Proofreaders: krabbykabbi, Luzo, Pau & Red
Cold Sands ch 32
Things are getting serious... What's going to happen to the capital?
The showers have come.
Although I’m worried that the South might flood, rain is a rather good thing given the current circumstance.
Morning court has been cancelled and I’ve got nothing on my hands after I read through all the memorials. Holding a tea cup with two hands, I watch the downpour and listen to the muffled booms of thunder.
The scouts delivered a report at dawn saying the Yan vanguards have made camp and are awaiting the arrival of the rest of the army. The number of the main forces remains unknown. One hundred fifty thousand is the conservative estimate. In addition to the Lupine Blood Mounted Squadron, they total around two hundred thousand.
“Your Majesty, there is someone requesting a meeting.” Liu An comes in and bows down. This brings me out of my deep thought.
“Who is it?”
He answers after hesitating, “The lady serving the empress dowager.”
I keep quiet. What could she possibly need me for now? I still get Liu An to summon her though.
Wearing a plain outfit, Maid Xiu performs the rituals. “Your Majesty, Her Graciousness humbly requests that You come to Yong An Palace for She has something to tell You.”
The empress dowager resides in Yong An Palace, and with her original maids and attendants all replaced, her movement restricted and her daily activities under watch, only Maid Xiu has stayed by her side. Rather than enjoying the happiness of having a family in her final years, she has to struggle through it alone.
“What is it?” I inquire nonchalantly.
Maid Xiu lowers her gaze. “I am not aware. Her Graciousness said it is only meant for Your Majesty’s ears.”
I study her calm eyes. It doesn’t look like she’s lying. I wonder how many more things the old woman is hiding from me.
I will always remember the mockery in her eyes when she was being helped back to her living quarters.
There is no more noise except the roaring thunder from afar.
We arrive at Yong An Palace in the heavy rain. Maid Xiu asks quietly, “It would be great if Your Majesty could wait here momentarily. Her Graciousness was not feeling well and is still napping.”
I nod and stay in the side hall for a bit before heading into the sleeping quarters
In the large, gloomy hall, I see an ancient woman leaning on Maid Xiu as she teeters to her throne and falls on the brocade cushions. I’m standing only a few steps away from her but it appears she can’t see me clearly anymore.
“His Majesty is here,” Maid Xiu reminds softly in her ears.
The empress dowager squints. Her eyes are out of focus but her smile is still graceful. “Sit down, please, Your Majesty.”
She dismisses the servants while I chuckle casually and take a seat. “For what did Your Graciousness want to see me so urgently?”
“Your Majesty.” She stares at me for a while. “Did You get injured?”
I realise there is still a scar on my face which has healed quite a bit already. I run my hand over it. “It’s fine. What did You want to tell me?”
I’m sure she knows the current situation.
“No one can compare to Your comportment.” She smiles and the wrinkles around her eyes become more apparent. “Still calm and collected even when the Yan are at our front door.”
I return her smile. “With the hearts of our army and people united towards one goal, I have naught to fear.”
She continues to observe me, her face pale and frail. “So You didn’t leave a way out for Yourself?”
I’m a bit taken back and not sure why she’s saying this out of nowhere. She sits upright and looks at me seriously. “It is time to tell You.”
“Do You know Yi Xin Temple, Your Majesty?”
Yi Xin Temple was built by Emperor Shun to commemorate his birth mother, Empress Dowager Zhao Yu, and is situated in the countryside, hidden deep in the mountains. It is the place of prayer for the daughters of the royal family and noblewomen from all over the country.
The glorious beginning of Great Rui overshadows a woman’s life of pain. Empress Dowager Zhao Yu was born the eldest princess of the previous dynasty. However, after Emperor Shun killed his own uncle, usurped the throne and became the emperor, Empress Dowager Zhao Yu was plagued with shame while she was alive and after she died, she couldn’t be buried with her family. Thus, she rests eternally beneath Yi Xin Temple.
