Proofreaders: Gwen, krabbykabbi, Luzo, Pau & Red
Cold Sands ch 35
With the situation back home, what is Murong going to do?
The sky is so low right now that it looks as if it is about to fall on the capital.
It darkens and large balls of storm clouds loiter up above, weighing down on everyone’s heads and hearts.
Speechlessly, I walk through the lodgings of casualties.
It is true that Great Rui’s martial prowess is lacking; military facilities have never been the Ministry of Works’ top priority. This place is actually the best out of the defense troops stationed by the city walls but the air circulation and lighting are not particularly ideal. A strong stench of rusty blood hits my nostrils the moment I step in. The injured and ill soldiers lie parallel to each other on an unadorned kang covered by dying straw and a thin sheet, too weak to perform the rituals.
The army doctor, with his face puckered up, leads in front while I trail slowly behind, scanning every one with pale faces. Each soldier looks worse than the next. Some are ghastly white, some are waxy yellow and others are steely black. They groan with their dried, cracked lips. Some have their eyes closed but most are open, their desire to live shining through.
“Are there enough medicine?”
The doctor answers, “Some officials sent over large quantities of herbs this morning. It should not be a problem for now.”
I nod and continue forward. “And how are the poisoned persons?”
He catches up after a falter. “All three thousand who were poisoned have been given medicine to induce vomiting. Other than the ones who were too serious, most of them are in recovery. The others who had shown symptoms are getting better, too.”
Beneath my feet are bloodstained bandages, so dirty that I cannot even tell their original colour. In the air is a revolting smell of blood mixed with the stench of rotting muscle. I frown but don’t say anything.
I’m just too familiar with this kind of smell.
After much hesitation, the doctor comes up to me and whispers, “Your Majesty, I have something to tell You.”
I signal my permission but he adds, “Let us speak outside, Your Majesty.”
Despite not understanding why, I walk out the building. He bows down. “Your Majesty, the water problem cannot be delayed any further. The soldiers who have been made to vomit need clean water for rehydration. There is also clean water for regular usage. This has kept me awake at night with worry.”
I think back to the dried, cracked lips of those soldiers. Although Heng Ziyu had thought of a plan beforehand, we are still in a terrible situation. Canals and a reservoir have been built and the well water needs to pass inspection before entering the reservoir. Despite this, it does not meet the demand.
Everything must be done with holding against the siege as the first priority.
I look up and sigh. I might hold the ultimate power now but I can’t make water appear out of thin air.
After some deliberation, I tell the official from the Ministry of Revenue, “Transport some water out from the palace for now.”
He immediately rejects, “We cannot do that, Your Majesty.”
“Why not?” I sigh. “The palace does not require that much water. What is wrong with giving it to the soldiers?”
When Emperor Shun built the capital city, he found two springs in the mountains, one closer to the surface and the other hidden further in. Thus, he redirected the deeper spring to the palace to use as a water supply separate from the rest of the city. It has already been found that the palace’s water is not contaminated and is safe for consumption.
I’m not sure how to comment on this action of Emperor Shun’s. He was very cunning and ruthless but I owe it to this that we are not backed up in a dead end.
The official bows down warily and leaves. I nod to the doctor, saying, “It will be solved shortly.”
As I walk through the boisterous camp, I feel strangely light on my feet. Once upon a time, I was one of them. Things weren’t so serious then. I didn’t even have to think about what I had to do the next day. Now I must be responsible for everyone’s future while being completely clueless about my own.
“Your Majesty,” an official from the Ministry of Defense reports from behind, “we have received a message from the scouts hiding outside the city.” I nod, signalling him to continue. “The rough estimate of the Yan forces is approximately one hundred and seventy thousand, however…”
“However what?” I urge.
“There have been people going in and out of the Yan camp these past several days. They look like delegates but they act strangely for one. Also, there seems to have been small disturbances amongst the soldiers.”
Hearing this, I kind of get the picture.
It appears my efforts with Yongjing have finally brought about results and Master’s plans are also proving useful. I thought I had to hold strong until the end of December but now that people are entering and leaving the camp, it is a sign.
December has just begun and there are signs of snowfall here. I’m afraid Yan is already five feet in snow.
Heng Ziyu showed me his aces. Lingzhou, three hundred li from the capital, has never been a military center so no one pays attention to it. Three hundred li is not far for lighthorses but these are all his assets in the north so it must be used as a last resort. It’s best to not utilise them when the situation is still unclear.
