Proofreaders: Gwen, krabbykabbi, Luzo, Pau & Red
Cold Sands ch 34
With Murong Yu and his army of 200k, things don't look too good for Rui...
I take the wine glass and my eyes skim past the rim to Heng Ziyu who is sitting beside me.
I haven’t gone back to the palace and insisted on staying here. Although I came up with a bunch of elaborate reasons but I guess I unconsciously just want to be a little closer to him.
I scoff lightly. How close could I possibly get though?
I take a small sip. The sweetness of this wine lingers in my mouth for a long time.
“You don’t look too well,” he remarks as he holds his glass, not drinking from it. I can feel his intense gaze on me even though I have my head lowered. Acting as though I haven’t heard him, I smartly change the subject.
“This wine, it’s bagui wine.”
“A delicacy of the South.” He cracks a smile. “Fragrant and alluring but one would not become intoxicated no matter how much she drinks; this wine was originally made for the noblewomen at banquets.”
I drink it all in one gulp. “I am glad You are still in the mood for such pleasures.”
He just smiles without replying. I glance at the soldiers walking to and from while playing with the glass, and lose the appetite to drink. Just now, I had felt powerful and sat tall but now my body is turning cold—cold and lonely.
“Your Majesty, if I may ask, why are You so glum? Do you have something on Your mind?” Heng Ziyu’s voice calls me back to reality. I look up at his concerned eyes but only shake my head a little.
He pushes after a pause, “You can confide in me if You trust me.”
Without replying, I close my eyes and continue rubbing the cool glass. My disguise must not adequate enough after all for him to be able to see through it. Of course, I’m exasperated but more likely, I feel helpless.
“I understand it is very difficult for You. I would like to do my best to help with Your troubles since we’re on the same team.”
He places his hand on my arm and refills the wine without another word.
The confidence and poise I have been faking immediately crumbles to nothingness and all that’s left behind in me is bitterness and fatigue.
I down the glass of liquor, the sugary alcohol turning bitter as it slides down my throat.
“Well, it’s nothing really. Just missing someone, that’s all.” I don’t want to look at him. Then, after a moment, I chuckle. “Just a thing of the past.”
He refills the glass and comments, “That sounds like nothing but missing someone is taxing and the most painful.”
I laugh carelessly and pour more wine for myself, drinking it all with the bottom up.
“Could it be that You’re missing the owner of the xiao? If the two of you share the same feelings, You can just bring her back to the palace and marry her, right?” He has a small smile but his eyes say otherwise. They look a bit odd.
“I said it’s a thing of the past.” Staring at the tiles, I scoff with a bit of self-mockery. “We couldn’t stand each other when we first met and arguments and bickering were commonplace. Even though there were some feelings in the bloom, I had no idea.”
“And then?” he asks.
I laugh with the aid of the alcohol buzz. “And then? And then we went our separate ways. Separated for good and never to meet again.” The pain is so much that I smile instead. “No matter how strong the love, it can never stand against time or destiny.”
I squint and continue as though I’m talking to myself, “Sometimes I look back and think that I was really stubborn. I mean, why did I leave when I had love?” I heave a deep sigh. “Look at me now. We shouldn’t meet and we can’t meet.”
“Can’t You rekindle old flames?”
“It’s too late.” I stare at the patterns on the glass and scoff. “That person thinks I’ve betrayed and lied. I won’t be forgiven.”
He just watches me quietly. I pour glass after glass down into my stomach. It’s so bitter I can’t even begin to describe it.
“Stop, Your Majesty.”
He snatches my glass away and grabs my wrist. Annoyed, I tear my arm away. He sweeps his hand across and the bottle flies out and shatters into bits and pieces.
After the crack, I hear his voice coming from behind. “There will be time to drink after the war if Your Majesty wants to do so. You are the role model of the court officials and the head of our people. You cannot–”
Responsibility this, duty that. Every word he says just makes me ache more. I can’t handle this torture.
