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Cold Sands ch20
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XX Intimate Distance
I catch Uncle quickly scanning the Guardians standing guard at the royal gates with wary eyes. “You must pay close attention to the Guardian General, especially to what he does.” Only after I nod to show my understanding does he nod with furrowed brows and enter the gates, hurrying towards Yong An Palace under an attendant’s guidance.
I stride past soldiers standing guard and enter the royal palace. I look up at the ink black sky, then at the hazy palatial buildings. The grand halls are enshrouded by a thick, black fog, making the shapes ambiguous. It’s only the fourth watch now so what could be going on?
Uncle’s Wraiths had given a general report along the way. Just a while ago, the empress dowager assembled the Golden Guardians and other royal guards and placed the palace under maximum security. The Minister of Defense, Xie Yun, has already put his defense troops around the capital into action, and Heng Ziyu also has strategic points inside the capital under heavy guard with his own men. All of the capital’s gates have heightened security. The atmosphere in the capital is suddenly tense.
Time trickles by. The torches high on the palace walls accompanied by the dawn peeking through the horizon refract off of the Golden Guardians’ plates. I ponder silently about the current situation. Surely, it’s an emergency of sorts, otherwise the various parties would not be so anxious. But if it really came down to it, I doubt these pretty looking soldiers could do much.
I bite my lips. Could it be that the emperor is departing this life?
Quickly, I push forward, trying to find an acquaintance or two to catch up on what’s going on. Along the way, I see the palace under tight security with Guardians on patrol every hundred yards or so. None of the palace doors are opened and I can’t seem to find anyone I know. I grab a random soldier over and ask. He replies after some thought, “I just saw the Guardian General heading towards Tai Qing Palace.”
There are rows upon rows of soldiers in front of Tai Qing Palace and court doctors are coming and going with their heads lowered. When the Guardian General finally comes out, I hurriedly grab and ask him. Strictly speaking, he is Xie Yun’s younger cousin. He looks solemn as he whispers in my ears after making sure no one is around us. “His Majesty’s condition worsened last night. I don’t think He’ll last much longer.”
“What?!” I almost hear a buzz in my ears. I stare blankly at him, trying to wrap my head around this. Everyone knows His Majesty is ill year-long but this has come too soon to take in.
With the war in a critical period, everyone is anxious, and not to mention the hungry wolves eyeing the throne, so if His Majesty goes—worst case scenario—Great Rui goes. His Majesty may be ill but he still holds the Mandate of Heaven. As long as he’s here, the delicate balance can still be maintained, and the relocation may not happen as easily either. I gaze at Tai Qing Palace concealed in the dark with butterflies in my stomach.
Seeing this, he pats me on the shoulders, sighing. “’Tis troubling times.”
I stay outside the Palace after he leaves, watching the sky lighten bit by bit and the dawn light breaking through in the east. A new day. A new start. But will it mean fortune or misfortune for Great Rui?
A purple-ranked attendant comes running from behind, saying quietly. “The empress dowager has summoned you, Sir Han.”
Without a word, I let him lead me to Yong An Palace. Spotting the white steps and balustrade in fornt of it, my head starts throbbing slightly again. The attendant turns to me, saying, “Sir Han, the empress dowager wishes to see the pendant around your neck. Would you mind handing it to me?”
I falter for a moment before taking it off for him. Thank goodness I switched the pendants last night while changing. I just found it a bit difficult to look at. I thought I shouldn’t keep wearing it if I had chosen to leave in the first place.
Standing at the top of the steps, my head starts to pound and throb again as if something was struggling to burst out but it can’t for some reason. I hold onto the balustrade as a wave of pain strikes through me, tearing at my heart and lungs. My vision whirs around. I pant for air and hold tightly onto the railing as the things before me go blurry.
I hate this place. This happens every single time.
After resting against the balustrade for quite a while, the pain slowly fades away. Beads of sweat cover my forehead. I take off my helmet and gently wipe it off. My mind seems to clear up more as I breathe in air.
