Proofreaders: Gwen, Red, and Mion
Cold Sands ch10
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Day ten of the ninth lunar month. Marquis Xin Ping, Marquis An Ding and Duke of Yun Ning gathered an army of thirty thousand strong at Long Liang Brook. Murong Yu divided fifty thousand men into three Wings, and cornered and trapped the Rui troops.
Day fourteen of the ninth lunar month. Long Liang Brook fell. Marquis Xin Ping died in battle. Marquis An Ding was critically wounded. Duke of Yun Ning escaped. Murong Yu’s vanguards rode into and took the county of great import, Peng Ze, cutting off the Rui capital from the north.
Day twenty of the ninth lunar month. Marshal Heng arrived at the capital. All court officials fell on their knees in his wake. Eighty thousand men set camp forty li away from the capital. The remaining forty thousand advanced north.
Day twenty-seven of the ninth lunar month. The County of Qing Hua succumbed to the Right Wing of Murong Yu’s army and Duke of Yun Ning’s troops were ambushed at Fen Hill Gorge. The brutal battle lasted two days and nights. Zhou Zhenluan, faraway in South Hill Pass, was not able to come to the rescue. Duke of Yun Ning died in battle. Great Yan took control of the province of Ford’s Field, leaving the capital wide-open to the west.
Day twenty-nine of the ninth lunar month. Marshal Heng’s troops arrived at South Hill Pass and set up camp within. General Zhou Zhenluan led his men to guard the western path only to run into the Yan’s Left Wing army and engage in a bloody battle in a canyon. Casualties piled high on both sides. Great Rui retreated back into the Pass.
South Hill Pass, a strategic choke point that formed the last guard for Great Rui, lay exposed and vulnerable before the cavalry of Yan. With the capital within sight, Murong Yu needed only to be patient in order to penetrate through to it.
The three Wings of his army, with their spears raised, stand row upon row before the platform and roar to the sky in formation. The thundering war drums. The blazing signal fires. The picture is one of burning magnificence. Murong Yu steps on to the general’s platform, his cape billowing wildly in the winds of the North. He slowly raises his dazzling white sword to the brilliant skies of the frontiers. Sunlight strikes down on his armour and ivory-white helmet like a sharp blade. His ink-black warhorse lets out a wild neigh as it rears up. Murong Yu quickly turns to the other direction, red-tassel spear in hand, and directs his horse around. The cavalry trails like thunder behind him, kicking up a sandstorm. The earth below seems to shake and bellow in ire.
I watch them recede like waves to the distance from a tower and heave a deep sigh. I’m not sure what I feel right now. I turn to leave only to hear quick and sporadic footsteps behind me as I descend.
“Careful,” I peer out the corner of my eye. “You might trip.”
I hear giggles. “Nuh-uh. I always do this on the steps in the palace and I’ve never tripped.”
Xiao Qinyun jumps out from behind me. Her sapphire blue dress makes her skin appear fair and goes well with her complexion.
“And even if I do,” she tilts her head. “You’d catch me, so I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
I smile awkwardly, not sure how to respond to that.
Murong Yu was already in a stormy mood several days ago, and then she broke the last straw with all her mischief so he decided to punish her. She was terrified. Seeing that, I couldn’t just watch so I ended up being the mediator. Not long after, she has learned to come to me for help whenever she gets into trouble.
“Please try to behave while His Highness isn’t present. If you get into trouble again, I’m afraid even I’ll get punished.”
“I forbid any mentioning of him!” She interrupts me, stomping furiously. “It’s driving me nuts. He doesn’t let me go anywhere! I’m bored to tears.”
I shrug as if to say ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ How could you let a little girl out at a time of war? Murong Yu would most likely be the one that the Left Prime Minister would blame if anything went wrong.
She suddenly starts giggling. “Didn’t you say there are towns nearby? Since my darling Yu’s not here anyways, let’s go on an adventure!”
I almost choke on my own spit hearing this. In my opinion, it would be best—the best—to just wrap her up and send her back to the Yan capital.
“Come on, pleeease?” She grabs my arm and starts shaking it.
“My Duchess,” I frown and pull my arm away. “It’s not terribly safe outside the camp. Please don’t make it harder for me than it already is. Not to mention, I’m merely a prisoner after all—rumours might spread if you act like this.”
She pouts unhappily and sticks her nose up in the air.
“I don’t care what you Rui people do, but interaction between the sexes has never been taboo for us. And a prisoner, you say?” Her brows arch up in a devious way. “Han Xin, I order you to go to the stable and prepare a horse to accompany me on an outing!”
