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Cold Sands ch 28
Emperor Xin won't just get stabbed and not do anything! Ｏ(≧口≦)Ｏ
Fully armed Golden Guardians burst into Yong An Palace and subdue the defenseless maids and eunuchs, kicking them out and forcing them to kneel down in submission. The blazing torches illuminate the desolate night at the palace. The Guardians declare loudly that those who get in the way will be killed before breaking into the side hall, turning over anything they can.
I’m watching all this from the courtyard with an emotionless expression.
I could have chosen not to come but I did anyway.
The racket by the doors abruptly stops. The Guardians slowly back up and a figure in white emerges, elegant and dignified. She stands there alone as the empress dowager of Great Rui.
She walks towards me with a smile, the red torchlight making her face appear eerily pale.
“Apologies for disturbing Your Graciousness’ rest.”
She keeps smiling at me. A hint of senility rests between her brows. I bow respectfully. “The winds are strong at night. It would be better for You to return indoors to avoid catching a cold.”
“Your Majesty, You just want this old bag of bones to die, don’t You?”
“I dare not. I did not want to disturb Your Graciousness either but the court lady comes from Yong An Palace. I was wary of accomplices in hiding so I took the initiative to search the palace. I beg Your pardon.”
I straighten my posture and raise an arm, and the Guardians rush into the main hall, making a loud clamour.
Maid Xiu is behind the empress dowager, her lips tightly pursed and gaze restless.
“Your Majesty really has grown up.” The empress dowager flashes an eerie smile.
My arm starts aching. I do my best to hold in the overwhelming anguish. “I thank You for the praise. I was just worried for Your safety.”
She doesn’t respond but instead reaches out for my cheek. The guard beside me shoots forth and unsheathes his sword. I quickly stop him and look back at her. There is affection in her eyes all of a sudden. “If only…you haven’t…”
“I saw you shortly after Jinrong gave birth to you. Just a little baby giggling, swaddled, like a cute snowball. You were just so adorable.”
I bite my lips and don’t make a sound.
“I suppose it happens to everyone. You grow up and don’t behave anymore.” She laughs, “You’re the same. Who would have thought such a harmless child could become the almighty emperor.”
Her nails dig a little into my skin. It’s not too deep but it hurts a lot.
I don’t want my hands to be stained with the blood of my relatives. I just want to strip her of her power, take it back from the maternal branch.
“Say, Xin, your parents both died because of me. Did you ever hate me for it?” Sighing, she tilts her head up and her eyes fill with tears.
Shakily, I reply, “I did but everyone has their reasons. Plus, if it were not for You I would not have lived until now. I suppose we are even.”
Her face contorts and quivers. She quickly lowers her face as the tears break free. “The sons of Lin could never be puppets. ‘Tis the blood of the emperor!”
Her expression is warm like a tender mother but there is also a gloomy glint in her face.
“The ancients said, one may raise a fierce tiger and bid it to eat others but not to guard one’s own yard.” Her tone is full of despair. “I was wrong. I was wrong to raise a man-eating tiger and wrong to let it devour me.”
Every single one of her words grates my ears and stabs into my heart.
I draw away from her, keeping my eyes on her aging complexion while suppressing the anguish. Her eyes are slightly red but she has a smile on her face. “I have heard about what you have done. You are indeed Duke Zhao Rui’s son and have not put the royal blood in you to shame.”
I chuckle, my voice already having recovered. “I am the emperor. I naturally have to live up to expectations. I must take up the responsibility for everyone.
Then I stroll over to her, gazing at her. “You have lost, Empress Dowager.”
She looks at me as though I were a stranger. Her eyes dim.
“Yes,” she laughs, still elegant and graceful. “I have lost. I was destined to since the moment I let you live.”
I smile bitterly. Destiny. It’s all destiny. Everyone says so.
“The future of Great Rui lies within Your hands. Your Majesty, You must take back our national pride and clear the shame with blood!”
She drops her gaze slightly and continues in her ashen voice, “Your era has begun.”
I back away and stay there. I say in my usual voice, “I am Your grand-nephew. At least You lost to family.”
She shakes all over and her eyes lose focus. She falls limp and Maid Xiu rushes to catch her. I raise a hand and a few maids quickly walk over to help her. With the help of the maids, the empress dowager heads back into the hall while laughing, sounding empty and melancholy like a dry river.
Maid Xiu gazes at me with teary eyes and bows down. I try to bring her up but she shakes her head and kneels down.
