Proofreaders: Art_emis, Gwen, krabbykabbi, Pau and Red
Cold Sands ch18
Here's our first release in celebration of Chinese New Year!
XVIII The Pendant
The Yu River is separated into the Inner River and Outer River. The Inner River travels eastward through the capital from the west and abruptly curves around, forming the rippling, pellucid waters that is Lake Yu, the most bustling region on the Yu River. Since the ancient times, royalty and nobles have resided and literati and intellectuals have gathered near its shores. Then, wealthy businessmen began amassing and countless brothels were erected, and scores of pleasure boats float across the waters, making the area for beautiful courtesan to congregate.
Faint wisps of smoke rise from a jade censer in curls like a hairspring, hovering so lazily in the room that fanning it does not make it dissipate. The thick aroma makes me dizzy and I push the red windows open. The evening breeze brings along the lake’s moisture as it blows in from outside, scattering the fragrance and also rattling the bead curtain.
Looking down from where I am, the entire river is enshrouded by a thin veil of fog. The lights from the shoreline adorning the night are reflected in the water, illuminating and adding colour to it. Glazed glass lanterns hang from the yachts of various sizes as they traverse the lake, rocking along the ripples, making the lake as bright as day. The limpid melodies of instruments and voices of maidens echo from the boats, scattering upon the lake’s surface, appearing all the busier.
The shadows of the lively maidens get dragged into different lengths by the lanterns, some even swimming in the water. Red buildings with green doors and windows, fan dancing and song performances—the capital’s Lake Yu is always this extravagant, luxurious and captivating.
I lean on the embroidered ta and chuckle softly at the fabulous view of the lake. I can’t help but recite,
“‘The sound of oars and shadows of lights stretch for miles; the singing courtesans and pleasure boats frolic along the waves.’”
“It’s late. Close the windows,” says the gentle voice of a woman from behind the chiffon curtains.
I sit up straight and push them out wider. “The fragrance in your room is too thick. I can’t really stand it.”
The curtains are drawn before I finish speaking and out walks a young woman. She sits down beside me, smiling coyly. “What’re you talking about? You’ve never once said that you couldn’t stand it all those times you’ve been here before.”
The woman before me has a clear, exquisite complexion and eyes like the autumn rain, twinkling and tempting. Ornate hair pins dangle from her luxuriant, coiffed hair. Her body is shaped like an hourglass and small dimples show when she smiles, which makes her even more attractive.
I smile back at her. “I just came back from the war, Wang Shu. I’m used to the smell of blood.”
Her pretty face darkens and she reaches over to my chest. “How was it? Did you get hurt?” I shake my head and lift her hand away, moving my gaze out the window. She sits closer, putting her hand on my shoulder. “You were away for so long and you never told me. I was worried for you every day.”
There is a folk song sung throughout the city: ‘Only at the Jade House in the capital, can you behold Madam Wang.’
I chuckle and hold her hand. “Really?” She puckers her lips and leans in, a ghost of her scent drifting over. I tilt my head away. “Wang Shu, I’ve been missing your honey malt all this time. Could you bring me some?”
She suddenly blushes and bites her lip, not saying a word as she takes a cup. I sit up, put on my jacket and take a sip of the tea that has long gone cold. Wang Shu rushes over and grabs my cup.
“Don’t drink cold tea. It’s autumn, you might catch a cold,” she chides.
I laugh it off and take the steamy brew from her. She circles around and gets on the ta, hooking her bare forearms that are peeking out of her purple silk georgette sleeves around my shoulders, and gently start leaning on my back.
I glance sideways after swallowing. “Wang Shu, you’ve gotten a lot heavier.”
She raises her brows, purses her lips and lifts a hand to hit me. “How rude! You’re still so full of beans.”
I dodge her cute fist and retort. “I’d know since you’re lying on my back. Hurry up and get off before I get crushed to death.”
She closes her eyes halfway and smiles lazily. “No way in a million years. You gotta make up for all the time you’ve been gone.”
