. “I will.” He gave him another nod and then left the tent, quietly slipping away and returning to Luan Xin’s temporary quarters. Currently, another big show was going on there.
One didn’t even need to be very close to His Majesty’s tent to hear the yelling from inside. Some people who were slightly older and had already served at the previous emperor’s side could clearly distinguish this as one of the fights that the emperor and General Yu had often had when they were younger.
Most of these people were smart enough to slink off lest they’d be seen by His Majesty and receive some from the remaining wrath when His Majesty stepped outside again.
That carefulness soon paid off. After a few more minutes, General Yu angrily brushed the tent’s flap aside and then stormed off, not even caring to look at anybody. His expression couldn’t be called anything but stormy.
Everybody pretended to be extremely busy and only glanced at him from the corner of their eyes, wondering just what had happened this time.
The older General Yu raised his brows at this. Considering that they were family and that he had seen this very often in the past, he went over and patted his shoulder. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll get better soon. Ah Xin and you have always fought when you were younger. Just give both of you a few days to calm down and then go and talk to him. Anyway, he’s your best friend.”
Yu Huang Rong furrowed his brows and huffed, obviously not willing to heed his father’s advice. The old General sighed, shook his head and then left. He’d just wait for Yu Huang Rong to calm down by himself. After the hunt, things might already be looking completely different.
He had no idea that he would be right but that the way in which this would look different was completely out of his expectations.