The empress dowager tells a tale of the past.
“Emperor Shun was a legendary figure in his younger years, having overthrown the previous emperor, but he had to witness his sons battling for the throne in his miserable, final years. Also, he became superstitious, worrying that the blood on his hands would lead to more bloodshed for his sons.” She lets out a deep sigh and her eyes lose focus once more. “The fifth year of Qing Zhao, he renovated Chong Wen Palace and especially rebuilt Qing Feng Chamber at the far end of the palace. Does Your Majesty know what for?”
Chong Wen Palace—isn’t that the place where they enshrine the portraits of all the emperors? I only remember that no one is allowed to go into Qing Feng Chamber. What’s the story behind it?
It couldn’t be–
“The beautiful roof and tiles, the numerous halls and chambers and all the glamour and luxury are the cover for a secret tunnel leading straight to Yi Xin Temple outside the city, so that his sons may use it to escape death in times of peril.”
I gasp and start shaking.
“This secret is only told to the emperors and empress dowagers. I am telling you this today to fulfill my last duties.” She looks untroubled as though she were simply talking about some everyday, trivial matter.
“And why tell me this now?”
Her smile is like the dead, yellowish leaves in autumn, dry and flimsy. “I do not have many more days ahead of me but Your Majesty is in the springtime of life.”
We face each other. Without cosmetics, her face is even paler and creepier, especially the poignant and proud smile on it.
I laugh dryly and turn away, leaving her behind.
I take a look back at Yong An Palace. The flickering candlelights seem feeble and desolate amidst the downpour.
While descending the steps, I slip and Liu An rush over to steady me. “Would Your Majesty like to return and take a rest?”
I tilt my head back and let the fat drops of rain hit my face. They have a bitter and tangy taste with something else mixed in that I can’t identify.
Without further hesitation, I fling him away. “To Qing Feng Chamber.”
The gallery twists and turns throughout the majestic buildings. It’s like a scene from heaven. The yard is full of green bamboo. The long, slender trunks sway in the storm, singing a bleak chorus.
The doors swing open and the darkness surges forth. Liu An lights a candle. “This way, please, Your Majesty.”
The decor in Qing Feng Chamber is opulent and splendid. My long dress slides across the cold tiles with a swoosh. I slow my pace. It’s quiet, so continuously quiet, so much that I fear I’m hearing things; it’s dark, so overwhelmingly dark, so much that I can only see the tiny dot of candlelight.
Standing behind the red sandalwood screen, I take the candle from the bowing Liu An and watch as he lifts up the huge, graceful shanshui painting and pushes on the apparatus on the wall. The wall slowly slides open with a deep grinding sound and reveals the tunnel inside. The weak candlelight seeps in and makes the tunnel seem all the more sinister.
A gust of icy air gushes out. It’s the smell of freedom. I reach for it from afar, attempting to grab onto it.
Tai Qing Palace, Feng Yi Palace and Yong An Palace are the grandest, most beautiful cages in the world that have trapped so many lives within it.
The secret tunnel is not only a hope for survival for the almighty emperor, but also a yearning for freedom.
Freedom lies right before me.
I feel like my feet are rooted to the floor, too numb to budge. The chilliness creeps up bit by bit from my toes.
That woman has me right in her hands again. She carelessly puts me in a dilemma once again when I’ve come to accept my fate. She has told me this secret specifically because she knows I’m no longer the old me, and now she will snigger about it on her way to meet the Reaper.
I suddenly start laughing. At my own insanity.
To be free and escape this inhospitable palace, to change my name and leave civilization behind.
That is my wish. And it was probably the wish of every one of those pathetic, lonely emperors that they have brought with them to their graves.
I no longer belong to myself since the moment I put on the Crown.
The freedom that I’m willing to trade my life for lies right before my eyes, yet I will never reach it in this lifetime.
“Close it,” I say with a smile.
Liu An stares at me. “Your Majesty?”