The attendant still hasn’t come back out, so I just keep waiting outside quietly. Soon, I hear someone approaching and curiously, it’s Pei Yuan. He grabs and pulls me along without saying anything the moment he sees me. I fling his arm away and point to the Palace. He looks in the direction but hisses quietly, “His Majesty wants to see you!”
I’m taken by surprise and an ominous feeling clings onto me. His Majesty?
It’s dead silent in the enormous palace hall. Attendants and maids stand wordlessly behind the curtains and the court officials have all gathered in the centre. The front row mostly consists of high-ranking ones, including Uncle looking detached and pale. Heng Ziyu is standing with hands clasped behind his back and a cool, stiff expression. The other officials are also looking reserved. I lower my head and eyes as I step into the grand hall, those butterflies in my stomach even more restless now: I have no idea why His Majesty would summon me.
Uncle sees me and coughs before telling me solemnly, “Han Xin, His Majesty wishes to see you.”
A bit caught off guard, I blurt out, “Why would His Majesty want to see me?”
He shoots me a cold look. “Shut up and just go.” I clench my jaw and follow the attendant towards the inner hall. When I walk past Heng Ziyu, I spot a heavy shadow over his eyes and a sly smile on his lips.
It’s also silent in the inner hall and only the pungent scent of herbs lingers in the air. This is where the emperor, the emperor who is only two years my elder, lives. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Wordlessly, I pass the hanging veils and swerve around a nine dragon jade screen. I quickly kneel down when I catch sight of the Emperor’s bed.
I hear a feeble sigh and some small movements coming from the emperor. “Is that…Han Xin?”
I nod. “It is I, your humble servant.”
I spy his arm reaching out from the bed, dangling weakly. “I don’t remember…seeing you for some time.” He waves to me with effort. “Come.”
I do as he says, getting up but keeping my body bent nonetheless.
He is deadly pale, heavy circles surround his eyes and he is breathing so roughly he almost cannot talk. He only watches me steadily with a strange expression. I start feeling a bit weirded out by it so I quietly call him a few times. Only then does he regain his focus. “You…you have changed quite a bit.”
I quickly reply. “Your servant hasn’t, Your Majesty.”
He chuckles softly. “Really? You haven’t, while I feel like I am getting weaker and weaker.”
I feel a bitter pang in my chest. His Majesty is two years older than me but has always been weak. He even needs someone serving medicine for him during morning court. It came to a point that he couldn’t deal with national matters by himself and has to do so through an assistant. I still remember he called me into the royal palace right after my coming-of-age ceremony and ranted on and on about how boring and constrained life as emperor was.
“You…are still the same…fooling around with your gang of scoundrels…right?” He laughs out loud and life seems to reappear in his eyes. “How nice…to be able…to be free.”
I try to keep my feelings down. “I beg that You don’t say that, Your Majesty. You are god-sent. This servant cannot compare to You.”
He shakes his head weakly, eyes staring at the door. “I’m not…joking. I’m actually…the most pathetic…I’ve nothing.”
Intermittently, he keeps going in his breathy voice. “Do you…remember we…climbed on the roof of Tai Qing Palace…when we were kids…and looked over the capital…that feeling…the wind in your ears, it was like…you were flying.”
He was in better shape in his earlier years and we would horse around all over the place. Tai Qing Palace is the most magnificent and solemn palace in the royal city of Great Rui and is the place where emperors ascend the throne. Even though we got punished severely by the empress dowager, he was still very enthusiastic and told me in private that he would do it again when he got the chance. With that in mind, I can’t help but feel miserable, but a ghost of a smile appears on his face.
“I’m…afraid…I won’t have another chance.”
Immediately, I kneel down and bow forward, shaking. “Your Majesty, I beg of you. You’re the owner of this realm. You will definitely have another chance.”
He raises his quivering hand, pointing towards the door. “You have no idea…how much I want to see it once more…just once.”