I didn’t expect her to say such a thing but in the end I can’t do anything even if I wanted to. Beggars can’t be choosers. I’m not so dumb that I can’t see that the odds are against me. So I choose to put up with it.
She laughs when I don’t respond and hurries off towards the stable. I shake my head and race after her. Murong Yu has taken his men to the battlefront, leaving only a small fraction here. He had told me to keep my eye on her and make sure she stays put.
“Hurry, Han Xin!”
“Be quiet or the whole camp’s going to know that the duchess is going out!”
She shoots me a hard look before turning back to the horses. I glance at them and put my fingers in between my lips and blow. Shrill! All the horses stamp their hooves and look towards me. Xiao Qinyun looks at me, shocked.
“It’d be best if you got changed, my Duchess,” I suggest as I untie two horses. “You’re too noticeable.”
First change. I shake my head.
“This won’t do, my Duchess. You’re going on an outing-in-disguise, not a blind date.”
She has on a cream-coloured ruqun that shows off her slender figure and luxuriant hair. Pearls and emeralds clink against rings and pendants. Hearing my comment, she glares at me before stomping back to her room.
Second change. I don’t even bother saying anything this time. I just shake my head.
Crimson dress. Less jewelry this time. But that just makes her natural beauty stand out all the more.
Third change. I’m leaning against the wall and shaking my head with my eyes closed.
“What do you want from me!” She yells, frustrated.
“It’s not me. Even if you’re wearing servant’s clothing, it’s all top quality brocade. Anyone with working eyes could tell you’re not a commoner. Hurry and change.”
“I don’t know how. You tell me what to do.”
I sigh. Only after I pick out a plain green cotton dress and get her to put her hair down in two braids do I nod in satisfaction.
“Now, much better. A normal looking girl.”
“So…ugly…” She whines as she tugs on the dress.
“There’s a war right now. There are people who’ll kidnap any pretty lady they see on the street. I’m not helping you if you get kidnapped.”
“Wait, why would they do that?”
“To sell them to the army as prostitutes, of course.”
Her expression becomes one of disbelief and horror. I pass one of the reins to her.
“Don’t worry. Dressed like that, no one will.”
As for what I’m wearing, it’s so average it can’t be anymore average. Duh, this outing is my chance to escape. This way I won’t be standing out in any crowd.
“By the way, you can’t keep calling me ‘hey’ anymore.”
“Why not?” she asks.
“Because we’re sneaking out, which means you’re not a duchess once you leave the camp.”
“Then what should I call you?”
I rub my chin, peering at her from the corner of my eye. “Call me ‘big brother’. Since you’re younger than me.”
Expectedly, she’s reluctant.
“Fine. Suit yourself. But don’t come running for help when someone tries to snatch you.”
Her eyes go wide. “Fine…Big brother,” she finally murmurs.
“That’s more like it.” I chuckle and mount one of the horses.
The setting sun stains the limestone pavement a sparkling gold. The sky darkens bit by bit, making it appear bleak and gloomy. We’re strolling along on the streets with our horses. The pedestrians who pass us by all seem dispirited.
I sigh deeply. I suppose it’s not unusual for the commoners to show distress from the war.
I follow Xiao Qinyun to a street performer’s booth. The trainer looks disheartened while the small monkey keeps climbing up and down and jumping back and forth. Xiao Qinyun claps and cheers, appearing thoroughly amused by it. I study my surroundings and my spirits get dampened.
These streets were still bustling with liveliness when I first came here with General Zhou. In the busiest parts of the city, the sidewalks were brightly lit and it was simply a sea of faces. But now, it’s more bare and emptier than ever.
What used to be is no more.
“Hey, come back down to earth.”
She’s pulling on my sleeve when I snap out of it. “Brother, look, isn’t that monkey funny?”
I throw a fake smile. She ducks down again and starts playing with the monkey. Her eyes become thin, curvy lines as she laughs freely.
Bored, the trainer and I start chatting.
“I still got a wife and kid to look after. We might’ve been poor, but that said, life was secure.” He sighs as he shakes his head. “Business hasn’t been good either since the war broke out.”
“What’re your plans then, mister?” I ask after glancing at Xiao Qinyun. Looks like she’s having fun.
“What can I do? Take my wife and kid with me and beg? I dunno.”
The energy seeps away from his face. “It wouldn’t have had to come down to this if I had my land. Rich bastards took mine away long time ago, along with my bread.”
What can I say? It’s not like the Rui bureaucrats had only recently started indulging in this corrupt, greedy behaviour.
