Proofreaders: krabbykabbi, Luzo, Pau & Red
Cold Sands ch 33
Is it Murong Yu and his army?!?!
I snap to attention and shoot up, the howl of the horn reverberating in my ears.
Dashing out the door, I startle the Golden Guardians standing guard but immediately, they run after me.
A sprinting soldier approaches me and gets down on one knee. “Your Majesty.”
“What is it?”
“Auditor Song led several dozens of other auditors in throwing out supplies to the refugees at An Shang Gate and caused a mob. The refugees and our soldiers were in a light scuffle when the Yan suddenly attacked.”
“What is the situation now?”
“The Yan started attacking Zhong Shan Gate while the auditors are fighting with the lieutenant. Things are chaotic now and Marshal Heng is on his way over there.”
My stomach twists anxiously.
Song Ruoming, why did you have to pick An Shang Gate out of all the gates?!
I get dressed speedily with the help of the servants and by the time I finish, a eunuch has already brought over a horse. I race through the city while my guards yell at the people to clear the path. The rickety ride rocks my mind back and forth into a mess.
An Shang is the weakest gate of the capital since it was completely ruined by warfare many years ago. Afterwards, the Ministry of Works never paid much effort into rebuilding it due to corrupt politics. The defensive requirement was ignored: no barbicans were built and the gate serves little purpose. Although we have dedicated a lot into repairing it, it takes more than a few cold days for a glacier to form—it couldn’t possibly be fixed over just a day or two.
I pucker my brows as I try to figure this thing out: was it Song Ruoming who chose An Shang Gate or was it the Yan?
Song Ruoming does not know much about warfare. Everything he has done is according to his own will. He must have chosen to pass out the clothes and food when he saw that there were a lot of refugees near An Shang.
Why would all the refugees be there out of the twelve gates?
The Yan could herd the refugees as they wished so…
I tighten my grip on the reins.
Then there is only one possible answer.
As I approach An Shang Gate, I see fires blazing and hear deafening roars. The walls are in chaos: the armed soldiers are in deadlock with a bunch of auditors wearing their court uniforms. Neither side backs down. A person, most likely the lieutenant, is pointing a nocked bow at the field outside the gate, and across from him is none other than Song Ruoming.
I don’t even know what to say about these auditors. All they do is stir up trouble when there is none and add to the problem when there is one.
The shrieks down there are mixed in with howls and the sound of heavy impact. The Yan must be hitting the gate with a battering ram.
The order to shoot down refugees caused a large uproar when it was announced and some elderly officials even exclaimed, “How coldblooded!” under their breaths.
The situation today is that the Yan are amongst the refugees so our soldiers can’t shoot recklessly. Not to mention, there are a bunch of auditors mixed in the ordeal.
The lieutenant’s veins bulge out on his forehead out of frustration. He draws the bow back more but Song Ruoming stands there, self-composed with his back to the crenel.
I can’t hold it in any longer. “Get out of my way!”
This startles everyone and they turn in my direction before getting down on their knees. Only Song Ruoming remains standing with his lips clipped. I step over all the kneeling people and lean out on the crenel.
The refugees below have formed a stampede, scurrying around like blind bats. There are some elderly and children amongst them. The land a bit farther away looks as if it has been plowed through. Many corpses are scattered about, dabbed with the colour of dirt and trampled over so much that no feature remains distinguishable.
The soldiers were already unhappy about the shooting order and now with these reckless auditors, they are not shooting at all. The Yan have taken this time to attack.
The escalades have already been set up against the smooth wall and footmen are rushing to charge up. Under the cover of shieldmen, the battering ram builds up momentum and smashes into the gate again and again with incredible power.
The two rows of bowmen are all ready but I can see the conflicting conscience in their eyes.
I hiss between clenched teeth, “Song Ruoming, get out of my way.”
“I can’t do that, Your Majesty!”
The earth starts to tremble rhythmically and a deep, dull sound resonates from below.
A line-up of heavy cavalry equipped with impenetrable armour that covers their horses as well seems to form a solid wall underneath the sunshine, even casting a thick shadow on the ground. They are not galloping at high speeds but are instead advancing one step at a time at a unified and collected pace, beating against the heart not too quickly nor too slowly.