I am still debating whether or not to tell him about Yongjing. Seeing that he was honest with me, I should be honest with him as well. But I’m still debating and I don’t know why. Maybe I really am inherently suspicious and wary.
I’m too afraid to fully trust someone. Perhaps emperors are like this, both mistrustful and reliant on those around them, both honest and cautious.
I was born skeptical. I even have to exhaust all my resources to fend off, to fight that one person.
In the evening, I summon Pei Yuan who is in full armour and looking extremely alert. After asking him about the recent status of the Golden Guardians, I abruptly change the topic. “How many can be deployed?”
He looks up and takes a glance at me before bowing his head down once more. “In reply to Your Majesty, there are only twelve thousand now. There were five thousand before You ascended to the throne. It has been increasing since and now there are seven thousand main troops and five thousand back-up.”
I nod a little. “How well can the five thousand fight?”
“If it’s ability we are talking about, the seven thousand are undoubtedly stronger.” He pauses momentarily. “There are also three thousand cavalrymen who are stronger as well.”
I rest my head on my hand and lean on the arm of my seat.
The regular defense forces are already worn out and the poison ordeal didn’t help the situation at all. I thought about this idea because I had no other choice.
“Hand over the seven thousand to Marshal Heng. The five thousand will take over the protection of the royal palace.”
His head snaps up and he stares at me in bewilderment.
“The defenses are under pressure. The palace has been fine so far. I do not think the five thousand will have much trouble simply guarding the palace,” I explain steadily. “The defense forces are fighting with their lives on the line. The Guardians should put in their fair share, too.”
He replies after faltering, “I agree, Your Majesty, but the Golden Guardians are all sons of nobles, born with a silver spoon. They might hate the Yan with a burning fury but they could very well lose their lives if they were to suddenly engage with even a small number of Yan troops.”
I scoff, sounding very cold. “No one can hide from their duties when the country is in danger. Are you afraid that those nobles will find you responsible?”
He bows down immediately. “I dare not.”
“If they do, tell them to come find me.”
I’m angry but I do not show anything on my face as I watch him get up and leave. Out of nowhere, I call out to him.
He comes to a halt, his shadow elongated by the candles.
“I would like to ask you something,” I venture cautiously.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“How is,” I stutter, “Ruoming doing?”
His frame jerks once before turning still again. “Thank You for Your concern, Your Majesty. Auditor Song has been doing well in his manor.”
A sudden feeling of helplessness gushes into me. I pull a small smile but it feels so miserable.
One of my best friends was gone the moment I ordered the soldiers to drag Song Ruoming away and another one is going to leave me, too.
“I… I have many struggles too. I hope you two can understand.”
His silhouette stays unmoved. “Everything You do is correct,” he says flatly.
My lips contort into a pained smile. “You may leave.”
It’s nothing. Really, it’s nothing.
I already knew that emperors are lonely. No one would understand how helpless and painful an emperor is. They only see him sitting in that throne of his, looking down with his murderous eyes.
For some reason, I start missing Murong Yu now.
Maybe leaving that day really was a mistake?
Leaning against the ta, I start flipping through the war reports. Just after I read past two lines, drowsiness overwhelms me and I let my eyelids drop. In my dream, I think I see that familiar figure again, walking towards me. I can’t make out the face but I sense the anger.
I hear quiet chitchat coming from outside the hall but I don’t want to bother with it. I turn my back to it and keep sleeping.
“What?! The Yan are attacking again?” Liu An gasps out loud.
Any signs of sleep disappear. “What is the matter?” I demand loudly.
Liu An rushes in with a distressed expression. “Your Majesty, the Yan has just begun to attack the Yong Yang, An Shun, An Shang, Shang Wu, Xi Zhi and five other gates. The battle is horrifying.”
I shoot up, snapping to attention. “Why?”
He answers fearfully, “We do not know the specifics.”
Then I hear heavy boots from outside the door before it bursts open and Heng Ziyu walks in. Fully armoured and sporting a stern expression, he bows down to perform the rituals but I’m not in the mood to think about whether he is following rules or not and I don’t have enough time for him to perform them. “What is going on now, Marshal?”
He tells me with his hand on his sword hilt, “At the Hour of the Pig, the Yan troops initiated attack on Yong Yang Gate, An Shun Gate and eight other gates. Our soldiers met with them in a hurry. I have given orders for absolute defense.”
