Proofreaders: Art_emis, Gwen, krabbykabbi , Pau and Red
Cold Sands ch19
新年快樂！Happy Lunar New Year~
XIX Content of the Present
Despite the bias for the letters over martial arts since the founding of the country, there is not one person, not in the imperial court nor in the dirtiest alleyways, who doesn’t know of one particular man—a soldier.
Heng Ziyu, the Protector of the Seas—the number one in the Great Rui military world.
Born a commoner in Huizhou, he joined the army at the age of seventeen and was drafted into the Colonel of Xuan Wei’s army as the Captain of Yi Hui at nineteen. In the Fourth Year of Yong Guang, the County Governor of North Dian abused his military power and colluded with the local natives of Lin. Under the royal edict, the Colonel of Xuan Wei led his troops west and as the Captain of Yi Hui, Heng Ziyu launched into battle. The troops fought head-on at first and later when they were cutting through a patch of thick forest, they ran into obstinate Hill Barbarians who would not surrender. In a fury, Heng Ziyu killed the entire tribe, and utterly defeated the Lin natives along the way, fully recovering North Dian. Thus he was raised up to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of You Ji.
In the Sixth Year of Yong Guang, the County of Jin An suffered from pirate attacks. Under the royal edict, Heng Ziyu defended the land. After overcoming the plague and flooding, he determinedly ordered for the destruction of the dam and the relentless pursuit of the pirates. Since then, the pirates have completely lost the ability to violate our borders due to their severe losses.
That year, Heng Ziyu was given the peerage of marquis and the title, Protector of the Seas, on the account of his notable achievements. This is the highest honour a soldier can receive in Great Rui.
Right now, this person whom the storytellers describe as some sort of mythical creature is standing right in front of me. Despite being a martial official, he is not wearing his armour but instead a solid black robe. His gait is confident and majestic while a stern look manifests in his eyes, making it look like a military march.
The attendant goes inside to notify his arrival. Heng Ziyu stands by the white balustrade with his arms crossed and regards the palaces and halls in the distance. Once in a while, when he glances over to me, his lips would curve and I feel as if I’m being looked down upon.
“A Golden Guardian?” he wonders out loud.
As a son of the rich who has received this high-paying position on the account of my family background, it’s only natural to get condescending looks from those who fought their way up from the bottom of the chain and attained their fortunes themselves. I let out an airy laugh and look away. I don’t want to speak with him.
He scoffs. “I’ve always heard that Minister Han is very strict when it comes to governing the country and his own house. Good for him, sending his own blood out to war when our country is in need.”
I grunt in reply, peering over. “What’s the point in pointing out things we both know, Marshal Heng?”
He leans on the balustrade, watching the hovering clouds up above. “Because you count for at least half a warrior.”
“I’m naught but a Guardian. You’re overstating matters.” I stare at the palace doors, hoping Uncle would come out sooner.
He scans my face then his gaze moves downwards, stopping at my hands. “You’ve swung a sword and used the bow, so you count for at least half a warrior.”
I look down at the thick calluses in between my two thumbs and forefingers that won’t seem to go away. They were from the training I did with the old geezer in my youth, which was only so I could protect myself and leave this place. With that though in mind, I ball my hands tightly and look up at him. “And I guess now you’re going to ask me if I know how to ride a horse or if I’ve killed before.”
He lets out a humourless guffaw but then says calmly. “All you young, ostentatious nobles are in pursuit of recognition but never do you consider the pains and suffering of the people.”
With nothing to counter that, I look away again.
There is a bias for scholastics, yet the wars never seem to end. The people have lost their homes, the crops and fields have all been abandoned, and after the unexpected drought, the death toll caused by hunger and war has amounted to the tens of thousands. The people’s multiplying grievance is no longer a secret so Heng Ziyu’s words are not that surprising.
I glance at him out of the corner of my eye. “The Yan army is right outside our walls and you as the marshal still have the time to lounge around?”