I laugh heartily while shaking my head. “You little rascal. Everyone sees you as the top courtesan, the most wanted of them all, but you’re really this cheeky little girl.”
She giggles and starts play-fighting with me. She keeps rubbing herself into me and her painted fingernails slowly sneak into my shirt, touching my skin along with the night chill.
Curious, she pulls out the red string that the jade pendant is hanging on and asks with her head lowered. “Han Xin, I don’t remember you having this one.”
I take a glimpse and nod while I sigh in my mind. “It was a gift.”
She takes it into her hand and studies it in strange silence.
I put my cup down and mull over what to say.
She lies back down on my back.
“No,” she says after a pause. “Tell me the truth. Whose daughter is she?”
I drop my gaze and take the pendant back. “Don’t think too much of it. It’s nothing.” I try getting up but she hugs me, not letting me move.
She bites on her bottom lip. “Don’t go.”
I distinctly feel that she is getting cold and shivering. I take her dangling hand and turn to look at her misty eyes that seem a bit grey like the sky before it rains.
I stroke her soft hand saying, “It’s not what you think. Really, it’s nothing.” I can see the tears forming but she doesn’t speak, so I pull her on my lap and comb my fingers through her flowing hair. She rests quietly on my shoulder, wordless, and sobs.
The aroma is still dispersing idly and the lucid musical notes are spreading through the night. Red candles shine from high above, casting a charming and seductive glow.
“There, there. You promised before that you’d never cry again.”
She clutches my collar and looks up with crestfallen eyes and quivering lips. I take a deep breath and look somewhere else.
Her feelings… It’s not that I’m not aware of them, but I just….
She buries her face in my chest with her arms wrapped around my neck. She breathes, “Just stay the night, just tonight…is all I ask.” Her hands slide down and her fingers pull open my collar, my jacket, my belt, finally slipping in and gently rubbing.
I clutch her hand and she regards me with melancholy eyes. “You despise me?”
I shake my head in silence. She looks steadily at me. “Do you know why so many people are seeking thrills nowadays?”
“The Yan army’s just outside our walls. Who knows what would happen tomorrow, so I guess they’re just lying to themselves.”
Wang Shu nods with teary eyes. “I don’t know what would happen to me either. Am I going to get married off as a concubine? Or maybe I’ll end up in some unknown place in this chaotic world?” She sighs depressingly. “I can’t control the future but I want to at least take the present into my own hands.”
She sniffs, her fingers clinging on to my collar. “I’ve known you for more than a year now. You’re kind to me and you protect me and I like you, too. Instead of regretting it later, why not enjoy the present?”
I wipe her tears away and whisper. “I’ve known about your feelings. But I can’t. These things should be done between lovers.”
She places my hand on her face and repeat. “Between lovers? I know you have a prestigious background, while I’m just a lady of pleasure. I could never be good enough for you. But I’m not asking for much. Just one night, just one’s enough.”
I chuckle quietly. “I’m not as good as you think.”
She hooks her arms around my neck and mutters in my ears. “I’m the most beautiful courtesan in the city, but I’ve never let any man touch me, and tonight, I’m yours.”
I feel my last shred of resistance snapping. Even if I don’t want her now, I still have the natural desires of a man. In my arms lies a woman’s tender body, and her body scent is sneaking into my nose. I start breathing more heavily and my body temperature is on the rise.
I whisk around and push her down on the bed, trinkets falling from her hair onto the embroidered surface. She has started to pant as well and pulls open her blouse, flashing her snowy white skin. I feel my mouth going dry and lean in to caress her face. She bites her lip and grabs my arm tightly, leaving nail marks on my skin.
My undershirt has slid down with her movements. She holds me by the neck, kissing my cheek. I plant a kiss near her ear and plant more down her fair neck. Amidst the lust, I spot out of the corner of my eye the jade pendant dangling on my neck, having slipped out from my undershirt, and refracting a pale glow. Abruptly, I push myself up, panting for air. Wang Shu is partly unrobed, her breasts peeking out, her hair spread out messily on the ta. Puzzled, she looks at me with flushed cheeks and misty eyes.
