Chapter 543: A Crumbling Heart

“What’s different?” Zu An carried her to the bed and sat down. He didn’t go further.

Xiao Tuo turned her face away and tightly pursed her lips, offering no reply. She knew that, at this point, anything she said would be meaningless.

Zu An smiled. “Unfortunately, I’m a soft-hearted man who lets bygones become bygones. I won’t hold anything against you, as long as you agree to become my woman.”

“Keep on dreaming!” Even though Xiao Tuo was so scared that her entire body was shaking, she still summoned the courage to reject him. “Big brother Lian will be the only one that my heart belongs to. I will never give myself to an incapable ruler like you!”

Zu An chuckled. “Your love for Lian might be unswerving, but I fear that he doesn’t trust you.”

Xiao Tuo bit her lip, and then said, “I grew up with my big brother Lian. We understand each other. You cannot drive a wedge between us.”

“Is that so?” A mocking look flickered across Zu An’s face. “If the two of you really are childhood sweethearts, then why would he be willing to send you into the palace to serve another man?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Both you and your father stole the throne that belongs to him. Since I love him, I would obviously do everything I can to help him,” Xiao Tuo replied.

“You’re even willing to give up your own chastity for that?”

“I am willing.” By now, Xiao Tuo had already calmed down. She said coldly, “Feel free to punish me however you please. I don’t want to hear any more of this nonsense.”

Zu An was surprised.  “What a heroic woman! Unfortunately, you’ve dedicated yourself to the wrong cause.”

Xiao Tuo turned her head away. She didn’t want to argue with him over this matter.

Zu An said, “When I said that Lian might not trust you, I wasn’t trying to hurt you. Think about it. When you first entered the palace, you constantly exchanged information with him, yet as time went on, the intervals between your visits grew longer and longer, and eventually, it was almost a miracle that you two would meet up at all. Why do you think that is?”

“I…” Xiao Tuo choked for a moment. She didn’t have a good explanation for this either. She hadn’t even realized that she had done this.

Zu An chuckled. “It’s because the longer we spent with each other, the more fond you became of me. You subconsciously felt like you were wronging me. Your actions were because of your guilt.”

If it wasn’t for the changes he’d notice in her behavior, he wouldn’t even have bothered with explaining all of this to her. He could have just had an imperial guard lock her up. Even if he didn’t sentence her to death, he could have her thrown into the inner prison.

Xiao Tuo’s face paled, and she immediately retorted, “Nonsense! How could I possibly develop feelings for you?!”

“Anyone would develop feelings of attachment if they raised a kitten or puppy long enough, all the more so if they spent time with another human being. We’ve been together all this time, and engaged in activities even more intimate than what married couples do. What’s so strange about an innocent girl like you unknowingly developing feelings for me?” Zu An replied.

“No… no way…” Xiao Tuo was still in denial, but her voice was already no longer as firm as before.

She was even beginning to doubt her convictions. Could it really be like what he said, that she had developed feelings for him?

But the one in her heart was her big brother Lian! Why would she suddenly become such a fickle woman?

Seeing her conflicted expression, Zu An continued, “No matter how good your relationship with Lian is, there is no way a man would let such a thing go. Even if he does succeed to the throne, he won’t be able to accept the fact that you already slept with another man so many times. That’s why, from the moment you agreed to the plan, your fate was doomed to become a tragic one, regardless of whether it was me or Lian who won out.”

All color drained from Xiao Tuo’s face. She’d considered such a thing beforehand, but she had always subconsciously told herself that big brother Lian wasn’t that sort of person, and didn’t let herself consider anything beyond that. Now that Zu An had laid all of this out, she knew that this was most likely the truth.

Zu An went on, “I doubt that he’s okay whenever he thinks about what you are doing. Now that you’re contacting him much less frequently as well, who could blame him if he begins to suspect that, after sleeping with me day after day, you’ve already developed some feelings for me? When you look at all of this together, it’s simply one bad thing on top of another. There’s no chance that the two of you will ever return to being how you were in the past.”

Xiao Tuo took a deep breath. “I understand what you are saying, but so what? I’ve already agreed to help him. As long as he thinks well about me from time to time, I will be more than satisfied. I never planned for the two of us to be exclusive lovers.”

“You expect him to think well of you?” Zu An laughed out loud. “You’re too naïve! You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t loathe you! How could he possibly have any good thoughts when he thinks of you?”

“Nonsense! How could he possibly hate me?!” Xiao Tuo began to panic. This was the last strand of hope that she was desperately clinging onto. She did not want to let anyone take it away from her.