“Kill!” The cavalrymen start to howl in unison, all collected as one.
They aren’t looking to charge forth. Instead, they are going to push the refugees towards the city and use them as their human shield.
“Help!” One person shouts. Instantly, the scream starts multiplying like a virus. Every refugee is scampering towards the city to escape from the metal hooves of the cavalry. They mingle in with the soldiers, desperately clawing at the flat wall.
The gate shakes and clangs with each impact, the metal chains clinking nonstop. Soldiers are yelling as they run amidst the flying swords and blood. Meanwhile, I, those auditors, the lieutenant and Song Ruoming seem to be in an alternate reality as we stay locked in this confrontation. It is actually so silly.
“I am saying this one last time, Song Ruoming. Move.”
He stubbornly shakes his head, his eyes filled with the iron-willed look I’m familiar with. He is making a meaningless request of mercy for those refugees with his own life.
Should I be glad or sad to have such an auditor?
He hasn’t changed but I have.
“Guards,” I speak through gritted teeth. “Send Auditor Song back to his manor.”
The soldiers beside me lunge forth. Song Ruoming struggles as he is being dragged away. His voice is almost hoarse. “No! Your Majesty! No!”
I already have the title of being coldblooded. Why not give them the whole package?
I snatch the bow from the lieutenant and dart over to the edge of the wall, nocking the arrow. The people behind me gasp out loud, to which I snap around and glare at them. “If you are too scared to shoot, I will do it with you!”
They all stare in bewilderment at me.
I scan them and scoff. “Are you all deaf or blind? Did you not hear my orders? Can you not see what is going on down there? If they do not die, we will!”
The next second, I release and the arrow shoots out as a bright flash, zooming through the air towards its target.
Someone lets out a painstaking scream but it quickly gets engulfed in the crowd.
“Release!” I bellow.
The lieutenant raises an arm and the bowmen step forward with eyes about to pop out from their sockets. Immediately, a shower of glistening arrowtips flies out over the people outside the city.
And then another.
It has become the land of the dead down below. Refugees and soldiers alike fall like dead weeds before they even realise what is going on. Dust dances in the air. Wails shake the heavens.
I close my eyes and the bow falls from my hand, hitting the ground with a crisp sound.
I can even hear the hissing sounds of hot blood spraying out. I don’t want to look at anyone’s eyes, whether they have guilt, blame or anger in them. It has nothing to do with me.
My hands have been stained once again with the blood of the innocent.
I shuffle forward stiffly.
I’ll just leave this to them. I’ve already done my share. Don’t need to worry about soldiers disobeying my orders again.
They clear a path for me. Everyone bows their heads and holds their tongues respectfully wherever I go.
Do they respect me or my identity? Or just my cold-hearted, callous ways?
I don’t want to look and I don’t want to think. I just want to get away from here. Away from this hell.
My personal guards trail far behind me quietly.
Amidst the lightheadedness, I can’t see anything and all I feel is this cold chill spreading from the bottom of my heart. I take a hard fall as I turn the corner of the stairs. I fall limp and slump against the city wall. Feeling the cold sweat dripping down my back, I close my eyes. I don’t want to see anything.
The guards haven’t drawn near, leaving me alone, panting.
“Murong Yu…” I mumble. I don’t even know what the hell I’m saying anymore.
Someone is calling for me. I can faintly hear ‘Your Majesty’ but I don’t want to listen. I just pant while holding onto the wall for support.
The person is still moving in front of me as a strange voice enters my ears. Suddenly frustrated, I stagger forward a few steps while holding onto the wall. I just want to get away from him but the person keeps following me. With my back against the cold wall, I slide down to the ground.
This is the first time I shot someone since ascension. My hands are stained with the blood of Rui citizens.
The Xie family, the Xu family, the disobedient officials and those maids and attendants—I’ve killed plenty and I had felt guilty, but never regretful.
But now, I regret it.
I slowly lower my hands from my eyes and stare dumbly at them. For a split second, I think I see rusty red on them.
I’m not a good emperor.
I can’t save everyone.
There seems to be a bit of despair that begins to extend from my heart to the rest of my body.
The person reaches out as though to help me up. I shake my head. A light sigh enters my ears and a shadow looms over me. Before I know it, I’ve been pulled up and someone’s warm hand is holding tightly onto mine. I’m led away by him like that to somewhere.