“How many are they?”
“Uncertain as of now but at first glance, they are so many, I estimate that at least half of the Yan army is present.”
“And how about us?”
“With ten gates under attack, our forces are stretched thin. I have moved out all of our men!”
Our gazes connect.
Just as I try to get up, he stops me. “It’s best if You did not go, Your Majesty!” Then he dismisses Liu An and continues when the latter has left. “Your Majesty, should I summon the fifty thousand men in Lingzhou?”
He is so close I can see all the blood vessels crawling in his eyes, the black battle robe resting on shoulders that are modest in breadth, his hand on his sword and his eyes that look like a leopard on the hunt about to strike at any time.
Flashes of fire reach inside the hall. Murderous calls and the clashing of metal ring in my ears.
He has showed me his hand and we have been in the same boat since the beginning, so I should tell him my secret too.
I shake my head with determination. “Rest assured, Marshal. I have something to tell You.”
He frowns as his lips tighten into a thin line. I nod and tell him quietly, “I believe the attack tonight is happening because they are on their last resort!”
His head snaps up and incredulity flashes in his eyes. I start explaining, leaving out trivial details, before he can question.
“The prince royal was not born to the empress and his mother died young so he does not have a strong footing in the country. The empress bore two sons. The uncle of these two legitimate sons is the powerful right minister. The emperor is displeased with the disobedient nature of the two legitimate sons and also with the empress’ clan having too much power. The left minister is a Xiao, belonging to the empress dowager’s clan which is allied with the emperor’s house, and strongly opposes the empress’ people having too much power. He has supported the prince royal but up until now, the two sides have been evenly matched. At the beginning of the war, I sent trusted persons to infiltrate Yan. After much investigation, we have discovered that the Yan emperor is on his last breaths and rarely has a clear head. The second prince, with the help of his uncle, started to amass an army in preparation for a battle for the throne. And this morning, scouts came back reporting there has been strange personnel entering and leaving the Yan camp, so then…”
“What You mean is that the fight has begun in Yongjing.”
“Yes. For all the princes, the destruction of Great Rui will not bring around direct benefits. With the emperor in critical condition, ready to return to heaven at any moment, and the tradition of battling for the throne with military power, the left minister will not be able to keep the situation under control if the fight breaks out in Yongjing. He would surely summon the prince royal back from the frontlines to fight with the other princes.”
I talk faster and faster because I don’t want to think about what I have done.
“The prince royal’s late mother received the emperor’s love which angered the empress. The second prince, despite being the legitimate son, does not receive the same treatment from the emperor as the eldest and the two have long since grown apart. Thus, the second prince definitely does not want his brother to take down Great Rui and add another accomplishment to his belt. I got into contact with the second prince, who is the strongest contender, through the secret connections I have in Yan and made a promise to aid him in his fight for the throne. We will corner the prince royal, he from behind and I from the front. If he ascends the throne, I am willing to sever my land and hand over seven hundred li to Great Yan with the Rope Hill Creek as the boundary and the two countries will reach a ceasefire. In the years that I am alive, Great Rui will make offerings annually. At any rate, he would have too many matters to deal with within the country as a new emperor to attack Great Rui.”
I shut my mouth as soon as I finish. Heng Ziyu watches me steadily with a frown. His eyes gradually changes, becoming sharper and graver.
A deathlike silence lingers in the hall. The battle cries outside is becoming more and more distinct. The blazing red glow of fire lights up the black night sky. However, the hall remains eerily quiet.
The glaring glint in his bottomless eyes seems to slowly brighten.
“I am impressed by Your calculations, organization and execution,” he utters slowly and quietly. “But why are You telling me this now?”
“We are in the same boat so I thought it would be best if we were honest with each other. The fifty thousand in Lingzhou is our last resort and must be used only when necessary.”
“So if that is the case,” he nods as he says, “the prince royal should be returning to fight for the throne. And if he needs to fight with military power, he would be bringing most of his forces in order to get the upper hand.”
“The Yan regard military power highly. All of the princes have led battles but only the prince royal has received the emperor’s love. He taught him well from a young age and the prince has constantly been away in battle, winning many. He has already become the enemy of the other princes. If he is to fight for the throne, he would die if he does not win so he needs to be successful.”
As I say this, my heart seems to be brutally whipped and contracts profusely.
The person who came up with a plan as wicked as this, is none other than me.
