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Cold Sands ch23
And the plot thickens...
The tension in the court is at an all-time high.
I lean to the side of the throne and squint at the scene below me.
A young soldier plastered with blood is kneeling in the middle of the hall, quivering with his head on the floor.
The celebrations haven’t yet ended in the capital when songs of bereavement have started ringing throughout the frontiers.
Just last night, Lupine Blood Mounts suddenly appeared to the west of South Hill Pass. Thirty thousand Yan cavalry came like a sandstorm and washed the Rui camp away.
Yuwen Yuan was personally leading the forceful attack and clashed swords with General Zhou Zhenluan and the troops defending the west route throughout the whole night all the way until the fourth watch the following morning. By the time dawn broke, the blood was flowing in rivers and the corpses piled into mountains.
At the fifth watch, the Yan broke through the Rui base camp and General Zhou died in battle for the country.
Over half of the forty thousand men defending the west route were slain and the ones who wouldn’t surrender were buried alive.
Once the west route was left unguarded, the County of Ning Yuan laid completely naked before the Yan troops. Immediately, they entered Ning Yuan and wreaked havoc: stealing property, committing arson, slaying any commoner that showed the tiniest amount of defiance. The once prosperous border county has become a living hell overnight.
South Hill Pass lays fully exposed to the Yan. Great Rui is cornered.
The Yan proclaimed that they shall flatten the Rui capital, ride into the Middle Plains and cleanse Great Rui with blood within ten days.
Out of forty thousand men, only this Captain of Yu Wu here in the court escaped from the underworld, racing down south overnight to report back to the capital.
He didn’t even change out of his bloody armour before walking straight to Tai Qing Palace and retelling the atrocities of the Yan army. The strapping young man weeps as he spits with venom.
There is not one official who is not lamenting. The elderly Marquis Jiang falls to the floor and starts to wail in the court to the point of fainting. The other officials all fall to their knees, crying, imploring to save our nation’s pride.
I shut my eyes tightly to restrain myself.
General Zhou—an image of the bearded dauntless and valiant warrior flashes through my mind.
The captain abruptly kowtows and urges, “Your Majesty, General Zhou sacrificed his life for the country; forty thousand men died out there; our people are being terrorized. Are we to stand by and take this shame?!”
Everyone kowtows and the hall fills with sorrow. Pei Yuan’s father crawls forth and pleads. “Our country is in danger now and we are on the brink of collapsing. Now that it is a life-or-death situation, I beseech not to defend our walls but to fight to the death!”
I open my eyes and glance at what lies before me.
The country is in danger. We are on the brink of collapsing. It is definitely a life-or-death situation.
As I’m about to speak, the empress dowager starts uttering, “General Pei, you are of military background. Certainly you know that a battle is not fought with words alone.”
I pull a small smile and glimpse back towards her. “It appears that You have a plan in mind, Your Graciousness.”
Behind my gold throne decorated with dragons is a thin yellow veil and a curtain of fancy beads. The empress dowager’s figure vaguely shows through.
She speaks again. “You have only just taken the throne, Your Majesty. Military decisions are not to be made so hastily.”
I fall silent.
I could not do anything even if I wanted to in this situation. I’ve only just ascended and I don’t have enough support. I’m just a puppet who happens to be holding the imperial seal. Any decree still has to have the empress dowager’s seal to be effective.
I’ve had enough of this kind of life—and I’ve only done this for one day!
Unknowingly, I’ve been balling up my fists and it’s stinging with pain. I wince before changing to a respectful expression. “So from what You are saying, we should just take the disgrace of defeat lying down?”
“Your Majesty, General Zhou died for our country. Such glorious deeds should be announced to the world. Also, the soldiers who sacrificed themselves should be compensated. That is the most important as of now,” she explains steadily. “As for the military, You might have a history in the army, but,” she pauses on purpose, “it would be best not to push it.”
I feel rage burning within but I do my best to restrain myself. “Then what are Your thoughts on our next steps?” I squeeze through clipped lips.
“Oh, but I am just a woman. It would be wise to ask Your subjects, Your Majesty.”
I let out a silent scoff and look back to my subjects in the hall. They all have their heads up but their eyes are jumpy. From where I sit, I see them in neat rows but there is no liveliness at all—they all look exhausted. I’m somewhat upset: at this critical time for our country, how could they be this lethargic as the backbones of the government. It cannot go on like this!
As I scan across the rows of people, many lower their heads accordingly. The eyes of many high-ranking officials and nobility stray off elsewhere. In the end, I stop at one person. I clear my throat several times. “Marshal Heng, as the Marshal of Fu Guo, what are your thoughts on the war?”
