Proofreaders: Art_emis, Gwen, krabbykabbi, Luzo, Mion, Pau, and Red
Cold Sands ch21
XXI Remorse of Yore
Lin Shaoyan, Duke Zhao Rui, who had just come home victorious from the north, took Han Jinrong, daughter of an affluent family in the capital, as his wife. He was a legendary hero and she was a stunning beauty. Everyone from the elite to the commoners applauded the marriage. ‘It was a perfect match made in heaven,’ they said.
One year following the marriage, Duchess Zhao Rui bore a son.
The boy was born at first light. The duke was delighted and named his son after this. When the boy came into this world crying, a majestic rainbow shot across the sky, the room filled with an unusual aroma and purple clouds floated around the manor. There were even witnesses outside the manor who saw a faint golden dragon circling high above the clouds. On the boy’s one month celebration, the duke’s good friend, the esteemed monk Rujing, attended and when he saw the boy who was still being swaddled, he gasped in surprise: ‘’Tis the face of a king!’
Great Rui customs do not give too much importance to a child’s maternal bloodline. The duke was the younger brother of Emperor Wen’s father, Emperor Mu. No one had objections that he took the empress’ niece as his wife.
Seven years later, Emperor Mu departed from this life. Emperor Wen ascended the throne and the empress was given the title of Empress Dowager in respect. The emperor was still young and the empress dowager sat in during morning courts, shifting the power away from the Lin clan to the maternal relatives. Duke Zhao Rui had led many battles, and as a noble royalty he was not pleased with another family holding power. Also, considering the auspicious signs regarding his son’s birth, he did not want to obey a woman and a child. Thus, with ‘ridding the emperor of evil’ as his slogan, he started a revolt from his enfeoffment, the County of Feng Hai.
Under the leadership of the Han family, the officials were furious when they caught wind of this and branded the duke a traitor. The empress dowager immediately put troops into combat to suppress the rebellion and the conflict quickly escalated. The duke was betrayed by his own clan and his campaign fell apart. In the end, he committed suicide out of indignation and the duchess and the boy were lost amidst the battle, nowhere to be found.
The battle lasted for a year. Countless lost their homes. Crops were left unharvested. The court suffered greatly and the country was in a much weaker state than before. The empress dowager began to strip the lords of their power in the name of preventing another rebellion. The royal family of Lin fell into despair, no longer glorious as before. The golden ages had left, never to return.
The court historians are always able to erase the gruesome details with their skilled brushes, the blood and the tempest all becoming a line or two of neat ink.
This is the story the world knows, but what they do not know is that a storm just as violent blew through the magnificent royal city that so few could ever lay eyes on.
Wraiths working for the Han family brought back the Duchess and the boy from the battlefield. The Duchess knelt before the empress dowager with tears running down her face, begging for the boy’s life to be spared. Great Rui’s laws stated that the family of rebels was treated equally as the rebel, thus the empress dowager refused. With nothing else left, the Duchess ended her own life, exchanging it for the boy’s. The boy was eight years old at the time. Terrified by the blood flowing across the floor, he turned around and ran.
The entrance of Yong An Palace was not guarded. The boy raced towards the white steps in front of the palace. He missed a step, wobbled, and fell head first down the steps. When an attendant picked him up, the boy’s face was as pale as a ghost, lips a sickly green while scarlet trickled from his nose. The court doctors did all they could and the boy miraculously woke up after two days, but he had lost all his memory and did not recognize anybody.
The son of Duke Zhao Rui has not been seen ever since.
All of my strength seems to have been drained out and all my blood rushes down towards the ground, the chilly wind wiggling into my body from all around.
Sweat is rolling down my back and damping my undershirt. I try to wipe away the beads on my forehead but I find that I can’t even move my fingers.
I can kind of see Uncle’s mouth open and close through the daze. His voice is muffled. I can make out some words but not many. The empress dowager towers on her throne in the background, watching with arcane eyes.