He lets out a short chuckle. “As you said, I am the marshal, so on what basis do you dare surmise the thoughts of a marshal?” He points his chin up. “You would have gotten the stick if you were my soldier.”
I let my smile fade and hold my tongue.
Everyone has been saying that he has had plans of treason since a long time ago. The senior court officials have considered getting rid of him now that he has served his purpose, but they were wary of his military power and the unstable borders in the south so they never acted. Likewise, Heng Ziyu only pays superficial respect to the court, and the situation remains in a delicate balance.
But now, with the arrival of the Yan army, it appears that this equilibrium is about to be tipped over.
“Unfortunately, I’m not your soldier, and I have never pursued recognition. You’ve overlooked that fact, Marshal.”
He glances at me, his smile still evident. “You, too, have overlooked the fact you haven’t come across an opportunity for you to do so.”
Disgusted, I remove my gaze. I can’t quite put my finger on it but there’s something about him that I really don’t like. Is it the craving for power? Or maybe it’s the thirst for accomplishment?
“I’m standing in this spot again but the view looks different this time.” He laughs abruptly, his booming laughter chilling to the bone unlike any other I’ve heard.
“In that case, wouldn’t it be even better if you viewed the imperial city from the top of Tai Qing Palace?” I hiss lowly and walk to the top of the steps.
His expression falters for a moment before it starts to boil with anger. He shoots me a hard look to which I smirk and walk down the steps against the wind with a flick of my sleeves.
Who gives a damn about who’s the emperor? There is nothing in this overindulgent world for me and even if there was, it would have to be him.
It is very late at night when Uncle comes back from the palace and he doesn’t mention anything that happened, as if it has never happened. I don’t want to bother with it either so the peculiar incident of the day just fades out in time with our purposefully blind eyes.
However, he starts going to the palace more and more frequently and the mansion has been filling up with people; busy and unfamiliar people. A few are armed soldiers and a couple other ones look fairly familiar. I think they’re senior attendants from the palace.
I’m still grounded and the looks I get from him are getting heavier by the day, to the point my stomach twists up. From time to time, I would still try very hard to think of the good things he’s done for me, like the times he stopped my cousins from going overboard with the bullying, or his unspoken permission to let me study a bit of martial arts under Master Liao, and even the position I got as Golden Guardian was because of him….
Only after I swore for the millionth time that I wouldn’t go to Jade House or come back drunk does Uncle give me permission to go out, albeit extremely unwillingly. But—and there is a but—I can’t stay out for more than four hours.
Four hours—what do I do with that? I grumble as I leave the mansion with two tails behind me.
Glancing at the two houseboys trailing behind me, I feel annoyed. Uncle has no need to worry about me running away because security at the city gates has been amped up to check for possible spies.
The people on the street seem slightly spiritless and glum. Even the market place that is usually bustling is now almost deserted. The venders holler out desperately a few times before sitting back down quietly with a dispirited face.
I run into Song Ruoming and Pei Yuan. Song Ruoming is wearing his green imperial auditor uniform, indicting that he just got out from the morning court. The worry on his face lightens a little when he sees me and he drags me into a tea house after some small talk.
We’ve just sat down when a conversation at the table next to us catches our attention, stopping our own.
“Have you heard? The emperor isn’t in the best of health.”
“When is He ever?”
“Then what’s gonna happen? His Majesty has no male heir, so if He leaves, who’s gonna…?”
I look to Song Ruoming and he nods solemnly while Pei Yuan remains quiet. Word of the emperor’s poor health has been going around the streets of the capital, saying his condition is worsening and he might just pass away.
Pei Yuan breaks our silence, saying under his breath. “The call for the relocation’s escalating. Many of the larger clans and families have left already.” As if to prove his words true, several expensive-looking carriages race through the street, leaving in a whirlwind.
“The empress dowager’s been listening behind the curtains during the morning courts as usual. Just whose empire is this? Hers or the Lin clan’s?!” Song Ruoming angrily slaps his pagoda wood hu on the table.