Hearing this, Heng Ziyu steps forward and gets on his knees dutifully. “In reply to Your Majesty, I will serve the country in whatever way Your Majesty sees fit,” he responds calmly.
That stuffs everything I had back down my throat.
Every decree, no matter trivial or important, has to be approved by the empress dowager and be stamped with her seal. What Heng Ziyu just did was passing the buck to me.
“And the rest of you?” I try not to sound enraged.
Silence takes over the hall in an instant, so much so that I can almost hear their hurried breaths. Inhale. Exhale. It’s so quiet that time almost seems to freeze solid. Finally, Xie Yun shuffles forth and kneels down after glancing around.
Although I already know what he wants to say, I still ask, “Yes, Minister Xie?”
He kowtows before proceeding. “Your Majesty, the court sky-gazer has studied the stars and referenced the books. He has discovered that the skies to the north of our court have lost their auspice. The only way to preserve our state is to relocate to the south.”
After he finishes, it’s so quiet I could hear a pin drop. I glare at him out of the corner of my eye, not speaking.
To think he would actually say that out loud.
As for the others’ reactions, it was only expected. South Hill Pass isn’t going to hold for much longer; the Yan are about to break into the capital. There is nothing on the agenda and everyone is on the edge of their seats. At times like this, the best option would be to run away.
I sigh in my mind. I suppose I can’t blame them. It’s only natural for humans to fear death and they’re not only worried for their own lives but also for their families, from the elders to the children, and their future.
My guess is that they think the capital is going to fall without a doubt and if we don’t relocate then the end result may very well be destruction. If we do relocate, they still get their positions and their salary, even if half of the kingdom would be lost.
I’m still regarding them with a cold look.
I think back to how anguished they were just now, how they wanted to fight. I wonder how many of these proper-looking subjects are all packed up and ready to go, and are just waiting for the royal decree for relocation.
The more I delve into it, the more pathetically funny it becomes.
Was I being too hopeful in thinking I could stop a tidal wave with nothing but my own power?
And how many are watching me now, the emperor, to see whether I would relocate in fear or defend our land?
I cover my mouth and cough before questioning, “I would like to see how many support the relocation.”
Everyone raises their head at my words. Xie Yun looks shocked for a moment. Uncle looks at me fixedly as if he doesn’t recognize me.
I flash a soft smile. “We are all currently agitated, so we should not be hasty to decide. I shall discuss it further with the empress dowager and make a decision then.”
All the officials lower their heads once more, looking left and right and whispering to their neighbours.
I nod to the blue-ranked attendant beside me and he takes several steps down, calling out in a dragged-out voice. “Dismissed!”
No one makes another sound. I get up and leave.
Soon after, two decrees are made and announced in the capital.
One: Styling General Zhou as Marquis Wu Wei and giving him a duke’s burial.
Two: Promoting each soldier who died in battle by three ranks and compensating a substantial amount of gold to his family.
I’m standing on a high tower watching mourning soldiers in white carry a coffin into the capital. A single, long file of depressing white snakes through the city. The young warriors are not crying but their eyes are red and swollen. A gust of wind whistles past, making the funeral banner flap.
Actually, I should see General Zhou off even though he was never nice to me and he even gave me the stick once when I was under his command. Now, however, I can no longer do such a thing.
“Your Majesty?” A blue-ranked attendant steps forth cautiously. “It is quite windy here. Perhaps it would be best to return to the palace?”
I inquire as though I haven’t heard him, “Has Liao Tianyi arrived yet?” The attendant answers that he is waiting in Qian Yuan Hall. I take one last look before leaving.
I enter Qian Yuan Hall to see Master Liao kneeling properly on the ground. He quickly bows down when he catches sight of me. I stare at him from the center seat.
When I finally had time to go over all the little things that happened in twenty years, I realised Master Liao had always been a part of everything. When I first went to the mansion after losing my memory, he was a private tutor of the household. When I was imprisoned in enemy territory, he used his martial skills to come remind me not to lose myself; and everything he has done and said since coming back to the capital is very meaningful.
He is still kneeling, unflustered. He sure got all the formalities down.
I finally break the silence. “Just who are you, Liao Tianyi?!”
His shoulders quiver but he quickly regains his composure. “As You can see Your Majesty, I am but a private tutor working in Minister Han’s household.”
I chuckle and walk down from my throne, stopping in front of him. “Spare me the lies, Master. You’ve been waiting for this day for more than a decade, haven’t you?”
Hearing this, he raises his head. He doesn’t look one bit shocked, instead he’s grinning. “Precisely, Your Majesty.”
