Proofreaders: Gwen, krabbykabbi, Luzo, Pau & Red
Cold Sands ch 29
More loving moments between Heng and Han here!
The atmosphere of war suddenly intensified over night.
Xu Zheng is a quiet man with a determined air. Clad in black armour and holding his personal sword, he bows to Heng Ziyu and me before turning to leave. I watch as his tall figure disappears into the masses.
Using the gloomy evening as cover, twenty thousand elite soldiers leave discreetly. They are going to set up ambush for the Yan along the path to the capital in hopes to stall the southern descent of the steel hooves of Yan, and in turn buy more time for defense preparations of the capital. A winding line of shaky torchlight snakes out the city like a red serpent disappearing into the dark night.
The soldiers left to defend the city all hold their spears up, lower their heads and bow. That is the martial ceremony of the highest respect in Great Rui—performed only for the warriors who are not returning.
I hear a low sigh from beside me.
Night comes but sleep does not come to me.
I can hear the distant sound of the water clock. I haven’t had any shuteye yet and am still gazing at the gloomy hall. After some time, I feel a sudden rush of frustration so I put on a robe and leave the bed. Immediately, Liu An rushes over.
“I am going to the walls,” I tell him calmly.
Liu An speaks quietly, “It will be daybreak soon, Your Majesty. Why don’t–.”
I leave before he could finish.
The moon is in the middle of the tranquil night sky.
The city gates have long been closed and only the night guards are patrolling along the walls. The campfires crackle and embers burst forth, seeming extra clear in the silence.
I sigh and lie on a crenel, gazing at the pitch black sky.
The capital is still the capital but in my eyes, it has lost its beauty and luxury. And the days of glamour, wine and girls have gone too far to reach.
The prosperity and liveliness of Lake Yu and the bustling clamor in the markets is still the same but I wonder how much of those things will remain when that day comes.
And if I will make it out alive.
I taste a bitter tang in my mouth and close my eyes. I’m not sure where to start organizing my disarrayed feelings.
Startled, I whisk around to find Heng Ziyu standing behind me in inky black armour as dark as night. It appears he hasn’t gotten any rest yet—his sword is still by his side. He’s looking straight at me, not paying attention to any etiquette.
“You have not rested yet?” I ask casually.
He replies with a serious expression, “Aren’t You here too, Your Majesty?”
“I could not find sleep so I thought I would take a stroll,” I say smiling. “I know You have had a long day. Better get some rest.”
I’ve taken a few steps when I spot out of the corner of my eye that he is trailing behind me and soon he catches up to me. I look up a little at the sparkling stars in the black backdrop. “It sure is quiet.”
He looks up too before looking back into the distance ahead. “It won’t be anymore very soon. I wonder how things will be when the two sides clash.”
I chuckle helplessly, “What else? Bloodshed, death, suffering, skeletons everywhere.”
“Your Majesty.” He turns to me with a doubtful gaze. “Are You afraid?”
I let my smile fade and shake my head. “If I was afraid I would probably be in Yening south of the Qihe River by now.”
Our footsteps are slow and light, making the quietest noises against the limestone
“It’s just that, well, I feel bad for dragging You into this.”
I chuckle a little while looking downward. He immediately frowns and argues, “What are You saying? This is part of my duties as Your subject.”
I turn away to the same-old night sky.
I have to say that our relationship seems to have gone past the initial weak alliance and there seems to be this thing called trust slowly blooming.
“I could understand why You had sent Duchess Yu Qing and the Eldest. The other officials and royalty, however…” His question trails off.
I look back at him. He’s gazing at me, waiting for my explanation.
They all think I sent the duchess and the young son away for personal reasons but this man is cunning enough to see that I have an ulterior motive.
He’s still watching me with a serious expression. I laugh, “Why not be straightforward about it if You have already guessed it.”
His expression changes as he speaks through clenched teeth. “Could it be…a back-up plan?”
I drop the smile and turn my head, “Honestly speaking, I do not know what the future holds or whether I will live or die. If I die, then they can declare Duke Yu Qing’s eldest emperor in the South and continue fighting the Yan. The natural barricades of the Qihe River are easy to defend and hard to attack. The Yan are not adept at fighting in water and they have a fight of their own back home. With that Great Rui will be able to live on in the South.”
He opens his lips as if to speak but falters.
“I would have lost the people’s faith if I had relocated in the beginning and fighting back would be even harder to accomplish.” I spit, “Not to mention, I would be laughed at by the world, how the Rui are just spineless fools. Even if we won, our sons and daughters would have to live with the ridicule and shame! Even if I had to die I would want to die nobly!”
