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Cold Sands ch17
And onto to the exciting continuation of Cold Sands!
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XVII The Capital
I open my eyes wide in the darkness only to find that I can’t see a thing. I can only hear what seems to be the sound of horse hooves hitting the ground. There’s constant rocking, too. I try to shout out in a panic only to find a piece of cloth stuffed in my mouth, preventing any sound from escaping.
I squeeze my eyes shut then open them again. It’s still just as dark.
What the hell is this?
I move my neck a little and it immediately starts stinging painfully. I yelp and feel a dull pain on my chest.
Right. That’s right. My neck…. I close my eyes and recall in the rocking darkness what had happened after leaving Murong Yu.
With his pass in hand, I ran into several patrols but no real harm came. Later, around noon, I arrived at the edge of the Yan camp. I had wanted to leave right then but my horse needed water—just as much as I did—so I located a water source. I hopped off the horse and cupped some water in my hands but before it reached my lips, from the corner of my eye, I caught several shadows amidst the trees.
I panicked and turned to escape on my horse but one of the shadows had already entered my vision. His steel eyes were glaring behind his mask. He dug into my shoulders and just as I tried to reach over, he chopped at my neck with his other hand. As the horse whinnied in alarm, my raised arm dropped down to my side without hitting its target and darkness fell upon me. The last thing I remember is my shoulders being tightly constrained, not able to budge an inch.
A shudder runs through me and the acute pain from my neck pulls me back to the present. My heart is pounding furiously. Bah-boom. Bah-boom. It echoes in the lightless, narrow space. It feels like my heart is going to burst out of my ribcage.
I try to see my surroundings but to my dismay, I’m limp and only manage to wiggle my fingers a little.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I get myself to calm down with a few repetitions.
I lift myself up a bit and cautiously reach out with my hands. My palms slide across something cold and hard. I start to get an idea after some more exploration.
Clop-clop-clop. It’s the sound of a galloping horse. There are also the thuds of wood boards against each other. I give a weak nod. This is probably a moving carriage and I seem to be in a long, narrow box on the carriage.
A long box, huh. There’s only one thing that fits that wouldn’t raise any suspicion.
I quickly bite down on my lips to stop my discomfort.
Who would attack me? And where are they taking me?
I don’t recall having any enemies and can’t think of anyone who might have such a large grudge against me. I feel chills and cold sweat down my back.
A million notions race through my mind. I urge myself to keep calm again and stay silent in the dark, while overwhelming fear and loneliness attack me.
I don’t know where I am. I don’t know who’s around me. I don’t even know where I’m heading to.
Easy, Han Xin. You need to calm down.
It’s not the first time you’ve encountered this. You know how to face everything yourself.
I hear a sharp whistle and the carriage stops unexpectedly. Thud. Caught off guard, I bump my shoulder against the wooden board. I rub my shoulder while gritting my teeth. I think I hear talking and some faint footsteps.
“I heard something hit the board. Is it gonna be alright?” a stranger asks. Someone else answers momentarily, “Don’t worry. We’re almost there. It’ll be fine.”
With a crisp crack of a whip, the carriage starts moving once again.
Whether I’m heading for the den of ferocious beasts or a monstrous cliff or even—knock on wood—the end of the road, I can only stay as I am and bide my time.
With my mind in a daze and the fatigue, thirst and hunger setting in, I lose consciousness again and again only to be woken up by the bumpy ride every time.
The creaking of the wheels seems to loop on forever and ever. I strain my ears to identify my surroundings. There seems to be the sound of water, and conversation, and a market and even kids playing…. My vision fades out and my body gets colder and colder.
Am I going to make it out of this one?
I’m not sure how much time has passed when I suddenly hear a loud crack by my ears and light starts stinging my eyes. I spot a blurry figure swaying in front of me and it appears I’m being carried out. My bones are so sore they could split. I lean on the person and let myself fall over.
I sleep deeply. I don’t know what’s going on but it feels like I’ve returned to a familiar place, even the smell bringing back memories.
There are faces in my dream. There are someone dressed in Yan armour and the echoes of a girl’s tinkling laughter.
I sleep for a long, long time, perhaps an eternity.
“It’s time to wake up.” Someone touches my forehead in my sleep. I snap open my eyes in alarm.
What I see before me are fancy drapes. I slowly sit up after a deep breath. There’s a middle-aged woman smiling kindly beside me. I look around warily and find everything to be familiar, but my head is throbbing and I can’t remember.
She presses her lips together. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about this lil’ ol’ lady after your little fieldtrip to the frontiers.”
I rub my eyes and only then does my vision clear up. I see a proper-looking woman dressed in blue, hair done up in a plain style. It’s none other than….