I look down and chuckle at myself. He kowtows again when I look back up and speaks in a voice so quiet I can barely hear. “I was once a secret strategist for Duke Zhao Rui. I changed my name and identity and took care of the duke’s son after His Lordship’s defeat.”
‘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. There isn’t anything in the world you can’t get over.’
I hear the words of comfort that he once said to me. I see. I see, now, what his despair had been and what his important mission was. I look at him, a bit lost, like I’m meeting him for the first time.
I just feel tired all of a sudden. Too tired to even vocalize the words on the tip of my tongue. For twelve years I’ve been the idiot who wasn’t aware of anything.
“Oh, is that so.” I plop onto the ground and look at him. “You didn’t go to Feng Hai just to visit family either.”
The County of Feng Hai in the north was once the enfeoffment of Duke Zhao Rui. More than seven-tenth of Great Rui’s military manpower comes from there. The county experienced a great amount of trauma following the duke’s defeat and the most direct result was the weakening of the army. There are rumours amongst the commoners that although the duke has died, a portion of his forces still remain and may even be on the rise. The court has sent people to deal with it but they never saw any results.
“Your Majesty, His Lordship may have left but there are still men who are willing to die for the duke.” Master Liao’s eyes shine with excitement. “In the capital as well-”
“Save it.” I cut him off with a raised arm. “We can talk about that later. I…” I freeze. I used the normal ‘I’ when I had been all proper and said ‘I’ in the court. Then I burst out laughing—I guess I’m not a proper emperor after all.
I shake my head as I guffaw. When I finally get myself to stop, Master Liao has a gentle smile on his face, as though he has turned back into that kind and affectionate tutor again.
We sit down face to face and I ask for his advice like I usually do.
“Do You know what the most important thing currently is, Your Majesty?”
I fidget with my clothes. “Of course I do. I only have the title of an emperor. The empress dowager still has the control of the court, only now she’s moved away from centre stage.” Master Liao purses his lips. I flash a lazy smile. “Don’t give me that look. I wanna build up my own power, too, but where could I possibly start?”
He draws his slender fingers across the table, smiling slyly. “Secret forces aside, You still have plenty at hand ready to utilize.”
He dabs some tea and writes out one word as I watch his finger fixedly. Then I look up to clash with his meaningful gaze. “He might have been an onlooker all this time but his right-hand man, Xu Zheng, and twenty thousand of his men are still at South Hill Pass. He would not just leave them behind.”
It’s as if a spark has been lit in my brain. I listen on. “However, he is a very cautious man, very wary of others. You must tread extra carefully not to let him get the upper hand.”
I nod, agreeing, “Xie Yun is for the relocation and although the empress dowager hasn’t made her standpoint clear, she’s basically consented to it. She only hasn’t voiced it in fear of gossip.”
Master Liao watches me steadily. “And what does Your Majesty plan to do about it?”
I let out a deep breath. “We cannot relocate. If we do, the army will fall like dominoes and Great Rui will really be dead as a doornail.”
He starts laughing. “I think you’re the only emperor to ever say ‘dead as a doornail.’” He then changes to a solemn expression. “What You must know is that everything behind anything is all because of just one person.”
The flame jump a little, its light not reaching far into the hall.
Seeing his face, instantly, I understand.
That person is the empress dowager.
Her people are everywhere, whether it’s the capital, the court, the palace or even the army. Xie Yun administers the military, Uncle handles the bureaucracy and the empress dowager herself controls the palace and the affluent families. No matter how you look at it, the power still ends up in her hands.
That’s right. If I wanted to retrieve the power, she would be the first person I need to dispose of.
Wind swirls and whirls about the limpid night sky. I’m standing by the white balustrade, staring out into the darkness. Liu An beside me here is looking around anxiously. He asks me with his head tucked in, “Your Majesty, do You really think Marshal Heng would come?”
I reach for the cold balustrade. “He will.”
Liu An used to be Emperor Wen’s personal eunuch. According to tradition, the original servants and concubines must go to the royal hills and mourn after the emperor passes away, never to return to the palace for the rest of their lives. I had just ascended the throne so I didn’t have any personal attendants. I didn’t want anyone working for the empress dowager near me either, so I spared Liu An from the mourning and made him stay to serve me at Tai Qing Palace.
Just for that, this twenty-five, twenty-six year old eunuch is dead loyal to me.
A person who once served Emperor Wen is at least safer than someone the empress dowager assigns for me.
Just as I finish speaking, Liu An reports quietly but delightedly, “He has come, Your Majesty.”