I shut my eyes and put my forehead down in my hand. My mind is a mess.
Wh-what the heck am I doing?
I spring off the bed, grab my clothes and push the bead curtains out of the way as I step out to the front room. Once I’m out of the back room, I feel my temperature going down with the fresh night wind pouring in through the window. Hurriedly, I get dressed and just as I’m about to leave, I hear her weeping from behind the curtains.
“So you do have someone you like after all.”
I reach out for the curtains but I don’t lift it up.
“I knew it the moment I saw the jade around your neck. Jade is a token of love. I guess…we just weren’t meant to be.”
Her short, simple words seem to stir up a storm in my heart, making it as congested as the stuffy air before a tempest.
What was that just now? Was it that I didn’t want her or…because of that pendant? I turn my head away violently, not wanting to delve any deeper.
The room is filled with silence, swaying lights and shadows, and dejected agarwood.
“They say, ‘the song and dance of Madam Wang is famous throughout the capital.’ Han Xin, I’m originally a courtesan for the court, and will soon be called to perform in the palace. I’m not sure I’ll able to come back if I go, and I thought that tonight I could…but you….” Her sobs are getting louder.
I think of our nostalgic memories, all the feelings transforming into a deep sigh. “Wang Shu, I was in the wrong tonight but I have my reasons, too. I just hope you don’t hate me. I am going to buy you your freedom.”
It’s already late in the night when I walk out of her pink room adorned with luxurious silks and rare fabrics. Leisurely, I descend the stairs and skip over the crowds of indulgence and pleasure, flinging aside a few delicate, luring hands, and cut through the bare shoulders and half-covered breasts.
The livelihood on the lake is showing no signs of dying down. The lights are still flashing, the wine keeps pouring and the music keeps playing.
As I stroll out of Jade House, the constellations are twinkling above me and it’s as if I’ve gone back to that unforgettable night when the melodious notes of Cries of Soaring Swan Geese twisted and turned about the unclouded night sky, only to vanish the next moment into thin air.
Life in the capital is as dull as dishwater, and as usual, no one gives a shit about me aside from my buddies.
Maid Xiu returned to the palace without telling anyone on my second day back. Uncle hasn’t spoken to me much since that night and continues to be absent for most of the day. As for Master Liao, I still haven’t seen a trace of him.
Ignoring the possible consequences, I asked Uncle where Master Liao was and he replied without even looking up from his book: “He asked for a two month leave. Said he was going back home to visit family.”
He was obviously brushing me off. I was debating whether to ask him where exactly Master Liao had gone or not when the butler came in and bowed down to Uncle. Seeing that it wasn’t something I should be meddling with, I hurried up and left the study.
Sitting in the gallery, bored to tears, I sigh for the hundredth time today.
See, I’ve been grounded ever since Uncle saw me coming back from Jade House that night, and there has been someone keeping an eye on me every minute of the day. If I so much as step near the mansion’s front doors, the butler would pop out from nowhere and very politely ask me to go back.
I’m gonna leave this shithole once I get the chance. Go as far as I can, and go anywhere I want.
I’m going off on a rant when my shoulder gets tapped out of nowhere and I almost fall over. I take a look only to see the butler smiling very politely. He points in a direction behind himself. “The master wishes for you to accompany him to the royal palace. Please prepare accordingly.”
Immediately, I break out in a cold sweat.
T-t-to the palace. To the palace?!
T-t-to see that horrible old hag?!
My god! Just lock me back in the log shed, please!
The sky is covered with clouds and a glow of crimson like flames burning bright. The sunset radiates off the dark green glazed roof tiles on Tai Qing Palace, casting ever-changing rays. Agarwood is burning in the two bronze tortoise-and-crane-shaped censors standing on each side of the grand hall. Thin strings of aromatic smoke float out from their mouths, making the palace seem like one in the heavens.