“Uncle asked me the other night whether there was a chance of victory if we chose to defend.” I mutter, and the two of them stop and watch me.
Pei Yuan then presses, “That’s right, you just came back from there. You’ve seen it with your own two eyes.”
I shake my head. “So what if I did? After all this, even those who haven’t would know that the Yan kill without a second thought.”
Song Ruoming wonders lowly while playing with his tea cup. “If His Majesty really were to leave, who would be there to inherit the throne?”
I take a moment before answering. “The closest bloodline would have to be Mu De, eldest son of Duke Yu Qing, but he’s just turned one. The next closest would be Duke of Yan Ning, son of Duke Qi Huai, but he’s only seven. Even if they were to-.”
“What good is a one or a seven year old?!” Pei Yuan thunders. “They’d just end up as her puppets anyways!”
The loud chatter in the tea house dies down instantly and I feel numerous eyes lock on us. I turn to see almost everyone staring at us with all sorts of expressions. My lips twitch. That sure went well.
As he hurriedly drags Pei Yuan out, Song Ruoming scolds, “Why can’t you just keep calm?” Pei Yuan digs his heels in and doesn’t say a word. Seeing that I mediate, “C’mon, you know how he is. Just let it go.”
“The successor is gonna be whoever the empress dowager names. She has the final say anyway.”
As we’re chatting, all I see are the bobbing heads of the pedestrians on the busy street. Suddenly I hear the pounding of hooves on the road and it is approaching fast. The pedestrians all scatter out of the way, forming a clear path, and the next moment, a cavalry of five hundred zip past amidst the thunderous drumming, causing a gust of wind.
“Outta the way! Outta the way!”
The crowd disperses in alarm at the whip cracks and the three of us get washed along in different directions. I’m knocked all over the place and when I look up I spot a familiar figure.
Heng Ziyu looks as he always does: poised high on horseback dressed in green, his comportment refined, charming and majestic. He scans across the crowd and lingers on me. He pulls a thin smile, one of ridicule, before cracking his whip and driving his steed towards the royal palace.
I forget my steps. I sense that there is more than meets the eye in that smile of his.
Song Ruoming and Pei Yuan make their way over to me after the crowd disperses, looking scruffy and tattered. Song Ruoming brushes off the dirt on him and says, “Even if she were to name a new heir, Heng Ziyu wouldn’t let it go so easily. His army has set up camp around the capital so it’s thin ice she’s stepping on. A new heir, tsk tsk.”
I clean the dirt off of myself too. “New heir? Let them fight it over. We’re just normal citizens.”
When we’re saying our goodbyes, Pei Yuan suddenly asks. “Hey, how many days have you been back?”
“’Bout five or six. Why?” I answer after some calculation.
“You might’ve gone to the front lines but you’re still a Golden Guardian; your records are still under the Guardians. Normally, shouldn’t you’ve gone back to work already?”
“Really?” I falter. “I’unno. Uncle never brought it up and he doesn’t really let me go out. Says I should behave and stay in the mansion.”
Pei Yuan scrunches his brows. “That’s weird. Sure, Minister Xie’s son doesn’t needa serve ‘cause he’s kicked the bucket, but you should go now that you’re back. Plus,” he sighs. “Our numbers have been declining so much, from the original five thousand to four, it’s getting hard to even secure and patrol the royal palace.”
“Whoa, why has it declined so much?”
Song Ruoming answers instead, “Right now, the court’s been split up by Marshal Heng and the senior officials. The marshal just transferred one thousand Guardians away a while ago, saying it’s advanced training or something. Sounds all good and proper, all right.”
It is said that Great Rui’s Golden Guardian numbers five thousand strong, each one tall and well-built, and makes a fierce battle formation. However, I’ve also heard Guardian General Xie complaining in private that these five thousand men were all looks, that he didn’t expect them to amount to much and that he’d be very grateful as long as they didn’t participate in any prostitution, gambling, extortion or the sorts.
“If I remember correctly, the Guardian General sides with Minister Xie, right?”
