Proofreaders: Gwen, Red, Mion, and LSL
Cold Sands ch15
Now for what a lot of you have been waiting for: the next chapter of Cold Sands!XV Recollections
Could that be…sincerity in his eyes?
I rub my eyes. I must be too drunk. Just as I try to get up, he pulls me from behind and I topple over into his arms.
He sucks my earlobe. “No running. You won’t be getting away this time.”
His hot breaths that hit my neck make me feel tingly all over. I can’t help but shudder and start breathing more hastily.
He closes the gap between us and kisses me without giving me any chance to escape. The next moment I feel his burning lips, his strong arms, his solid, sturdy chest and his scorching breath on my face. Our lips and tongues dance and intertwine while I’m completely trapped in his embrace. My head seems to swirl with heat and my body is becoming hotter. Without much thought, I grab onto his collar as I let his hands, tongue and lips do as they please with my body, not able to resist one bit.
He mumbles with my lip in his mouth, “No talking.”
I think all the alcohol I have drunk is coming back to me in an instant. We’re tightly pressed against each other. I’m already breathless and my mind is barely hanging on. I close my eyes, my head a spinning mess.
This kiss is so tender, so gentle, so…sweet.
A strange emotion presents itself and muddles my mind to the point I forget where I am.
This kiss is a kiss, nothing more. A kiss full of fondness, adoration, and care. A kiss only between lovers.
Snap! I’m left bewildered as something seems to have shattered inside me. A wave of unfamiliar emotions comes roaring out and drowns me.
This kiss is so wonderful, I think to myself as I lie in his embrace.
He bites hard on my lips, immediately bringing me back to reality. He smiles triumphantly and lets go of my lips.
“No thinking of other things while I’m kissing you,” he whispers.
I pant and try to calm my racing mind with the cold air. The evening breeze blows past my face, reminding me how flushed my cheeks are.
I really wish I was completely drunk—even better if I was unconscious—then I wouldn’t be in this embarrassing position, cheeks burning hot, clothes undone, eyes unfocused, and panting uncontrollably.
He still hasn’t let go of me. I look up and say in the flattest tone I can manage, “You’re the one who’s drunk.”
“Oh, really?” he sneers. His eyes never leave me, dangerous embers flickering in them.
I face away and catch my breath. “Yes.”
His glaring look unsettles me, even making me nervous to the point I don’t know what to do. He puts his hand on the xiao and slides down to wrap around my hand.
“Why must you always be so distant?”
“That’s just for show. The real you isn’t like that.” He comes in close and places his lips on my cheek. “Tell me, is there really no one you can fully trust?”
“Hmm.” I think while trying my best to ignore his scorching lips. Sure, there used to be—like Maid Xiu who used to hold me; like Uncle who would sometimes be nice to me. Like…well, I don’t think there are any more now. I don’t want any either because…because there is no need.
“But aren’t you the same?” I scoff. “Not much better than me, I’d reckon. With a status like yours, with a world like this, you’re destined to be lonely for your whole life, aren’t you? I mean, you don’t even trust your own father.”
I hear him sigh. “In Father’s eyes, I am only half-Yan, even though my surname is Murong.”
I turn back around. He has returned to his usual self so I smile and waggle my finger. “Nay, nay. Just take a look at the Blood Mounts! How could your father have given you the reigns like that if he didn’t trust you?”
He looks at me.
I continue, “You’re really takin’ it for granted. You think he’d let you go to war if he didn’t trust you? You think he’d make you marshal of his army if he didn’t trust you? You think he’d let you marry the Left Prime Minister’s daughter if he didn’t trust you? How could you not see, stupid?”
He stays quiet for a moment before retorting. “It’s not what you think. Why would an emperor let his future heir go to war thousands of miles away? Why would he risk the next emperor’s safety?”
“Alright. So they say the Yan emperor has been ill lately and you’ve been away for such a long time that there’s no way your half-brothers would’ve missed out on that opportunity. But look, has there been any bad news from the capital? There’s always been a constant supply of food for your army of a quarter million all the way in the south. You haven’t gone hungry without food or cold without heat, have you? The duchess couldn’t have come all the way here without the Emperor’s consent, could she? And you said it yourself—Yuwen Yuan is only loyal to your father. Yet here he is serving you. Why might that be?”
