Proofreaders: Gwen, Mion Sakamaki, Red, Qiao Di, Xiao Yu
Cold Sands ch8
“Hey! You hold it right there!” A girl orders loudly, “Answer me this instant! I forbid you to ignore me!”
I saunter ahead of her with my arms full while she yells at me.
A whip flies across. I quickly step behind a pillar and steer clear of it.
“A real man faces his problems! Not hides from them!” she taunts with all her might.
I can’t help but shake my head. I edge my way out from behind.
“Women are simply impossible to please,” I comment casually.
“How dare you! I will have you-”
She strikes down with her whip backhand and slices the air. The lashes come down like rain but I dodge them all, remaining unharmed.
I suppose she got tired after a while so she stands, leaning on a pillar. She wipes her forehead dry and looks daggers at me while huffing and puffing. I shrug and leisurely lean against another pillar.
“Haven’t you had enough fun for one morning, Duchess Xiao? I still have matters to attend to before his highness returns or else punishment awaits me.”
The girl in front of me is no more than seventeen. Her eyes and teeth have a healthy glow like rows of pearls and her cheeks are naturally rosy. She looks like a piece of viridescent jade bathed in water at first glance, forming a brilliant contrast with her fire-red cloak.
Her name is Xiao Qinyun, grandniece of Empress Dowager of Yan. She was bestowed the Dukedom of Zhao Peng the moment she was born and has been doted on ever since. Not only does she have the vanity of the blue-blooded, there’s a certain passion and temper that you don’t see in most noblewomen.
She sits on a railing, brows raised and eyes wide. “Don’t try to threaten me with my dear Yu. He doesn’t scare me. Also, you’re nothing but a prisoner. How dare you speak to me like that?”
“Yes, my Duchess.” I nod and grin. “Your noble birth allows you to look down upon all else, even his highness the prince.”
According to her words, she’s Murong Yu’s fiancée. She came here in two shakes to see him after catching wind of his victory, bringing over a hundred in her entourage. The residence became filled with so many people that it doesn’t seem like a military base anymore.
Murong Yu keeps his army on a tight leash and would normally never allow such a thing but he can do nothing except let Xiao Qinyun run wild for the empress dowager’s sake.
“You-” Her face goes red and she hops off, whip in hand.
I quickly dodge back behind the pillar. “Wait just a second. If you keep up this mischief, there’s no guarantee that the prince won’t send you back. You know how he is—he won’t cut you any slack.”
Her eyes droop and her lips pucker. Soon her eyes are brimming with tears. She looks down and wipes at her eyes with her sleeve.
I can’t help but feel a bit guilty seeing this.
It’s so painfully obvious that Murong Yu can’t care less about this ‘fiancée’ of his. He didn’t say much to her that night when she got here with a trail of smoke. He only gave some orders for the servants to send her to bed without a single word of romance or comfort that a gentleman would have offered.
‘I don’t fancy her.’ He had turned to me after she had left. ‘Her father is the Left Prime Minister, an influential official in the Yan court. We do not even have an engagement. She just likes me of her own accord. Don’t think too much of it.’
I hear muffled sobbing coming from those trembling shoulders. Right now, she’s just a heartbroken little girl with no vanity whatsoever.
Sigh. I just can’t stand to see a pretty lady cry.
I approach her and fish out a handkerchief from my breast pocket. “Here.”
She sniffles, turning away from my offer. I extend it out further.
“Don’t worry.” I coax. “It’s just been washed. Squeaky clean,”
“I refuse to accept such a foul thing from a man like you.”
“Fine with me.” I eyeball her while pulling the handkerchief back. “I still have to return it to His Highness. This is his after-”
In the blink of an eye, she plucks it out of my hand. She holds it tightly in her hand after dabbing at her tears with it, unwilling to part with it.
I snicker in my head. This little gal is head over heels for Murong Yu but I don’t know if she’s going to live happily ever after.
“There, there. Wipe those tears. We can’t let your fiancée see you like this, now can we?”
She makes a faint noise that I barely catch. I turn my attention away and lean on the railing. The winds of the frontier in September bring chills cold enough to freeze my face. The leaves have all fallen from the trees in the distance. One last dried leaf gets blown off its branch and twirls slowly to the ground.
She gnaws on her lips and opens her mouth as if to say something but abandons it several times.
“Ask away,” I tell her.
“I-I want to know what Yu likes.”