I pull Xiao Qinyun up and take out a silver penny from my breast pocket for the trainer. His eyes instantly light up and he bows while repeating his gratitude. I walk away without sparing him another glance.
I’m studying the streets, trying to figure out the best escape route, when I feel weight on my arms. I turn to see Xiao Qinyun hanging on to me.
“There’s no fair today,” she sighs. “I thought it’d be more fun around here.”
She touches the small bundle hanging off of the saddle—naught but cosmetics and perfumes, potpourri and purses, things that girls like.
The remaining sun is falling to the west, painting the blue sky red and displaying its last rays of brilliance.
I look up at the sky and say to her, “It’s getting late, my duchess. Let’s go back.”
She gazes all around before she points at a restaurant not far up ahead. She turns around and beams at me.
“I’m hungry, brother. Let’s go after some food.” She whines while shaking my arm. “Brother. But I’m hungry! Brother…”
What can I do? This girl proves to be too much for me.
The owner tells us with an apologetic look that a lot of the menu is unavailable now, what with the war going on and all. After much thought he brings over some freshly-fried pancakes with some sauce, green onions and even a bottle of liquor. Spotting her unimpressed expression, I merely shrug. She frowns as she eyes the food in front of us while I’ve already started digging in. Some sauce, a pinch of onion, and I roll it up before stuffing it in. She follows my lead hesitantly.
“Say, Han Xin, where did you learn how to whistle like that?” She’s taking big bites as well now. I guess she finds it passable.
I snicker. “Why? You don’t think I should be able to?”
“No,” she puts down her cup. “I mean, aren’t the Rui soldiers third-rate? I was just surprised, is all.”
I almost choke on the alcohol I had in my mouth. I cough as I shoot her a glare. “No matter what, I am still a soldier!”
The dryness of the alcohol hits me in my chest. I chuckle and wiggle my fingers. “Do you know what the palace guards are called in Yan?”
She takes a sip out of her own cup. “Of course. Imperial Guards.”
“We have palace guards in Great Rui, too, but they’re called Golden Guardians, not Imperial Guards.” I pour more into my cup and take a sip. “I used to be one before I came here. It’s not that strange for a palace guard, is it?”
Her eyes are out on stalks. “H-how could a slacker like you be an I-Imperial Guard?!”
“Couldn’t tell, huh?” I down my drink with a smile. “This is what you call ‘a wise head makes a closed mouth’.”
“Psh. Don’t get in over your head.” She purses her lips. “You do nothing all day long. I see no skill at all. I don’t buy it.”
I smile, not trying to argue with her.
Most of the sons of concubines from elite and aristocratic families look to be promoted to the Golden Guardians, not just because the job is relatively easier but also because wages are much higher than any other armed forces. Not to mention, you could get closer to other elites and even the royal family. I’ve always lived under someone else’s roof and no one had worried about my future for me, so perhaps the empress dowager only got me in the Golden Guardians after I came across her mind out of the blue. With that said, being the kind of guy with zero background, zero support, whom no one gives a damn about, I’ve taken my fair share of bad treatment in that place.
Thinking about that shit brings a sour taste in my mouth, so I wash it down with another cup.
Her face is getting redder and redder. Soon she is sprawled on the table and her eyes have become unfocused.
“Brother, ha-have you noticed? You’re ac-actually pretty good-looking.”
I almost let a mouthful of wine spray out.
How many people have I heard that from? I mean, I only think I look decent for a guy. As for whether I’m good-looking or not, I’ve never thought about it. I guess I’ve known that people had always liked my face ever since I was a kid. I remember when the empress dowager’s lady’s maid, Xiu, saw me, her eyes had brimmed with tears and she kept repeating: ‘Indeed, they’re alike.’
My mother, the empress dowager’s own niece, was apparently the most beautiful woman in all of Great Rui. Sadly, I don’t remember anything about her from the memories of my first nine years of life. After I grew up, I got accustomed to those various stares. I hate it when people talk about my appearance, but I’m not one bit bothered hearing it from this drunk girl.
“My dear Yu’s good-looking… Smart an’ elegant…I wonder who’d be…better looking, you or him?”
She starts tearing up. “Yu, h-he always treats me like a child… He has endless important stuff t’ attend to an’ every time I go lookin’ for ‘im…h-he’s always impatient…an’ makes me leave.”
I sip some more alcohol and then help her wipe her tears with the handkerchief by her hand. She suddenly sits up straight and looks straight at me.
“I’ve the feeling th-that…he treats you better than me.”
My hand trembles and the cup of liquor spills on to the ground.
She must really be drunk! Just look at her and all this nonsense.
“Last time…you got hurt by the assassins…He looked after you for so long…He’s always so distant…He’s never treated me like that.”