It’s as if I’m walking through a foggy night. Bright signal torches suddenly appear before me, glowing in a sickly green colour. From the skies above, an ocean of blood comes roaring towards me to drown me.
Where are you, Murong Yu? Why have you still not come yet?
I don’t want anything. I just want you to come and take me away from this terrible nightmare.
It’s his figure reaching out his hand from afar. I reach out to grab it but I lose my vision. The pull of gravity disappears for a moment and I snap my eyes open. Drapes are pulled low around the bed; I’m in my sleeping quarters and Murong Yu is nowhere to be seen.
I spring up to find my outer robes gone, leaving only the inner ones.
Recalling the dream earlier, I still feel my body temperature fluctuating wildly and the sweat wetting my clothes.
Liu An lifts up the drapes. “Ah, You’re awake.”
I let out a deep breath and jump off the bed. Liu An quickly helps me into an outer robe.
“How long was I asleep for?”
I walk over to the window and push it open, a cool breeze bursting in. I suddenly remember what had happened and can’t help but sigh. How could I be so stupid and lose my composure when there are so much for me to do? But I am curious as to whose hand it was that held mine.
I accidentally glance past the screen and see the figure standing in the other part of the room.
“Your Majesty left and was gone for quite some time. It was Marshal Heng who brought You back,” he tells me quietly. “You were not Yourself at the time and did not recognize anybody. The cleaning and changing were all done by him.”
I stand there, too stunned for words.
He’s standing right there, his presence like a silent guardian.
I give my face a rub as I walk out. “Marshal,” I call.
His frame shakes before he spins around. He doesn’t perform the rituals and just smiles. “Good morning.”
I smile back. “I owe You much for today.”
Heng Ziyu doesn’t show any surprise. “I’ve said, I will be by Your Majesty’s side no matter what.”
I nod and he flashes a toothy grin, looking at ease, which is rare to see. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him as relaxed as he is now. I always remember him having a frown and tightly pressed lips.
He’s still there, standing at a reachable distance away from me.
“How are things at An Shang?”
“We have temporarily held off the Yan’s attack.”
“How are the men?”
“In good spirits.”
I take a deep breath to steady my mood. “Marshal, what do you think of my actions?”
His gaze darkens and he sighs. “I understand Your difficulties, Your Majesty.”
I turn my head away to not see those concerned eyes. A short sigh and four little words make me want to look into those eyes of his. There is a weak bond of trust. There is a secret alliance. However, he’s been standing behind me without a complaint, like how he is still on my side now no matter how much the others blame and curse me.
Maybe I should say thanks to him even if it’s out of political appropriateness.
I’ve changed and I’ve lost many things along the way. The ones that remain after going through so many hardships seem all the more precious.
He takes a step closer. “Your Majesty, if I may, I ask that You come to the battlements now.”
I look back at him, at the face I’m so familiar with—the sharp, contrasted features, strong brows, animated eyes—and I feel as though the dizziness earlier never even happened.
He holds my hand in his and explains earnestly, “You lost composure at the battlements and although I escorted You back, it would be the best to go again now that You are all right to reassure the soldiers and the people.”
His hands move to my shoulders and he keeps his keen gaze on me. I open my mouth but I have nothing to say.
Indeed, I should go. It’s my responsibility.
The warmth that comes from his body drives away my shivers. I close my eyes and say with fatigue, “Okay.”
“Going after a few more hours’ rest is fine, too, if Your Majesty still feels tired,” he adds gently.
I open my eyes and look into his eyes. They are void of the usual hawk-like air but are instead warm and full of earnest worry like he truly cares for me.
“You don’t look too well,” he says as he reaches towards my face.
I hurriedly step back, leaving his hand in midair. He shows some surprise but it disappears from his face in an instant.
But I saw it. That fervent gaze in which the usual calmness and control is nowhere to be found. He was like a totally different person.
“If You could just step aside momentarily, I am going to get dressed.” I lower my eyes and turn away from him.
He opens his mouth to say something but in the end he leaves without a word.
I sigh. I really hope I am mistaken.
A gaze like that is too reckless and taboo; it is not what a subject should have for his ruler.
