Proofreaders: Red & Mion Sakamaki
Cold Sands ch4
Here is chapter 4 fresh from the oven! Happy eating~
We look forward to reading your comments. :)
Xie Zhen pushes me away with surprising speed, and I feel the arrow tip graze my cheeks, my eyes tightly shut by instinct. The path below is covered with rocks, and immediately I get knocked off balance.
White waves wash across the surface of the river, and the ripples sting my eyes.
Wait! I can’t swim! Help-
But there’s no time to panic. The next moment I’m tumbling down into the river. Splash. The freezing water instantaneously starts to tunnel into my mouth, nose and ears; I can hear the water’s sly chuckle. I can’t think anymore with my body numb in the cold. I can only hear shouts and the bubbling from my own mouth. Hopeless, I close my eyes and feel myself suffocating slowly.
If I knew this would happen, I wouldn’t have slacked off during swimming lessons.
My vision dims. My body feels light and all around me darkness and water envelop me.
I painstakingly open my eyes. Thank goodness it’s not too bright.
A hand is gently wiping my forehead. I try to speak and the hand stops and then helps me sit up.
It’s a young, fair girl of about fifteen. She hands me a bowl of water with a kind smile. Right in time for my parched throat. I take it and feel much better after downing the bowl in one go.
I sit up straighter and observe my surroundings. I’m lying in a pelt tent, and it’s only after feeling the soft fur underneath me with my own hands that I’m convinced this is reality. I pinch my arms and face and scratch my legs and can’t help but let out a breath of relief.
I didn’t die; I came back alive.
Turning around, I see her beaming brighter than the sun.
Once I speak, I notice my voice is so raspy I can barely hear it myself.
She nods and smiles but does not speak. Then she pulls the covers up, motioning me to lie back down. I feel a little uneasy and refuse to. A bold voice call from outside the door while we are disputing.
“Has the young man awoken?”
The girl gets up and lifts the curtain up. A person enters, back bent, and only after do I see who it is. A tall, buff and bearded man of about fifty walks in and smiles kindly at me. Both he and the girl are dressed in Yan attire, but they look like people of Rui to me.
“Good that you’re awake,” he says as he sits down. “That branch of the Rope Hill Creek may be narrow, but it’s a lot deeper than you think.”
Memories of that night come rushing back.
“Thank you for saving my life,” I say, my head lowered respectfully.
The man pauses then laughs, “Hearing your accent; you’re not from ‘round here, are you?”
I nod and watch for their response.
“We’re not either. In fact, we only moved here recently,” he continues. “Excuse me for asking, you look like you’re from the city, what brings you all the way out here?”
I take a big breath as I consider. They don’t look like they’ve got anything to do with the military so I answer. “I’m originally a soldier of the Rui army. I had no choice but to escape after being captured by the Yan troops, and I fell into the river when they caught up to me where the river splits.”
The man listens in silence and ponders on it before responding. “We used to reside close to the borders. Who knew when the Yan invaded the whole place’d be abandoned by the troops? Me and my daughter escaped with the other refugees and started a nomadic life here.”
He looks as though he’s in pain and falls silent. The girl quickly pats him on the back gently, eyes brimming with tears.
“Blood washed the streets. Corpses everywhere. Her poor mother was killed right in front of her. Since then she can’t speak no more,” he says sorrowfully. “Ah, this cruel world.”
Guiltily, I drop my gaze too.
I know Great Rui’s military situation hasn’t exactly been, ahem, temporary but even so, being in the capital, I’ve never thought life in the frontiers would be like this. Even the battlefield it’s not as awful as this.
“That’s enough stories for one day, I think,” he says, wiping his eyes. He then turns around and says to the girl, “Bring the porridge in and feed the young man.”
I suddenly think of the other men.
“Mister, would you happen to know where the Great Rui army is stationed currently?”
He shakes his head.
“Young man, don’t take this the wrong way but why do you even bother? There’s no way Rui’s going to win with the Yan troops this far in.” He sighs. “Listen to a word of advice. You’re still young and got a whole life ahead of you. Run while you still can, lad, because soon this place won’t be safe either.”
I notice there’s more than meets the ear and question. “What do you mean it won’t be safe, mister?”
“The Yan troops just went by. I’m afraid it’ll be another bloodbath tonight.”
My breath stops and my heart beats wildly.
'Rope Hill Creek will fall, at the latest tomorrow night.'