“Enough!” I push his hand away.
“Everyone tells me I have responsibilities, I have duties, I have to be responsible for this country! But did anyone consider if I wanted to do this or not?” I chuckle. “Yes! I’m the emperor but I’m also a person!”
“I’m forced to accept responsibilities that weren’t supposed to be mine. I can’t live my own life. I have to sacrifice my everything. And what am I left with when I take off that crown? Nothing, I tell you!”
I tilt my head back and smile bitterly.
He is still, his hand in midair, as he watches me.
I feel so miserable but I have to smile. I don’t want to lose all my composure but it’s not something I can easily hold back.
Every sentence and every word digs and grinds into me.
“Your Majesty…” Guilt flashes across his eyes.
Trying to repress the melancholy, I feel cold and exhausted. “I am tired and do not wish to continue this talk. I will leave this to–”
Before I get to finish, I feel turbulence in the air whooshing past my ear.
Suddenly, a booming sound rocks the world. Heng Ziyu lunges forward and catches my wobbling body. The two of us fall hard onto the ground. I’m sprawled out on the ground, frightened and angry. I try to lift my head up but he presses down over me, shielding me.
I hear bewildered shouts and the sound of something heavy hitting the ground. There’s thick, stinging smoke in the air and even little embers. I can’t see anything and the weight on top of me makes it hard to breathe.
“Wh-what’s going on?”
“Please, please remain calm, Your Majesty.”
Heng Ziyu is still lying on my back. I twist my neck around to look and I feel another violent attack. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a huge flaming rock falling from the sky and exploding, the blazing flames seeming to lick me. The burning fragments from the impact scatter over the battlements like a rain of fire.
I do a double take and clutch his sleeves. “Are we under attack?”
He purses his lips and looks down at me, his breath hitting my face. His mouth opens and his eyes stay locked on me as if to say something but before he can, there is another deafening boom accompanied by a whistle and blast of scorching air. The two of us both start and he flattens himself, protecting me with his body. He holds my hand tightly and stiffens himself. Despite his slow breathing, I can still feel the broiling heat.
His eyes are right there but I don’t want to look at them.
The sharp yelling is still around me, along with showers of embers and black, looming smoke that seems to have swallowed everything. Burning chunks keep falling down from the sky and landing in front of me.
After who knows how long…
Right when I feel like I’m going to suffocate or choke to death, the weight on me suddenly disappears. I take big breaths of air as I’m helped up. Heng Ziyu beside me is looking off elsewhere and his face is flushed, probably from the thick smoke.
Our eyes meet for a moment before dancing apart. I walk towards the battlements but wobble from a violent burst of air. A soldier steadies me, advising, “The Yan are catapulting burning rocks and have lit fires by the moat. The air is thick with smoke. It’s best if Your Majesty didn’t go!”
Heng Ziyu bends over a little and coughs before going up to the battlements in large strides, ignoring all the voices persuading him not to.
From this elevated position, I see that a dark veil of smoke has risen around the city. Blazing fires can be seen from time to time as thick clouds of smoke shoot skyward, like a huge, black curtain enshrouding the battlements and our vision. The pungent odour of burning pine oil wafts over as fireballs fly through the sky overhead before exploding. The soldiers yelp as they scatter and scamper to dodge the flaming bits.
The rocks are heavy and hot and cause serious injuries when hit. It also has the acidic tang of sulphur that makes one’s eyes tear. The bowmen on the walls not only cannot see what is going on outside but they also can’t aim. With their eyes red and swollen from the smoke, they can only fire blindly.
“We can’t aim properly like this, Marshal.”
Heng Ziyu shouts back determinedly, “Doesn’t matter! Just shoot!”
Another person dashes to him, falling to his knees. “Marshal! The Yan are shooting burning rocks covered with beef tallow at the gate. The flames grew and immediately surrounded the entire gate!”