“Maid Xiu, You watched me grow up. Although our statuses are divided, You are my elder, nonetheless. Say what it is that You have to say.”
“This old lady begs Your Majesty. The empress dowager is along in years. She cannot bear any more distress. I hope You see it in Your heart to let Her Graciousness enjoy the rest of Her life.”
“I will,” I sigh. “The budget for the empress dowager’s palace will stay the same. May She rest well.”
That night, all personnel from Yong An Palace was arrested and put under investigation by the Dalisi.
The daughter of Xie had already died when I told the Dalisi what her intentions were. The dead tell no tales. Therefore, she has become a chess piece I can fully utilise. The accomplices of whom she had “accused” before dying—the needlework department, dining department and a few high-ranking maids and eunuchs—all were scared witless.
Before the Dalisi actually start interrogating, the prisoners have already gone frantic, accusing each other of crimes and causing a ruckus as if outing others would bring themselves a chance at life. More and more people are getting involved, bringing every single palace, every department into the ordeal. The number of related personnel keeps increasing as book after book of names are given to me. The whole inner palace is in pandemonium now.
Master Liao stands beside me, arms hanging casually by his side. I flip through the list filled with names of those in the higher levels, many of which have much relation with the officials and nobles.
After some deliberation, I close the book and instruct the Dalisi Minister, “Look into their family relations and report back immediately if you find any related to Assistant Administrator, Xu Zong.”
He leaves with my orders. Master Liao has a stern expression. “Is Your Majesty going to get the court involved in the assassination incident?”
I look up at him and throw these words out, “The war is imminent. I do not want any more problems but if I do not set the record straight, there will always be disobedient people. Xu Zong must die.”
A shudder runs through him and then he quickly bows. “Very wise, Your Majesty.”
Rather wrongly kill one thousand than let one get away.
The Dalisi searches through the families of those in the list and finds that the head of the dining department is a distant relative on the maternal side of Xu Zong’s. Under my instruction, the attempted assassination of a court lady becomes a conspiracy that nobles have planned against the new emperor. The disloyal heart of a subject is strictly forbidden and with hard evidence, the Ministry of Justice arrests Xu Zong’s entire family and sentences them to public execution in two days. The rest of the convicts are all people I have wanted to get rid of and are exiled or degraded, never to recover their rights. All the elite have become prisoners paraded before the curious public in chains and shackles on their way to the distant frontier.
One incident of treachery has purged the field of the empress dowager’s pieces, impeached senior officials, gotten high and low ranking servants in the inner palace involved and set the record straight once and for all. Anyone who had been against fighting back, who had spoken out against me, who had said ill of the martial class and who had encouraged the nobles to be rebellious have all been purged.
If they can talk behind my back about my low upbringing, I don’t see why I can’t use low, shameful strategies to knock some sense into these snotty elite.
In less than four days, all sentences have been carried out. It is as if a mighty storm whipped through the palace and court. No one dare question my supreme power anymore.
After lunch, I’m in the hall listening to the crisp sounds of the autumn raindrops hitting the palace steps.
Liu An reports for the third time that Uncle is still kneeling outside the palace requesting a summon, and asks me if he should summon him. I stay quiet and turn to look out the window at the gloomy sky. In the end, I wave my hand in agreement.
After a short period of silence, Uncle kneels down before me and bows low, touching his head to the ground. I inquire casually, “How is your illness, Archduke?”
“I thank Your Majesty for the concern. I am fine now.” His court uniform is dripping wet with rain.
I don’t blink an eye. “You have been absent from court due to illness for quite some time, Minister. What brings you to the palace today?”
“I have a favour to ask, Your Majesty. I implore that You grant it.”
Uncle is still lying on the ground and his head has not been lifted once. His voice sounds slightly muffled. “I am along in years and not fit to serve the country anymore. I hope You may grant me retirement and allow me to return home.”
I stiffen but quickly regain my composure. “Are you not fit or are you not willing?” I ask with a smile.
He quivers while I continue, “You need not worry, Minister Han. I may be ruthless but I will not harm my relatives.” He lifts his head up a little. “I fully understand your request but the Han are the head of the court. What am I to do if the others make the same request after I allow you to return home?”
“Your Majesty, I do not have any other requests. I simply wish to spend the rest of my life in peace.”
I don’t want to talk in circles with Uncle. “Perhaps you are not pleased with me because of what happened to the empress dowager? Or maybe, Uncle, you are shedding crocodile tears for those convicts?”