Disappointed, I sigh. No luck today. I doubt my escape plan will turn out successful with her drunk like this.
The sky is almost completely dark when I look outside. Lights have been lit here and there.
Swigs of booze. Mouthfuls of pancake. Xiao Qinyun starts wobbling back and forth. She’s sitting properly, of course—I’m afraid I have drunk more than I can handle.
I try to pull her up after paying, but I didn’t think she would be too drunk to even get up.
“Brother, I don’t wanna go. Sleep…I wanna sleep,” she mutters before falling asleep.
Wow. I was right. If only I knew, I wouldn’t have let her drink.
Her childish face is a flushed red under the lanterns. I chuckle as I shake my head and hoist her up into my arms. Only after I get to our horses do I realise she can barely sit up on her own. After some thought, I decide the only way is to ride together and I tie the other horse to us. She seems to be very comfortable. She shifts around in my arms and goes back to sleep again after burying her face in my shirt. I slow our pace.
The night’s getting dark as we get further from the town and closer to camp. I look up to catch a glimpse of the moon peeking behind the treetops.
The sky darkens even more and I quicken our pace. She is sleeping well in my arms, her breaths even. Her long lashes seem to refract the moonlight. When I look up again I can already see the torches in camp.
She will probably be fine if I let her go the rest of the way alone. There’s another horse I can disappear off into the distance without any-.
Before that thought even finishes, a chill creeps through my body. My eyes go wide as I look around alarmingly. It’s quiet as usual. But my senses are heightened to a frightening point—I felt death just now, yes, like the aura that a sword unsheathed reveals.
The horse under us seems to have detected something as well. Its ears flick up cautiously as it slows down. The one behind us also whinnies. My right hand goes to my sword hilt; my other holds on tighter to Xiao Qinyun.
The camp lies before my eyes, but it’s no longer flat plains around us. Shrubs cover the small, uneven hillocks. Their branches and leaves shake along with the night winds, as if a wild beast is lurking in the dark, ready to leap out at any moment.
My palms become clammy. I hold my breath and push forward.
Wheesh. Something zips through the air and I feel it coming for my head. I swerve to the side only to see a white shape flit before my eyes. Cold sweat breaks out.
I tug on the reins and the horse starts galloping forth like greased lightning. I turn around and spot several metallic reflections within the darkness aiming straight for us. My grip tightens around her waist. She suddenly wakes up and grumbles.
“Wha-why’re you holdin’ on so tight?”
No time for explanations. I press her down on the saddle and lash the horse.
All of a sudden, I hear deafening pounding of horse hooves from behind. I glance sideways: several dozen cavalries have leapt out from the bushes and are racing towards us. Before I know it, one is already brandishing his sword mere feet away. I draw my own and deflect his, and then I stab it into his chest with a backhand strike. A fountain of red instantly gushes out. I yank my sword out and that man tumbles off his horse. I look back again. The rest are still a distance away but it doesn’t seem as though they’re going to give up chase anytime soon.
If only we get to camp! The camp!
The horse’s hooves hasten with every step, weaving around shrubs and weeds. Wind whistles by; I can still feel the warm blood on the tip of my nose. I grip the reins, my body tense like a board. Xiao Qinyun is right up against my chest, not attempting another look.
I can see the camp gates now, but just as I am about to whip the horse, flames spring to life and thick black smoke rises up, concealing the sky and the moon and the entire camp!
Just as I had thought, another few dozen cavalries burst out from the camp gates all wielding broadswords. I clench my jaw and wrench the reins around. The horse neighs and turns. We’re caught between countless flashing blades. I push aside a spear that was aimed at my horse with a backhand, dig my heels into the horse’s stomach and hurdle out of danger’s reach.
The brisk wind and a wider field of vision drive quite a bit of my drunkenness away.
Murong Yu had only left five hundred of his elites behind. Judging by the looks of it, these deadly warriors have long killed every one of the five hundred. Furthermore, their goal isn’t simply to kill. Coming to this conclusion, my eyes snap down to the girl in my arms.
Xiao Qinyun! Daughter of a high-ranking official of Yan. Grandniece of the empress dowager. Fiancée of Murong Yu.
This makes perfect sense now. It doesn’t matter whose plan this is, as long as they have her, Murong Yu cannot do a single thing no matter how courageous or able he is.
I gaze around. The erratic drumming of hooves disturbs the silent night. I don’t know how many are giving chase. The next thing I realise, one has already caught up. I can even see the moonlight reflecting off of his spear. I reach down the horse’s side and nock an arrow in a moment’s notice. I aim at that horse. I can even see its rider’s face.