I lift up my head in alarm and stare dumbly at him. The pink in his lips has completely drained and his eyes start to lose focus. “Even if…I am the emperor…I cannot do…anything…I am going to…get scolded…by Emperor Shun…when I get to the royal hills, aren’t I?” Then he starts coughing really loudly. “I…couldn’t…do…a thing.”
I can’t take it anymore. I grab his hand and croak. “It’s not your fault, Your Majesty. You are a good emperor.”
He holds my hand with a deathly grasp, twinkles increasing in his eyes. “Say…do you think…there’s a next life?”
I move my head up and down with force. “Yes, I’m sure there is.”
He looks steadily at me and then turns away and laughs. “Good…even if I…were to be a human next time…I don’t want…to be born a royalty.”
I gape at him as if struck by lightning. I just watch him fixedly, not a word coming out of my opened mouth. He blinks and then suddenly cracks an eerie smile at me. “You’re…not much better off…actually…you and I…we have the same fate…and there’s no escape.”
Out of shock, I pull my hand away, drawing back. I watch as he props himself up slowly. He keeps that miserable smile on his face while looking at me. “You…at least you’ve had…a taste of freedom.”
My ears start to ring. I back away, bumping into the jade screen. I save myself from falling only by holding on to it.
The emperor’s gone mad. Mad, I tell you.
I scamper out the door, not even stopping to help up the maid I knock down, out the inner hall and through all of the curious and the alarmed stares in the outer hall, leaving them all behind me.
News of the emperor’s demise break out at night—the Son of God has returned to the heavens.
Pure white and black drapes are hung from the towering Tai Qing Palace, signifying the passing of an emperor of Great Rui. The Former Emperor’s casket rests in Tai Qing Palace. The court historians style his posthumous name as ‘Wen.’
I’m standing outside the hall, quietly gazing at the giant buildings. The impenetrable darkness unfurls its vast wings, enveloping the entire royal city within its embrace, obscuring all sight, like a vicious beast waiting to devour its next victim with its mouth wide-open.
The empress dowager is one strong woman. Normally, other mothers would be bawling their eyes out if they had to witness their child’s death, but no, not her. She just has to be strong and not show one bit of vulnerability. She paces up the hall with the help of her maids. She’s dressed in complete white mourning apparel. Half of the hair on her head has gone white. Tearless, wordless, she only gently slides her palm on the casket.
I regard the ghostly figures from afar and feel an abrupt chill running through my core. Quickly, I scan around myself. The maids and guards are in white mourning apparel too, all kneeling or standing rigidly like statues. The entire royal palace is covered in pale white, appearing utterly lifeless.
Just what horrors lie in the darkness around me?
What exactly is this fate they keep talking about?
Even if I have some particular history, they should make up their mind—say it or don’t say it at all. I hate people leaving me hanging halfway. I smash my fist on the wall. Fate—my fate—what the hell is it? Why is everyone being so goddamn secretive about it?
I rest my forehead on the wall and close my eyes. I’m shuddering. Fuck this place. It’s going to drive me insane. I need to get out of here. I need to leave!
“Guardian, are you mourning for His Majesty there or are you about to fall asleep?”
I glance sideways to see Heng Ziyu standing not far from me with that same old smirk and casual composure, only wearing white this time. I take a deep breath and say in the calmest voice I can manage, “His Majesty has just passed away, so I advise you to keep that smile in check.”
He steps closer, tilting his head back, and his eyes flash. “So what if I smile?”
I force a smile. “The brave Marshal has nothing to fear of course, but,” I remark as I hold onto the wall. “But surely you’ve heard of the saying: ‘A lack of forbearance now may upset the grand scheme of things.’”
He takes a scan around us, his eyes sharp like a hawk’s, and smirks before taking another step towards me. “Are you going to tell on me, Guardian Han?”
I straighten up and shoot him a look. “Good men don’t work in the dark. I still have duties, unfortunately. Please excuse me, Marshal.”
“Duties defending the palace?” He scoffs. “Do you really think this place is still worth defending?