Heng Ziyu sweeps up the steps dressed in casual apparel. Stopping two steps away from me, he bows and kneels down. “Your subject, Heng Ziyu, reporting to Your Majesty’s summon.”
I dismiss Liu An and say to Heng Ziyu, “Please rise, Marshal Heng.”
He does as instructed and regards me after standing up. “May I ask why Your Majesty has summoned me to the palace at this late hour?”
I chuckle and stroll along the balustrade. He trails quietly behind me. “Nothing in particular. I merely wanted to share this beautiful view of the moon with you, Marshal.”
He lowers his head, shadows burying his face, as though he’s brooding about something.
I glimpse at him, apparently carelessly. “You seem to have something on your mind. Why don’t you share it with me?”
He looks up sternly with furrowed brows. “Indeed, there is but surely Your Majesty is already well aware of it.”
I turn my head back. “If it is about General Xu being cornered, then yes, I am.” I take a few more steps and sigh, “The situation at South Hill Pass is truly disquieting.”
He catches up to me and walks along beside me. I glance over to see his grim expression. “It is difficult to decide whether to retreat or fight and the men at the front lines are restless as well,” he confesses.
“Oh, so you have heard from General Xu?”
He doesn’t respond and looks off elsewhere. I laugh, “Marshal Heng, I thought you would have known where I stand by now.”
He remains quiet while watching me.
I stand facing the deserted square and say after a long silence. “Forgive me when I say this, but many of the officials are leaning towards relocating, and if that were to be the case, then the tens of thousands of soldiers out there would become their human shield. Sentimentally or logically, I do not think you would want your own men to die for that.”
His face becomes even darker. He keeps his eyes on me and his lips quiver a bit.
He’s been in the army for many years and hasn’t forgotten about his fellow brothers even through his constant promotions. Not only does he try to promote them, he does his best to compensate the families of the deceased soldiers. From these points, he can be considered a compassionate man.
He cracks a smile that has a hint of self-mockery. “When I first joined the army, I had only wanted to have enough to eat. Who would have known all the fighting would lead to this. Most of the brothers who joined the army with me have been lost on the battlefield. As for the remaining brothers, I know very well who they are myself.”
“Furthermore,” I glance out of the corner of my eye with a smile. “I remember that you had once pledged when you were promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of You Ji that you would preserve peace for the people.”
A shred of bitterness seeps through but he recovers the smile right after.
“After the wars in those years, I had nowhere to go but the army. I was lucky enough that I escaped death but I saw more and more of the people’s suffering.” Then he heaves a deep sigh. “There was a one-in-a-million-year drought. The farmland suffered and the people lost their homes. The officials at all levels committed fraud and kept the funds for provisions rather than providing relief to the masses. I came from a petty background and can sincerely relate to the commoner’s pain.”
“If we do relocate, the people would only face a massacre by the Yan army,” I add. “Then it would not simply be the County of Ning Yuan—it would be the entire northern territories, I’m afraid—that would be wet with rivers of blood and covered with mountains of corpses. No one wants to see that happen.”
I pull a thin smile as I continue, “The elite all say that the martial class are all bloodthirsty and battle-crazed. They could never imagine the pains of seeing the blood of the people. I am afraid all they see are lifeless numbers on a memorial.”
Heng Ziyu lowers his head, hiding his eyes in the night. I sigh and inquire, “Do you think I am just saying it for the sake of saying it? Do not overlook the fact that I was in the military, too.”
It becomes so silent, as if nothing was alive, so quiet that all I can hear is the groaning wind.
Then, finally, he looks back up. He frowns for a moment before his usual smile returns. “So, Your Majesty has said all that to ask me to come forth in court to support the fight against the Yan?”
I turn to face him, shaking my head. “No.”
The smile disappears and seems to be replaced by puzzlement. “Then what might it be?” he finally questions.
“From now on, I just want you to give orders for your forces to defend South Hill Pass to the death. Also,” I look straight at him. “I ask that you continue being an onlooker in the court.”
I spot confusion in his eyes but the night quickly enshrouds it and the typical calmness and ambiguity come back. “How are You so certain that I would agree to that?”
I fall quiet for a moment before pulling a thin smile. “Allow me to propose this, Marshal. If we relocate, once they get to the south, not only will they upset the people’s lives, they will bring the war with them to the south. Your enfeoffment is in the south—I doubt you want to see your people suffering.”
Icy glints flash across his eyes but he remains silent.
“Also, no matter if we fight or not, you are already a warlord who defies the court in their eyes. You are still of use now, but once they have no use for you, they are going to dispose of you. Those bureaucrats are experts at internal fighting. I am sure you are well aware of that.”
The bottom of his eyes is mysteriously dark and gives me a chilly feeling.