“Maid Xiu.” I squint at her in slight disbelief. She nods, still smiling, and sits down on the edge of the bed. Quickly, I look around at the layout of the room. “And this couldn’t possibly….”
“This is the Minister’s Mansion. Young Master, surely you haven’t forgotten?” She brings over a bowl of steamy hot congee while talking. “Get yourself warmed up first. Master Han may be coming by later.”
Hesitantly, I take the bowl. I still can’t make heads or tails of this. Maid Xiu is a servant of my great-aunt, the empress dowager—why is she here? Also, what the hell is going on here? From her words, it seems like Uncle’s people brought me back, which I don’t believe. I don’t believe that inhospitable uncle of mine would risk rescuing me from the Yan military base. Or maybe it’s because he thinks I’ve sold the country out and made such a huge effort to bring me back to punish me?
I can almost feel the cold sweat breaking. There’s always a reason behind everything Uncle does. He definitely would not be nice to me purely on the basis of our relation as uncle and nephew.
“Maid Xiu, I…have something to ask you.” After several attempts, I finally pull a broad smile on my rigid face. She sits down again, looking at me with a puzzled expression. I cough and ask quietly, “Do you know what’s been goin’ on the past few days?”
She stays quiet for a while, her face so obviously downcast. She replies flatly, “We are in the middle of a war. What could possibly happen?”
I want to ask why I am back in the capital but she interrupts, “Save it for later. Plus, what’s so bad about making it back in one piece?” She pauses. “I’m sure Miss Han’s soul would not be able to rest peacefully if anything happened to you.”
My eyes go wide and the bowl shakes uncontrollably in my hands. The ‘Miss Han’ whom Maid Xiu is talking about is my mother, Uncle’s only blood sister and the niece whom the empress dowager had greatly adored.
When it comes to my mother, all I can manage to do is sigh depressingly. I zone out looking at the bowl of congee. Out from it wafts the scent of grains, stimulating my empty stomach. Maid Xiu dabs at her tears and urges me to eat.
Ah, screw it. Filling up my stomach is of utmost importance right now.
The next day, I get called by Uncle to the back hall. He has just come back from the morning court meeting, with fatigue written all over his face and black circles under his eyes. His bright red court attire forms a glaring contrast with the few white hairs on his head.
Uncle’s name is Han Jun. He is the empress dowager’s nephew but he’s only seven or eight years younger than her. As a high-ranking official who has served two emperors, he is currently the Minister of Personnel and also holds the title of Archduke Jing, continuously working with the empress dowager to exert control over the court. The Han clan has been the dominant clan of the affluent since my great-grandfather’s time and now, Uncle’s generation has been in constant conflict with Heng Ziyu, the Protector of the Seas, who holds the military power.
A twinkle flashes across his eyes when he sees me but vanishes in an instant.
“Morning.” He doesn’t spare me many words.
Uncle has always been strict with me so I wouldn’t say we’re close. I give a nervous nod as reply. A maid takes off his outer robe and he sits down, stroking his beard. He doesn’t look at me either and orders flatly. “Stay in the mansion and behave. Don’t go horsing around with those swine you call friends.”
It sounds no different from any other day when he is reprimanding me to not hang out on the streets as if I hadn’t just come back from the war and were still that same playful good-for-nothing.
Oh, come on, Uncle. You can keep quiet about kidnapping me, but you shouldn’t treat me like how you usually do. No matter what, I just got back from a war in one piece. Shouldn’t you at least give me a pat on the back?
Sadly, I get blatantly ignored by Uncle. With a wave of his hand, the houseboy drags me out in the blink of an eye.
The whistling autumn wind blows and yellow leaves fall—the Minister’s Mansion is a sight to behold. Despite the recent bloody massacre, the prosperity and wealth of the capital stay constant. I sigh as I stroll through the garden with nothing better to do.
This is so boring. Why doesn’t he just kill me and get it over with instead of not letting me out?
I think about my ‘swine’ friends with my chin propped up by my hand. I wonder how they’re doing after I’ve been gone for so long.
You won’t let me go out but these legs only listen to me, I snicker.
Arabian Nights is the most famous restaurant in the capital. Rich music plays, and dies and wine cups are scattered everywhere during the meal. Loud and boisterous, the place is always packed with patrons. Even from the private rooms on the second floor, I can still hear the waiters greeting and serving downstairs.
With a table full of delicious cuisine and exquisite wine before me, I must say I’m satisfied.
“So how has war been for you, Han Xin?” A fresh-faced, polite looking man pours for me.