“Hmm.” I pause. “Well, I haven’t seen him care about anything since I became his manservant. He keeps a poker face all day long like he’s got a stick up his ass.”
“Yu’s been that way as far as I can recall. Cold. Withdrawn. The palace maids said that he was six years old when his mother passed away. He knelt before her catafalque and wept for an entire night.”
I sigh lightly, for no reason beyond sympathy and pity.
I’m not of the royal family but even I know that without a mother’s protection, a prince has no support in the imperial court. I can almost picture that lonely, heartbroken boy. I wonder how much torment he had to bear and how many obstacles he had to overcome to get to where he is today.
She looks up, her face pink and her eyes pleading. “Tell me what exactly my darling likes. I want to make him happy. I want him to like me.”
I frown but I don’t want to disappoint her. It wouldn’t necessarily be bad for Murong Yu to be loved without any ulterior motives by a person like this.
“Well,” I consider some options. “I heard, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It’s worth a try. You brought chefs along with you, right?”
She props her chin on her hands. “That does make sense, I suppose. And I know his favourite dish is crispy almond roll. My chefs know how to make it, too!”
I nod eagerly. “So you gotta learn how to make that. He’ll definitely be impressed when you bring him a hot steaming plate of that whatchamallit roll. He’ll realise that his fiancée is so refined and kind and he’ll take a liking to you.”
What a lame excuse. Only a little girl like her would believe it.
She gets up looking rather satisfied.
“Alright, that settles it.” She claps and declares cheerfully, “I shall pay a visit to my chef now.”
I sigh in relief. She’s been bugging me all morning to figure out what Murong Yu and I were doing that night when she arrived. It’s not like I’m going to inform her of her fiancée’s fondness for men. That’d be too hurtful.
I scoop up my things but before I can even take a step she gets in my way.
“Han Xin, don’t think you’re off the hook just yet.” She looks me right in the eyes. “Explain yourself. What were you doing with my Yu that night?”
My smile stiffens and I spit curses in my mind. I can’t come up with anything in response when I see her delicate young face. She raises her eyebrows, clearly not going to give up until I come clean. But I have got to hand it to myself. I simply gaze right back at her while keeping my composure.
“What are you two up to?”
Yes! Finally, rescue has come! I celebrate in my mind.
I spot Murong Yu standing in the yard with a slight turn of my head. He doesn’t look too good, a bit more somber than usual.
“Han Xin.” His gaze lingers on us but his expression doesn’t lighten up. “You still have not completed what I asked you to in the morning, yet you are here conversing with the duchess?”
Xiao Qinyun is already leaping towards him with her train lifted in her hands before he finishes.
“Yuuu!” She grabs his arm and beams. “Where have you been, honey? It’s so late now. Qinyun’s been waiting for you.”
You’d expect any man to be moved when a cute lady’s beside you but his face only lightens up the slightest.
“Duchess of Zhao Peng, please realise you are standing on military grounds and not your manor. I advise you to be mindful of your actions.”
“Aww, c’mon. Can’t you relax for one minute? Why do you have to be so serious all the time?” She sticks her tongue out playfully and looks Murong Yu up and down.
He watches me with a stern expression. I sense discontent too. I remain silent and pick my things up.
“Come with me, Han Xin.” He stops me before I get to leave.
When I look, he has somehow escaped Xiao Qinyun’s embrace and is already walking away. She is stomping on the ground, face flushed and heatedly chewing on her amaranth lips. I think she’s doing her best to keep calm. I give her a slight nod when I brush past her to remind her of my advice.
“What’s taking so long?”
I quickly pick up my pace.
“You sure were enjoying yourself with the duchess, not doing any work.” He comments nonchalantly while eyeing me.
“Hmmph.” I reply casually. “Oh, I wouldn’t dare. It’s just that the duchess was inquiring about what happened that night. How dare a prisoner of war like me disobey her orders?”
Murong Yu pauses and regards me. “I said, you’re my…my retinue. It would be best that you don’t get involved with her.”
Hmmph. You just don’t want to see your fiancée talking with another man. What a jerk.
“Yes, your highness. I shall not converse with the duchess. Happy?” I drone and then continue in a low but clear voice. “But I hope you sit her down sometime and explain what exactly happened that night to her so she doesn’t get the chance to converse with me anymore.”
He wavers a bit and grins. “That night? I didn’t think you could recall.”
I slow my pace discreetly. He drops his grin and his eyes turn sullen.