I punch him. “Look at you, soldier. Your brain has gone dead from all the fighting!”
He remains silent. Then he turns to glance at me. “How could you see that so clearly?”
“Well, like Yuwen Yuan said, political families are always fighting with each other in the dark, cheating and deceiving. I’ve picked up a bit here and there even if I don’t dabble in it.”
Honestly, the political strategies that the old geezer taught me are much more than this but I didn’t pay too much attention because I just didn’t really like it.
“So you don’t want to trust anyone because you know of their schemes and deceits?”
“Well, not really. It’s just complicated, okay?” I direct my gaze to the clear night skies so I don’t have to see those meaningful glances of his.
The moon is shining nice and bright tonight and bathes his sharp, distinctive features in glowing luminosity that makes them seem more amiable.
“Drinking only thickens sorrow. You don’t have to do this to yourself, Han Xin. You can tell me what’s on your mind. Surely you can trust me after all we’ve been through.”
Soaked in moonlight, he sounds earnest, his voice soothing, and makes me speechless.
I’ve really ran out of words.
What is this thing between him and me?
As a soldier, I know very well we’re rivals and there’s no changing that. Even so, I’ve been getting involved with him since I was taken prisoner. It’s been no use trying to keep my distance from him.
That night, I had been woken by him from the torture of that familiar, tenacious nightmare. His gentle, calming words drifted by my ears. I shouldn’t forget about his comforting embrace either. He kept holding me like that through the night and stayed with me. When I woke again, he had already left. A warm current runs through my chest as I recall this. Perhaps, when such…intimacy is reached between two men, the feelings start changing too.
That night, his every look, every action, every word….
I shake my head furiously as if to cast it all away but to no prevail. Every single detail of that night replays in my mind as clear as crystal, as vivid as if it were happening right this moment.
I feel my face heating up and an indefinable feeling rushing up out of my control. It’s complicated and difficult to tease out. There’s a bit of awkwardness, surprise, panic, uncertainty and a bit of an unknown emotion. My heart feels heavy as if it’s holding something strange.
All of that was a mistake. It was wrong to begin with.
And I can’t let it go on.
He slowly reaches out for my neck and caresses it as if he’s been doing it for his whole life. By the time I realise, I’m right up against him and I can hear even the shallowest of his breaths.
I turn and meet his gaze. He’s smiling a little but his eyes are scorching like flames and strangely dark, as if containing within them limitless thoughts.
The next moment, something clicks in my mind.
Holy mother of god.
It’s obvious that we’re both men. The time is wrong, the place is wrong and the person is even more wrong! Nothing has been going right. None of this was supposed to-.
“What’s wrong? Your face is all red.”
He studies me for a while with a somewhat delightful smirk before taking his hand back. I tilt my head away from his smile. My mind is a mess as I search for a way to end this awkward situation.
I don’t speak. He stays quiet, too, and holds my hand.
“Murong, you asked me why I got captured and well, I’ll tell you if you wanna hear it.”
He murmurs a quiet reply and tightens his grip on my hand.
“Great Rui was established upon scholastics so martial officials often get constrained. Even when they go out to war there’s always a civil official keeping tabs by the soldier’s side.” I lower my gaze and my voice. “General Zhou and Minister Xie have been at each other’s throats for a long time so naturally-”
He nods. “That goes without saying.”
“Well, the County of Lan An in the northwest had gotten trapped by Yan troops and the man in charge was a nephew of Minister Xie’s. He was ignorant, incompetent and had absolutely no hands-on experience. General Zhou disliked him, plus he’d decided to give Lan An up anyways, so he wasn’t planning on sending any reinforcements, but the civil supervisor kept pressuring and Minister Xie kept rushing, so…he sent me in the end.”
Murong Yu turns to look at me, his eyes scream surprise. “Isn’t that asking you to dig your own grave?”
I shrug. “Pretty much. I was ignorant and incompetent, too, in his eyes. Fooled around all day and what not. He was in a tight spot at the time but he had to show Minister Xie something. So, taking three thousand footmen with me, I departed.”
My vision blurs but the image in my mind is the clearest it has ever been, as if it only happened yesterday.