“The gates are solid steel!”
“Yes! But the impact from the rocks is too much. The gates are shaking furiously from it and could fall apart any moment now. We’re trying to hold it back but it’s too hot!”
The Yan footmen navigate through the layers of smoke and cross the moat, using hooked ladders to climb the walls. Our soldiers, despite choking and crying from the smoke, are still holding the defensive line. More and more people clash at sword’s point. Blades stab into flesh and blood splatters out along with a shiny flash from the metal that has become red from the flames from all around.
The onslaught continues through the whole night.
The catapults keep launching burning rocks and wood towards the city. Several hundred thousand jin of lumber are lumped against the walls, aflame, the roaring fire illuminating the starless night. The sky looks as if it were about to catch on fire and fall upon the earth.
Close to dawn, flames spark amidst the smoke and as the earth shudders violently along with the sound of shattering stone and crackling wood, Xi Zhi Gate breaks open. Numerous lighthorses surge in, forcing the Rui soldiers there to use themselves as bait to lure them into the barbican. Countless bowmen fire in unison from up above and the arrows fall down like a storm. Men and horses wail as they die and all that is left in the barbican are mounds of bodies.
Heng Ziyu takes the lead and commands the retaliation from the walls.
Under the furious attack, both sides have gone into a state of bloody frenzy, metamorphosing into beasts as they howl and leap at each other. The Yan forces outside the city are held back by the arrow shower and become unable to manoeuvre. The entire wall is ablaze, the stone walls having caught on fire at last.
The last round of the hysterical assault finally comes to a close near daybreak.
Heng Ziyu descends the wall, his armour stained with blood. It glows faintly red under the day’s first rays, bathing him in a bloody mist. Holding his steel sabre, he falls to his knees several steps away from me.
Painstakingly, I give him a nod as I hold his gaze.
It doesn’t matter what I want or what he wants; how he sees me or how I see him; or what we think of each other, we completely agree on this one thing.
The heavily wounded are brought down for medical help. The Ministry of Revenue amasses workers to bury the corpses. By noontime, all bodies have been transported to an open area. The workers haul over the bodies, piling them in layers and spraying oils on each one. The layers become a mountain which the soldiers are pouring pine oil on. A crowd of mourners hold their heads low in the far end and the young soldiers can’t help their shivering.
“It is finished, Marshal.” A soldier drops on one knee before Heng Ziyu, to which he hums a reply.
I am so exhausted I don’t even want to talk. I mutter without moving my lips too much, “Light it.”
With my order, my soldiers encircle the mound of corpse and pitch their torches out with all their strength. The torches fall on the pine oil and immediately, fire shoots up into the sky and licks at the corpses hungrily with its fiendish tongue. As the flames gyrate, a disgusting smell is emitted, making me want to puke.
I stand there. Heng Ziyu stands there. Everyone just stands there.
The smoke has almost enshrouded the sky. Facing these slowly darkening corpses that are turning into ash, my mind is utterly blank.
How long is this murder going to last?
An eternity seems to have passed.
When the pile has almost burned out, I hold up a glass of wine and shout, “You all are the heroes of Great Rui!” I pour the liquid on the ground.
The soldiers start sobbing quietly and finally, one of the younger ones cannot hold it in anymore. He falls to the ground, bawling. Heng Ziyu’s personal guards quickly drag him away but his cries still linger in my ears.
Heng Ziyu comes up to me after the others leave. “What should we do about the Yan soldiers’ bodies?”
“Find some place and burn it, too,” I utter calmly, “They had fathers and mothers, too. Let us not humiliate the dead.”
I continue watching the last, dwindling embers clinging on the ashes. I don’t want to speak. He stands beside me without a word. The embers gradually die out in the wind and disappear amidst the cinders.
“What are You thinking about, Your Majesty?”
“Nothing in particular.”
“You don’t look well.”
I pull a thin smile. “Marshal, do You remember what I had told you before?”