I furrow my brows and shoot him a dirty look. “What do you mean ‘how has war been’? What would you people know about war when you’re living it up in the capital?”
The speaker, Song Ruoming, pulls an amused smile. “Hah. Look at Mr. Warrior here, all serious business now.”
“I know, right?” A more unreserved man on my right nods while drinking. “Ruoming, now that ya mention it, Han Xin kinda has a stick up his ass like his uncle now.”
“Ouch, Pei Yuan. You out of all people.”
The Rui Dynasty largely focuses on scholarship and the Song family has had a strong footing in the court through the imperial examination process. Many of them are lettered scholars with a poised air. Song Ruoming, the youngest son of the Song family, holds the position of Assistant Imperial Auditor and Judicial Reviewer, and is a person who can’t seem to keep his nose out of things. The Pei family, on the other hand, has a martial background, and has protected the royal family for generations. Pei Yuan holds the title of Lieutenant General in the Golden Guardian. The three of us are about the same age and share similar interests and aspirations.
“Whatever. Not gonna waste my breath arguing. Just go try it for yourself,” I dare him before getting up. There are only the three of us in the room so it’s not too crowded. I turn to the windowsill, leaning against it with my wine in hand, and push open the windows.
The crimson sun is already hanging low in the west along with the many bulbous clouds. Arabian Nights is situated on one of the busiest streets in the city and the people are packed like sardines. The road side lights have already been lit so it’s as bright as day. The festive lanterns have only recently been put up and the crowd is swept up by the mood. The capital of a country never sleeps. Countless people surge in from the dark towards the bright, splendid and enticing illuminations like moths to a fire, rushing to indulge in this momentary extravagance.
As I sip my wine, bloody images of the battlefield flash across my vision instead: broken spears, severed body parts, horses stomping over broken bones and painting the ground red with blood, and corpses everywhere. Song Ruoming paces towards me and looks down at the street, too.
“We won’t be able to see this prosperity anymore if the capital falls.” He sighs.
“Well, we won’t just sit and watch.”
Pei Yuan laughs half-heartedly. “‘Sit and watch.’ Well said.” There’s a long pause before he continues. “Han Xin, you wouldn’t know ‘cause you just got back but shit’s been going down in the court these days. No one knows how it’s gonna turn out.”
I whip my head back and Song Ruoming explains casually. “Minister Xie suggested a southward relocation and many of the high-ranking officials agreed. There are less and less supporting the war with Yan.”
“Relocation?” Unknowingly, I grip my cup tighter. “If we do, we’d lose the people’s faith and consequently, the control over the country! Are the royal family and officials gonna run away and leave the defenseless commoners here to be tyrannized by the Yan army?”
Pei Yuan takes a deep breath. “It’s common sense but that’s not how those selfish, but powerful, officials think. It’s enough to save their own asses.”
Dismay flickers in Song Ruoming’s eyes as he recites Lao-Tzu. “‘The heavens lack compassion, treating all beings as dirt; the saints lack compassion, treating all commoners as dirt.’”
“And what does the empress dowager have to say about this?” I ask through clenched teeth.
Song Ruoming turns back to the window and gazes at the scarlet evening glow. “The empress dowager is a woman and naturally doesn’t want to fight. She hasn’t yet made any statements but it does seem like she agrees in part with Minister Xie’s proposal.”
I turn away to the scene outside. There’s only dead silence.
“The Wang family are all scholars but are also very proud and have always advocated a fight to the death with Yan. Then ten days ago, however, the whole family suddenly gets exiled by the empress dowager for some ridiculous crime. My father felt it was unfair and said just one word of support for them and he got put on temporary suspension at home.” Song Ruoming heaves a sigh. “I’m just an assistant auditor. I can talk all I want but I can’t actually get anything done.”
I lower my head and pat his back in comfort.
Pei Yuan suddenly asks, “Ruoming, what about His Majesty? Is He just gonna let the empress dowager interfere with state affairs?”
Song Ruoming walks back to the table and pours another cup for himself. “His Majesty stays in the confines of the palace. And you know about how domineering the empress dowager is. Plus there’s Minister Han.” He glances sideways at me. “One way to put it is that His Majesty is just her puppet. He couldn’t do anything even if he wanted.”
I don’t know how the Han clan raised such a relentless woman. Once upon a time, she and my grandfather aided the Former Emperor Rui Mu in claiming the throne, she from the palace and he from the court, and proceeded to plant their people in the court and replace the other parties’ control. The Han clan enjoyed such prestige, power and wealth at that time that even the throne couldn’t compare. Twelve years ago, she killed the rebellion by Duke Zhao Rui and used the opportunity to lessen the power of the lords and strengthen that of the Han’s. After Grandfather passed away, Uncle took over his position, the authority of the Han clan becoming higher than ever before.