Casting my gaze afar, I don’t see many people on the abandoned Imperial Path, only Golden Guardians standing on duty. I shiver as the chilly autumn breeze brushes past. Pulling my Guardian uniform tighter around me, I walk briskly behind Uncle and the palace attendant.
We cross numerous palatial buildings, finally stopping at Yong An Palace. He bows to Uncle before proceeding through the palace doors. Soon, a purple-ranked attendant steps out from inside.
“The empress dowager summons a meeting with Han Jun, the Archduke Jing.”
Despairingly, I watch as Uncle’s figure slowly disappears behind the palace doors, leaving me alone to endure the brisk wind’s assault.
Seriously, I can’t fathom why he has to bring me along to the palace and since he did, he should tell me what’s going on. I mean, don’t stay hushed as if it’s something super duper mysterious.
I take a scan around. Where the hell are those palace maids who dress all fancy that are usually here? I can’t see any of them now. Sigh. I can’t even find anyone to chat with to kill some time.
To ease my boredom, I pull out the pendant around my neck and study it. It’s a hard and compacted piece of white nephrite carved in relief with a very smooth surface. Two interlocking phoenixes join in a loop and short bamboo-ridges line the insides. The lightest percolated parts have a pale, buttery hue, almost like lard.
‘With what doth one bind a relationship? A beauteous cincture adorned with a jade pendant.’
These two lines of poetry pop into my head. I grip the jade tightly, my heart languishing for some reason.
Choosing to leave, was I right or was I wrong?
Why did I accept his jade if I didn’t want anything to do with him?
My mind is momentarily muddied and a whole lot of inquiries circle around restlessly, making it hard to process my thoughts.
“Sir Han?” The purple-ranked attendant approaches with a smile. Alarmed, I stuff the pendant back in and follow him up the steps of Yong An Palace.
‘Sir,’ ‘Golden Guardian’—I scoff. It sure sounds fancy but it’s a trifling rank within the strict martial ranking system of Great Rui. This is all illusory: positions like the Golden Guardian are just pretty titles the emperor bestows on sons of the high-ranking officials.
I fix my posture, pausing shortly at the doors before stepping in quietly. Yong An Palace is the empress dowager’s living quarters; the decor is antique and splendid. I go past a k’o-ssu screen embroidered with clouds and enter a large room.
The floor is completely covered by a carpet and there is a familiar aroma in the air. A dark red drop curtain hides the back wall. An extravagantly dressed woman is reclining on her seat with her eyes closed and her right hand holding up her head, beads dangling on her forehead. Many exquisitely made tall lamp stands line the wall, tiny flames burning silently in the simple but regal hall. The entire place has a queenly atmosphere to it.
Uncle is sitting slantwise on a chair beside the woman and nods at me. I get down on my knees, lower my gaze and brows and utter the proper greetings. Only after a pause do I hear her speak in that aged, dry voice of hers.
“Enough. You have never once been sincere with your greetings.”
I get up, lips puckered, but I keep my head down—I don’t like seeing those eyes of hers. They’re indecipherable, filled with things I can’t comprehend. I’ve guessed before. It’s hatred, or maybe regret, or maybe it’s just pity?
“You have recently come back from the front lines. Do you have anything interesting for me?”
Uhh. There’s absolutely nothing interesting about war. It’s just blood and guts flying everywhere. And even if there was something interesting, I wouldn’t have had time to remember it. I rant on in my mind but I smile politely. “What does Your Graciousness wish to hear?”
Lazily, she finally opens her eyes, her expression colder than ever. “You’re going to talk in circles even with me, huh?”
“I dare not.” I keep my head lowered. “There were many trivial matters at the front lines and General Zhou had led a busy schedule, therefore I did not pay much attention to other things. Please be more specific, Your Graciousness.”
She laughs dryly with her eyes half closed.