Something moves in his eyes; it looks like he’s touched.
“You are betting against high stakes, Your Majesty.”
“High stakes? Yes, I am. But,” I turn to look at him. “Did you not do the same thing back in the day? We are the same kind of people from that point.”
He stays quiet and looks away into the distance.
I do, too, and rest my hands on a crenel.
“Do You still have family, Marshal?”
“I have always been away from home and have not married. My parents have both passed away. There’s only my younger sister, Heng Zixiang,” he says with a gentle smile.
“Ziyu, Zixiang—very good names,” I say with a smile of my own. “Perhaps it is time to consider marriage at this age now, Marshal”
“My sister always says that she must be consulted before I get married. My parents doted on her a lot and made her quite bossy and often stubborn.”
I can’t help remembering Xiao Qinyun. I laugh, “I see. I had originally thought about marrying a princess off to You when the war ends for the immeasurable contribution You have made to the country.”
“Is that really true, Your Majesty?” He freezes and drops his smile.
“Taking a princess’ hand in marriage is fit for Your contributions.” I squint as a few morning rays peek over the horizons in the east. “However, all the princesses still in the palace now have a temper, too. I am afraid You would be the one to suffer.”
I can’t help but smile and shake my head. Between a royal-born princess and his beloved little sister—I don’t think even a champion warrior like him is able to escape the troubles of having to deal with familial affairs like these.
“Your Majesty,” he asks quietly after a silence. “I should not be asking this but, well, why have You not named an empress or consort yet?”
My stomach twists up and I say in a self-mocking tone. “Thank You for the concern, but no one knows what is going to happen. I cannot just leave them widowed for no reason. Plus, these things should be between two people in love.” I look down and pause. “And I don’t think I can ever…”
I murmur. “Not again in this life…”
The rays grow brighter and brighter, staining the east pale white. The dark plains turn into a rich green colour under its radiance, extending to the horizons as though boundless.
What a beautiful realm.
The two of us do not exchange any more words and only cast our gazes off over the vast stretch of flatland. The clouds churn like the ocean and the sunlight bursts through, shooting over the battlements towards the wispy clouds on the other end of the sky.
In the secret chamber, the Wraith leader is kneeling before me, handing me a thin piece of paper with his head lowered. Liu An takes it and passes it to me. Calmly, I open and read it.
I have to admit, the Wraiths are quite efficient. They arrived at the Yan capital in the shortest amount of time possible and quickly got in touch with all sorts of parties, including the previously existing ones. Not only have they gotten in contact with people working for the two princes, they even obtained information from the inner palace.
I remember when I was still in the Yan camp, Murong Yu mentioned that his father was ill, but according to their information, it seems the emperor’s illness has worsened and he even fainted several times. Administration has gone to the left minister, the royal guards to the second prince, and the troops stationed in the capital to the third prince.
While the emperor is too sick to oversee the country and the prince royal is out at war, the maternal branches have started to act up. The left minister has tried his best to suppress them but to no avail. More and more people are getting involved in all areas and it has just become a mess.
The empress may be the emperor’s wife but she doesn’t have his affection. The emperor has always preferred the prince royal. He had been disappointed by the second and third prince’s disregard towards his generosity. The empress’ elder brother, the right minister, has always been trying to get the second prince the throne.
Amongst them all, the second prince has the highest hopes to ascend the throne. He was born to the emperor’s wife and his uncle is the right minister. Through many years’ efforts, he has controlled the royal guards and plots to usurp the throne.
The prince royal has no support from his mother, only the support of the left minister. The left minister belongs to Empress Dowager Xiao’s clan. The emperor has agreed and promised to marry the left minister’s daughter and the prince royal. The left minister has a strong footing and a lot of influence throughout the court. Once the prince royal takes his daughter as wife, it means he will be under the protection of the Xiao clan. No one would dare easily disregard the power of the Xiao clan.
I hold the paper above the candle and the flames leap up to devour the words. Bits of ashes flutter around.
As I gaze at the dark yellow flames, the past flashes before my eyes and makes my heart ache.
After a long silence, I ask in a raspy voice. “Have you seen the princes themselves?”
The Wraith shakes his head. “In reply to Your Majesty, no, but we have met with their people.”
“What is the situation?”