He drops his head again, reluctant to answer.
“A word of advice, Uncle. It would be wisest to be content with the present if you still want the best for the Han clan.”
I’m being very clear with him. If he retires, it means admitting the defeat of the Han clan and shaming the family name. It doesn’t matter if he is furious or hopeless, he must remain as Archduke of Jing, keep the title of minister and endure the pity and ridicule of those around him.
This is my punishment. The kindest and cruelest punishment.
“Your Majesty, I–” I spot despair on his face before he flattens down to the ground, begging.
I smirk. Hiding really is the easiest way.
I interrupt him, my smile fading away, “Another word of advice, Uncle. When the empress dowager loses her power, she will still be the empress dowager but when an official loses his power, there is no guarantee that he will still be an official.”
Hearing this, Uncle starts and freezes on the spot, staring dumbly at me. I look back at him steadily and after a while, he drops his head down to the ground once more.
While dismissing him, I add, “Minister Han, ask the chief of the Wraiths to come see me tonight.”
I’m alone once more and the pain on my arm becomes evident again. A fearsome feeling of loneliness rises within, wraps itself around me along with the gloominess and creepiness of the palace and threatens to wash me away.
Emperors really are solitary people. Always plotting and calculating. No family. No friends. Only pawns and enemies.
My chest starts stinging with pain. I lower my head as the looming ceiling starts coming down on me, suffocating me.
High and mighty, isolated and lonely, companionless…
I’m afraid I am also bloodthirsty and ruthless now.
I’ve only come to understand why Emperor Wen had said: “Good…even if I…were to be a human next time…I don’t want…to be born a royalty.”
The house of the emperor, the residence of the son of heaven, is actually the most inhospitable. So much so that it can turn a healthy person to an insane maniac.
I’ve already changed and I can never go back.
After the assassination, the number of guards has increased significantly with sentries posted every few yards or so. The security is almost as heavy as the time of my ascension.
I do have to thank Heng Ziyu for that day. If he hadn’t come in time and wounded the woman, I probably won’t be here worrying about how to defend the capital.
I owe another favour. How frustrating.
Monetary debts are easy to get rid of but debts like these, not so much.
Just as I’m massaging my temples out of frustration, his sudden utterance startles me. I look up to clash with his inquiring gaze. At once, I realise that my mind was wandering again.
“A headache, Your Majesty?”
I nod a little as the stinging amplifies. It’s probably an after-effect of falling down the steps of Yong An Palace when I was young. My head would hurt incredibly whenever I try to concentrate on an issue.
The court doctors couldn’t come up with anything and just reiterated peaceful rest.
Peaceful rest. Sure sounds easy.
The imminent war, the evacuation of the commoners, the upheaval in the palace; I need to rack my brain for all of these.
I shake my head. “It is fine. I am listening. Continue, please, Marshal.”
Heng Ziyu lets go of the military defense map and keeps his gaze on me. “Is it because of a lack of sleep? Perhaps I should call the doctor?”
I wave my hand. “I will not be able to read a simple defense map once those doctors come. I said it is fine. Continue, please.”
Our eyes go back to the huge map. The detailed descriptions upon it illustrates the length, width, and thickness of the city walls, the number of crenels, the layout of contraptions and personnel and even the hypsographical features of the land around the capital.
“According to the scouts’ reports, the Yan vanguards have already reached here and will arrive at the city in three days.”
“It is the Lupine Blood Mounts. Yuwen Yuan must be eager to please.”
“We must hit where it hurts. If we can dampen their spirits before the main troops get here, I believe we can boost the morale of our own.”
I look up at him. It doesn’t look like he was joking.
My stomach tightens. “The Blood Mounts specialise in speed and are strong in both offense and defense. If we want to get the upper hand, I think we have to set up ambush beforehand. But will it not be impractical to do so on this vast stretch of flat plains?”
He looks determined. “We need to catch them off guard. It would only be more difficult when their main troops get here.”
“The art of war states: ‘if ten times the enemy’s strength, surround them.’ If ones’ forces number ten times the enemy’s, one may choose to fence the enemies in. Forty thousand Blood Mounts are racing towards the capital now. We have nowhere near the amount to do so.”
“As a person who does not play by the rules, Your Majesty should not bother with what the art of war says.” He smirks and slaps his hand on the map. “The Yan will think we have retreated back into the safety of the city, too afraid to fight, and would not expect us to attack instead. If I may make a suggestion, get twenty thousand men to set up ambush on the path that they are bound to take and cut them off from the rest of the forces to dampen their spirits!”