“Mhm. Minister Xie’s been in a bad mood lately. They say the lil’ bastard, Xie Zhen, died out there.”
I laugh drily and change the topic.
That guy, Xie Zhen, had it coming. But for some reason I think of Murong Yu. I wonder how he’s doing now that I’ve been gone for almost a week.
Oh whatever. There’s nothing I could do. Xiao Qinyun is there anyways. I don’t need to get my panties up in a bunch.
The conflict around South Hill Pass is getting nowhere. The two sides have been in battle for a long time and even though the Yan cavalry have extremely high battle power, they still haven’t been able to make it past the walls. Naturally, the Rui army has been completely surrounded, not even able to budge. According to word, all you can see from the top of the walls is a frightening sea of scarlet flags.
General Zhou is posted at the west path and is fighting with the Yan army to the west. The location is easily defendable due to the geological contours but the food supply is insufficient. It seems they cannot hold on for much longer, but once the west path is abandoned, the entire backside of the Pass is going to be exposed for the enemy’s viewing pleasure.
Uncle has been going to the palace even more frequently and he’s so stressed out that he has cold sores growing on his lips. The only things on the city streets are luxurious carriages speeding through, leaving the capital through Xuan Ping Gates on the southern end, and cavalrymen. They don’t even come close to the Yan cavalry though. Great Rui doesn’t have a great martial background to begin with so our cavalry is not even worth mentioning.
Life is very dull in the mansion and it makes me think about what Pei Yuan said, so I cautiously bring the idea up with Uncle about me reporting back to my position, but he turns me down right away.
“Why not? I can’t just stay here and sponge off of you.”
“You have already sponged off of me for more than ten years, what makes the idea so appalling all of a sudden?”
“I just want to do my job as a Guardian.” Actually, what I want to say is that at least then I would have something to do and someone to talk and joke with at work.
“I don’t think so. I say you just want to go out and fool around.” Uncle vetoes me nonchalantly, not one bit moved.
I grumble. “Okay, let’s say I really did wanna do that. It’s still better than staying cooped up here all day. You know I’m just gonna die of boredom.”
“Your days of being cooped up has only just started with a whole lot more to come.” He glances at me emotionlessly. I wail in my mind: ‘You’re used to peace and quiet, Uncle, but don’t drag me into it! I haven’t even hit forty yet.’
Suddenly he closes his eyes, closing the book in his hands, and points to the seat beside him. “We haven’t sat down for a talk for a while now, nephew. Sit.”
My first reaction is: This is weird. This is really weird—really, really weird. Thus I sit down tentatively while glancing nervously at the door. I sit on the edge of the chair, ready to shoot out the door any minute.
Uncle clears his throat and my stomach twists up in a knot: he started like this, too, when he told me that he enlisted me in the army. I stare at his mouth and beard. His mouth opens and I recite in my head: ‘calm down, calm down, calm down.’
“Han Xin, how old are you?”
“Do you have any thoughts about your life? Say,” he taps the table lightly. “A position in the court, or your future?”
I let my uneasiness recede before answering with a smile. “Whatever you think is good for me, Uncle.”
Psh, as if I’d let him choose for me. I’ll make him happy first and then get the hell out of here. I won’t need a pass to leave the city now anyway. Hmm, what should I bring? Clothes, and some cash, and the xiao, and the pendant and….
“Are you daydreaming again?” Uncle interrupts my plan.
I focus and put on an oblivious face. “No, no. It just kind of took me by surprise. What you asked.”
He sighs. “I’m constantly busy with work and never paid much attention to you. I just realised today that you are already twenty. I have to make some plans for your future.”
“If I may ask, what do you want me to do?”
“Tell me yourself. What do you want to do?”
What do I want to do? Establish my own empire? Hold ultimate power? Or fame and wealth? I contemplate what it is that Uncle wants from me. He keeps staring at me with a strange expression, kind of like a smile but not quite.