I can almost picture the horse hooves whipping past me like raindrops while a woman is holding me tight, trying her best to evade harm. The crimson world is filled with neighs of warhorses, wails of those on the brink of death and the clanging of weapons. The woman scampers across the rugged ground with me buried in her arms. Jewelry falls from her hair, branches claw through her clothes and dirt coats her shoes but she is still running for her life to an unknown destination.
A dagger drops to the ground and the woman falls limp. She turns her head to look at me from the ground. Her face is pale and blood keeps gushing out from her warm smile. She beckons at me with shaking hands. Her lips are moving slowly, seeming to form words. Frightened, I stare at them carefully with wide-eyes. She’s crying but is still beautiful beyond description.
‘My dear, you must live on for Mom and your father. Mom is going to die soon. You’re going to be by yourself in this world now.’
Then the world does a flip, my head planting on the hard ground. The rusty smell of blood rushes forth and people start screaming around me.
I rip my head away, chest rising and falling violently, and try to suppress my raging emotions.
Finally, Uncle’s voice has stopped. I look up. He’s been standing in front of me, watching, as though to inquire ‘Do you understand?’
I wipe my moist eyes, cracking a smile. I end up squeezing out of my mouth, “What a fucking lame story. I’ve heard its likes at least a million times.”
I feel a sting on my cheek before I even finish speaking. Uncle has steam coming out of his ears as he barks, “You wretched beast! Your mother died for nothing!”
My cheek is burning but no tears are coming out. I close my eyes, quivering.
For twelve years, I went from highborn nobility to an orphan living under someone’s roof while being lied to and neglected, and never got to see my parents.
I suppose all parents want their children to be better off than them, but I had never thought that my parents had put such efforts into keeping me alive through the perilous situation.
I look around me. The exquisitely carved beams, picturesque pillars and the golden glory only make me feel an overwhelming loneliness and misery that seems to bury me alive.
I just want to find a place where I can be alone right now and cry my eyes out.
Dejectedly, I turn my head over to Uncle who is looking rueful and the empress dowager with her red, swollen eyes, silently fixing her makeup with a silk handkerchief.
I’m in so much agony, yet I crack a smile. “If I may ask the empress dowager, why did You not just keep me in the dark? You had been for twelve years, why tell me this here and now?”
Slowly, she turns to look at me with a wry smile. “You think I wanted to spare you? If your mother hadn’t given up her own life for yours, you would be with your traitor of a father now!”
I shoot up and glare at her defiantly. “Please don’t disgrace my father like that!”
Uncle gets in between us, yelling at me, “Sit down! This isn’t your place to speak!” Then he turns to her. “We should not delay things any further, Aunt. Let’s not get caught up in this argument.”
She leans over and takes something out from a box beside her. My heart skips a beat when I see it. It’s my jade pendant.
“Han Xin, oh no, I should call you Lin Xin.” She smiles coldly, making chills run down my back. “The spot of Lin Xin has never been crossed out from the royal family tree, you know.”
Steadily, I take a step back, all my blood rushing back into my head.
“Now that Emperor Wen has left, everyone only knows about Mu De the Eldest and Duke Yan Ning but who could ever fathom that there is someone in the royal family who is even more closely related by blood alive right now!”
She raises her brows, enunciating. “And you, Lin Xin, are that person!”
She looks at me as if to bore a hole in me while a satisfied smile lingers on her lips.
I don’t know what the hell she’s smiling for. Did I miss the joke? I’m the son of a traitor. Even if I have royal blood in me, I’m still a condemned sinner.
Uncle remains silent as if all this has nothing to do with him. The empress dowager suddenly stands up and steps down from her throne, the white train of her dress dragging on the floor, making her steps a bit clumsy. She draws near and reaches out her fingers, the pointy nails drawing an arc in the air to end up about an inch away from my face.