“Twenty thousand…but these twenty thousand men would be fated to die!” I say through clenched teeth.
“We give some to gain some. Your Majesty, when their entire army gets here, it would take much more than twenty thousand men!”
I turn to the map again. He doesn’t talk and keeps on watching me.
Every one of Heng Ziyu’s words is so well-reasoned that I can’t say anything.
It would be the same as me giving up Xie Yun and Xu Zong in exchange for the unification of the court.
I look back up and ask slowly, “And who would lead the twenty thousand men?”
His eyes darken. “Xu Zheng.”
I nod as he explains, “Xu Zheng is skilled in attacking cavalry and dealt a heavy blow to the Yan in the Battle of Sparrowhawk Ravine. Afterwards, he has been defending South Hill Pass. He knows the enemy well and is the best man for the job.”
“Those twenty thousand men are not coming back and that might be the same for General Xu as well. Can You really bear parting with Your beloved general?”
Heng Ziyu’s eyes burn brightly and his words allow for no compromise. “The death of some is for the peace in the future, so that more can live on.”
That’s right. Everything we’re doing is not only for ourselves but also for others, and even more so for the future, the future of the realm.
I stroll along on the walls, the limestone beneath my feet are uneven. The soldiers are fully armed and the fires burn loudly. I can hear the orderly steps and clanging of armour of the patrols below me. For a moment, I feel as if I’ve gone back to the armybase again.
I gaze to the north. The sky is a gloomy spread, the setting sun trying desperately to illuminate it with its final rays while descending slowly. The evening glow dyes the clouds with colour, adding some brilliance to the boundless plains.
“What You have done to these men is truly impressive, Marshal. Before, these soldiers were all slothful but at least now they look proper.”
“The military has its own set of rules,” he replies with a light smile.
“Would You care to whip the Golden Guardians into shape for me?”
I’m wearing black regular attire and the regular crown to allow movement. He has on a black helmet with a white feather and a sword in hand. He holds himself up high while walking shoulder to shoulder with me.
“I’m going to have to refuse. The Guardians are all sons from a high background. They might start saying that the martial people are interfering with politics again,” he chuckles casually. “The only person who can keep them in check now is You, Your Majesty.”
I glance sideways at him. “Are You saying I have shed too much blood?”
His smile fades. “You have done no wrong, Your Majesty.”
I look down as a wave of sadness wells up in my chest.
No one will say that anything I’ve done is wrong; I’m always right. No one will tell me their real thoughts and no one will care out of sincerity. Their submission to me is all because of the power I hold in my hands.
And no one will ever call my name again. Only two cold words will come out of their mouth.
A brisk wind blows past, whisking sand into the air and colouring the sky yellow. The scene before me melts into the dusky yellow evening.
“Allegedly, everywhere the Lupine Blood Mounts traverse becomes buried in several inches of sand,” he says, as though to himself.
“And their helmets are all red from the blood of their slain enemies,” I add.
“Yuwen Yuan is merciless. I think it would be best to make other preparations.”
“Fire, water source, escalade.”
I think to myself, Heng Ziyu and I are becoming more and more like-minded. He only needs to say a few words for me to understand him.
The showers have stopped and the autumn air is dry. There are many trees on the plains and they are easily flammable. It would be the best time to attack with fire.
Water source—the capital’s water comes from the mountain ranges to the northeast. If the Yan were to build canals and flood the capital with river water, the food would go bad and the soldiers would be fatigued; if they cut off the water, we would suffer from thirst. Either way, it’s going to be tough for us.
Escalade—the Yan footmen are also adept at combat. As long as they capture one of the gates and let the cavalry in, we would have to engage in urban warfare.
I feel my temples stinging with pain again. What, are we supposed to cut all the trees down and send soldiers to guard the water source and…
I shake my head. There’s enough for me to worry about in the city. Really now…
My body sways a bit and Heng Ziyu quickly grabs my arm. “Your Majesty?”
I feel a dizzy spell hit me. It’s probably because I didn’t sleep enough last night. I smile bitterly. I haven’t had a single good night’s sleep for the last two weeks.
I force my eyes to open to see Heng Ziyu’s worried eyes. I flash my usual smile.
“No need to fret, Marshal,” I say as I discreetly pull my arm back. “I still have some matters to attend to. I shall leave this place under Your care.”
I’ve only taken several steps when he speaks in that low voice of his. “Your Majesty.”