I say after remaining silent. “Would you believe me if I said I have no interest in fame and money?”
“I wouldn’t.” His face darkens.
I smile for some reason. “But you’re not me, Uncle, so how could you know what I think?”
He smiles too. “I’ve seen my fair share of people in the court and I watched you grow up. Of course I know.”
I meet his eyes bravely without a hint of apprehension, all to identify what he’s really trying to say. I don’t aspire to be much but I don’t want to get involved with their cat-and-dog political battles.
“Your eyes, they’re like your mother’s.” He looks away as he murmurs. I snap to attention. This is the first time Uncle has ever mentioned my mother. “She left you in my care. You haven’t amounted to much, but we are still related by blood-.”
“Uncle, stop please!” I interrupt and stand up, unable to keep listening.
“I appreciate your concern, Uncle, but,” I glare at him. “I’d rather hold my own life in my own hands, and not let someone else control it!”
He looks somewhere else and the smile on his face disappears. I stride out the door and he suddenly gets up, yelling, “Give up that thought, Han Xin! You will never escape your fate!”
I stop, turn and look into Uncle’s stone-cold eyes. It’s dead silent in the room. My head starts throbbing and it feels like the world is caving in on me, suffocating me.
“Master.” The butler rushes into the study, faltering when he sees me, and reports that Minister Xie and the Protector of the Seas are here to visit and are waiting in the front lobby. I don’t make another sound and leave.
Taking a turn in the gallery, I spot Xie Yun and Heng Ziyu coming towards the study under the houseboy’s guidance. As I pivot out of the way, Xie Yun gives me a small nod. When I brush past Heng Ziyu, I hear him whispering, “So we meet again, Guardian.”
I leave as though I haven’t heard him.
Master Liao has come back. He has come back when so many are leaving, but I’m still glad to see him.
In the late evening, he drags me out from my room and tells me he brought back some wine from his hometown for me. I was just restlessly tossing and turning around on my bed anyway so we pick a quiet spot and start drinking.
After listening to my edited version of my experiences, he laughs at me. “But you’re here now, aren’t you?”
I take a sip. “You’re here, too. Everyone’s trying to get out but no, you just had to come back. You know the capital’s not safe, right?”
He keeps a nonchalant face. “How could I leave when there’s someone I need to protect?”
I freeze, my mouth forming an ‘O,’ the wine cup mere inches away from it. I stutter nonsense while pointing at him before finally getting a well-formed sentence out. “N-no way!”
Master Liao keeps drinking his wine as if I only said something like ‘Nice weather we got today.’ He peers at me out of the corner of his eye. “Why, I can’t say that?”
His eyes dim when he says this and he looks a bit blue, as though something’s weighing on his mind. It takes a few moments of pondering for me to guesstimate and I scoot over and nudge him. “Which noble daughter did you fall in love with, Master? Who is she married to now?”
He glares at me as if I poured burning water on him. “You lil’ punk, what in the world goes on in that head of yours?”
I flash an innocent look. “But all the storytellers in the city say so.” I let my imagination take over, ignoring his reaction. “Once upon a time, you were a handsome and well-mannered student but you were a commoner while she was a beautiful noble’s daughter. You fell in love at the temple and met in private. Your love multiplied by the day. But one day, her father discovered your love. Enraged, he separated Juliet from Romeo and married her off to this other son of a high-ranking official. Reluctantly, you said your goodbyes and then you became a teacher in the capital all so you can see her again one day. And now the capital’s in danger so you’re staying to protect her.”
Master Liao takes a swing just as I finish my tale. I dodge it cleverly and giggle. “See, I was right, wasn’t I? You were trying to silence me.”
“You lil’ punk, you should go tell stories on the streets.” His face has gone back to normal and he has turned to regard the darkness of the night.
“But,” I add. “I remember you being here in the mansion when I was really young. Do you not have a wife?”
He shakes his head and we fall quiet again. I take tiny sips of my wine, not knowing what to say.