He falters a bit before regaining his composure. “Yes.”
“Would you forgive the person if he lied to you and betrayed you?”
“And that is why,” I sigh sorrowfully, “it is too late. Now that it has come to this, the old flames cannot be rekindled if a miracle does not happen.”
I know fairly, if not fully, well what kind of person Murong Yu is. I knew before I even met him that what he is after is an empire and to rule that empire. To be able to grow up in a cold, hostile palace and to be able to receive his father’s adoration, it is clear to see how cruel, how conniving and how determined he is.
How could I ever fathom him stopping his advance for Han Xin?
Not to mention, that man named Han Xin is already gone.
The warmth and bond we once had, the intimacy and romance we once had weighs less than a feather when compared to his conquest for this land.
The melancholy overwhelms me and I turn my head, flashing a smile to Heng Ziyu. “Shall we go, Marshal?”
It is already the latter half of November. The autumn showers keep falling restlessly.
Our troops have suffered from the multiple attacks by the Yan, the casualties increasing day after day. The piles of burnt corpses. The blood-dyed walls. Every soldier appears absolutely exhausted. The more despairing thing is that no matter which direction I look in, all I can see is a field of black.
Besieged, the capital has lost contact with the outside world. Even the secret pigeon post has become sparse.
I’ve been debating whether or not to tell Heng Ziyu about the Yan capital, Yongjing. I had it in my mind last night during our meeting and the words were at the tip of my tongue but I gulped it back down in the end.
He looked hesitant as well when he was about to leave, like he wanted to say something. His eyes were unusually bright under the shadows cast by the candlelight.
I’m sitting in Su Yu Chamber surrounded by thin veils from all around, the Imperial Lake not far from sight. The moist air blows through the chamber and causes rings upon rings of ripples on the water.
A light scent of agarwood wafts in the air, as mild as water. I awoke with a fright in the middle of the night again yesterday, entirely soaked with sweat. My temples are thumping painfully and all I can do is temporarily suppress it with this kind of soothing incense.
Time seems to pass by really fast, or maybe really slow, since the siege started. Out of nowhere, I realise I haven’t taken a good look at myself for a long time.
Shaking my head, I get rid of those haphazard thoughts and unfold the memorial.
After Song Ruoming was dragged down and imprisoned in his manor, nobody, not even those usually annoying auditors and conceited officials who have served multiple emperors, dare say a single word about the war. The hair-raising mounds of white skeletons just lie exposed in the dirt under the sun, as though completely forgotten.
Currently, the troops in the capital number just a little above ninety thousand. The Yan troops outside were originally two hundred thousand but now no one knows just how many there are. We have suffered great decreases due to casualties and things don’t look very good. The Minister of Defense wrote in a memorial asking for permission to recruit young men into the army and engage in emergency training in preparation as back-up. I granted it.
The only thing that I don’t have to worry about is a shortage of food.
It will be winter in less than one month. Yan is in the north and receives snowfall much earlier. I’m sure the Yan troops are more worried about food than I am. The only thing I have to do now is stall them with everything I’ve got until something happens in Yongjing and wait for problems to come up with their army provisions. But when that would happen, no one knows.
Liu An quietly enters the chamber. “There has been a problem, Your Majesty.”
“Some people have begun showing unusual symptoms since yesterday night: dark colouration on the skin, spasms through the body. It looks like…” he presses his voice lower, “The army doctor with expertise in the area said it looks like poisoning.”
I stare at him in surprise. “How many people have showed these symptoms?”
“According to the report, camps One, Two and Four have all shown them.”
I’m so stunned that I’m shaking a little. It’s not that I didn’t think that the Yan would tamper with and envenom the water. It’s just that these three camps, numbering around twenty thousand men, are the ones in charge of night duty. There could not possibly be so many people ill in just one night no matter how many spies there were. There are already three camps affected and even though it hasn’t caused death, it has only worsened the situation.