“And then, we ran into some Yan cavalry before we even made it into Lan An territory. I’m sure you know what it means for footmen to go up against cavalry on flat plains. It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.”
I start shaking nonstop. “That battle fills me with fear even until this day. Scores of soldiers met their ends without even the chance to draw their swords. So much bone and flesh piled on the ground that I couldn’t even see the green grass anymore.”
The memories of what happened after that have always been a bit hazy as though my mind doesn’t want me to remember the terrifying experiences. Endless arrows rained down on us like a storm. The speed at which the Yan cavalry attacked was surprisingly dexterous. Countless blades penetrated our ranks and kept pushing forth while cavalry herded us in on the two sides. Soon, my men were scattered about, their bloodcurdling cries echoing around me.
By the time I had recovered from shock, my troops were in chaotic disarray.
Three thousand lives lay in my hands. One wrong move on my behalf meant life or death for them.
“Luckily, there was a canyon there.”
The Yan cavalry had the upper hand in quality and quantity and had us completely surrounded. I did everything in my power to bring my men together and assembled them in between the two mountains. I placed our provision carts around us and the men in battle formation beyond them. Soldiers in the front held shields and spears while archers hid in ambush behind them. The cavalry initiated another attack before first light the next day, charging straight for us. My soldiers in the forefront suffered gravely and were forced to retreat back into formation. At once, our archers fired in unison. The Yan soldiers fell like dominoes and they retreated up into the mountains after their losses.
I knew that there was no way we could’ve made it out if we kept fighting head-on.
After an evening’s standoff, I secretly led my remaining men out at the darkest hour.
Immediately, the Yan generals gathered their reinforcements so we could only fight as we escaped towards the southeast because of their incredible speed. But we were footmen with no horses, and even my steed was used to carry casualties, so we were much slower than them. Every step we took we had to fight with everything we had; we left behind us a river of blood. Soon, the Yan cavalry split into two once more and trapped us in between again.
“How many days did it go on for?”
I shake my head. “I don’t remember…I really don’t. I only remember the blood everywhere and the deafening cries.”
As galloping horses criss-crossed in my vision, dozens of heads flew up in the sky.
We suffered heavy casualties after holding out for several days. There wasn’t one person without injuries. Finally, the slaughter temporarily ceased near nightfall and I stood, speechless, with my captain facing the vast, never-ending plains to the southeast.
I feel Murong Yu tightening his grip on my hand.
“I thought you were skilled in the arts.” There is no trace of ridicule in his voice.
“I did study the tactics of warfare but that place was just inconceivable. There had been nothing and there would never be anything. Plus, I couldn’t just leave them.” I clench my jaw while shivering. “I was the one who had brought them to the godforsaken place, to the dead end we were in. Even if I could ensure my own escape, they trusted me so much—they believed I could lead them out of danger’s harm and return home….”
I breathe out a long sigh filled with sorrow.
Leading my battered, worn-out troops, I launched a counterattack with every scrap I had left, killing one thousand or so Yan soldiers and breaking through their formation. We were on our last breaths, suffering hunger and thirst, but nonetheless, we pushed our leaden bodies on towards the borders.
I really don’t understand why those fearsome cavalry were so stubborn in pursuing an enervated auxiliary force.
Steadily, we left the desert behind us after roughly four, five days of marching and came upon a swampy area with an abundance of reeds. Just as I had sent out orders to rest and reorganize ourselves, the Yan soldiers started a fire with the help of the wind before I even got a sip of water down my throat. The scorching flames unfurled towards us as it crackled and snapped across the terrain.
Red. All I could see was blood red.
After recovering from the initial shock, I instructed my soldiers to fight fire with fire to open up a path for us and speed down south amidst the chaos to get to the hilly areas to the north of Rope Hill Creek first—it was just outside of Rui territory. The Yan cavalry watched us from afar on the hills to the south and sent out their vanguards on a trial attack. We retreated into a forest and fought an arduous close-combat battle, killing several hundred enemies.
The lacklustre moonlight pushed through the trees at the darkest hour of the night, leaving everything in a desolate, silvery haze. The only things in the ink black sky were the weakly winking stellar rays. Lifelessly, the camp fires burned while the wounded soldiers moaned in agony.
