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Cold Sands ch26
And the bloodshed continues...w(ﾟДﾟ)w
Xie Yun was immediately put to death before the palace gates and his head has been hung up for all to see.
The entire Xie household of more than one hundred and fifty had been sent to prison and were later sentenced to exile to the southern borders, never to leave. All personnel who had supported the relocation were sentenced to death and those related to them had been exiled or degraded. After such an ordeal, all who advocated the relocation have been cleared as though a thunderstorm has blown through the court, completely cleansing it.
Here in the gloomy inner hall of Tai Qing Palace, I am sitting at a table in silence.
The cries of the Xie family are still resonating in my ears. The sharp blades came down and blood flew out with the bloodcurdling metallic flashes—the high and mighty elite had become lifeless bodies in the blink of an eye. For a split second, I think I see the blood spreading across the ground, washing past the palace gates and steps, even submerging the palace.
’Tis the life of every king.
I close my eyes.
Every deadly struggle for the throne, every battle to the death for power ends with the shedding of the blood of the defeated. Those who have lost their lives would eventually become dust, buried beneath the heavenly glory of this palace.
Every time I advance, every time I prevail, my hands will be stained with more blood, my sword will end more lives and my feet will trample over more bodies. I can no longer point fingers at the empress dowager. My hands are no longer pure and are even more defiled than hers.
The victor has always been the king and the loser the sinner. There are always those who fall and those who rise in the power game. At this moment now, I am at the height of the royal palace, looking down upon all those beneath me, while the dead will remain eternally buried in the underworld.
I come to realise that…I seem to have changed. A part of my heart has slowly become tough and cold, and not even bloodshed can make me feel sympathy anymore.
Is this what being an emperor means?
I turn slightly, my gaze falling on the sword holder by the desk. The Sword of Ding Guang—it is said that Emperor Rui Shun wielded Ding Guang in his hands and resolutely usurped the throne, murdering the royal family of the previous dynasty, establishing the court that governs the vast land of Great Rui. Since then, Ding Guang has been hung in Tai Qing Palace to symbolise the protection from the spirit of Emperor Shun of his sons and descendants and of the continuation of the Rui Dynasty.
I spring up from my seat and take the sword from its holder. I bluntly break off the black silk cover and pull the blade out of its sheath, a glaring light dancing off of it.
The emperors of Rui were learned scholars and the ancient sword had been abandoned in its shrine in the confines of the palace, locked away for more than a century. Yet today it has been brought back, sharper than ever.
I pick up the wine vessel on the table and splash the cool liquid on the metal. A rich aroma quickly wafts through the building as the wine drips down the sword tip. I drag the weapon behind me as I slowly walk towards the doors, the tip sparking little bright dots against the ground.
The doors swing open at once. The Golden Guardians bow down beside me. All the officials of the court are at the bottom of the steps.
I take my spot at the top and lift my arm, pointing the blade to the sky. The sun shines down on the blade and reflects off as a shimmering ray. I smile proudly as I watch them from above, steadily announcing:
“I shall personally slay anyone else who supports the relocation, anyone else who does not fight, with the sword of Emperor Shun!”
The entire palace falls silent like death. I take a quick glimpse at Uncle kneeling properly and looking down. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. However, for just a moment, I see his expression freeze before he closes his eyes tightly in pain. Heng Ziyu’s head is slightly raised and his keen eyes linger on me.
“Mark my words!” I roar.
Everyone bows down and touches their foreheads to the ground.
Escaping would mean losing half the country while fighting might mean total destruction.
I’m trying to tell them that the sons of Lin do not fear death. Even if we are to die, we will let those Yan know that we can never be conquered!
The scarlet sun has already sunk to the west and its slanted rays cover the doorstep. There’s no wind making my long, black robe flutter. The soft light draws my shadow out into a long arc. I rest my head on my right hand, frowning as I flip through the mountainous pile of memorials.
I start feeling a bit chilly. I suppose October is late autumn already but I insisted on reading memorials out at the Liu Yun Pavilion outside Tai Qing palace. It’s not that I am in the mood for sky-gazing or like viewing flowers, but it’s just too cold inside. Even if the fire was lit, I would still feel cold to no end.