I turn around and close my eyes, feeling very exhausted. “No need to look further. Let us return.” Then I shake out my sleeves and head out of the building.
Late into autumn in the month of October. Rain has been falling for nearly a fortnight.
The entire city is enveloped in continuous autumn showers. The depressing air is hard to deal with. The palace is becoming colder and more desolate than usual, too.
I summon Heng Ziyu and the ministers to discuss matters.
Since losing control of the lands beyond the capital, the scouts have had less room to manoeuvre. The farthest they can get is the camp of the Yan vanguards and they cannot go too close to it, either.
The situation is undetermined. All we know is that Yuwen Yuan has sent out small teams to the surrounding lands around the capital. At first, we thought they were looking for the water source but no one can be sure now.
The capital has been in lockdown for a long time and most of the refugees from the North haven’t been able to enter. Instead, they get captured by the Yan. The scouts say that the Yan have imprisoned the refugees and are herding them like cattle in front of the capital. The defense isn’t very tight but the wailing of the refugees day in and day out makes it hard for those in the city.
Heng Ziyu furrows his brows. “It seems they want to force us into opening the gates with the lives of our people.”
“Absolutely no.” I frown. “It will all be over once those refugees barge in.”
The ministers all have a tense and grave expression.
One of them starts, “First of all, the food in the capital is sufficient, but the population is high. There are also the army rations and the refugees from before to consider. There are more than just a few refugees out there. These are all burdens.”
“Even if we have no problem with food, you cannot guarantee that all of these people are refugees. If we just so much as let in a few Yan spies, our defenses will mean nothing no matter how sturdy our walls are.”
“If we open the gates, Shang Qing Gate in the north would be the first. The Yan have their swiftest forces stationed here. Once we open it, getting the gates to close would become an issue.”
They fall silent and look at me. I purse my lips. “We cannot open it.”
One of them speaks tentatively again after a short pause. “Those people out there are all Rui citizens. If we don’t do anything about it, they will be the first to suffer if we clashed swords with the Yan.”
“Not to mention, they might starve even if we chose not to fight.”
Obviously, I know that but…
“If we don’t open it, they die; if we do, we die,” Heng Ziyu states sharply.
My gaze falls on another military report.
Despite the continuous rainfall, the rest of the Yan army has almost all reached the city and set up camp all over. You could see the plains filled with soldiers if you stood on the walls, especially the Lupine Blood Mounts and their helmets that are the colour of old blood.
The scouts aren’t able to go that far so I can only rely on the few Wraiths for information.
The Minister of Revenue finally explodes, “Then how are we any different from those Yan?!”
“Silence!” I bark. “There will be a difference if we open the gates. They will be alive while we’ll be dead!”
“But Your Majesty!”
“Have you even considered the one million people inside the city?!”
The debate continues and the usually mild-mannered ministers are all flushed red with frustration. Even by late evening, no results have been reached.
After I get the attendants to send them out, only Heng Ziyu remains. I ask after a short silence. “Why don’t You return and get some rest?”
“I would like to chat privately with You, Your Majesty,” he replies quietly.
I moisten my throat with some tea. “Speak.”
“Our soldiers have seen the refugees already. The Yan captured and brought them here but didn’t do much more. A small group went to Xi Zhi Gate last night and got into a conflict with the soldiers there. They cried all night only to stop in the early morning. When I checked, the moat was floating with bodies that were shot full with arrows."
“And our men did that?”
He gives me a deep nod. I put down my cup and stare at the candle flame. “I heard there was a hundred or so?”
He doesn’t answer my question. “I already arrested the centurion who let them shoot.”
I wave my hand weakly. “Punish according to the army policy and give him the stick. He is to go back to his post afterwards.”
“So You really are not planning to open the gates?”
Without the Yan to oversee them, large groups of refugees have been lurking around a few li away from the city. They are eager to enter the city so it’s only natural that they confront our soldiers. And what do the soldiers do? Well, they’re not stupid; they know what the consequences are.