He hesitates for a moment. “According to the report, they were interested in our offer but did not express any wish to cooperate. The second prince even said he would only consider it if Your Majesty personally wrote to him.”
I scoff silently to myself. I doubt it’s just a written letter he wants. I’m afraid I have to stamp my imperial seal too.
“They even said that whether they will or not depends on Your sincerity.” He presses lower to the floor after seeing my expression.
Sincerity, huh. It’s none other than giving him what he wants. As a mortal, desires never stray far from fame, profit, power, authority, wealth and sex. A few more back-and-forths with him and I’ll know exactly what he desires.
I wave my hand. “I understand. You may retire for now.”
He leaves with his back bent and Liu An follows him out. I feel exhausted all of a sudden so I collapse on a comfy rug and let my mind wander.
If they say so, that means I have a chance to reach an alliance with them. If I invest everything into lighting the Yan army’s backyard on fire, then they surely won’t have the pleasure of entertaining the frontiers; if Great Yan falls into an unstable state, or even the emperor passes away, the left minister would not allow the prince royal to be away from the capital. He would definitely order a retreat. Even if it’s not the entire army, the prince would need to return at the least.
I’m betting against high stakes and so are they.
It’s just that I’m betting the future of Great Rui while they are betting their future welfare.
The only similarity is that we are all past the point of no return.
One careless move, one wrong step and what awaits us is a bottomless pit.
I sigh softly and close my eyes.
I don’t have a second choice.
I spring up like a fish out of water. I lay out some letter paper, grind the ink, pinch the brush tip and start writing.
“From the Emperor of Great Rui, to His Highness, the Second Prince of Yan…”
I start chortling as I write. Thank goodness no one knows, or else those old farts would get caught up on the way of addressing. Those old farts love wasting time on these useless matters.
Names aren’t important at all right now. Anything is fine as long as I can keep my country safe.
I don’t know how long it has been when I have finished. I shake out my sore wrist and glance down. What I see gives me a fright. Damn. I wrote six full pages. I remember back when I would rack my brains out but still couldn’t even get one page done when Master Liao used to make us write essays. I guess people just perform better under pressure.
With my head propped on my hand, I carefully read over the letter and after much consideration, take out the jade seal and stamp it. The stinging vermillion design sinks into the paper with a thud.
Dynasty of Great Rui
Seeing these words, I laugh out bitterly.
If the past emperors heard about their seal being used on this flimsy piece of paper, they would probably be so angry that they cough up blood.
After slipping the letter into an envelope, I write in lively handwriting ‘Dear His Highness, the Second Prince of Yan.’ I summon the Wraith and hand it to him.
“Deliver this to Yan hastily. It must be given directly to the second prince and tell them I will agree to any condition as long as they cooperate.”
The leader nods in obedience. I get Liu An to take a sizable amount of treasures and money out of the private reserves for the Wraith to bring along.
I have to admit that this method is despicable but I’ve no choice.
I walk over to the windows whose blinds have been lowered by the maids. Between the bamboo strips, I see that outside the hall the night sky is filled with rain and still pitch black. The sound of the wind sounds chilling to the bones.
Suddenly, I feel the cold coiling around me. I hug myself and back up against the cold wall.
It’s been raining constantly since autumn began. The South has always been plagued by floods and even though there has been no news about it yet, I doubt it’s anything to rejoice over. The war in the North is already taking all the resources so if the South floods then we really…
My head starts pulsing with pain and there seems to be sharp ringing in my ears.
With an entire empire resting upon the shoulders of one person, he is bound to tire even if he were made of steel. Yet I do not have the luxury to be tired.
While I sit on the throne above all else, those kneeling officials are obviously sneaking glances at me. They are watching from deep within the palace; they are watching from the treacherous court; they are watching from the warring chaos.
I shut my eyes and curl into myself.
I had hesitated and wondered if it’s worth giving my all for a country that fills me with sorrow. However, I have no other choice now. Father has told me with his actions that this kind of sacrifice must be made to prevent the loss and destruction of this land and establishment.
This makes me laugh out of pity.
But why must my love be the price?
The rainwater trickles down from the roof in uninterrupted streams. Beyond the blinds, rain falls in solid sheets and black clouds line the horizon.
The capital is under heavy security by now. Entrance or exit is not permitted. Fully armed soldiers stand guard and patrol every street corner. The rich and poor alike all stash their food for emergencies. The government distributes food to those who haven’t gotten the chance to evacuate and helps them settle down.