Xiao Qinyun stays in the kitchen with the chefs the whole afternoon, surprisingly, not taking even outside. That being said, being the doted-on duchess that she is, she has never once had to do any sort of housework before. It’s only natural that she’s awkward and clumsy even if she undergoes intensive training at the last minute.
I can’t bear to look at the steaming pastry on the table in front of me but when I see her eager expression I can only grab a piece and stuff it in my mouth.
You reap what you sow. ’Tis the eternal truth.
I can’t help but exclaim:
COUGH! COUGH! COUGH!
I thought I saw the reapers before me.
Murong Yu gives me a weird look and passes a cup of tea over before looking back down at the board. I start feeling better only after taking a few gulps.
“What’s the matter? You have been coughing nonstop the whole afternoon.” He picks up a white stone but lingers.
Your fiancée is really on another level. Even the pastries that she makes are on another level. Not even the army rations can compare.
Well, that’s what I almost said—but I made a promise of secrecy and I intend to keep it.
I make some vague explanation and wait for his move, black stone in hand. He wanted to play Go with me after finishing his business in the afternoon. I agreed since I was bored anyway.
He’s white; I’m black. When the match began the stones were placed down at a feverish pace, capturing and removing the other colour fervently. It only slowed down after twenty or so turns each.
While I was taught by the old geezer to stick to turning defense into offense, Murong Yu’s strategy is the exact opposite. Swift and fierce, his stones swept across the field.
Clunk. He looks up at me after placing his stone. I ruminate and place my stone down. His smile instantly disappears, a frown taking its place as he sits up straight.
Murong Yu has played aggressively, capturing many eyes, and showed signs of victory. I, on the other hand, have been seemingly retreating but really advancing, leaving plan B’s and C’s everywhere. After many turns, the white and black stones have started closing in on each other, interlocking and interweaving together.
Murong Yu’s slanted brows furrow together, making him appear rather exquisite and smart. He knocks his knuckles gently against the edge of the table while I remain motionless, contemplating my next moves.
I was once a careless punk and the old geezer made me play Go to train my patience. When one plays Go, one must consider one’s moves seven moves in advance before placing a stone, he had said. Only after losing a katrillion times did I start becoming more patient and careful.
I see Murong Yu placing his white stone on the board and immediately follow with my own. All of a sudden the playing field is full of weak points. A grin spreads on his face and he attacks relentlessly. I retreat every turn until he boldly plays a few stones. I see the chance before me and take it without hesitation, a black stone landing right on target.
His eyes go wide, his lips purse tightly and his hand lingers in midair, not showing signs of lowering.
After a moment, he tosses his stone back and heaves a light sigh. “I have lost.”
“You went easy on me, Your Highness.” I grin.
He nods in my direction and then leans back on his chair. “I can tell, though your moves may seem light and weak, they are, in reality, fast and ferocious. The slightest mistake and your opponent falls right into your hands.”
“Your tactics were sharp and precise with the dominating prowess and style of a king, Your Highness.” I toy around with a stone. Its soft texture emits gentle warmth into my palm.
“Give me a break.” He shakes his head, amused. “I have heard enough from you to know better.”
I’m clearing the board when he asks, “Han Xin, do you know what is the most essential of all military tactics?”
“Thoroughly assessing the situation, the enemies’ and your own capabilities; that is the key to being victorious.” It slips out of my mouth before I realise.
He lightly nods in approval. “Go is comparable to war. For every step you take, you must plan for the next ten and also be conscious of your opponent’s intentions. Only then can you rest assured and proceed. The art of Go is also the art of war. And you are a Deputy General.”
Then he halts me and asks curiously. “So why have I never witnessed a display of your strategic skills on the battlefield before?”
I pause. “Well, what can I say? I’m just a care-free spirit who dilly-dally my days away doing nothing. It’d be a miracle if I kept out of trouble so I can’t afford the luxury to ‘display my skills’.”
His eyes shine as if he’s caught on to something.
“I beg to differ. Since you were captured, you have been behaving just like your Go pieces. Your life rests in the enemy’s hands, yet you show no fear. You’re hiding your talent, biding your time. Suicide, arson, prison break, drowning and you’re still alive and kicking. I believe that whoever could perform such feats is far from average.”
“Thank you.” I grin. “But really I’m scared of dying, so all I do is try my best to stay alive.”