He shakes his head, replying quietly, “Unclear as of now. The second lieutenant notified Marshal Heng first and he has gone over there.”
“Where are the victims located?”
“Mostly in the northeast of the city. The mayor reported saying that there are quite a few civilians in that area with the same symptoms as well.”
My heart starts thumping. The capital’s water comes from the mountain ranges in the northeast. The Yan have taken control of the surroundings so it’s not surprising that they found the water source.
The food is still plentiful and the young men in the city can be transformed into fighting power but this water problem is a critical hazard. Without water, a city cannot last for a long-term siege.
To poison the water source—my jaw clenches—is just wicked.
Soon after, Heng Ziyu brings an army doctor along to see me. He has a stony expression and only waves his hand without even a word. The doctor steps forth with his back bowed, holding a porcelain platter.
“Yes.” There is a bowl of clear water on the platter. “It appears to be crow-dipper, dried wolfsbane root, dried monkshood root, poison nut, cobra lily and the likes. These herbs are highly poisonous to begin with and the potency only increases when stewed together.”
I hold the bowl up to my nose and sniff it, a faint wisp of herby scent hitting the inside of my nose.
“Those who fall victim to it show symptoms of darkening facial skin, spasms, irritation and respiratory problems. A doctor with experience with poisons said these are exactly the symptoms of having consumed these herbs.
I place the bowl on the table and somehow calm down.
“I have already sent people northeastward to examine every well in the area. These herbs smell like the moss and algae at the bottom of the wells at first sniff so people were not wary.”
“All right. You are dismissed,” orders Heng Ziyu.
The doctor leaves with his back bent. Heng Ziyu sits cross legged across me while staring at that bowl of water. Our eyes meet and without any exchange of words, we understand how serious this is.
“The doctor already said most of it. Allow me to finish the rest.” He coughs. “Three thousand men have fallen ill and are not mobile. Thirty or so dead. Over ten thousand showing symptoms.”
“How many can fight?”
“Three thousand cannot move anymore. The doctors have started to treat the ten thousand or so with milder symptoms but it’s nearly impossible to gather the required medicine all of a sudden.”
“Get the Ministry of Revenues to arrange it. There are so many pharmacies and doctors in the city. If it is not enough, there is the Imperial Hospital.”
He nods as I continue looking at him. “Have You investigated the method of poisoning?”
His gaze turns hard after a short silence. “I have. The Yan added the poison into the water source in the northeast. The poison flowed into the city with the water and the soldiers fell victim to it first because they needed to drink during night duty.”
As he says this, his face pales and veins start bulging out. His eyes scream murder.
“How many more days?” I ask after a pause.
“With the amount of rain we have been getting these days, the water flow is quite fast. If the Yan do not continue to add poisons, it should be cleared within ten days.”
I look up at him. “And if they continue to?”
He comes to a full stop, staring at me with bewilderment. I nod weakly and his lips purse together tightly.
It’s so quiet.
The fat drops of rain from the downpour outside hit the thin curtains, quickly soaking them. The candle flames flicker restlessly in the brutal weather before going out in the end.
Darkness falls upon the chamber. I can’t see his face in the dark, only his eyes that are glowing like stars.
He starts coughing. I have nothing to say to him so I just pour him a cup of hot tea and push it towards him. He nods a bit. “Thanks, Your Majesty.”
“If only we knew, we could have set up a watch by the water source.” I sigh deeply.
“I had already expected that they would poison the water when we started to strengthen the city’s defenses, so I prepared for it. I built canals and a reservoir and the water must pass inspection before it goes to the reservoir.”
I nod, feeling more assured. “To poison a million people is very difficult. Not to mention, the water is moving which means the poison is constantly being washed away, unable to linger.”
“I asked the doctors. The cure is not hard to make and as long as the person pukes it out in time, he will be fine. But it will take some time.” He pauses. “The point is that they–”
“Are trying to force us out,” I finish his sentence.