I feel anger welling up. Even if he does have plans to rebel, he should at least show some respect even if he doesn’t have any in his heart when the Former Emperor has only just passed away. In contrary to my fury, I shoot him a scornful look. “His Majesty hasn’t yet been buried. It would be wise to refrain from any misconduct.”
The emperor has just departed, his remains just beginning to cool. Whoever causes a scene and disrespects the Mandate of Heaven at this time will be charged with the crime of insulting the crown, no matter how strong of an army he might have.
The moon lingers on one side of his face, appearing as a silver chip. I see one brow of his raise in slight anger. “I suppose I should thank you for the advice, huh.”
“Hmmph. Any time, Marshal.”
I turn to leave but he stops me with a raised arm. He pulls a thin smile. “You’re a smart man and quite skilled, I would think. Being a Guardian is a waste, don’t you think?”
I turn my head and lock onto his meaningful eyes, flashing a sardonic smile. “Do not forget. I’ve said that I have no wish to achieve anything.”
“The Golden Guardian is but a superficial title,” he pushes after a momentary pause. “I doubt you will get anywhere with it. Why not leave that behind and cross over to the righteous side?”
“Out of the people in this world, some want an empire, others want power, and there are yet others who want freedom,” I enunciate every syllable. “You want wealth and authority. I only want to be free. I’m going to have to say pass on that offer, Marshal.”
He scrutinizes me with squinted eyes. “What strong will. But allow me to say a few words.” He lets his arm drop and moves directly in front of me. “From all my years on the battlefield, and all the bows and swords I have seen, let me tell you, it’s the inflexible bows that lose their bowstrings first, and the stiffest blades that first get chips and cracks.” He focuses his piercing eyes onto me. “I am sure you are aware of this.”
I crack a thin smile. “Thanks, Marshal, but don’t you think you have more important matters than chatting here with me?”
He falters and then laughs. “You are straightforward all right, Guardian. No one has dared to speak in such a manner to me since I came to the capital, not even Minister Han Jun.”
I turn around. “My uncle is my uncle. I am myself.”
He bows his head in contemplation before looking back up. “You’re right. We should live a fulfilling life. But perhaps you should also consider just what the likelihood is that an egg can stay intact in a nest that is being flipped over.”
He smirks and opens his arms wide. “You cannot deny this is a world of chaos we are in.”
I nod after much debate and stay quiet. His eyes twinkle. “Only the strong get to decide their fate in a chaotic world. Not to mention, the secret haven that you speak of does not exist. There could not possibly be one when the country itself is in danger. You cannot leave it all behind as an army man of Great Rui.”
Words fail me. I feel utterly powerless all of a sudden. Everything he has said makes perfect sense. He gazes at me with a meaningful smile. Not wanting to continue the conversation, I turn to leave.
I’ve taken a few steps when he calls out to me. “You’re very interesting, Guardian Han.”
I stop and look back with a smile. “Marshal Heng, the one who says so is interesting himself.”
According to Great Rui customs, the deceased emperor’s casket stays in the palace for nearly one month. Funeral services and ceremonies are performed during this period. The heir, the royal family, officials, soldiers and commoners must wear mourning attire for twenty seven days, ceasing all entertainment and marriages. For nearly one month, the emperor’s casket has been staying in Tai Qing Palace but things have gotten busy in the palace even before the emperor has been properly buried.
The empress dowager has summoned Duchess Yu Qing and Duchess Qi Huai to bring their sons, Mu De the Eldest and Duke of Yan Ning, respectively, into the palace. It looks as if she’s going to pick one out of the two to be the new emperor but then again, it might be the case that whoever gets chosen would just become a puppet, just like Pei Yuan predicted.
Some people support Mu De the Eldest while others support Duke of Yan Ning. Surprisingly, Uncle remains silent; Heng Ziyu chooses to stand and watch on the side on account of being a martial official; Xie Yun refrains from commenting. Without any of the powerful officials’ remarks, the issue of naming a new heir has been postponed again and again.