Once Xie Yun died, all the personnel behind the army funding corruption case were exposed and over a dozen officials have been executed. The Minister of Revenue had been deposed and the bright-eyed official has taken charge of the ministry. And Uncle…
My head hurts when I think about him.
Uncle’s crime could be very serious. I could very well use my power to overrule it but…
Being stuck in the middle really sucks.
Master Liao walks in. I glance over at him after he performs the rituals. “How were things today?”
He nods, replying, “The Ministry of Revenue has put out a part of the grains in the state reserves for sale and the market value immediately dropped. The wealthy who had been holding onto their stocks followed suit and the price plummeted. Many of them have gone bankrupt.”
I nod as I sit up straight. “Excellent. I hope they have learnt their lesson.”
“There have been more and more refugees coming from the northern counties. Fortunately we have set up the aid and relief offices, but it is not a long-term solution.”
Exhausted, I sigh, “The capital means life for them. I cannot just strip them of their only hope, can I?”
“Of course not,” Master Liao’s gaze is as heavy as my sigh. “But the capital cannot support much more. If things take a turn for the worst…”
“All right, I get it.” I shoo him away. “I really will look for solutions.”
He looks down again and hesitates for a long time. “Your Majesty, the Eidolons reported that there have been people asking around the red light district and markets for someone.”
I’ve turned back around to face those frustrating memorials. Goddamn. Why can’t they just write bigger? Would it kill them to do so?
“Why are you getting worked up for just one person?” I ask impatiently.
“But You do not know who it is, do You?”
“I don’t need you to tell me that the person must be of importance for people to be putting in that much effort to search for.”
“They were asking around for Minister Han’s nephew.”
My hand falters and the brush shakes. A fat drop of ink falls on the snowy paper and quickly spreads out into a cloud.
I shift uneasily in my seat and face the other side so he doesn’t see me.
“Did you see…” I pause. “Did you see who they were?”
“Deep set eyes, tall nose bridges, large build: probably not Rui.”
I take a deep breath to soothe the tidal wave of emotions raging within, trying to sound normal. “How many were there, roughly?”
“A few more than ten.”
I do not speak. It is Master Liao who breaks the silence at last. “Your Majesty, do you want to…?”
I close my eyes; they’re feeling slightly sore.
“I suspect they are Yan spies. Your Majesty ascended the throne under the identity of the eldest son of Duke Zhao Rui. The commoners in those places do not know of your previous identity; please rest assured. But even so, we should not run the risk. I implore You to give the orders to end them once and for all.”
The turbulence in my heart has circulated a million times over and I feel so painful but I can’t show any of it. I try to ignore the dryness of my throat and reply, “Do as you see fit…”
“But spare one and bring him to me. I…I have some questions.”
“Your Majesty.” His expression darkens. “I do not know why but I humbly advise you not to be soft–.”
“Get out!” I grab a memorial and hurl it behind me. I hear hurried footsteps slowly fading away. I feel powerless, my body falling limp all of a sudden.
Quickly, I lower my head and cover my face to hold in my pain. The tears in my eyes seem to have slowly welled up from the bottom of my heart and the bitter sorrow gushes towards me, almost drowning everything. A heartrending melancholy rises, slowly eating away the illusion of strength I’ve created for myself. I can no longer hold back the thick layer of watery fog that has lined my eyes and they come tumbling out.
Is it him? Murong Yu…is it really?
I haven’t the courage to think of him these days. Not one bit. I could only smother the longing for him deep within my heart, too scared to touch it, too scared to look back.
Since I ascended the throne—punishment, reward, sabotaging the empress dowager, overturning the court—it’s been one thing after another. All-night meetings, officials rushing in and out, highly stressful situations; he hasn’t been on my mind at all. Or maybe, using work, using memorials, I’ve been forcing myself to not have a moment of rest to think about him. Because if I so much as let my guard down for a split second, the longing would start running free like a never ending river.
I bite on my lips as I think of his face, tears rolling down one drop at a time.
Perhaps he already knows that a new emperor has taken the throne, and maybe he’s even making an ambitious plan to force Great Rui into surrendering. Perhaps he does not know that that person is me. There is no way someone could go from a low-ranking general to the almighty emperor.