“Yes, Marshal?” I turn my head back a little.
“I beg that You take care of Yourself.” The corners of his lips curve upwards in what might be concern. “The nation depends on Your holy health.”
I chortle and leave without responding.
No one would have said that to me when I was still a punk. The nation depends on my health. All that those people care about is the country. Only the country.
The emperor always has a lot of work. The memorials on the desk have piled into a small hill.
I push the lump away and lie onto the table, the drowsiness coming to me soon after. A breeze pushes in from outside and the cold invades me, denying me sleep.
I start to reminisce about the feeling of being in Murong Yu’s arms. His embrace is soft and plushy like a pillow and it’s nice and cozy. It makes me feel like I’m being loved.
Whatever. What’s the point of reminiscing now?
Really, it’s probably better to not meet again at this point.
I repress the torment and push myself back up. After sniffing a few times, I bring the lump of memorials back and start reading them. Not only read, I still have to personally write comments for each one.
Time trickles past. I hear the soft steps of servants walking by. Aside from that and the even fainter sound of the water clock, the room is dead silent. When daylight ends, Liu An lights the lamps and the attendants serve dinner. I have no appetite so I dismiss them after picking at the food.
I have already given lots of thought about the Wraiths while reading the memorials. I must look one way and row another.
It’s already late at night when the chief Wraith gets here. Dressed in black, his kneeling figure almost blends into the background.
“Are you willing to swear loyalty to me?” I ask coolly.
I cannot see his expression because he is on the floor and his voice sounds monotonous. “As a Wraith, I have sworn to never betray my master.”
How loyal. I chuckle. “How fortunate the Hans are to have such a loyal subordinate. But first, look up.”
He lifts his head up slowly and surprise flashes in his eyes when he sees me.
“Do you recognise me?”
He lowers his head again and answers in a quiet voice. “Your Majesty used to be Minister Han’s…” His voice trails off at the end.
I smile a little. “Good,” I say as my mind clears up. “Since you know, then… You are unwilling to betray your master but obeying me would not count, would it?”
He quickly looks back up, his eyes dancing with inquiry. I stop smiling. “Within me flows the blood of Han. It will not count as betraying your master if you are loyal to me.”
“If you do not comply… The laws of Great Rui state that officials are not allowed to have forces of their own. Hmmph.” I peer at him out of the corner of my eye. I tap on the table, the clear sounds echoing through the empty building.
After a long time, he finally kowtows. “Your orders, please, Your Majesty.”
Not so stubborn after all.
Great Rui laws do not allow subjects to have secret forces. The Wraiths have only been able to exist because of the Han clan’s protection for all these years. Now that the Han clan has fallen, it would be quite silly if he still clung onto his loyalty.
I cough quietly. “Can you infiltrate the Yan capital?”
He nods. “In reply to Your Majesty, we can.”
“Excellent,” I speak after a slight moment of faltering. “The Yan emperor is said to be ill and the second and third prince are secretly plotting to usurp the throne. I want you to sneak into there and get me the most reliable news. Contact me through pigeon post as soon as you catch wind of anything.”
“And Your intentions are…?”
I snicker. “Since the Yan want to play, I thought, why not make the odds higher and get everyone involved?”
He looks shocked for a moment before lowering his head. I leave him a few more reminders and dismiss him.
With his illness, the Yan emperor would not oversee every single matter. The second and third prince have long been discontent with the amount of love he has been giving Murong Yu so it’s only expected that they would act while he is sick and Murong Yu is not in the capital. The second prince likes money and the third prince likes sex. It doesn’t matter which one I target, he will certainly take the bait as long as he has desires.
Not to mention, Murong Yu is the biggest obstruction to them getting the throne. Once he returns victorious, he is sure to be glorified and receive even more praise and love from the emperor. The throne might just become his reward. The influential left minister in the capital and the soldiers who accompanied him through bloodshed would surely become strong supports for Murong Yu’s fight for the throne.
The second and third prince would surely not want to see that happening.
My enemy’s enemy is my friend.
I let out a deep breath and start feeling disgust towards myself.
Calculating and plotting every step of the way, abandoning my true self, becoming heartless, becoming coldblooded, tirelessly disposing of anyone who gets in my way.
And that includes the love of my life.
In the dark, gloomy palace hall, I tilt my head back and feel the warm fluids drip down my face.
ayszhang says: For those who don't know, I asked for 100 comments in exchange for an extra chapter...;) and it's a special chapter ;D
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.