Those officials who always looked so relaxed finally know the meaning of working like a bee. They all know the more time they save and the more that gets done, the probability of winning increases and the chance of surviving increases.
After the morning court and after reading through the memorials, I decided to go for a stroll on the wall. I reach the place where Heng Ziyu discusses the war with his generals. There are a surprising amount of soldiers and officials coming and going.
I draw near and signal for the guards to remain silent. I see many captains and generals around the military map, surrounding one person—Heng Ziyu. He has changed to dark, casual attire that accentuates his unique air which, along with his determined and confident speech, makes him seem more like the champion that he is.
I stay there quietly for some time. They don’t notice me and only focus on the defense plans. I feel relieved and leave.
Only after a few steps, I hear his voice. “Your Majesty.”
I turn in time to see him striding over, looking stern as always. “Your Majesty is here early today.”
“There is nothing more important,” I reply with a smile.
He nods and I walk into the room. The soldiers perform the rituals before leaving discreetly. I pace to the map and he trails behind me.
“How is Your injury?”
I only think of the recent assassination when he asks this. Almost reflexively, I touch the injured arm and feel a faint ache. His burning gaze is filled with concern. I look back and say, “Many thanks for the concern. It is fine now.”
He says after a short pause, “I did not have time to remove my sword that day when I heard the commotion inside. Bringing weapons into the palace is supposed to be punishable by death. I–”
I interrupt him with a dismissing wave. “You are overreacting. If it were not for You, I would be with Emperor Shun by now. So in that sense, You are actually my saviour.”
He falters for a moment before recovering. “Please do not say so, Your Majesty. However, what You did afterwards was very impressive.”
“It is just that every emperor must bring his own people to the court,” I sigh.
Heng Ziyu takes several steps closer. “You’re completely different from the person I knew before becoming emperor.”
I take a few steps away while keeping the same face. “How could one possibly know the future?”
He nods, smiling. “That is absolutely right. I entered the army not knowing the riches in my future. You probably had no idea when You were just a Golden Guardian that You would be the supreme ruler that You are now.”
I crack a small smile.
Heng Ziyu still talks with the arrogance and pride of a powerful official and lacks a bit of respect but he is still easier to converse with than the others. All those old farts have been scared witless by my purge and don’t dare make a sound. They are always shaking like a leaf as if I’m going to kill them.
How pathetic is it that I’ve come to this.
“But Your Majesty seems to still be troubled. I often see You quietly brooding.”
I look back at him. “Marshal, do You really think I can be happy being the emperor?”
The autumn wind has turned cold and harsh, sneaking into my clothing.
Looking up at the sky, I sigh. “In the others’ eyes, being the emperor and being able to rule and control everything is the most awesome but none of them know the unease and worry that the throne has brought upon me since day one.”
“I took the mission when disaster was imminent,” I scoff. “Securing the country is my duty; I am the emperor after all. But if I fail then I automatically become a sinner and will be shamed upon eternally.”
Heng Ziyu’s expression seems to change a little but he doesn’t speak.
I shrug. “It is not a fair deal at all.”
“Then,” he asks quietly after some hesitation, “Why did You choose this path?”
I raise my two index fingers. “If there were two paths to choose from,” I wave them and say, “One is death and the other is becoming the emperor, which would You choose?”
He holds my gaze and answers steadily, “Staying alive is the most important, of course.”
I nod and lower my hands. “Then there is Your answer.” I sit down and pour myself a cup of tea.
“Having grown up in the streets, I do not know too much about aspirations and righteous principles,” I say while running my fingers along the edge of the cup. “I did not study well from my master. What I am doing now is solely based on my own judgement.”
He raises an eyebrow. “How strange for Your Majesty to say that. You might have an extraordinary background but how could it be that You grew up in the streets?”
I don’t want to talk about the horrible days so I just laugh it off. “The world is full of strange things.”
He sits down beside me and rubs on his sword handle while watching me. I face another direction and drink my tea.
We’re temporarily silent.
I don’t like his gaze. It is too mysterious and seems to be able to observe my everything right through my own eyes.
His sharply slanted brows show inquiry and worry. His gaze shows no fear or reverence, only undisguised inquiry which exceeds that a subject has for his ruler and holds within it certain other meanings.
Forcing my unease away, I stay unmoved.
Perhaps at a different time and different place, we could become a model of the perfect ruler and subject. However, there aren’t that many ‘perhaps’ in this world. He wouldn’t be satisfied with just a high position, wealth and power. He wants to rule the world and have his name heard by everyone.