Zu An reached out his hand and lifted her chin gently, admiring her pretty face up close. “Since I already knew your objective from the very start, did you think that I would have taken no precautions?”

A sudden thought flashed into Xiao Tuo’s mind, and her face warped with horror.

Zu An traced his finger across her face, feeling her soft and smooth skin. “I’m sure you’ve passed on all of the intelligence that you’ve obtained from me during this period. Even though you were always rather careful, I was already aware of your intentions, so there was no way I could let you achieve your goals.”

“But I still obtained a lot of secret intelligence!” Xiao Tuo said quickly.

Zu An laughed. “Because all of that was false information that I deliberately let you have access to.”

“False information?” Xiao Tuo felt something snap within her, and her soul seemed to leave her body. She completely forgot about the hand on her face… Of course, given the things they had done during this period, such a trifling thing was hardly a big deal.

Zu An nodded. “Actually, I feel truly grateful to you. It was rather difficult to get rid of those who opposed me, but by having you mislead Lian, I had him take care of many of his own trusted subordinates for me. Haha! He thought that those people that he removed had been bribed by me. Instead, the people he now trusts and placed in important positions are the ones that actually work for me.

“You’ve really helped me out and put him in quite the miserable position! Tell me, do you think Lian will still think fondly of you, or will he hate you?”

Xiao Tuo’s body went ice-cold. “You’re a devil!” she cried.

Zu An grabbed her hand. “Let me make something clear.” he replied, his voice devoid of emotion. “You were the ones who plotted against me first. Who is the real devil here?” 

Xiao Tuo’s face went blank, and her entire body went limp. She began to sob.

The last of her faith had crumbled, and she finally realized that everything she had stood for was a joke.

She had given up her own purity and happiness, and ruined all of Lian’s dreams in the process. All of this was just too much for her to take.

The man in front of her showed her no mercy, his fiendish voice continuing to batter her ears. “Once he realizes all of this, and he associates it with the grievance he has already been feeling all this while, his first thought will be that you somehow developed feelings for me, which will lead him to think that you betrayed him. He will believe that you plotted with me to fool him.”

“No, he won’t…” Xiao Tuo mumbled, frantically shaking her head. However, she knew just how powerless her words were.

“Why are you telling me all of this? Is it just so you can humiliate me even more?” Xiao Tuo looked at him, her eyes brimming with tears.

Zu An looked back at her, then reached out a hand to wipe away the tears dripping down her cheeks. “It’s because I want you.”

“You’ve already had me all along!” Xiao Tuo screamed. He had already toyed with her day and night! Don’t tell me he’s still not satisfied?!

Zu An shook his head. “No, I haven’t.”

Xiao Tuo was stunned. She was confused at first, but she slowly understood what he meant. He did not only want her body, he wanted her heart as well.

She sneered. “Do you think it’s even possible?”

Zu An said indifferently, “If it wasn’t because of the changes I’d seen happen in the way you treated me, as well as the hesitation and doubt you subconsciously felt whenever you leaked out information, I wouldn’t have even bothered to say so much to you.”

Xiao Tuo stayed silent. Could I have unknowingly…?

Zu An continued, “There’s really no need for you to feel sympathy for someone who uses his lover’s body to achieve his goals. Besides, putting aside your feelings for now, you still have your family and the people of the Tuo State to worry about. Do you truly wish for all of them to be chopped up into mincemeat and offered as human sacrifices just because of their relationship to you?”

Xiao Tuo’s entire body began to tremble. “You really are a devil after all!” 

Zu An shook his head. “I’m not saying all this to threaten you. You need to understand that, more often than not, decisions are not left up to the king alone. When it is time for Lian to stand accountable for his deeds, the court officials will examine both you and your family and the people within your state. This isn’t something I can dismiss with a wave of my hand, even if I wanted to. If I did so, our entire country would be thrown into disorder.

“I’m only telling you this because I want you to choose a path that actually benefits yourself. Only if you willingly give yourself to me can I convince everyone that everything you did was a part of my plan. Only then can you, your family and the people of your state avoid that bitter ending.”

When he saw her blank expression, Zu An lowered his head to kiss her cherry-colored lips.

Xiao Tuo subconsciously reached out to push him away, but her hands froze midway.

Zu An smiled. He interlocked his fingers with hers, and then he carried her to the bed.

Xiao Tuo’s heart began to pound. Even though she had embraced him intimately on many occasions over the course of this period, for some reason, she felt extremely nervous. She might have been even more nervous than the first time.

She knew that, this time at least, her heart was awash with contradiction and hesitation.

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