The empress dowager is along in years. The thick cosmetics that the palace maids put on her can no longer hide the crow’s feet by her eyes. The elaborate palace apparel wraps around her aging body. No matter how energetic she is, her expression still gives off a lethargic air. Pungent perfumes enter my nose again and it starts feeling stuffy as an illusion of suffocation constricts my chest.
“You are the one who came back from the Yan base alive. Tell me, what is it actually like there?”
Alarmed, I lower myself even more and, after some thought, briefly talk about what I’ve experienced since my imprisonment. Of course, I omit certain details.
The empress dowager and Uncle exchange an ambiguous look while I’m standing here with my heart pounding like a drum.
The Wraiths under Uncle’s command could enter the Yan military camp in secrecy and transport Duke Yu Qing’s remains. They were also able to recover me under tight supervision. If that is so, Uncle must be well-informed of what’s going on in there, so there is no need to ask me.
“You, come here.”
Obediently, I approach and stop one step away from her. She pulls a smile and the corners of her eyes crinkle. “A memorial spoke of the presence of the Lupine Blood Mounted Squadron. Have you ever caught sight of them?”
I nod after much contemplating.
Uncle and the empress dowager are both sly and devious and I don’t want to die yet, so I answer. “I have seen them once during my imprisonment.”
“Hmm. And how was that?”
I squint, pretending as though I’m trying hard to remember. “The Lupine Blood Mounts are fierce and cruel—‘tis common knowledge. Unfortunately, I only saw their numerous war flags that seemed to cover the entire land with blood, but I was merely a prisoner and only saw that much.”
She sits up straight, gazing at me. “Han Xin, since when did you learn to be so artful with your words?”
I bow down respectfully again. “This unworthy servant dares not.”
“How come you do not know any more after being in the base for so long?”
“I beseech Your pardon, Your Graciousness, I was only a prisoner. Everything had to be done under the watch of enemy soldiers so I could not serve my country properly. For that I feel the utmost shame.”
Uncle remains silent while scrutinizing me.
I feel so aggrieved now. Man, I was imprisoned and no one gave a shit about me. Now that I’ve made it out alive I get interrogated like I know everything.
Despite what I think, I remain silent and press my body even lower to the floor.
This place is too stuffy. I need to get out of here.
I spy the empress dowager sitting up properly, concealing her aged posture. She stays emotionless. “Then what are their numbers, your rough estimate?”
Is that supposed to be a trick question?
“I heard from Minister Han that they number two hundred thousand strong,” I respond.
They share another look before turning to me again. I have nothing to fear, so I meet them.
If I had snooped around for those military details, I would’ve died ten times over!
She leans on the arm of the chair as a tiny smile spreads on her face. Then she says to Uncle, “Minister Han, this is the nephew you have brought up.”
Her smile makes my hairs stand up but Uncle is Uncle after all, able to keep his composure even if the sky were falling down, and doesn’t even blink.
She gets down from her throne and stops in front of me, peering at me out of the corner of her eye. “Your name is definitely Han, but are you really one of us?”
Her icy smile seems to freeze me over, starting from the soles of my feet and into my bones.
When I was young, Uncle would often bring me into the palace when he went to discuss national issues with the empress dowager, and I would play with the emperor who was close to my age. However, sometimes, she would give me this look while letting out a barely audible sigh.
I admit I’m a bit witty with my words at times but I never understand what she means; neither do I read what’s in those sharp, gleaming eyes of hers.
Abruptly, she lifts her hand, the varnish on it about to crack off any minute. Her eyes flash with menacing hostility. I back away in alarm.
“Aunt!” Uncle shoots up and cuts between us. She stops, hand in midair, light reflecting eerily off the varnish on her sharp nails. She points her chin up and takes another step forward.
“What’re you standing there for!” Uncle barks. I brace myself and scurry out without even performing the right rituals. When I swerve around the screen, I glimpse a figure but it’s too late and we collide together.