I sat on the side of a hill, straightening out my battle robe of which I could no longer tell the colour. Dried blood coated my once-silvery armour and even my sword was dyed dark red.
Quietly, I sighed and started playing with a piece of withered grass I had broken off.
There were soldiers on patrol around me but they looked beyond fatigued and I could even see ghosts of hopelessness in their eyes. I mean, who could’ve been sure that they wouldn’t get killed in their sleep with the Yan forces not far behind us?
I let my head droop down. I could even taste the bitterness on my tongue.
Every step we had taken—every step closer to Rui territory—filled me with more despair.
On account of their advantage in numbers, the Yan cavalry kept attacking. Not even one thousand of the three thousand auxiliary soldiers were left. There were no reinforcements coming for us and no ambushes ahead of us. Our supply of arrows was nearly depleted and our horses were almost all dead. The messenger we had sent for help died halfway on his mission. What else could I have done to get them out of there when it was apparent that even the heavens did not spare us pity?
‘Deputy General Han, are we gonna make it outta here alive?’ asked a raspy voice from behind.
‘I don’t know.’ I shook my head.
‘We’ve already made it here. Great Rui borders’re only eight hundred li away. You’d said it yourself!’
‘I did say that, but now things have changed.’
I have forgotten what he had said after that, too, but strictly speaking, I had nothing to say back to him in the first place.
At that time, what had I said while facing the gloomy grass field?
I think I murmured to myself as I faced southeast.
‘One thousand men. If we had twenty more arrows for each then we could make it back.’
And then I chuckled at my own words after I had said them.
‘Who’m I kiddin’? In our current state, even ten arrows is outta the question. I’m the highest-ranking soldier in this auxiliary force and all I have is one beat-up sword.’
It was a good day the next day with bright, sunny skies. The two wings of the Yan cavalry had gone ahead of us and cut off our road back to safety. They pelted us with arrows, yelling at us to surrender. We had run out of arrows so we had to abandon all the carts and heavy equipment and proceed on foot. The Yan forces blocked off the mountain pass and came for us from the sides, rolling boulders down the mountain, too. The stones shook the land. Our men were severely injured and were not able to fight anymore.
We lost that battle and we lost it utterly. Maybe the fate of the three thousand men had already been set in stone when we left the frontiers—we were destined to be sacrifice for a battle of politics.
The captain that had been with me the whole way died in front of my eyes. He was cut in half by a cavalryman riding past and his head flew straight into the sky. I watched as the men beside me fell one by one, getting mashed in by horse hooves and howling out of desperation. I could still hear the deafening roars of the Yan soldiers and I felt as if everything was coming apart.
I give up, I had thought. When it came down to it, I did not want to be a prisoner so there was only one choice for me.
I pulled out my sword and put it against my neck. Hopelessly, I smiled one last time. What was the point of fighting if destiny had it all planned out for you?
Unfortunately, someone was faster than me. A Yan deputy general spotted my attempt and quickly hit the blade away from my neck. Yan soldiers rushed forth from all around and trapped me.
What followed was straightforward. The leader of that cavalry force hated my guts since I had killed nearly two thousand special cavalry forces with only three thousand auxiliary forces. He had to interrogate me anyway for information so he made sure to beat me senseless every day. At first, I could still withstand the pain until I became numb to it but I think the bone-splitting pain started to terrorize me when my consciousness started slipping.
After telling my story, I feel as if I’ve been drained. I close my mouth, not wanting to open it ever again. All I have left in me is exhaustion and fatigue. Murong Yu’s hand loosens, tightens, and then loosens again but never lets go.
I feel a palm wiping off the sweat on my forehead. I force a smile. “Thanks.”
“I honestly couldn’t understand why they had to interrogate you when I first got here. Now I see why.” He lowers his voice. “Footmen against cavalry—to be able to last until then and bring down two thousand men, you…are formidable.”
I chuckle after heaving a long sigh. “I don’t think so. It’s just that the strong desire to live is activated in humans in the most dire of situations. I’m not formidable. I just don’t wanna die.”
“No one would want to die. We all have reasons to live on,” says Murong Yu quietly. “It’s the same for a prince like me.” He turns to look at me with smoldering eyes. “You know, I killed for the first time the year I turned eight.”