I can almost hear Murong Yu’s words out of nowhere. I quickly glance outside only to view a red sun unhurriedly sinking to the west, nearly disappearing into the dusky horizon. My stomach tightens. I roll over to get off the bed; the wounds on my back start burning right away. I can’t help but cry out in pain and the man and the girl rush to prop me up.
“You can’t keep up like this, young man,” he says as he forces me to lie back down.
“Don’t you worry about that sort of stuff anymore,” he continues to comfort me. “Like they say, rather be a dog in a peaceful era than a man in a warring one. In these chaotic times, we can only hope to stay alive. You wanna go back but maybe they think you’re dead already.”
Getting up just now took a lot of energy and left me huffing and puffing on the bed.
All of a sudden, the stillness returns, only the sound of my breathing resonates. I quietly watch the red sun gradually disappear, leaving just a brilliant twilight against the darkening canvas. The clouds that are dyed with vivid purples and reds contrast the green trees and yellow sand, painting a beautiful portrait of the frontier.
I start to reflect on all the things that happened the past few days. Not only did I go through imprisonment, torture, jailbreak and drowning—all of which I had only escaped by a hair’s breadth—I also got involved with an impossible person like Murong Yu. What lousy luck!
Has Rope Hill Creek fallen already?
From the confident and assured look he had, chances are, most likely… I don’t even want to consider.
The words of my saviour ring in my ears. He’s right. Must I really go back?
As for Great Rui, I’ve already done and given everything I could for it. Though I haven’t done much for it, I haven’t sold it out either. There’s no one in that place who cares for me. The water of the womb is not worth a penny to those so-called family members of mine.
I shut my eyes tight and grip onto my blanket.
Maybe it’ll turn out well if I just leave like this.
To the Great Rui court, I’ve sacrificed my life for the country; to the empress dowager and Uncle, I’ve died in the war; to Murong Yu, I’ve gone back to Great Rui and will never be on his mind again. Three birds with one stone—good for me and for everyone else.
I take a deep breath and make a solemn decision: to leave this instant.
Or going AWOL, however you might call it.
I can move around by myself by the time the sun sets thanks to my good foundation. I insist on leaving, not wanting to drag this night out longer than needed. The man, not able to dissuade me, accompanies me along with the girl to the ferry of the distributary.
The dock is busy and well-lit by candlelight even at this hour. Ships and boats of all sizes shuttle to and fro; armed soldiers of Great Rui, from the looks of their armour, are also pacing the banks. For a country with highly developed waterways, it’s natural for security to be amped up during times like these.
I’ve already planned it out on the way here: avoid the capital as much as possible and travel via waterway to the south. When I get there the world will be what I make of it.
I’m already feeling psyched imagining my life in the near future. Hee hee.
Once I board I lean against the side of the ship pretending to doze off. I lift up my bamboo hat a bit and observe the other passengers. They all appear to be ordinary commoners but at a second glance, I find a few military men in disguise. Whether or not you are a soldier can be told from merely your posture and the vibe you give off.
I sigh softly and pull my hat further down. Looks like I need to be extra careful.
Out of nowhere, someone barks from the banks. “Move aside! Let us on for inspection!”
My stomach tightens, and I look up only to see a couple of Great Rui soldiers coming on board.
Why such lousy luck?
My palms become clammy with sweat. I bite down contemptuously; I might still have a chance to escape if I was on land but now on water it’d be impossible, even if I had wings.
I stand quietly near the bow. After checking everyone else, the soldiers approach.
“Let’s take a look at your face.”
A soldier reaches out to lift off my hat which I block with a raise of my hand.
“Officer, sorry about the inconvenience but I’ve unfortunately contracted an acute disease recently. Please excuse me.”
The soldier lingers for a moment and then snaps. “We have orders to inspect every single person that boards a boat. I don’t care whether you contracted a disease or not. Even if your old man died, we’d need to inspect his coffin!”
His harsh words left no room for compromise. I purse my lips. Some soldiers can’t do shit on the battlefield but sure can bully innocent commoners.
I’ve been in the army for a couple of years now, and it’s not unlikely that I’ll be exposed through my speech and gestures. Realising this, fear strikes me and I lean in closer to talk, but he flips my hat off before I get my lips open.
“I knew somethin’ was fishy ‘bout you. Noticed you when you got here.” The man hugs his arms with a sullen look. “Commoners don’t hold themselves like that. You’ve got to be a soldier.”