“According to the scout’s report,” I carefully enunciate each word as I gaze at him, “the emperor will not last much longer. So you must hold back the Yan’s attack tonight, no matter the cost. Even if you have to drown them in our soldiers’ blood, so be it!”
The flames of murder spark in his eyes, as fierce as a sword being unsheathed. They meet with my eyes and the fire grows. He nods sternly and takes a step back as if to leave but halts.
A complex mix of emotions swims through his gaze as his eyes linger on my face for a long time. There is determination and perhaps also a bit of something that could be called yearning. Our two pairs of eyes meet for only an instant but it seems like an eon.
I see it very well but I do not want to confirm it.
I back away quickly, “Marshal, I shall be here awaiting your victory!”
The fiery blaze shines into the hall, an ugly, bloody red. Quietly, I sit in the hall, listening to the battle cries, pondering. I extinguish the candle with my fingers.
My vision blurs and there is only me in the dark. The clamour seems to be filtered by the shadows and my surroundings fall silent. I can’t even hear a whisper. It’s so empty that it feels like the dawn of time.
For a moment, I even have the delusion that this palace is the log shed in Uncle’s house. The butler would slam the doors shut and darkness would fall upon the world around me. I sit in the dark, no candlelight, no people, nothing. With the passing of time, it is as though I have become one with the shadows.
The cold slowly reaches in with its tendrils and wraps itself around me.
I forget how old I was when I was first imprisoned in the dark for a prolonged amount of time. I thought I would go insane and kept biting my fingers to force alertness upon myself. The pain made me feel that I was alive and not devoured by the darkness and silence.
Absolute tranquility stretches out one’s nerves until it’s oh so very, very thin. Your attention would go to that one nerve that is as thin as a hair and you would wait and maybe even hope that it breaks. Even if you go insane, you would be willing as long as you could escape from the darkness.
Maybe I should be thanking Uncle?
If not for him, I would not have gotten to know the helplessness when faced with destiny and the evil ways of men.
Maybe I should be thanking the empress dowager?
If not for her, I would not have understood the reversibility of authority and the ruthlessness of power.
The memories in my mind replay like scenery passing by. Many faces flit by: the parents from my dreams, the ambivalent uncle, the arrogant cousins, the empress dowager sporting a mocking smile, the caring master—and many more—Wang Shu who carries a light fragrance about her, Song Ruoming and Pei Yuan whom I talk about everything with, Heng Ziyu who is dressed in armour…
It’s so quiet. Too quiet.
With the fatigue weighing down on me, I feel like I am about to fall asleep. The next thing I know, the entire palace disappears. Those maids and attendants, those Golden Guardians, the million civilians in the city, the hundreds of thousands of Yan soldiers outside the city and the soldiers defending the city, everything was all just a dream of mine.
There is nothing here except for endless darkness.
I really want to wake up. This dream is so long that I feel fear. I want to shout but my throat has been stuffed shut. I want to struggle but my hands and feet are ice cold and numb. The extremely long dream showed me too many people. However, they all whip past me, not a single one bothering to wake me up. They are all false. They actually don’t exist in my world. There is only darkness in my world. The darkness is my prison.
I feel tears falling but my cheeks do not feel cold. My heart feels empty.
The haziness between alertness and slumber drives me crazy. I want to wake up more than I have ever wanted before. Just let me wake up. Let me wake up. I have never longed for sunlight this much in my life.
“Do you wish to wake up?”
The voice seems to come through a wispy fog and I cannot hear it clearly. I want to answer but I cannot make a sound.
I do. I do.
“I can only take one person away. Tell me, are you Han Xin or Lin Xin?”
I open my mouth. My throat tightens.
Han Xin? Or Lin Xin?
All of a sudden, I burst out of the restraints of fatigue and open my eyes as much as I can like a bug that has freed itself from the spider’s web. I don’t even know what I’m saying. I just mutter, “I don’t want to be emperor!”
Silence ensues. The voice seems to have disappeared. I start to feel scared again and begin to scream, “I don’t want to be emperor. I’ve had enough. Take me away!”
“Come with me.” My screams are abruptly interrupted. Someone is standing in front of me. I can only see the tip of his toes. He reaches his hand out towards me as he says this.
I’m frozen out of disbelief. Slowly, I raise my head and what I see is the face that I have been thinking of all this time.
Murong Yu is wearing the armour he wore when we first met. His eyes are bright, as bright as the stars, in the obsidian darkness.