“Our biggest problem with these refugees is whether to yield or hold. The more we stall the more passive we become.”
“That I know. No matter where these refugees are from, they are my subjects and I am responsible for everything that has happened.” I scoff and shove the mountainous pile of memorials. “These are from those auditors, talking about some fancy bullshit about compassion and benevolence!”
I grit my teeth. “They think one hundred lives is worth risking all the other lives in the city? Who’s going to be held accountable for the one million lives? And for the future of Great Rui? I want to be benevolent, too, but how could I at a time like this? No one can afford to pay the price for an act like this!”
“Calm down, Your Majesty.”
I close my eyes and rub my temples.
“There were some wavering soldiers who asked me privately for permission to allow the refugees in.” He pauses. “The Yan have always been cruel and ruthless and now they have forced us into a dilemma like this. Many days have already passed. No one can replace Your Majesty nonetheless. It would be best to make a decision soon.”
I scoff. Make a decision. It sounds easy but he’s just forcing me to be coldblooded.
If the city makes it out of this alive, I am going to leave behind an inerasable spot in my records.
The candle flame jumps unsteadily like my fluctuating emotions right now.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Yuwen Yuan’s idea but if this was his, then there is nothing I can do but feel miserable.
Miserable that human lives aren’t worth anything in his eyes.
“Announce my decree to the men: the defense forces are to tighten the security and be on the look out for any Yan movement; if refugees are stirring up trouble, they are to ignore it all, and if…” I switch to a much harsher tone, “if the refugees purposely disobey, shoot them down!”
I hear my own voice, each syllable slowly but distinctly echoing behind me within the empty hall. I don’t feel anything in my heart anymore; no pain, no cold.
Heng Ziyu’s gaze is unusually bright despite being hidden in the shadows. “You’ve decided?”
I stop myself from sighing and speak calmly like backwater. “Hesitation only leads to more problems.”
“Reporting!” A man runs up the steps to the hall. Liu An kneels down and holds a wolf-tooth white feather arrow out with two hands. “A message from the Yan, Your Majesty.”
The two of us are a bit startled. Heng Ziyu asks, “Who received it?”
“A second lieutenant, Marshal.”
Heng Ziyu passes it to me and I unfold it. The two of us shake our heads as we read it.
At first, they talk about some damn principle of placing the people’s welfare before anything else and then the topic changes to them being utterly shocked at our soldiers shooting at the refugees last night. Then, they act as if they don’t want the war between the two countries to hurt civilians.
I’m boiling with fury when I finish reading.
I put the letter away. “See, Marshal? I am left with no choice.”
His eyes seem bottomless and his voice is so downcast I can’t begin to describe it. “Your Majesty.” I look into his eyes and shake my head weakly. I feel his hand on mine.
“No matter what, Your Majesty, I will be by Your side.”
My heart seems to squeeze together. “Thanks,” I say softly.
I don’t know if my name will be shamed for the generations to come after this order is made. I actually want to look in a mirror to see if my eyes are so rational that they have become uncaring even in the face of the deaths of the innocent.
Exhausted, I close my eyes. I’m the son of Emperor Shun after all to be able to make orders without hesitation to kill all those helpless refugees. Emperor Shun constructed the tunnel and provided a chance at life for his sons because he feared karma. Then, could someone please tell me if I will be forgiven if I were to take this petty chance?
The sun suddenly comes out after many consecutive cloudy days, its powerful golden rays piercing through the idly floating nimbus clouds, making varying shadows on the vast plain.
I’m resting on the ta with my eyes half-closed.
I met with the Wraith that Master sent back and had a private talk that lasted the whole night. I only went to bed at the fourth watch and got woken up by Liu An who came with a stack of military reports at daybreak. I glared at him while yawning, to which he cautiously replied that rising at the fifth watch is tradition set by the ancestors and he does not dare break it, yada yada.