I shake my head and lean on the windowsill again. There’s a whole mess of feelings but it also seems like there are none.
“Relocation, huh.” Pei Yuan scoffs. “We don’t needa get ahead of ourselves here. It’s not like our families would leave us behind if the Yan broke through the walls. We might even be the first ones outta here.”
Song Ruoming squeezes through his teeth, his face slightly pale. “Even the lowest commoner has responsibilities towards his country, let alone the elites!”
Pei Yuan tosses his cup and scoffs, “What good are they? Heng Ziyu, who everyone calls a saviour, is the exact same. We all know what he’s really after!”
I stay by the windows, quietly watching the pedestrians.
I’m not an elite so I wouldn’t know what they’re arguing for, but ‘treating commoners as dirt’ is definitely not something that an elite does.
“And what’s my uncle’s standpoint?”
Pei Yuan takes a moment before answering. “Minister Han isn’t exactly thrilled ‘bout relocating—he’s more for fighting—but everything’s uncertain right now. The civil and martial officials are both suspicious of one another, not to mention Marshal Heng hasn’t been particularly enthusiastic about fighting back for some reason, so….”
“And the ones for relocation are so cooperative if they write a few more memorials and the empress dowager makes up her mind then there will be no helping it.”
“Who knows,” I let out a deep sigh and sit back in my seat. “We’re powerless to do anything but talk. It’s not like we could say no if they decided to relocate to the south. If it happens, the only thing we can do is run with our tails between our legs.”
Pei Yuan grinds his teeth together. “It’s this submissive nature that has Great Rui looked down upon and stamped over. It’s just war. I say we go all out. Even if we lose it’d be better than being laughed at.”
The martial class have been oppressed for a long time and Pei Yuan has just spoken the thoughts of many of them.
Song Ruoming heaves another sigh and the conversation dies.
Seeing the time, we finish the remaining wine and leave down the stairs. Pei Yuan puts an arm on my shoulders and says, “Han Xin, since you’ve made it back from the war and all, you should go see Wang Shu sometime soon.”
I look at him with surprise. “What?”
Song Ruoming looks back at me with a smirk. “You had left in such a hurry you didn’t even say goodbye to her. She asks us about you every single time we go drinking on the yacht.”
Pei Yuan claps me on the back and says good-naturedly. “I feel so sorry for her when I see her like that. She’s the class act that has all sorts of guys after her but she only got eyes for you out of all people. Don’t ya think you should go just ‘cause of that?”
I quickly shake my head. “I ain’t her man. I’ve never touched her.”
Pei Yuan shakes his head in disapproval and interrupts me. “Aren’t you always the gentleman? What have you got to lose?” He slaps me hard on the back. “Don’t make her feel bad. Just go when you get time to.”
I rub my back as we go our separate ways. Immediately, two houseboys start tailing me. Uncle certainly is one sly bastard. He knew I would sneak out so he made sure there would always be someone keeping track of me.
I jump on my horse and tug on the reins. The evening wind blows away the alcohol buzz and my mind clears from the chill that hits me.
No, it’s not that simple. There must be some other reason for him to keep an eye on me.
By the time I get back to the mansion, I feel a bit tipsy again so I rush through the garden to get to my room. I’m striding through the corridor when I see a figure standing in the middle of it, gazing at the courtyard bathed in moonlight, his clothes swaying in the breeze.
The man turns around. I shake my head to clear my mind only to discover that it’s Uncle.
Shit. He hates drunk people. This realization thoroughly wakes me up.
Uncle comes pacing towards me dressed in casual wear. I chuckle uncomfortably. “I got invited for a drink and I didn’t want to say no so….”
He walks past me and orders flatly. “Follow me.”
I do so blankly and sneakily peer at his expression. Once in a while, when he glances over at me, I would immediately look away and act oblivious.
Communicating with Uncle is just impossible.
Not many people are allowed to go into Uncle’s study. With big, curious eyes, I step into the two-part room separated by a pale green satiny curtain hanging from the ceiling by jade hooks. The first thing I see is a subdued ink painting of pines and bamboos, and below the painting are a pair of brown chairs and a long table. Beside them is a pair of high stands decorated by ornamental flowers. Uncle raises the curtains, signaling for me to enter, and I obey.
The moment I step in, I’m faced with a huge military map.
“This—is it the Imperial Map of the Realm?” Unknowingly, I step forward and reach out for the vast, alluring territories painted on the surface.
Uncle nods and takes a seat behind the desk, stroking his beard. “You know how to read a military map?”