This position isn’t what I had wanted to begin with.
“Your Majesty,” he breaks the silence finally. “If I may ask, do You really plan to die defending the capital?”
I reply steadily, “I thought we have already discussed this before.”
The sword wobbles a bit but his expression remains unchanged. “You are the crux of this nation. If You really…I am afraid that things would take a turn for the worst.”
I look back at him. “Through all those battles, have You ever backed away from a perilous situation in fear?”
He frowns and replies slowly, “But that is my duty as a soldier. Your Majesty is the ruler of this country; there is no comparison.”
“Do not forget that I was once a soldier, too.”
He doesn’t respond but only plays with the sword handle with his eyes down.
Just as I stand up, I hear a racket coming from the city walls. The soldiers’ cries sound panicked and rushed. I’m startled while Heng Ziyu springs up with his sword in hand and heads out the door.
“Allow me to look into it, Your Majesty.”
Not even bothering to reply, I hurry after him. The two of us raise our heads to see what’s going on while dashing forward.
I hear the drumming of horse hooves from outside the building. Someone comes riding in. “Urgent report! Urgent report!”
We share a look and I feel anxious. Heng Ziyu says in a low voice, “I fear it’s from the frontlines.”
As expected, the person looks exhausted. His armour is stained with blood and he is wounded in many spots. He dismounts with the help of others and kneels down, shakily holding up a military report that he gets out from his breast pocket.
I order for him to be taken for medical attention before unfolding the report. A pungent odour of blood fills the air at once. I frown at the brownish-red page.
Xu Zheng led twenty thousand dragoons to Luo Yuan and stationed the men along the road. Two days later, they clashed with the Yan cavalry to the north of Luo Yuan. The two sides fought a bloody battle. Yuwen Yuan, using his advantage of more advanced troops, ordered for the left and right wing to attack from the two hills. The twenty thousand dragoons did not budge and battled with the Yan.
The awesome battle dyed the world red with blood.
The Yan pushed Xu Zheng and his men until their last breaths and killed them all. The plains of Luo Yuan became filled with corpses and hoarse cries.
Not able to keep reading, I close the report but the bloody odour seems to have coiled around me.
I feel something on my wrist—it’s Heng Ziyu’s hand.
“You must not show it, Your Majesty,” he whispers as he holds on tightly.
I feel my throat constricting. Nothing comes out.
Xu Zheng, that quiet and determined man, shed his blood for the last time for this country. And what he and the twenty thousand men got in exchange for their lives is stalling the Yan’s arrival for merely three days.
“Your Majesty, this is our last chance that they have given up their lives for.”
I turn my head back a little and meet with Heng Ziyu’s gaze.
He’s right. I don’t have the luxury to mourn the dead. There are more important things waiting for me to do.
My head spins and my legs feel wobbly. The moment I step into Tai Qing Palace, I can no longer support myself. My legs buckle and I fall short of the doorstep.
“Your Majesty.” Heng Ziyu holds onto my arm and hoists me up.
His gaze is so steadfast it makes me feel at ease.
“Rest for now, Your Majesty, and allow me to do the rest.” He helps me sit down. He looks worried.
I just feel like my head is cracking open. “Thanks, Marshal.”
Exhausted, I shut my eyes. Twenty thousand human beings have become one with the earth, never to exist again. I’m in a stupor as I laugh. I thought I already knew that this was going to happen.
The evening winds start blowing through the rows of palaces and the candle flames flicker. The sky is gloomy as though signaling the approach of a storm.
The following day, even more unsettling news reaches the capital.
Delegates sent by the marshal of the Yan army have come requesting that the city gates be lowered in surrender.
Seal, like the one used by Han Xin
Due to the cultural importance and prestige of Chinese writing in the Sino-sphere (i.e. China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam), seals like these were the equivalent of modern day signatures. Some even had multiple seals for different purposes (e.g. personal, business, official). Nowadays, it is still common to use seals for official purposes, though personal seals are rare to see in China, but common in Korea and Japan.
At first used for keeping out rainwater, the doorstep later developed into a symbol of an obstacle. "To run into a doorstep" means to run into a problem. Another interesting fact, when visiting a temple, men must step in left-foot first while women right-foot first. It is said doing so means heaven while stepping with the wrong foot means hell for the person. One must also remember not to step on the doorstep as that means you will straddle between both worlds and not be able to reincarnate.
ayszhang: ( ⊙ o ⊙ ) I feel Murong getting closer and closer......!!!
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.