The soldiers behind him rush forth, causing the boat to rock. The man grabs my collar and interrogates. “What are you doing here? Speak!”
Countless possible solutions whiz through my mind in one moment.
“Sir, I believe this man’s a spy,” one of his men says.
The man stops then leers. “That’s right; he came from the other side of the border, right?”
My hands curl up in a fist. My heartbeat starts quickening.
What do I do? What do I do?
Instantaneously, without giving me any time to react, he binds my hands behind my back.
“Get going!” he hisses.
I lift my head up and stare angrily at him all while struggling to get loose, but he just chops the side of my neck. There’s a dull pain and my world goes black. Pain digs into my back. For some reason, my strength ebbs and I crumple over.
I’m freezing cold. Amidst the haziness, water swims up my nose, and I cough violently. Only after several tries do I get my eyes open.
“Still playing dead, I see.” Someone kicks me hard. “Get the fuck up!”
I frown from a splitting headache and a drowsy consciousness but struggle to get up nonetheless. I can’t help but moan after taking in my surroundings.
Another motherfucking prison cell!
After prying myself out of the jaws of a tiger, I end up in the home of wolves; I think all the bad luck I’ve collected from my past eight lives is coming onto me now. I get captured for no rhyme or reason just when I decide to leave for good—what kind of sick joke is this?
I instinctively rub my aching neck. “Where am I?” I ask.
“You’re a spy, how could you not know where you are?” The guard stops in front of me. “You better start talking now.”
I quickly glance up and the soldier is indeed clad in Great Rui armour. “Watch who you’re calling a spy! I’m a deputy general under General Zhou.”
He wavers momentarily then quickly recovers. “General Zhou’s Deputy General should be with General Zhou, naturally. Don’t try to fool me!”
“I was captured, for god’s sake, and just escaped!”
He seems surprised.
I glower and spit each word out. “Listen carefully. I was taken prisoner by the Yan and was escaping just now. Doesn’t matter if you believe me or not but I wanna see the general. He gets to decide what to do with me, got it?”
His expression changes drastically and veins start bulging out on his forehead. He lowers his head, holding onto his whip and pondering for quite a while. He then locks me in a cell and goes away, emotionless.
Tired and cold, I flop onto the ground, sighing.
There is no way of knowing if a soldier would still be on your side once they’ve been captured. I only wanted to stall by asking to see the general. Mercy isn’t expected from him if he finds anything fishy about you. He wouldn’t for my uncle’s sake either.
I tilt my head up and stare at the spotty wall in front of me. A heavy feeling emerges from the bottom of my heart. It’s kind of vague, kind of unreconciled.
After an extensive time, when the torches on the wall burned nearly all their fuel, when the black shadows seem to merge with the wall, no one comes and not even the slightest footstep or word can be heard.
I close my eyes, curl inward and bury my face in my knees.
So cold. So cold. So tired. So tired. So tired I can’t even speak or breathe. So tired I just want to fall into deep sleep right this instant.
This is Great Rui, yet I can’t feel a single shred of warmth.
Silence and tranquility surround me. There’s nothing but endless black; it’s as if I’ve gone into another reincarnation cycle.
My eyes shoot open and I see a figure standing outside my cell door through the hazy darkness. The voice didn’t sound like the General but familiar nonetheless. I take a closer look—it’s Xie Zhen.
He unlocks the door, sneaks in quietly and crouches down beside me.
I stare at him blankly. “You’re back?”
I see his head nodding weakly but his face remains in the dark. His body is tense and his right hand hidden in his sleeve, even trembling a little.
“Must be nice having a dad like that. You get back, nothin’ happens, but when I get back I get mistaken for a spy.” I turn the other way and watch the torch burn shakily and the flames dance lifelessly as our two silhouettes flicker in and out of existence.
Xie Zhen’s face pales as he lifts his head out of the shadows. The muscles on his face are kind of twisted up and appear extremely eerie in the gloomy prison.
“Just spit it out,” I groaned as I rubbed my forehead. “You might not get the chance once the general sees me.”
He drops his head down again as if trying hard to suppress something. I get impatient—since when has he been such a fuss?
A forbidding spark zooms across my eyes. He lays a chilly dagger on my neck with a flick of his wrist. “Don’t move.”
A cold-blooded blade lies between me and him and blocks off our words. The metal sends chills down my spine, and a sheen of cold sweat gathers on my back. Minutes tick by.