I do a double take. I don’t quite comprehend it.
He purses his lips before spreading his right hand out in front of me.
His fingers are slender and long. I can make out faint bluish veins underneath the pale skin. There are rough markings on the skin in between his thumb and forefinger and countless thick calluses on his knuckles. Those are marks left by the bow and arrow and sword handles.
He opens his mouth and tells me a story about his childhood.
“The Fifth Year of Jian Xiu, Father rode south, falling numberless enemies, and captured the ancient city of Luo Hua with ease.” His gaze moves to somewhere faraway. “It was autumn. The setting sun was like blood and the west wind was strong.”
“I was only eight that year. Clueless, I was standing on a lookout wrapped in a heavy silk and marten fur robe watching Father assemble his soldiers. The fully armoured soldiers were lined up in one long row and their swords, knives and spears were shimmering under the sunlight. Dust and the scent of iron loomed over the entire city.”
“Father had taken me everywhere He went since Mother passed away. I even accompanied Him to war. He would often say, ‘We sons of Murong can only grow with a baptism of blood.’ I saw Father beckoning to me so I ran over to Him. He passed me a sword and solemnly told me, ‘Yu, it is time for you to christen your sword.’”
“The sword was entirely black and the sheath was a gleaming red. I didn’t make a sound. I let Father disrobe me and watched as they brought up a child about the same age I was.”
He pauses and seems to have lost his train of thought for a moment.
“He was dressed in layers of silk so he was probably a son of nobility. He clenched his jaw stubbornly while he kept his eyes wide open so the brimming tears wouldn’t fall out. My palms were wet with sweat, not unlike the ground beneath me that was still wet with blood. Father’s roar echoed from behind me, ‘Kill!’”
“It was like something dormant within me was awoken in that instant and the bloodlust overtook me. I threw down the sheath and stepped towards the child. The sword tip scratched the ground as it dragged behind me.” He shakes violently. “Behind me stood Father and nearly one hundred warriors in shiny mail. Before me were faceless prisoners trembling under blades.”
I hold onto his hand tightly, feeling the unusual icy touch.
“That child was no different from the animals that I’d practiced archery with. Raise the sword, level the blade, swing and pull—a stream of hot blood burst forth, and he died. His head rolled on the ground. All I felt then was a few spots of warm blood on my face. All I saw before me was grey and red. I didn’t come out of my stupor until Father put my robe back on for me.”
“Father asked me, ‘Yu, are you afraid?’ I shook my head. Father laughed heartily, carried me up into his arms and shouted to me and to everyone, ‘As expected of a son of Murong! He kills and drinks his enemies’ blood without falter!’”
“That day ended in crimson. And when I had my first victory as a general, I stood on a lookout once again and I couldn’t help remembering that child. We were about the same age—we were both kids well before the age of knowing—but our destinies went in two different directions on that evening.”
Murong Yu bows his head. His eyes are tightly shut and his face is contorted in a painful expression. I hold firmly onto his hand and put my arm around him, patting his back.
So it turns out we have equally gruesome pasts.
“I want to be emperor,” he continues, “And unite the lands so no one else has to die because of war.”
I see fleeting images of soldiers moaning beneath hooves, the old and the weak weeping, and that deaf girl who saved me with fat teardrops still streaming down her face.
“You can do it. I believe you.”
“You were right. With a status like mine and a world like this, I’m destined to be lonely for my whole life. I want to stand at the highest place but those who stand at the highest place are always the loneliest. Yet, I still cling onto the hope that one day I’ll meet someone and be with that person and we’ll understand and support each other.”
Slowly, he opens his eyes wherein shines a peculiar hint of something dark. He gazes straight at me as though he has so much he wants to say.
I look up only to clash with his eyes that are deep like wells. I think I know what they want to say.
His eyes are saying: ‘You and I, we’re the same.’
I feel my body and face tensing up, my expression freezing on my face.
Crap! Crap! This is not good!
I want to turn and get up but before I get the chance to act he pulls me over. He turns my face towards him and looks heatedly into my eyes. He carefully spells out three words of fire and passion.
“Han Xin, I like you.”
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Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.