I nod and reply quietly. “I picked it up when I was in the army.”
He smiles a little, saying. “It proves wise to have made you go get some life experience, or else you would know nothing but fun and games.”
I’m screaming injustice in my mind. I could have died a hundred times over out on the frontiers if I weren’t hardy or lucky.
With the hazy candlelight, I can see Uncle’s spotty white sideburns and the weariness written on his face, making him appear older than ever. He picks up the tea and starts in a raspy voice. “Master Liao has taught you the arts of war. I shall test you today. Study the map and I will ask you a few things.”
My heart almost skips a beat but I mumble my obedience and turn to the map.
“The Yan army has arrived at South Hill Pass with numbers said to be in the two hundred thousands. If you were to lay siege, what would you do?”
I take a moment to contemplate before approaching the map and pointing at South Hill Pass. “Split into three bands, one to the north, one to the south and the stronger forces in the middle.” I explain as I draw arcs to the north and south. “These two would block the critical passageways and cut off all possible reinforcements in addition to surrounding the capital.”
Uncle keeps his gaze on me while his expression alters the slightest. “Continue.”
“We’ve run South Hill Pass for many years but the overall manpower is not sufficient so it’s highly likely we’ll abandon it and do a full retreat back into the capital.”
“How do we secure the capital?” He asks after a pause.
I press my lips as I look at him. “In front of the capital lies six hundred li of flat plains with nothing to aid in defense. In the arts of war, this piece of land is equivalent to an exclave. It would be pointless even if we have three hundred thousand, let alone one hundred thousand. On the other hand, the Yan army is unified and has high morale….” I peer sideways at him. He’s fingering his cup, his face hidden in the candlelight’s shadow, so I continue. “While we…. The civil and martial officials are untrusting of each other and uncooperative, not to mention there are people eyeing the throne. With all this in play, there’s no way of knowing who will take home the chips.”
Uncle suddenly opens his eyes and casts his cup aside, staring holes into me. His gaze is cold and his expression peculiar.
“Excellent.” He stands up and paces towards the map, sliding his hand across it slowly without sparing me a glimpse. “Tell me. Do you think we could win if we put in everything to defend the capital?”
I jerkily back away and come into contact with the icy wall. I shake my head as cold sweat breaks out.
I have no idea.
An eerie smile spreads on his face. “You don’t know? That’s right. You don’t know. I don’t know. Even the empress dowager in Yong An Palace does not know.”
“Some people say it would be better to relocate to the south than fighting to the death, and use the natural barricades of the Qihe River to combat the Yan.” His face contorts into a weird half-smile. “Relocation this, relocation that. They almost persuaded this old man here into jumping on board.”
I grab his sleeve out of pure shock. “Uncle, you wouldn’t!”
He slowly turns to me with a smile I can’t comprehend. “You would not stay here when everyone else has gone, would you?”
I watch as he seems to age right before my eyes. His figure is stiff and tense, shoulders slightly bent inwards and white hair swaying in the air. He turns and sits back in his seat after heaving a long, miserable sigh.
“Come.” He beckons to me. I obediently follow after a moment’s hesitation.
He keeps his eyes on me for a long time without talking, as if to find something on my face. I don’t make a sound and let him scrutinize me. A deathly silence looms in the study.
Finally, he looks away and opens his balled up fist, pushing a dark green thing towards me. “This is yours. Don’t lose it again.”
I study it steadily before reaching out for it and clasping it. It’s shaped like a ring, its colour a jade green like water. The relief carving depicts two intertwining panlong with their jade bodies twisted, looking back at each other.
It’s my old pendant. I raise an eyebrow. Why did Uncle have it?
It seems he is very tired. He has his head propped on his right hand while he waves at me with his left. Too scared to ask any more questions, I turn and leave through the curtains.
I observe the jade carefully under the moon. The jade is emerald green and reflects a faint ring of light, the two twisted panlong seeming to have come to life and are bellowing wildly.
Slipping the pendant under my collar, I suddenly feel a pang of sorrow. I stare fixedly at the distant, hazy lunar rays and let out a soft sigh.
I’ve recovered my pendant, but his is still with me.
Before going to sleep, I realize a very serious problem. Everyone who should be around is around and I’ve seen the people I used to see, but there is just one person missing who should be in the mansion.
And that person is Master Liao.
Dairytea's comment: Valentine's drawing near~<3 xoxo
ayszhang asks: What are you all doing for Valentine's? <3~
This is the type of yacht mentioned above.
This is a panlong pendant similiar to the one Han Xin has but this one only has one panlong. Han Xin's is fancier ;)
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.