He leans in, eyes narrowed. “Not how I see it. You’d wanted to die when you took my sword. Now, you’re imprisoned in enemy territory, serving under me without a word of complaint. I would argue that you are biding your time.
“Biding my time? Oh please, Your Highness. I don’t hold any military power, what would I be biding my time for?”
“Not necessarily. A spectator sees more of the game. I don’t know who taught you to play Go but I can tell there is more than meets the eye.” He grins, rapping on the board with his knuckles. “There is much relation. Whether it’s warfare or the administration of a nation.”
It’s just Go. How could it possibly be related to so many other things?
“It may seem like you are not concerned for your country but in reality that is not the case.”
I can’t quite decipher his look. I pause.
“If you mean Duke Yu Qing, I can’t deny it. He’s an old acquaintance after all…” I sigh, leaving my words unfinished.
The duke may be a scholar but he still has the arrogance and pride of one of royal lineage. He doesn’t surrender; he doesn’t sell out his country. He ended up choosing the most dignifying end: self-starvation.
Murong Yu knows well of royal pride and has granted him the liberty.
As for me, I simply couldn’t find the courage to face him again. I had stood before the door, hesitated and, in the end, left.
Three days after our match, Duke Yu Qing passes away. He went quietly, not one bit unkempt or sallow until the very end. Dressed tidily, he closed his eyes for eternity with the faintest smile. This loyal duke has used his own life to uphold the last bit of dignity of Great Rui’s royal family.
Murong Yu holds a fitting service for him and orders all captured Great Rui soldiers to keep vigil for him.
As a man of the army, I understand well that a general who respects his enemies will, in turn, be respected by his people.
The soldiers start to dissipate as night falls. I stand before Duke Yu Qing’s casket, coming to a realisation.
We’re all the same in the face of the reaper, no matter the poorest poor or the richest rich. At times of peril, one can only hope to live to see another day. And the same goes for me. I don’t know why my parents left me so early but I can be sure that they wanted me to watch the brilliant sun rise every morning in their place.
I sit on a winding fence, absentmindedly watching the sun sink down, painting the earth vermillion.
“What are you thinking there all by yourself?”
I glance to the side to see Murong Yu approaching. He pats me on the back. I look back down.
“Thanks, for what you did for Duke Yu Qing.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t mention it. I was just following my mother’s teachings.”
“I don’t think I have seen you like this before.” He sighs. “Could it be that you’re homesick?”
I stay silent—silent as the bloody sky before me.
I’m not sure if I am or not. To be honest, I’m more comfortable living like this right now. The rich and wealthy capital, the imperial palace, my uncle’s magnificent mansion, none of them has ever spared me much warmth.
The chilly evening wind of September brushes over my skin, sending chills, making every grass and every tree, every brick and every tile seem so cold and distant.
“I respect him.” He sits beside me, eyes flashing. “But it shall not stop me from advancing.”
I turn to him. He turns too and our eyes clash. There’s evident resolution and sharpness in his stare that is scorching like the sun.
“Marshal Heng who was stationed in the southern Rui has finally embarked and will reach the Rui capital in no more than two months.” He sounds so casual like he’s talking about the weather.
“I am sure you know a thing or two about him.”
I look away and grunt in reply.
It has been an open secret for a long time that Marshal Heng thirsts for control over the royal family. His objectives are clear from the fact that he’s only heading up to the capital now.
“It’ll be both a fortune and misfortune that the marshal’s returning to the capital.” I sigh.
He looks over, eyes burning into me, and chuckles. I bite my lips, feeling sad for some reason, and turn away, not wanting to look at those shadowy orbs.
Suddenly he stands up, closes in and towers over me, immersing me in his shadow.
“Don’t worry about it.” Hot breath hits my face. “I hope you won’t have anything to do with that stuff ever again.”
I don’t know why he’s saying that but I shake my head and reply, “No can do. It’s where I was born. It’s where I was brought up. My life is destined to be intertwined with it.”
His expression changes, his jaw clenching tightly, and I sense anger though I can’t understand why. In a blink of an eye, he grabs on to my wrist and pulls me up. I tumble into his embrace. I’m not in any mood to fight with him in my saddened state. I only want to get out of here and be left alone.
“Han Xin,” he barks. Pain shoots through my arm. “Why must you cross me every time?”
“I don’t.” I glance up and yell back just as loudly. “It was you who started it today.”
“You’re outta your mind.”
He glares at me and I glare back, not backing down.