Is our confrontation inevitable?
The person I love the most has become my enemy. Is this the irony destiny had planned for us?
Is he only carelessly exposing his target to search for my whereabouts because there will soon be a deathly battle?
A tear drops onto the spotless table, threatening to break loose if it moved the slightest.
I clutch a memorial with a death grip, holding it so hard that my knuckles turn white and the memorial becomes a ball.
I don’t know how long I can hold this country together for. I wonder what it will be like to be at sword’s point with him.
I had once said that I didn’t want fame or power and that I wanted to live a free life, but instead I was forced to ascend to the highest position that oversees the entire country. He is going to see it as nothing but lies and betrayal.
His figure slowly appears before my eyes. It’s clearly within reach but it seems unreachable. His expression is reserved and his eyes cold, as if accusing me of lying and betrayal.
In an instant, I realise that he…
He is the happiness I used to have. The warmth I used to have. Even if I had to abandon everything, including my power and my life, I wouldn’t want to lose what I once had.
What should I choose?
Why am I still forced to make such harrowing decisions?
Are you telling me that emperors cannot have heated passion and can only stay in their icy cold palace, high above others, and be lonely old men?
I miss him. I can’t even help it. I miss his smile, his arms that held me, his warm embrace, his desirous panting…
The faint words stop by my lips before they get a chance to be heard.
I can’t say his name. I can’t miss him. All because…because I am the master of this realm, Great Rui, and he is the enemy I am going to face.
Destiny—I hate my destiny.
In this world, I’ve been abandoned by my parents, yet I believe he… I believe he was true to me.
If I could choose again, I would never leave him.
But the problem is that there is no fix for regret in this world.
Murong Yu, tell me. What are we going to do?
Can we not meet on the battlefield?
I hear footsteps approaching but I don’t look up. I feel a burst of anger.
“Get out! I don’t care who you are.”
A dark shadow is cast on the ground and elongated by the lanterns. It stops for a mere moment before slowly drawing near.
“I said. Get–!”
“I didn’t come to the palace to get yelled at by Your Majesty.”
Immediately, I lift up my head. Heng Ziyu is bent over, picking up the memorial from the ground. I take this chance to quickly wipe the tears off with my sleeves.
He straightens his posture and walks over. “Your Majesty?”
I turn away from his questioning eyes. “Sit, Marshal.”
He sits down leisurely, placing the memorial on the table while studying my face. I catch a hint of suspicion. I close my eyes and say, “Let us get down to business.”
He doesn’t respond and instead asks after a long pause, “What happened to Your eyes?”
I act as if I have not heard him and unfold the military map on the table. “Better sooner than later. I would like to discuss defensive strategies.” I push it towards him. “I would like to hear Your thoughts.”
I can be miserable but now is not the time. I always feel like he can see right through me.
His expression becomes normal after a short disturbance. “Ning Yuan has fallen and South Hill Pass does not look promising. Xu Zheng might be guarding it with all he has got but being surrounded by enemies does not allow for optimism.”
I raise a brow. “Please continue.”
Calmly, he traces a line from South Hill Pass to the capital with his finger. “Here are six hundred li of flatland. Once the Yan break through the pass, not only are the lives of the soldiers guarding the pass in danger, their cavalry will also be able to cut right into the soft bellies of the Central Plains, and the capital will be the first to come under attack.”
I pause with my finger on the map. “There are nearly one hundred thousand troops around the capital plus the thirty thousand of Your men on the road, that’s a total of one hundred thirty thousand. The Yan have one hundred thousand…”
He waves his hands in dismissal. “Your Majesty, we might have an advantage by numbers but six-tenths of them are footmen and this is a disadvantage for us.”
“That I know,” I sigh. “Footmen could not possibly compare to cavalry. Furthermore…”
“Furthermore,” he continues, “the Yan cavalry have exceptional attack power. One of them would equal ten of ours, hands down.”
I stare at him. “It sounds like You already have plans in mind.”
“Does Your Majesty really plan to defend the capital to the death?” He stares back at me with a smile.
“Why else would I kill so many people?” I retort through clipped lips.