“Your face looks just like your dad’s. No one would ever deny the fact that this is Duke Zhao Rui’s son if they saw this face. Plus,” her tone suddenly changes. She raises her left hand and an emerald green pendant swings from it.
“Twin jade panlong carved in relief. There were only two of these in this world. Emperor Mu had one and Duke Zhao Rui had the other one. Who could possibly object?”
I start shaking. No, impossible. No way.
She laughs in a soothing voice while pulling a creepy smile. “All those signs when you were born….”
I take a deep breath, holding my fists tight. “May I implore Your Graciousness to return my jade pendant to me?”
She edges closer, staring me down. “And what are you going to do if I don’t?”
I clench my jaw to restrain myself. “I do not ask for much; I do not have any ambitions. I only implore Your Graciousness to return the jade pendant, and then I will leave and never come back.”
“If it were not for you,” she spits, “Jinrong wouldn’t have wound up dead! And I still had to raise you, worrying about your future for you! Your Uncle not only had to worry about raising you, but he had to make sure no one found out about your past!”
“Stop it!” At last, I can’t hold in my urge to scream. “If everything you’ve done for the past twelve years was for me, then I’d rather you didn’t!”
The gleam starts to fade from Uncle’s eyes.
The empress dowager suddenly throws back her head in insane laughter. “The rainbow in the sky; the aroma in the room; the purple clouds in midair; the golden dragon in flight—it has been twelve years but fate is fate.”
It hits me what she’s referring to. Cold sweat breaks out once more, chilling me to the core. I try to bear with it as my body cools down.
No. It absolutely cannot be!
“If I had known things would be like this, I would have sent you down to meet your dad!” She hisses viciously through her clenched jaw. “Auspicious signs? I don’t buy it. You are just the same as your dad, never knowing to take the easier route!”
Slowly, I approach her, smiling. “It’s not too late now, Great Auntie. You can still kill me now if you want.”
Uncle looks up in surprise. “You!”
“It wouldn’t matter. I’m still Han right now. If you wanted to kill me, it would be easier than killing an ant.” I look straight at her and remark emotionlessly. “A child is much easier to control than me.”
She watches me steadily as the ire dissipates in her eyes.
“Too bad.” I take a glimpse out the door. “If you really were a wicked person then you would’ve killed me twelve years ago and none of this would have happened.”
She turns away from me with her back to me, her frame shaking slightly, no longer venomous. “I had held you myself when you were born. If only that adorable baby never grew up.”
“But you have grown your wings and can fly alone now. You don’t listen to us anymore.” Uncle starts talking. “I asked you if you hated me and you didn’t even want to answer me.”
I keep holding it in and do not make a sound.
Do I hate him? Do I not?
They should be my closest family after my parents, but they are the ones I should hate the most.
The empress dowager turns back around, her comportment regained. It’s a frightening expression. It’s very woeful but forbidding at the same time.
I can’t even begin to count the number of times she’s scolded me throughout the years but not once have I ever been this afraid.
If she asks that question, I am absolutely not going to say yes.
Over my dead body!
“You could not begin to fathom the difficulties the Han clan have had to go through for the glory that you see. Both your uncle and I come from a prestigious background, but we must shoulder our responsibilities for the clan. We must accept our fate.” She gazes at me, a bit forlorn and distracted but also very determined and relentless. “And the same goes for you! There is no escape!”
My mind is blank and drowsy. A puzzling fog spreads endlessly before my eyes. I can’t see a thing; I can’t hold on to anything.
We have made some distance already but her words are still resonating in my ears. Just five words have flipped my world upside down, leaving me at a loss.
The royal palace and the holy throne would be the biggest irony for me.
Who would have guessed that the good-for-nothing who used to hang around on the streets was a royal descendant?
My heart is a desolate moor. I can no longer hold back the tears; they’re going to overflow any second now.
I don’t know how I got back to the mansion. The familiar yard seems foreign. I have the feeling that this isn’t my home and that my home is somewhere else.