After washing up, I don the armour again and head to An Shang Gate on horse with Heng Ziyu.
I tell him about my speculations along the way and he frowns as he listens.
“So what You’re saying is that it was not a coincidence that the refugees gathered at An Shang Gate,” he confirms in a low voice.
I nod. “That is why I suspect that it’s likely that there are Yan agents in the city.”
“We have been searching for agents since the beginning but the population is so high it is almost impossible to go through everybody,” he analyses. “Not to mention, the agents must have been planted a long time ago if the Yan are bent on absorbing Great Rui.”
I glimpse the civilians cowering on the side of the road and sigh. How troublesome. It’s likely that what happened today will happen again if there are agents. Additionally, their actions would directly affect the civilians.
I remember Murong Yu saying that the city might be dead but the people in it are alive. This is what he must have meant.
As we approach An Shang Gate, a pungent odour of blood stings my nose. Many army doctors are carrying heavily wounded soldiers down. Broken weapons and limbs are scattered everywhere and the stairs are coated with blood.
After I get to the top, I let out a loud gasp. The moat is stuffed with floating corpses whose faces cannot be discerned. Bodies are strewn all over the vast plains a bit farther off in the distance, most of which are defenseless refugees and not Yan soldiers. The smell of dead bodies circulates in the air below like ghouls with a strong grudge.
There are even some moving amongst the piles of corpses. They extend out their bony hands and painstakingly crawl across a surface made of blood and broken bones. The battlefield exudes a foul odour from the rotting bodies of the past few days. Bones peek out from underneath the armour of the deceased soldiers and their weapons stay stuck in the soil, forming a sparsely grown forest.
Our soldiers are dirty and grimy as though they’ve just come back from hell. They are quivering but they stay upright like statue. The eyes that are shadowed by their helmets are wild and bloodshot.
The Yan army are still there in the distance. Without attacking, the cavalry succeeded in making the refugees run around like crazed bulls simply by coordinating the rhythm of their steps. The sunlight dances wildly off of their steel black helmets as they stand there in silence, forming a massive line of offense that stretches for several li like obsidian statues or a solid metal wall.
The endless, black ocean starts to stir from the nearby plains and a black flag rises into the wind, the emblem of an eagle blazing brightly.
An emblem with an eagle—the soaring bird was on his armour as well.
“The emblem of the eldest prince of Yan.” Heng Ziyu’s eyes darken. “A man like the eagle.”
The ocean that is the Yan army suddenly scatters out as though in fear of something. Two people come forth on horses, one ahead of the other, until the forefront. The man in front is wearing the familiar, glistening silver armour and is mounted on an ink black warhorse. Wielding a zhanma sabre, he draws closer from afar. His cape billows wildly in the brisk wind, appearing august and awesome as he approaches.
My heart is pounding furiously and I feel as if an invisible hand is choking my neck. I glue my gaze on that slowly moving figure and shudder.
It’s him. It’s him. It’s–
The black ocean of cavalry moves along with him, making the earth below shake with fury and driving up dust and dirt into a yellow storm. The ground quakes with every step, as if everything is going to crumble into pieces underneath their hooves. Whether it be bodies or bones, everything will be pulverised.
I close my fist tightly while a deep melancholy rises from the bottom of my heart, putting so much pressure on me that I can’t breathe.
I’ve pictured countless times what it would be like meeting again but I would have never thought it would be in the presence of thousands of soldiers. Seeing a figure that resembled him was enough to make me collapse but now that the real thing has come, I’m still standing tall on the battlement.
I still cannot distinguish his features from this distance so I trust that he cannot see mine either.
I just want to leave. You can call me weak or you can call me spineless, I just don’t want to stay here waiting for that heartrending moment to come. But my feet are glued to the ground. I can’t budge a single inch and can only watch dumbly as he gets closer and closer.
I’m not mistaken. It is him in the flesh.
In that moment, he looks up. We gaze at each other from afar and it’s as if there is a million miles between us.
I whisk my head around, unable to continue.
I shake my head while breathing hard, evading Heng Ziyu’s eyes. I start backing away. I do not have the courage to keep looking. A wave of dizziness hits me and a bitter emotion eats into my heart.
There are so many other people here. I don’t need to be here. Let me go. Let me go–
Heng Ziyu grabs my wrist extremely hard. “What’s the matter with You, Your Majesty?”