He chuckles before asking seriously. “Is Your Majesty still willing to defend the capital if the price of doing so is too big?”
“No matter the price, as long as we can secure the capital—secure the north—any price is worthwhile.”
He cracks a chilling smile. “Did You know that the phoenix burns itself in order to be reborn from its ashes?”
“You mean…?” My body seems to have snapped to attention.
He stabs at the capital with his finger. “Pull all troops from South Hill Pass back to the capital. Completely surrender the pass!” His eyes darken. “We retreat back into the capital and put all troops into defending it. The capital has stood strong for more than two centuries. Its walls are high and solid, and its moat deep. It has been specially designed to withstand water and fire and we do not fear a depletion of food or water. We will be able to hold our own solely on these points!”
Our eyes meet in a heated deliberation.
Give up South Hill Pass, retreat fully back to the capital—I had said this to Uncle as well.
“This is a dangerous move. If our troops do not retreat swiftly enough, it is likely they will get intercepted and devoured by the Yan, in turn jeopardising the capital. However, the price would be even more if we continued to guard the pass!”
Our gazes reach each other’s heart and it becomes clear.
Abandon the extra weight and invest everything to be reborn from the ashes.
“There will be some losses if we do this.” I look at him solemnly.
He nods. “Naturally. But there is nothing we can do. We must give some to gain some.”
The limpid moonshine from outside the pavilion casts onto his gallant face, covering his chiseled features with a frosty layer. The Heng Ziyu before me seems to have completely changed. He’s no longer sulky and speechless like he is in court, nor is he suggestive and provocative like he is in private. Instead, he lets off an awesome air, once again the Marshal of Fu Guo who had trekked across blade and blood, marched across the realm with a sword in hand and embarked on the path to power.
I shudder as I watch him, words momentarily failing me.
“Your Majesty.” He looks up, his eyes emotionless. “What are You going to do if we still are not able to protect the capital?”
“I will burn the bridges and fight them with my life,” I look straight at him and steadily reply. “Once the walls fall, I will light the city on fire so the Yan will drown in blood trying to capture it. Our troops, royalty, officials, our old and weak, our women, and children shall all die with the enemy!”
He reaches out nimbly and holds my fingers. “Even if it’s Armageddon, my sword and I shall accompany You through it!”
Immediately, the Ministry of Defense issues an order for the troops in the northern frontiers to retreat to the capital at once and set up defenses as soon as possible. Any who defy shall be decapitated. The thirty thousand men heading up from the south must speed up their pace and not make any delays whatsoever, while the twenty thousand at South Hill Pass retreat in groups.
The October wind brings chills as I stand at the top of the city walls. I pull my clothes tighter around myself and watch the dead leaves dance in the autumn breeze.
Life is so fragile, fading away like smoke in the blink of an eye.
“You’re probably feeling sorrow for the advent of a new season again, aren’t You?” Heng Ziyu chuckles beside me.
I look to him and scoff. “There is no way I would be like those sentimental poets. I was a soldier after all.”
“Your Majesty was once a Golden Guardian, all right, but have You been on the battlefield?”
I turn my gaze to the distance where the vast land lies. “Have You heard of the three thousand men who never returned from Lan An?”
“That…” He falters. “Yes, I have. General Zhou was forced to dispatch the three thousand men on a rescue mission but all three thousand perished.”
I close my eyes and the bloody scenes reappear.
“I was one of the three thousand.”
Doubt flashes in his eyes. I look down, laughing, “Really, I was just lucky.”
Without waiting for his reply, I stroll towards the white steps, my clothes flapping in the autumn wind. Liu An comes running to me and kneels down.
“Reporting to Your Majesty, Duchess Yu Qing, along with Mu De the Eldest, are waiting in the front hall.”
I nod and descend the steps. Carelessly, I catch a glance of Heng Ziyu looking at me with a tense expression, the surprise having not yet faded. I pull a thin smile and look straight ahead.
Following the death of Xie Yun, his assets and all the funding that he embezzled in the past have been moved to the state reserves. The Minister of Revenue and Uncle have both given up their wealth for redemption. Consequently, other officials and wealthy families followed suit and emptied their pockets. All of a sudden, the state reserves is overflowing with so much money, I’m not sure if I should be happy or disappointed, but at least this way, there will be enough to support the aid and relief office.