One day, it suddenly occurs to me that the empress dowager still has my pendant. I had left in such a hurry that day that I forgot to ask for it back and I think she forgot about it too. She blinked her eyes a little the next time she saw me and never brought it up.
Argh. Seriously, Empress Dowager? You could get anything in the world you wanted and you want my pendant? Grrr. It’s the only thing I can remember my parents by and I’ve had it ever since I could remember. I really don’t want to be a thief in my own house, stealing my own property.
I rant in my head as I help a soldier clean swords. He looks only about eighteen or nineteen and he’s excited and beaming like the sun. I rap him hard on the head. “Hey dumbass. What the hell are ya smiling for? Are you tryin’ to get yourself killed for disrespecting the crown?”
He scratches his head and frowns. “But I get to marry Xuanlan when the new emperor ascends the throne. I just can’t help it.”
“Well,” I continue after a pause, “can’t you keep it to a minimum? I reckon your jaw’s gonna fall off at this rate.”
He pouts and puts his back into scrubbing. Out of nowhere, he looks back up and scoots over to me. “Sir, how come you aren’t married yet?”
I drop my gaze for a while before hitting him again. “Mind your own shit.”
But he doesn’t give up. “But sir, you’re one good-lookin’ fellow. Don’t you have anyone you’re seeing?”
I really, really do not want to think about this. One is because there is a ton of other stuff to fret about lately, and two, only one thing comes to mind when it comes to this topic. I can only think of that one person.
The memories break through the gates and gradually well out. The more I think the more depressed I get. The more I think the worse I feel. So I won’t think about it. Simple.
I might say so but I can’t help myself. How is he? Is he still barking at people for no reason other than his temper? Is he still stubborn about drinking medicine when he’s sick and getting mad at Xiao Qinyun? He always calls her a baby but he’s pretty childish himself.
Brushing off the concern of others, always carrying all the weight on his own—doesn’t he know that even the strongest person will get fatigued sooner or later?
I don’t like this me, the me that would feel a sting in the nose when I think of him.
I’ve already made my choice, so why can’t I seem to forget about him?
Fragmented thoughts flutter past. His warmth. His gaze. His strong embrace. And…and his pledge, his promise:
‘I like you and I’ll protect you. I won’t let another nightmare haunt you when you’re in my arms.’
Every single word seems to have been uttered just yesterday.
I scoff at myself, ridiculing:
You were never this wishy-washy before. But nowadays, whenever you stop his phantom would appear in your mind and stay there.
Could it be that you’ve fallen for him? For someone who was never meant to be.
For an enemy of Great Rui, someone who very well could annihilate Great Rui.
But this someone has been stored in the most discreet crevice in your heart and you can’t seem to let go of it. Han Xin, oh, Han Xin, you have left now but your heart—it appears you have left your heart behind.
The oblivious soldier is still bugging me. I roar abruptly. “I swear, if you don’t get all this shit cleaned today, I’m gonna take away your holiday. Let’s see you get married then!”
He freezes, not understanding why I suddenly became furious. I don’t bother explaining either. Dumping whatever I have in my hands, I leave out the door.
I run into Uncle immediately when I walk out. He’s wearing his Rank One uniform and a tired expression. He nods to me. “Follow me.”
The crimson red doors, walls, windows and pillars in the hall have all been covered with white cloth. Even the sixty-four glazed lamps are white. The usual magnificent red platform has been reduced to a pathetic state. Emperor Wen’s temporary memorial plaque has been placed on the head altar and his casket rests in the middle on it. Who knows where the crying concubines and maids have gone. There is only that young emperor, lying all by himself in a cold coffin, waiting to be sent down to the lightless royal hills.
After a person dies and becomes a handful of dirt, do all the love, hate, favours and debts of a lifetime just disappear as well?
Uncle nods a little. “Go pay your respects to the Former Emperor.”
I do as he says, kneeling down properly after I plant the incense down.