I fling his hand away as the world before me turns fuzzy. My mind is blank. There is only me left in this whole universe. A chill starts to creep through my body and lingers stubbornly.
“Your Majesty, please keep it together!”
Yes, I want to keep myself together, too. Could someone teach me how? I grit my teeth and push the garbled feelings down into my heart that feels like it is being shredded to pieces. Didn’t I already know this moment was going to come? But why am I still so fearful?
I close my eyes and sigh.
Oh well. Fate has decided everything and you have accepted your fate, right?
I just hope to face this while calm and collected so as to not put shame on my name and the royal blood within me.
Slowly, I open my eyes. He has halted his horse. He’s too far and all I can tell is that he has a serious expression.
Murong Yu, I only ask that you don’t recognize that this person is me.
Our deadlock is momentary and eternal.
He has stopped outside the range of the bowmen with heavy cavalry on either side of him, as well as the shieldmen in position. Behind him, Yuwen Yuan raises his saber and the ocean of cavalry starts to boil. Some hit their spear hilts against the ground while others knock their sabers and bows against their saddles, roaring, “Kill!”
Their deafening roar completely overwhelms everything else around them. Low and daunting, it is even making the walls vibrate.
That eagle is still soaring in the wind.
Slowly, Murong Yu raises his hand and they all fall quiet in an instant, leaving an uncomfortable silence.
He announces in a booming voice, “This is the Prince Royal of Yan, Prince Lie, Murong Yu. Presently, our army has surrounded this city and victory is inevitable. There is no benefit for you to fight as it only serves to stall your deaths. Surrender the city at once, or else,” his voice suddenly rises, “the day the city falls will be the day you perish!”
Everyone looks to me.
I take a deep breath and shout back, “Hear my words, Prince Lie of Yan down below, there is no need for chitchat. We welcome your attack for we shall die before surrendering! I stand here today, if the capital dies, then I shall die alongside every soldier and every citizen in this city! If God forbids and the city falls, we shall make you crawl through your own blood every step of the way! Better to die in glory than to live in vain!”
My passionate voice echoes while he stays quiet and looks in my direction. I can’t see his expression or his eyes clearly. Once the words left my mouth, I actually feel calm and composed, as if I have nothing to fear.
It’s so quiet it seems everything around me is frozen.
Suddenly, he yanks hard on the reins to charge forth but Yuwen Yuan is one step ahead of him and grabs him.
No kidding. Of course he can tell that from my voice.
I feel my eyes getting wet but I want to laugh for some reason.
This moment has finally come.
“Warriors, hear my orders! Those who back away are not sons of Great Rui; those who let even one Yan soldier past our gates will be the shame of Great Rui. And those who sacrifice themselves today shall be heroes!”
I feel his piercing gaze on me, as sharp as a blade, as bright as lightning, threatening to puncture my armour and penetrate my soul.
“If so, we shall see it through to the end and see who gets the last laugh!” Yuwen Yuan sounds as cold as always but I think he’s smiling. “I look forward to our meeting then!”
I clench my teeth and pull back, the soldiers taking my place immediately.
Any more talk now is only futile. We cannot go back to before. We have already become enemies of one another. Well, more accurately, we were enemies since the beginning. What happened before is just a story of the past.
I didn’t have the courage to think what kind of distress meeting him would cause. Only when, out of nowhere, he was really standing before me did I truly understand that the times past cannot return just as yesterday will never come again.
No, never again.
I can’t help but take one more look. He has already turned his horse around and rode into the mass of soldiers. The thin flake of snow that is his silver helmet is quickly engulfed by the black, metallic ocean, gradually leaving without a trace.
He disappears from my sight without even once turning back to look.
In a few moments’ time, he has already gone from loving to hating me.
I’ll just blame it on my being thin on love. I’ll…
Just let him hate me from now on so I can wait for that day, if it does come, when I can die without a single regret or worry for this world.
By the end of the day, the Yan army of two hundred thousand strong has gathered at the capital—now only a stranded island.
ayszhang: Hehe, I know you guys are probably feeling cheated >u> Who else was disappointed that Yuwen Yuan stopped Murong Yu from charging up to Han Xin?
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.