I yawn as I complain angrily in my head. Emperor Shun must have been such an energetic person, able to conquer lands on his mount and govern the land in his throne. But he should have thought of the fact that his descendants may not be as lively as him.
I do wonder what he would have chosen if he were in my situation.
Liu An rushes in, reporting quietly, “Your Majesty, Auditor Song requests a meeting.”
My brush stops in midair. Song Ruoming, he is most likely here for the refugees. I can’t even count the amount of memorials he has written to me but I haven’t looked at any.
So what if I do, and so what if I don’t. Those civil officials are just a pain in the ass.
I shake my head. Liu An’s expression turns sour but he bows down and leaves quietly. The repetitive sounds of the water clock can be heard from afar and the sunlight starts to spread out across the floor.
I don’t know what time it is when Liu An comes in again, this time on his knees. “Your Majesty, Auditor Song has been kneeling for a long time.”
I look up towards the door. Although I can’t see, I can imagine Song Ruoming’s expression: lips pressed into a flat line with his gaze fixed to the ground, as if to dig holes in it.
I put down my brush and ask, “For how long?”
“It has been three hours,” he answers. “And not only Auditor Song, but almost all the auditors are outside.”
I’m not sure what to feel. Judging from his personality, he would probably kneel there the entire day if I don’t see him. Just as I thought, one should not mess with auditors.
Now is not the time for inner conflicts.
With that in mind, I say calmly, “Summon him.”
Song Ruoming is wearing his formal court uniform. He comes close before kneeling down. He doesn’t say a word nor does he look up at me but I see his stern face.
“Is there a problem, Auditor?” I know very well that there is a problem but I have to stick to formalities.
“Yes,” he responds straightforwardly. “I come for the refugees outside the city.”
“The refugees have been loitering around the city walls for many days. It’s a pitiful situation but our soldiers not only refuse to help, they even use violence against them.” His head snaps up. “’Tis not the deed of a proper human being!”
I meet his indignant and sorrowful eyes with my own emotionless ones. His mouth is still open as if wanting to say more.
I hum lightly in reply. “So what do you think should be done?”
I know Song Ruoming doesn’t know too much about warfare. He has only heard a bit here and there when he, Pei Yuan and I used to hang around together. Therefore, it’s obvious that I’m putting him in his place today.
He pales and looks straight at me without a word.
Only after an uncomfortable silence does he say under his breath, “I understand that it is a dilemma but those are citizens of Rui nonetheless. We cannot just sit by and watch. Let them live, please, O benevolent emperor.”
I tighten my grip on the arm of the ta. “How?”
“The refugees are being herded by the Yan without food or water. At least…” His voice trails off but abruptly rises. “We could throw clothes and food down to solve their urgent needs.”
“Also, I implore Your Majesty to give orders to stop the soldiers from shooting at the refugees!” His face flushes red and the pitch of his voice spikes. “How could our soldiers shoot at the harmless citizens of our own country?!”
I smile and flip over a tea cup. “Go on.”
He seems to be shocked for a second before his face turns deadly pale. “How could You be so calm, Your Majesty? These are all people we’re talking about!”
I turn my head to not look at him. He straightens up and crawls forward on his knees. His lips are quivering as he screams, “Your Majesty, the more You hesitate now the more refugees are going to die outside the city!”
I wipe my smile off. “Perhaps you were not aware that I was the one who ordered the shooting!”
He comes to a full stop as he watches me with wide eyes and shaking shoulders.
“I am tired. You are dismissed.” I stay put.
After a momentary daze, he roars, “Are You really so cold and heartless, Your Majesty? Those are all lives!” He jumps to his feet. “They cry day and night only for some food for their stomachs and some clothes for the cold!”
He slowly approaches while pointing outside. His face is so contorted that it scares me. “Listen, please. They’re right outside. Their cries can drive someone crazy. They have no food, no clothes and live under the terror of the Yan! The capital of their country is right in front of them but they can’t go in. Our soldiers can’t protect them and now they even shoot at them? Where is the justice?! Where is the morality?! Where is the humanity?!”