Emperor Wen was always lonely. Even though he owned all the land of the realm, even though he was the supreme ruler, even though he had a harem of concubines, he was always by himself. Maybe it’s really not that easy to find another person whom you can share your heart and life with in this world.
I think of him. I think of the times.
“Han Xin, I have something to ask you and I want you to answer me honestly.”
I get up and nod in agreement. He sweeps over my face and then the entire funeral hall with darkening eyes before finally asking. “All these years, have you ever hated your uncle?”
I’m taken back by his unusually serious behaviour. Icy frost coats his face as he stares steadily at me.
“So, you really do hate me, huh?” He croaks.
Slowly I take a step back while keeping my eyes on him. I can’t begin to describe my thoughts. What’s going on this time? Why would Uncle say such a strange thing? Involuntarily, I glance over to Emperor Wen’s plaque. Could it be that Uncle has gone mad along with Emperor Wen?
A freezing gust blows past, the white sheets billowing along like levitating ghosts. I bite on my lips and gradually turn my head back to face Uncle’s eerie expression.
Do I? Or do I not?
The memories of my youth come rushing: a child under someone else’s roof, lonely with no one to depend on, alone to face the ridicule and bullying of his older cousins and the neglect of the servants, only knowing the comforts of food and substance but never of love or care.
Recalling the bygone only makes me feel miserable and unwilling to speak any further. I finally regain my composure after a moment’s efforts. “I choose to not answer that question, Uncle.”
He stays standing, motionless, watching me quietly, and finally breaks into a sorrowful smile. “You really are like your mother. She had a fair appearance but an intense personality, always clear on her feelings. You’re the same. You hate me and you won’t say the opposite.”
A spasm runs through my chest as I hear him talking about Mother—mother, the closest person one could have, whom I’ve never even seen, not even through a portrait. All I know about her is that she was the niece that the empress dowager adored, and the blood sister of Minister Han. That is all.
I hold his gaze, suppressing the anguish. “Yes. I never force lies out of my mouth.”
He suddenly tilts his head back to study the white sheets billowing from the ceiling of the building while his shoulders are shaking.
“You’re a descendant of Han but not a son of.” He chuckles drily. “After all, his blood is running through your veins.”
It doesn’t take a genius to know who he is. Uncle is talking about my father. Just what kind of person was my father? He has always been omitted on purpose, tucked into the darkness, never to see light.
“How many years has it been since I took you into my home? I have always hoped. Hoped that you would never find out.” He cracks a melancholic smile. “I guess my sister also did, but…she was wrong. Oh, so utterly wrong!”
I have to bite down hard to stop myself from running away.
He watches me with depressed eyes. “I’ve regretted it for twelve years, no, twenty years more like it!”
An odd emotion arises out of nowhere as I watch his aging complexion.
“She had always thought keeping you alive would be the best but it seems it might just be cruel for you now.”
A fire starts burning in my chest, smoking my heart. My head starts aching immensely as if something is circling around trying to break out or a knife is stirring up my insides. The keen blade slices over every inch as though to cut me apart. I scurry backwards, hitting the ice cold wall, and hold my head close as tremors run through me.
Ahh! It hurts so much!
He remains silent for a long time before turning away to face the door with a dazed expression as he looks to the distance as though he is reminiscing about someone or something of the long gone past.
The wind howls and the sheets swell up from all directions.
“There’s no use hiding it. What’s going to come will come.” He turns back around to me with a dejected smile full of pain.
I keep hugging my head while staring at him like a stranger.
He strides forth, grabs me by the wrist with frightening strength, dragging me out of the hall.
“Where’re we going?!”
“Yong An Palace!”
Confucian coming-of-age ceremomy
Read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guan_Li________________________________
ayszhang says: I smell something brewing!!! (It's been brewing for so long, did you just realise?! <_<) *cough* The climax and the dramatic reveal will be soooon!!! *dies of anticipation*
Dairytea says: Asdgfjk! Oh gosh, enough with the teasers~~~ *waaaits*
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.