Maid Xiu hasn’t fallen over only because she held on to the screen. She looks wide-eyed at me, to which I reply by pointing behind me and shrugging.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten about what you promised, Auntie!”
I catch the empress dowager’s bitter voice. “For twelve years! I’ve been regretting every day of it!”
Her voice cuts off into sobs. Maid Xiu glances towards that direction and says in a hushed tone. “Her Graciousness has been under stress from various matters recently and would sometimes lose Her composure when extremely angered, so….” She signals to the door while saying this. Seeing her teary eyes, I nod and hurry out of the building.
The empress dowager’s furious words are still echoing in my ears: “That devil! I’d rather he was never born! He’s the same as him! Always defying me!”
I stop and look back. What in the world is she saying?
When I exit the palace, the glowing clouds are chasing the setting sun and the square in front of the palace is soaked in a bloody crimson. A few eunuchs and maidservants speed past with their heads lowered like stiff puppet dolls.
After a long wait, Uncle still hasn’t come out yet. I look back to see Yong An Palace towering, mute and unspoken, with the bloody sinking sun as the backdrop. I lean on the white balustrade and stare at the solid grey tiles, motionless as I zone out.
My head starts aching after getting blown by the freezing wind for too long. I rub my temples as I glance over at the palace steps. They start to sway and become blurry in my vision. Furiously, I blink my eyes but a sudden, unbearable pain stings my skull and wrecks havoc, piercing me like a million needles and thorns. I can’t help but lower my head, my body shuddering as I lean on the balustrade for support.
For some reason, I would suffer an intolerable headache every time I try to remember my past or look at the balustrade and steps in front of Yong An Palace. The worst times it felt like I’d only get release if I cracked my skull open in half.
I hear quiet footsteps and I turn to look, only to see the purple-ranked attendant walking briskly up the steps with someone close behind him. I can’t see the person’s face but what I can see is his upright but casual posture and swift steps, dressed in a wide-collared loose-sleeved black robe, with hair coiffed high on the head, heading straight for Yong An Palace.
Glazed lanterns as mentioned above.
Fan dancing, group and individual
Traditional courtesan song performances where both song and dance are involved.
K'o-ssu is a high-end fabric made of silk that is completely done by hand and utilizes a technique that enables detailed designs to be displayed on both sides of the fabric. Small pieces (right bottom) may take weeks while large pieces (left bottom) may take several years.
On a side note, the garment pictured in the left is a remake of the regalia of Wanli Emperor of Ming (1563 - 1620) that was unearthed from his tomb, where he was buried with his wife and concubine. The project was undertaken by the Wang family from Suzhou who had made k'o-ssu for Chinese royalty for centuries, including Empress Dowager Cixi. The current head of the family, Wang Jialing, has made several award-winning pieces, including one treasured by the Japanese emperor. This particular piece took six artisans three years to finish, using up 3 kg of silk, 100,000 m of gold thread, and more than 6,000 peacock feathers.
Now for a quick lesson on the layout of a Chinese palace.
Below is the bird's eye view and layout of the Forbidden City in Beijing, palace of the last two Chinese dynasty.
As you can see, it is extremely symmetrical and generally has a square or rectangular orientation. The Outer Court (also called Southern Section) is shown in the second picture. This is where the emperor does most of his official business and where the morning courts are held. Living quarters, gardens and other facilities are to the side and back of the Outer Court (as seen in the first picture).
Most of modern Chinese people's knowledge and idea of a palace would be modelled after the Forbidden City, as most historical films use shots of the 500 year-old palace. Therefore, it is sufficient to assume that the palace in this story is similar to it.
One last picture, I promise.
The white balustrade and steps that makes Han Xin's head hurt
Dairytea's comment: We've also uploaded the PDF file for Drip-Drop here for those who want to read or re-read it from beginning to end. Thank you, Persse, for creating the PDF! Also check back tomorrow for more surprises~
ayszhang says: In case you missed our poll, the results are on the sidebar to the right. ^^ Happy New Year's Eve everyone!
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.