“It wouldn’t have had to come down to this, Han Xin, if you hadn’t come back,” he says through closed jaw.
Something clicks in my head and chuckle amusingly. “Xie Zhen, are you afraid I won’t keep your secret?”
He remains silent but I already know the answer from his eyes.
“That night, after you fell into the river, the Yan caught up to us and we thought, hell, if we’re gonna die anyway why not give it a shot? Then we all jumped in.” He presses down on the dagger. “I guess it wasn’t our time yet. We were rescued by Great Rui patrols.”
I look straight at him and scoff. “Right, so then you thought, since I already fell in the river the chances of me surviving are so slim no one would ever know about your betrayal. Who knew I would suddenly pop back outta nowhere and that just made you boil with worry. And you thought, why not just get rid of him altogether, right?”
He scowls. “You’re too smart, Han Xin, too smart for your own good.”
A gust of wind comes out of nowhere and blows life back to the torches, lighting up half of his face. Murderous intent is thick in the air.
I glance up and chuckle. “And here I was wondering what’s taking General Zhou so long. I guess he wasn’t even notified.”
He cracks a pained smile. “Rope Hill Creek’s gonna fall with or without me. General Zhou’s already decided to abandon this place, retreat and fortify South Hill Pass as the last stronghold.”
He opens his mouth again but stops, the hand holding the dagger slightly quavering. “I don’t wanna kill you, Han Xin. We were good buddies, getting into shit together back in the capital, but now…I have no other choice but to…”
I look at him steadily. “If I promise not to rat you out would you testify for me that I’m not a spy?”
He hesitates then shakes his head. “No, I wouldn’t. I can’t have any loose ends.”
I can’t help but laugh grimly. “You’re Xie Yun’s son, after all, cruel and cold-blooded just like him.”
Despair seems to flash in his eyes and his hand pushes down harder on the blade. I can already feel a wet trickle down my neck.
His eyes suddenly widen. “I’m sorry, Han Xin!”
“The wall has fallen! The wall has fallen! The Yan have broken in! The Yan-” Panicked shouts come from outside the prison.
Xie Zhen quickly laps into a panic and glances away. I seize the moment and push the dagger away. The next thing I know my neck is stinging with pain. He turns back around in a hurry and does the only thing he can at the moment—he raises the dagger once more and swings it at me.
The blade flashes white.
I’ve been crouching and my legs have gone so numb that I can’t dodge it. I clearly hear the sound of the dagger burying into me. It hurts as if a thousand blades have pierced through my chest.
The taste of iron gushes into my mouth. He pulls the dagger out in a rush and blood goes flying, covering my vision in a coat of crimson.
My strength seeps away as if being sucked out from me and I crumple onto the cold floor, limbs limp. Xie Zhen shakes nervously and drops the dagger. Sharp clangs ring throughout the cell. I watch as he trips over his own feet while scurrying out of the cell in such a hurry that he forgets to lock the door.
A chill slowly creeps up on me. Only thing I can feel now is my consciousness turning blurry as if I’m floating on nothingness, rocking back and forth, drifting off to some unknown place.
My luck’s probably run out. I’m afraid this is the end, my friend.
I want to laugh but I’m so weak that I can’t muster the strength to do so.
How…pathetic, dying at the hands of your own countryman.
Faces flash across my eyes: Empress Dowager, Uncle, Aunt…Cousin…my gang of scoundrels…. I bet if I really died right now no one would be sad; no one would cry at my grave or burn incense for me.
Pathetic, that’s how I feel.
They wouldn’t weep for me even if I died. The past twenty years of my life has just been a big fat joke. As long as Great Rui stands, they can still go on being their gracious empress dowager or majestic emperor or honourable minister while I haven’t even gotten the chance to see my parents’ face or hear their voices.
“Parents….” My mouth painstakingly forms the words. “Dad…Mom….”
I don’t know anymore; all I see is red. Finally, along with the chill that seeps into me endlessly, a heavy black curtain finally drops in front of my eyes.
After maybe a thousand years, or maybe just a cup of tea’s worth of time, I think I hear someone yell on the brink of unconsciousness.
“There’s someone here….”
I only spot a blurry figure amidst the haziness and the next moment I fall into a warm embrace.
Dairytea's comment: We're taking a break from Cold Sands next week, but we have something else in store for you then, which I know a number of people have been waiting for. *wink, wink*
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.