“Enough!” I bark.
“Do you know how many people are in the city?! Do you know how much food is left?! Do you know how fast the Yan cavalry are?! The gates won’t be able to close once they are opened! I want to be benevolent too! I want there to be justice too! I want there to be morality too!” I throw my sleeve down in fury. “I can give them food, but then what about the people in the city? Do you know how long the siege will last? Do you know what they will do to breach the city? Do you know how many more will come?!”
“I am the son of God and I have to take responsibility for everyone. Which weighs more, the lives out there or the one million lives in here?!”
Tears are brimming in his eyes. He’s as pale as a ghost and his hands are shaking nonstop. Finally, he falls onto his knees. “I am begging You, Your Majesty. Just give them something. Just a little. So they can stay alive…”
I take a deep breath and turn to face the wall. “Song Ruoming, you said they can drive a person crazy but have you really seen bloodshed? Have you seen the flash of a sword flying at you? Xu Zheng and twenty thousand men died on the battlefield. For what? For just three days! All so that the Yan would arrive at our city three days later! So that we have three more days to strengthen our defenses!” I spit venomously. “Did they ever say anything? No! They knew death was waiting for them! But they had no complaints! They all knew there cannot be survivors in an overturning ship!”
“If the refugees are so important, why did you not do anything about it before? All of you people know how to kneel there and intimidate me now, so why did you not try intimidating the empress dowager back then? I began taking refugees in since the day I ascended. Have I not done enough? The refugees have been around for such a long time, do you think it can all of a sudden be solved now? Where were you all when the floods plagued the South and took away the people’s homes?!”
“Those soldiers laid down their lives to salvage the country from destruction and now you want to push the country back to its destruction for those refugees?!” I’m practically screaming on the top of my lungs now. “Once the capital falls, it will be smooth sailing for the Yan. Do not tell me they can’t fight in water! That is all bullshit!”
Song Ruoming is staring down at the ground while trembling furiously.
I let out a deep breath and take a few steps back. “I shall overlook your disrespect towards me today. Get out and tell those auditors that this is my answer.”
He stays kneeling and starts sobbing quietly. I spin around. “Go find the Minister of Revenue and see how much he can afford to give you. However, let me make this clear that this will not happen again!”
“Th-thank You, Y-Your Majesty…”
The shouting has completely exhausted me. I fall onto the ground as shock and sorrow stirs in my heart. My mind is an utter mess and my body is numb and stiff. I can’t feel a thing.
Throwing down provisions and giving a helping hand and then letting them fend for themselves, ignoring them and shooting them down when they cross the boundary—is this right or wrong?
Cold sweat drips down my back. I can’t process a single thought and just feel so hopeless. I’ve treaded carefully and racked my brains, calculated and plotted every step of the way, only to come to this dilemma.
It is wrong.
But what would make it right?
They all look to me to give them a way out.
But who is going to give me a way out?
Liu An comes in and jumps in alarm after seeing me on the ground. He reaches out to help me up but I shake my head weakly. I don’t even want to talk so he edges out of the room.
I hug myself tight and curl my knees in, hiding my face in them.
The emperor is always determined and ruthless. No one ever sees the conflict and suffering inside.
I’m so tired. So cold. I just want to fall asleep and never wake up.
For a moment, it is as if I’ve gone back to that night when blazing flames were before me and murderous blades were behind me. It was perilous whether I advanced or retreated. There was nowhere for me to go.
I will never again have that embrace that held me warmly and brought me out of the reach of the sinister night terrors.
The next thing I know, I hear the horn blowing in my dream and I wake with a start.
ayszhang: This was probably the most intense chapter for me to translate! Han Xin lost his temper for the first time in this story!!! >A< Please come back tomorrow for ch 33! <3
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.