I kind of feel like Master Liao is shouldering something very heavy. His eyes are always dark and obscure. A chilly air exudes from him even when he’s under the sun. He’s a learned scholar, but at the same time he’s also a talented martial artist. Sometimes I wonder what his story must be like.
Noticing my distracted state, he raises his left arm, catching the fan that slides out, and raps me hard on the head. I hiss out in pain and glare at him. He smiles a little but his eyes are cold and emotionless. “How is it? Any good? I brought it all the way from Feng Hai—Jian Chang red wine.”
I take a big whiff. It smells aromatic and sweet and it tastes fresh and bitter-sweet. The strange thing is that it’s my first time drinking it but I feel like I’ve drunk or smelled it before. “I like it. It has a…a….”
“A familiar flavor, right?”
I gape at him. “How did you know that?”
He closes his fan and pulls a small smile. “Your face told me everything.”
“Hmmph.” I dismiss.
“As your teacher, I advise you to not let your thoughts show through your face. You must do your best to make your happiness and anger look the same. Always keep the same facade. That way no one would be able to guess what you’re thinking.”
I’m a bit distracted by his fan so I blurt out. “I’m not gonna work in the court. What do I need a poker face for?”
He sighs after studying me and changes the subject. “Do you have someone you like?”
Master Liao’s fan is called Notos, for the autumn wind, and is an excellent—no—superb—no—exceptional fan. It seems like a normal fan but it’s the deadliest weapon that he keeps on himself. Poisonous needles and thin razor-sharp blades amongst other things are all hidden in it, combining a stylish prop and a defensive weapon into one.
“Uhh, yeah I guess.” I realise almost as soon as I say the words that I shouldn’t have and I cover my mouth. When I look at him, he looks sort of stunned but he recovers. “‘Once a teacher, always a father,’ and you can say anything to your father.”
I shake my head. He urges. “So my boy has someone he likes. What’s the big deal?”
I lower my head, feeling the pendant around my neck burning for some reason, scorching through my skin and imprinting into my heart.
Like—do I like him? Maybe I do, or else I wouldn’t have let it slip just now. But there’s nothing I can do no matter how much I like him. The difference in our class, our warring countries, our gender—what future could we have?
An image of him surfaces before my eyes, of his eyes, of his air, of his words. How could I forget anything? From the conflicts and battles in the beginning, to the mutual understanding later on, to the unification as one in the end, everything and anything.
Is that…is that love?
I don’t know. All I know is I want to see him. I really, really want to. Better yet, I want to see him right this instant. I want him to kiss me. I want him to hold me.
Then why the hell did I insist on leaving him and living my own life?
I feel moisture welling out of the corners of my eyes. Hurriedly, I pretend to look away and wipe it away.
The bonding of one night might just be my most precious memory from now on.
Master Liao pats me on the shoulders. “If it’s hard to deal with by yourself, I won’t think little of you.”
I sniff. “It’s nothing.”
“To be troubled by love makes one an adult. As a person, it’s something everyone has to face in their lifetime.” He mentions, “I remember you play the xiao. Would you mind playing for me?”
I go and retrieve the battered xiao from my room. I sit back down and place the xiao by my lips. The limpid notes of Cries of Soaring Swan Geese slowly rise and float off into the clear sky, echoing throughout the night.
“Cries of Soaring Swan Geese—a song of longing.” Master Liao suddenly gets up and recites. “‘Yesterday has abandoned me, I should not linger; today troubles me, stirring my mind a mess.’”
Suddenly, footsteps approach from the gallery side and I can see flickering flames. The butler runs by, shouting in a wavering voice, “Master, messengers have come from the palace saying the empress dowager has summoned you!”
Master Liao’s face darkens even more as if it were enshrouded by frost. He whispers, “I fear this late a summon means trouble in the royal city tonight.”
Dairytea's comment: Check out our other surprise release for the day here. ;)
ayszhang says: No history lesson today! Yay!~ Happy New Years everyone! <3 Please continue to support us in the Year of the Sheep!
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.