The seconds tick by and finally, I can’t stand this awkward position anymore. “Your fiancée is still present in the camp, Your Highness. I ask that you refrain from inappropriate behaviour.”
“You!” he hisses angrily. He continues to glare and then suddenly leans in.
“Not again, mhm…”
His lips are already against mine before I can object and they start intruding without a moment’s hesitation. A warm heat surrounds me. My body feels weaker by the second but my mind is still sharp. I’m trapped in his embrace, not even able to struggle.
He finally releases my lips, satisfied only after a long, suffocating kiss. His thin lips move down my face, trail along my jawline and quickly wrap around my ear lobe.
“Wha-what’re you doi-.” I tremble as I feel a heat rising in me, burning my skin. “Let go!”
He chuckles. “I find you much more pleasant when words aren’t coming out of your mouth.”
I’m so pissed off that I would sock him right in his pretty little face if only my hands weren’t constricted.
“Don’t you dare move.” I think he noticed my intentions. His grip tightens. “Don’t tempt me.”
I stop right away.
I sure as hell don’t want to tempt my head getting chopped off!
He comes in closer, seeing that I have fallen quiet, and watches me with an enigmatic smile. “Oh, now you’re scared?”
Embarrassed, I stubbornly bite my lips and turn my face away, not wanting to look at him.
“I never expected a peaceful end from the moment I was captured. Still, I don’t wanna be deceived and humiliated. I don’t wanna let others toy with me as they please just to have my life spared.”
His lingering lips and his warm breath sear my neck. I shiver, not sure whether from the heat or the cold.
“Toy with you? Are you sure about that?” He pulls me in and whispers by my ear. “Perhaps you think I’m some lecherous, licentious prince who decided to toy with you on a whim?”
I nod cautiously, observing his reaction out of the corner of my eye.
He falls silent but still keeps eye contact with me. Light, warm breath hits my face.
We stay like that for a long time. The sun has already set and the magnificent afterglow is washing out, the moon peeking out from behind it.
The grip on my wrists disappears. He lets go of me out of nowhere and takes several steps back. The sky is cloudy, obscuring his face. It seems like his silhouette has been coated with a layer of frost. He seems a little down after the silence.
The cold wind cools my burning skin. I cough and turn my head. Cold moonlight is reflecting from the bottom of his eyes, making them seem more withdrawn than ever.
His lips curve up but he’s not smiling. “I am glad that you know how to protect yourself but it is not wise to think so little of yourself.”
Then he just turns around and disappears into the shadows. I open my mouth but nothing comes out. I heave a sigh and sit back on the fence.
Out of nowhere, a thick cape falls on my shoulders, warming my body. I don’t know when he came to stand behind me.
“You’ll catch a cold.”
The night grows silent as the moon rises to its highest point.
I don’t know why but my legs take me to where Duke Yu Qing’s casket is placed before burial behind Murong Yu’s back. Maybe I just wanted to see him one last time.
It’s icy cold tonight. Even with this cape wrapped tightly around me, the brisk wind still finds its way in, threatening to freeze off my fingertips. It’s pitch black all around. Dead silence. I have nothing to fear even if I prop myself against the casket.
I actually don’t know what I should do now after the encounter with Murong Yu today. I might have thought it was nice living here before, but now I feel that I can’t stay here for long either.
I bury my face in my hands, eyes tightly shut, mind a jumble. Great Rui, I can’t go back there. I can’t stay here long either. But neither is it going to be easy to leave. There’s got to be a place where I can stay in this big, wide world!
I scoff. Han Xin, you pitiful thing, hanging on for so long, and what do you get? Abandoned by all those closest to you. That’s what you get. You’re just someone who gets left behind.
I reach for my chest; the thing underneath the fabric seems to burn.
Wind whooshes past my ears, over the trees and in between the branches and the foliage, stirring the moonlight. The leaves shake and shiver along with a miniscule turbulence.
I shake my head and call out.
“You came all the way here. Let’s not be shy now. Show your face regardless of whether you’re friend or foe.”
Dairytea's comment: Something is lurking in the dark corners of Chinese BL Translations. When? (sometime next week) Where? (on our site) Who...or what??? (we shall see) >w< *shivers*
ayszhang's warning for what's to come: The translator, through his experiences with readers of the original and the translation, strongly suggests to NOT read the novel at night and/or alone. He knows this probably makes the readers want to read it even more. But that was his plan all along.
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.