Closer and closer. Closer. Closer.
I clench my jaw but my fingers won’t release the arrow.
The men on those horses, they might be soldiers of Rui. My countrymen.
Xiao Qinyun is still a child, a child that grew up on praise and doting. There is no reason for her to get involved in a man’s war. But! I cannot attack a fellow countryman. I…
I close my eyes and open them after a moment.
There’s no turning back now!
I release my fingers. Twang. The arrow shoots away. The horse neighs with all its might before collapsing to the ground. Its rider gets up without a single injury and charges towards us.
The warhorse under us rears up and neighs wildly before galloping away like the wind.
“Stop! Stop right there!”
I hear them yelling at the top of their lungs. The earth itself seems to quake under their horses’ hooves. I bend forward, lining my body parallel to the ground, just as several metal arrows fly over me. My back is soaked with sweat but I can only thrash the horse to go faster, faster, and faster.
“What’s going on?” She chews her lips, her wide eyes shining in the dark while her face is deadly pale.
“Quiet.” I hiss as I look back again. “I’m not sure if I can lose them but I do know this area better than they do.”
She grabs onto my shirt and buries her face in my chest. Her shoulders are shaking.
“No tears. Come, now.”
A gust of wind comes from behind as I quietly comfort her, making her retreat further into my embrace.
One man has nearly caught up to us, approaching with increasing speed. I push myself up to see a man with a broad frame eyeing us with a majestic sword in hand. I sense death once more.
“Gimme the girl,” he orders.
I shake my head, determined, and continue to lash the horse.
“I only want the girl. Your life’s worth nothing to me. Save yourself the trouble.”
I scoff. “Like you said, she’s merely a girl. What could’ve possibly made you come for her at this hour?”
He edges closer. “You won’t give her to me because you know very well yourself what that is. I might consider letting you go if you cooperate though.”
I glance back at the men pursuing us. “I honestly didn’t expect a soldier under Marshal Heng to say such things.”
His expression becomes full of murderous intent as he studies me. I rush the horse forth, and he follows suit. Seconds become minutes. I sense the horse’s breathing falling out of rhythm and I start panicking. We speed through the bushes, shaking and rattling everything in our wake like the wind.
I must go and find Murong Yu if I don’t want to die now,.
But, we’re still some distances away…
The land flattens out before me. The hillocks extend into a spread of endless grassland that provides no cover at all. I charge head first against the brisk night wind, my body high-strung and my mind even more so.
“You’re not gettin’ away!” The man barks as he swings his weapon.
Our two blades collide in midair, and the harsh clank resonates sharply in the night. I look past the swords into his cold-blooded face. Our swords slice the air and cast eerie rays of light. The blade tips flick about, aiming for all the critical body parts.
He takes a swing that I dodge, but unexpectedly he turns his wrist and quickly cuts back. Too fast to dodge, it slices into my right arm and blood trickles down. He immediately follows up with another strike. I hold on to Xiao Qinyun and the reins with one arm and fend off his attacks with my wounded right. I feel my wrists tiring out with every block. The next thing I know his blade is coming towards me. I feel beads of sweat dripping down my face as I watch it getting closer and closer.
“Hold on!” I murmur. She nods.
I squeeze the horse tight with my legs and it leaps high into the air. I clash swords with him and both of our swords fly up into the air.
At once, the bristling wind overwhelms all other sounds.
I don’t know how long we’ll last either even if the horse sprints at full speed. I only know one step forward means more probability of survival. That man wouldn’t have let me go even if I had obediently handed Xiao Qinyun to them.
The warhorse is starting to pant irregularly and its speed decreases. I see the men behind me catching up.
A sharp noise sounds from behind.
The next thing I know, pain racks my back, the ‘thump’ of an arrowhead digging into flesh clearly audible. My body tips forward from the momentum and I almost slip off the horseback. I cling on to Xiao Qinyun and the reins with my hands. I don’t dare to let go. I feel things brushing past my temples. My back is pierced once more. I can’t anymore. Blood surge past my lips. I’m knocked back and forth from the bumpy ride. Warm fluids flow down my back. I catch the sight of two feathered arrows sticking out of my back from the corner of my eye.
I feel like jelly. My eyelids droop down. My vision dims. I feel my conscious slipping.
“Remember, don’t bother with me should I fall. Keep heading east. Go find His Highness…”
I don’t know what I said after that.
I only see a few flickers of fire in the distance.
I only faintly hear some sounds of combat.
The pain from my back. It’s already numb—so numb there’s no more pain.
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Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.