The nobles and officials have shut up for good.
Only the empress dowager remains as a problem.
As I enter the hall, I see the duchess holding a small infant in her arms, head lowered to make him laugh. The fair child is giggling, completely oblivious to the tempest that is approaching. My footsteps startle the duchess and she tries to get up to perform the rituals but I stop her with a wave. “Save it. Let us skip to the talk.”
She sits down tentatively. I smile at her, saying, “Let me see the Eldest.”
She gets up and passes the infant to me. I take him into my arms after a short moment of hesitation and carefully study him. He has a neat, handsome face. Babbling sounds are coming from his small mouth. His eyes are black and bright and his long lashes flutter as he blinks. A very cute baby.
The duchess is sitting across from me with a dazed expression, her eyes never leaving the child.
The story goes that Duke and Duchess Yu Qing are like two halves of a whole; their love is strong beyond anything else. No doubt that the duke’s death has greatly impacted this woman. I’m afraid all her hopes lie on this baby now.
Now, I can finally keep my promise of taking care of the duke’s wife and kid.
“Duchess,” I start steadily. “The capital is a dangerous place to be. I have been considering sending you and the Eldest to the South for safety.”
She looks up and stares straight at me, momentarily forgetting her manners. I smile and look at the child again. I can’t help caressing his pink cheeks. “I made a promise to the duke. You can also see it as…as preserving the royal bloodline.”
Because fighting could mean complete destruction.
She shudders violently and lowers her head, rattling the pins in her hair.
“If we win, I will fetch you; if we do not, then this child shall be the only continuation of Great Rui!”
She quivers as she looks back up and meets my gaze, looking weak and boneless. Tears slowly stream down her fair complexion.
“Your Majesty….” she sobs.
“I will arrange trustworthy people to accompany you to the South along with several distant relatives and loyal, senior officials. Even if I were to fail here, at least the South will still be able to harbour the descendants of Great Rui.”
She suddenly falls to her knees, knocking hard against the cold, bare tiles.
“Your Majesty,” she sobs through her covered mouth. “Please don’t say that.”
I only feel mournful as I listen to her sniffling. Sorrow fills my heart and I am speechless.
The child is still giggling and wiggling around in my arms, looking pure and joyful. I hold him a little tighter and laugh bitterly as I feel a sting in my nose.
He’s just turned one and hasn’t yet learned about the world he lives in, yet he’s going to have to leave his home behind.
Not able to bear looking at him anymore, I pass him back to the duchess and turn away from them. “We better act fast. Go back to the Manor tonight and pack your clothes, jewelry and money. I will send you off tomorrow morning.”
She’s shaking so hard that she cannot speak. She makes a choking sound and holds the child tighter in her arms.
I do not know what the results of resisting means, nor do I know what kind of path this child will embark on. He can choose to live a normal life or to stay true to his surname, but no matter what, I must leave behind someone for the royal bloodline. I must!
Early morning the next day. The skies are still gloomy, the only luminance being the faint glow in the east.
The soldiers have removed their armour and have dressed as house servants and guards. Several distant relatives of the royal family and a few eminent senior officials are kneeling before me, quivering without a word. The duchess is weeping silently in the carriage with the Eldest in her arms.
Solemnly, I raise my wine vessel. “This I toast to you all. You have a long journey ahead. I hope that you take good care of the duchess and protect Great Rui’s bloodline.”
I begin to hear their muffled sobs and they become harsher.
“What are you crying for? I am still alive!” I bark after I’ve heard enough.
One of the elder officials lifts up his head, his snowy white hair fluttering in the wind. He looks at me before repeatedly kowtowing. “Your Majesty…”
I tilt my head back so no one sees the tears in my eyes.
None of us knows whether the capital will triumph or perish, or whether we will ever meet again.
I pour the wine out in all directions and stand here in silence, sending the carriages and guarding party off as they gradually fade out into the distance.
A pavilion looks like this~
ayszhang says: Hope you like the make-up chapter ╰(*; o ;*)╯no hard feelings okay? <3
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.