Using all my effort to maintain my usual tone, I turn and stroll forward. “I am an army man. I ask that you excuse my straightforward words.”
His deep voice is extra clear in the still night. I stop walking and turn to face him. His smiling eyes are glued on me. “Your Majesty, are You striking a deal with me?”
I chuckle. “What does it matter whether I am or not? We both get what we want—the best of both worlds.”
He studies me with those icy orbs and the next moment he’s only half a step away from me.
“I recall You still being a Golden Guardian only several days ago.”
Defiantly, I look right back at him, fearless and far more composed than I once was. “Given the situation at hand, I must take the saying, ‘where there is life there is hope,’ into heart.”
He chortles before slowly drawing near. “Does Your Majesty know what it is that I desire?” he quizzes sternly.
I falter the slightest before laughing it away. “You desire none other than to overlook the royal city from the top of the Tai Qing Palace, of course.”
He sniggers and suddenly grabs onto my shoulder. “And You are certain You can give me that?”
“Since you remember that I was once a Golden Guardian,” I sigh as I regard him with a thin smile. “Surely, you remember what I had said then.”
The smirk freezes on his lips as he seems to be distracted for a moment. He then squints at me, scrutinizing me with a heated gaze, as though he was trying to recall or determine the reliability of my words.
Under his stare, I start to feel the temperature drop around me as if the cold night has sneaked through my clothes.
Gradually, he tightens his grip and his nails dig into the fabric and then my skin, bringing incredible pain.
Ignoring the panic that has built up within me, I glare back at him without a word.
I don’t believe he has the guts to commit regicide!
Seeing my reaction, he bursts out in booming laughter and then comes in close to whisper near my ear, “I still stand by my original judgement: You’re…very interesting.”
His hot breath hits my skin and makes me shudder. Quickly, I pivot to evade it but I trip and fall backwards. Unexpectedly, he lunges forward and holds me by the waist.
I gasp in surprise: no matter what, I am the ruler and he the subject and this is most definitely a major offense. He, however, looks completely normal as though he was not doing anything wrong. He waits until I catch my footing, staring at me the whole time with a smirk that is no longer cold. The next thing I know, he has let go of me and is several steps away near the edge of the steps.
I pant as I hold his intense gaze.
“I am very interested in this deal, Your Majesty, but there is something else that interests me even more.”
With that said he walks down the steps and his poised outline fades into the darkness. Only when it has gone from my sight do I feel the moisture on my back that has soaked through my undershirt.
Liu An shoots out from the side and quietly probes, “Your Majesty?”
I do my best to relax and then wave at him. “It’s fine. I wish to rest.”
An array of thoughts throngs my mind on the way back and occasionally Heng Ziyu’s meaningful smile would flash by.
On the other hand, Liu An seems to be uneasy and shifty. As he is preparing me for bed, it looks like he wants to tell me something. I frown, asking him, “What is wrong with you?”
He quickly shakes his head, his face all scrunched up. I don’t bother with him anymore and head to bed.
As I walk around the nine dragons jade screen, I come to understand why Liu An had a scrunched up face—two young, fair women with exquisite features are sitting on the Emperor’s bed, wearing nothing but thin, translucent robes that barely hide their figure. They look a bit shy and bashful and even jump a little in their seats when they see me walk in. Immediately after, they bow their heads in a panic but their eyes wander coyly to me before flicking away again.
Are you serious? This joke has gone too far!
I swerve back around the screen and see that Liu An hasn’t left yet. I seize him by the collar. He pales and stutters, “Your Majesty, the empress dowager sent them over so….”
I freeze and feel my throat constricting, preventing any speech.
Unquestionably, the empress dowager sent these women over to continue the royal bloodline and legacy, although it’s also possible that she has other motives.
I finally fling Liu An away after thinking it over. “Get them out of my sight!”
He rushes inside with his body bowed and soon the two women walk out, looking quite dismayed as they bow to me.
“I am too fatigued tonight. You are dismissed.”
Liu An shuffles out quickly with them and gently closes the doors. Only then do I let out a deep breath and sprawl out on the Emperor’s bed.
Goddamn this is tiring.
This job isn’t for every—no—anyone.
I reach over for the silk blanket and wrap myself in it. I close my eyes.
The coolness of the silk seeps into my clothes and my skin. A cold draft blows in from somewhere, whisking the canopy up into the air, casting looming shadows.
The Emperor’s bed is so big and so cold.
I just want to go to sleep now and never wake up again.
ayszhang: Seems like Han Xin is still being constrained by the many forces around him... ┑(￣Д ￣)┍
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.