“Go in.” Uncle enters without looking back.
We bump into Master Liao in front of the study. He looks calm as he moves to the side. “Master Han.”
Uncle nods before looking back at me. “Look on the bright side, Xin.” Then he goes into his study, sighing, not sparing me another glance.
I don’t know what happened after, but by the time I realise, Master Liao had been sitting quietly beside me without a word for quite some time.
“Let it out if you want.” He looks steadily at me. “‘Men do not shed tears unless they are truly hurt.’”
I turn to look at him, letting out a soft utterance. “Aren’t you gonna ask me what the problem is?”
He replies, “You’d feel better if you told someone, but some things are better left unsaid.”
I look up at him curiously.
“Once upon a time, I was in despair, too. I felt like the sky was collapsing in on me. It took me a very long time to get back on my feet again.”
“Because there were more important things for me to do.” He claps my shoulder. “There isn’t anything in the world you can’t get over.”
The evening wind brushes past. I close my eyes and tilt my head back, muttering. “I don’t want this. I want my own life.”
He gets up. “I can only accompany you so far. You must solve your own problems.”
I finally ask after much contemplation, “Master? If suddenly one day you were forced to shoulder responsibilities that aren’t yours, what would you do?”
He falters but smiles at me. “If there are responsibilities for you to carry, then there must be a just reason for you to do so.”
He walks farther and farther away but suddenly turns around. His eyes are hidden in the shadows, his face stern. “Han Xin,” he reminds me lowly. “Don’t run anymore. Sometimes, running away doesn’t solve anything.”
Hurriedly, I turn around but he has already disappeared into the far side of the gallery.
The evening breeze brings along the cold and humidity, slowly corroding my body. I curl into a ball, pressing my head against my knees. The wind seeps through my clothes, almost freezing me all over, but what’s colder is my heart.
I close my eyes. I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.
For some reason I think of him, the person I’ve left for some time.
His embrace wouldn’t be this cold, would it?
I chuckle drily. I’m so stupid. I almost had warmth in my grasp but I pushed it away myself. I had happiness within my reach but I ran from it like a disease. Why is it that I only know to appreciate it after I’ve lost it?
One by one, teardrops hit the ground.
How are you, Murong Yu? What are you up to? I really miss you. If only I were still by your side.
Is all this your punishment for me?
I don’t want that position at the top. I don’t want to be the emperor that rules over the world. I just want to live my own life without any restraints.
What would you do if you were here? Laugh at me? Or would you comfort me?
I reach up to my neck only to find that nothing’s there. The empress dowager has taken mine but his is still in my room. A thought flashes across my mind. I bite on my lips for a moment before I shoot up.
Why stay here if I don’t want to? I’ve already decided to say no so I should go the whole way!
I rush back to my room and pack my clothes and money in a bundle. I put the pendant and xiao in it too. Taking a look around the room before turning away, I leave out the door without a second thought.
I’m extremely familiar with the mansion. The security is not that good. I steer clear of the servants and sneak to the back door. I push on it to find that it’s locked but I get it to open after playing with it a little.
Almost there. I’m almost there. I take another glimpse at the place I’ve lived in for twelve years and leave in brisk steps.
There are still lots of people on the streets. I slip into the crowd, contemplating where it is I should go. The city gates are probably going to close soon. They won’t be able to catch me even if they tried as long as I get out of here before the gates close.
With that in mind, I take a turn at a small alley heading south towards Chang Qing Road. Past Chang Qing Road is the Xuan Ping Gates. It’s fair sailing once I get past those gates.
Chang Qing Road, huh. It sounds familiar. It seems to be…. The Manor of Duke Zhao Rui used to be here!
Despite the little time that is left, I make up my mind and do a sharp turn towards the manor.
I’m afraid I won’t ever come back if I leave this time. I’ll just go see it once, just once.