Heng Ziyu nods a little. “That’s right. Poisoning the water will certainly affect innocent civilians. They see the murders in the past few days but they themselves haven’t been personally involved so they are able to stay calm.”
I feel my mood darkening. He is right. The commoners haven’t reacted strongly solely because there are soldiers protecting them. Once the carnage dawns upon them and they lose faith, we will have one more enemy to deal with.
With that said, there really isn’t anything else to say.
It’s his hoarse voice that disturbs the silence. “Your Majesty, I have something to say.”
I nod while holding the tea cup with both hands. He lowers his head, as if to look at the tea. “I brought eighty thousand men with me when I came up north. This we all know.” He then heaves a long sigh. “And most of them have died in these battles.”
Tiredly, I nod my head and say in a tone that sounds unusually solemn in the darkness. “There are currently only ninety-something thousand soldiers in the city. The Yan still have mounted cavalry, mounted infantry and mounted bowmen. Just from these two points, the result of taking the battle outside of the city seems apparent.”
He hesitates, his eyes flicking to me before flitting away. “Lingzhou. I still have fifty thousand men there. Lighthorse.”
Startled, I snap my head up. In just a moment, I understand what he means.
Indeed, he had other plans when he came up north. He couldn’t possibly show his entire hand to the court so he hid a part of it. Even if Great Rui loses half of the kingdom, with his power in the South and the natural barricades of the Qihe River, he would be the last one laughing.
Shivers run through me. Just how many things is this person still hiding from me?
He was born a commoner and as a warrior, to be able to survive amidst the civil officials and nobles, even moving up all the way to the top, he could not have only relied on his deadly sword.
He continues without a rush, “The Yan army is not a solid piece of steel either. Aside from the eldest prince, there are also the second and third princes. Have You ever considered that?”
I close my eyes at the dull pain in my chest. However, an intuitive spark flashes across my mind and it hits me.
The Yan could have done so many other things, why have they chosen to use this method?
Contaminating the water is the last ace up one’s sleeves. Results can be seen very quickly but it is too savage. As long as something else can be done, no warfare strategists would recklessly choose to do this.
I believe Yuwen Yuan could do this but Murong Yu…not likely. If he could treat the body of a lord of Great Rui with respect and let the prisoners of war keep wake for him, then he would not do something so evil.
Also, the reports from Master Liao these days seem to tell of something brewing in the dark.
Then there is only one possibility.
The more I think, the clearer it becomes.
After I gather everything that has happened in the past days, the puzzle pieces come together perfectly.
Something has happened in Yongjing!
A Chinese barbican
An semi-enclosed area immediately behind the city gates, used for defense strategies like the one used by the Rui soldiers in this chapter. This prevents the intruders from having direct access to the city after the main gates have broken down.
This is the actual barbican of the original city walls of Xi'an (the modern city has expanded much farther past the walls).
The special kind of chamber mentioned above.
Built above water, this type of architecture is typical of the Jiangnan-style. The one in the picture is located in Suzhou. I couldn't find an adequate translation for it so I opt to just show you what it looks like!
The special kind of chamber mentioned above.
Built above water, this type of architecture is typical of the Jiangnan-style. The one in the picture is located in Suzhou. I couldn't find an adequate translation for it so I opt to just show you what it looks like!
ayszhang: >A< Summer school started for me this week so I won't be checking comments as frequently as the past two weeks or so :(
On another note, I think I will try to finish CS before I leave for Asia because I won't be able to go on Blogger when I'm in China...and I really want to be here when the story ends! And I couldn't possibly make you guys wait until the end of July when I go to Korea (where Google and its products aren't banned!), so I will work very hard to post the last extra in the week of June 21st (my flight to HK is on the 28th). But in the case I am not here, as in where I am now, when the story ends...T_T I will try to break through the firewall with VPN to be with you all!!! >A< /
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.