The further I walk the darker the path gets. At the end of it I see a large, gloomy shadow slumbering in the night. The boisterous crowd and flickering flames from behind make it seem all the more desolate and lonesome.
The placard above the manor doors has long disappeared. The red doors are spotty with rust. I walk up the steps and push ever so gently on the doors. They open with a loud creak.
I don’t think I can ever forget about what I see when they open: layers upon layers of leaves are piled on the ground releasing a foul, rotting odour; the paper on the windows is torn and ripped, leaving the bare frames clattering in the wind; weeds are growing wildly on the top of the walls and in between the shingles; green foxtail has grown about half a chi tall in the yard and is swaying in the evening breeze. The house is like a tired, old man taking his last, painstaking breaths.
Dust floats into my eyes and in that moment of blurriness, the dam in my head lifts open and an endless wave of memories come rushing forth.
I meander around, from the lobby to the inner hall. The short distance takes much effort and seems as long as a lifetime.
There…Mom and Dad used to read poetry and paint there.
There…I used to play and have fun there.
And over there….
This is my home. I still remember even though I’ve been gone for twelve years. Every bit of it was already engraved in my head long ago.
My eyes wander around without aim, trying to see everything there is to see in the manor but a mist obscures my vision.
The Minister’s Mansion and the duke’s Manor are only separated by a few street blocks, yet it has taken me twelve long years to find my way back home.
My knees buckle and they hit the cold, hard ground in the Manor’s yard. I place my forehead on the ice cold ground, tears finally streaming down.
Dad, Mom, I haven’t been a good son. How could I have lived blindly for twelve years not being able to remember you?
I’m shuddering as my sobs finally become audible.
‘Men do not shed tears unless they are truly hurt.’
I’m sorry it took me so long to come home.
I didn’t know my own name, didn’t know my parents. I didn’t try hard enough and only fooled around. I’m sorry for not letting you rest in peace down there.
The stark world sends down bitter wind to dig under my clothes, making me feel cold to the bone.
Dad, I understand how you must have felt but I don’t desire glory and power. I just want to be normal.
Don’t be disappointed in me, please. I don’t want to accept the fate they speak of. Everyone has their own aspirations; it shouldn’t be forced.
I kowtow, hitting the ground hard. I stay in that position for a long time while choking on my sobs. Finally, I get up and take a look around.
Dad, Mom, farewell.
I head towards the front door. I’ve taken no more than a few steps when a strange gust of air hits me. My heart skips a beat and I leap off the steps, eyes darting around warily.
“Young Master, please return with us. Master Han is still waiting,” says a low voice through the wind.
I clench my jaw to suppress my jitters. It’s them—they’ve finally come.
“And what’re you gonna do if I don’t go back?”
“We have orders from Master Han to retrieve Young Master through physical means if necessary.” A few shadows rapidly draw near with the wind.
Panicking, I quickly back away only to see the rooftops lined with shadowy figures. I catch a glimpse of one from the corner of my eye. The person bursts into action, striking towards my neck with his palm.
I tilt my head, evading his attack, and hit him hard on his chest with the back of my hand. He slides back half a step and looks at me cautiously.
“I don’t wanna have to fight you,” I warn. “Don’t make me.”
“Young Master, ‘a wise man submits to circumstances’. Don’t push it.”
I brace myself as I shift into a fighting stance. “Then I’ll be a foolish man today.”
Flames start flickering and sporadic footsteps echo from beyond the door. Both he and I are startled. He picks his feet up and springs into the darkness. In that moment, all the figures disappear without a trace.
The footsteps stop outside the door. One person runs up the steps facing me, the blazing flames behind him cloaking his face, the voice very familiar.
“The empress dowager summons Han Xin to the royal palace!”
Front of the manors of lords. Note the placard above the gates.
Dairytea's comment:What'll happen next?! Ah~ the suspense! Until next time. > 3 <
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.