I can finally move. Cautiously, I touch his hand. It is warm and solid with the temperature of a living person. It is not shaky. It is not an illusion. As he crouches down, he flashes a smile so warm that my heart melts. The fog around us starts to dissipate and I spot the faintly glowing radiance coming from behind him that exudes warmth.
I mumble from deep in my chest, “Murong Yu.”
He nods, gazing at me with his enigmatic eyes, with the affection that I’m used to.
I feel that I’m safe now. The nightmares that I fear have passed. The warmth seems to flow from his hand through my fingertips up my arm and into my heart. I do not speak and just stare intently at him. He tightens his grip on my fingers as we face each other in the darkness. It’s as if a thousand words have been exchanged.
“Take me away.”
Murong Yu’s brows wrinkle instead. “The one I’m taking away is Han Xin. You look exactly like him. But who are you?”
I begin to experience an irrational dread. “I am him.”
“You are not.” The sunlight behind him starts to fade and his hand starts to shake. “You are the emperor of Great Rui. You are wearing the emperor’s regalia. He could not possibly be the emperor. He is a punk who sniggers all day long.”
I start quivering so much I cannot believe myself.
“I am! I am!”
He flings my hand away and stands up, backing away.
I want to scream but my throat has been frozen shut. I want to do everything I can to get up and hold his hand once more but a force is pushing down on my back, restraining me like metal pliers. The more I struggle the more I feel like my bones are shattering.
He walks farther and farther away, disappearing into the fog.
I yelp out loud, my eyes snapping open. I find that I’m still curled up in the hall.
My hands and feet are freezing cold. I can’t stop shivering from being soaked with sweat. The apprehension from earlier still hasn’t gone away and still lingers in my gut.
Then, I hear a deafening boom that stirs the world. It sounds like something heavy collapsing. Following that is the howl of soldiers and weapons washing up to my senses like the tide.
I spring up and run out the door.
Outside the hall, a vast spread of smoke and blazing fire shoots for the sky, dyeing the sky above the capital dark red.
Even while standing on the steps in the palace, I can feel the pounding in the earth like rolling thunder.
The Yan broke through the walls?!
I just stand there quietly until a bloodied Guardian races towards me. He kneels down on one knee. “Your Majesty, a small battalion of heavy cavalry broke through An Shang Gate and made their way through Zhen Ping Fang Gate on the west side!”
“What is the current situation?”
He reports in brief words:
An Shang Gate is weak. The Yan deployed heavy cavalry and utilised catapults and burning wood to aid the battling ram. The defense forces fought back furiously, releasing countless arrows. The heavy cavalry had the protection of their armour and succeeded in knocking down the gate. Several hundred burst in at once. Heng Ziyu led a group of lighthorses several times in number to retaliate.
The defense forces at An Shang threw dynamites and continuously shot arrows and finally succeeded in keeping the rest of the Yan cavalry from entering. The heavy cavalry clashed with our lighthorses, their shields overlapping and the swords flashing wildly as the carnage continued. The several hundred Yan cavalrymen all perished and our men sacrificed themselves, leaving few survivors.
The second round of attacks has been suppressed with much difficulty.
Only when he tells me at the end that Heng Ziyu only suffered light injuries do I let out a breath of relief.
I wave his dismissal before returning to the palace. Once I’m calm again, I nod to the man dressed in black who has been waiting patiently in front of me. He gives me the secret report on flat palms. After reading it, I am almost clear on the next steps of the Yan army. I’m just not sure as to how long tonight’s attack is going to last.
They cannot stall any longer. More than half of the army is going to have to retreat and rush to Yongjing to assist their marshal in taking that throne.
Out of nowhere, I recall what Master had once said.
There is no ultimate alliance for us. We can cooperate with anyone. Our enemy in this moment could become our friend in the next.
This thin piece of paper is heavier than a ton in my hands.
The situation in Yongjing is going to be knocked out of balance. The left minister’s power by itself is not enough to combat the right minister and the empress. If Murong Yu doesn’t return now, he is going to lose his chance at obtaining the throne. Not just that, maybe his life, too. With every turning over of the throne, blood washes through the courts. There is only one end for those who do not obtain power.
If he doesn’t want to leave, then I’ll make him leave!
The candlelight sways on the desk. I make up my mind and unfurl a piece of letter paper. I take a deep breath and let my brush take over.
I’m going to tell him as the emperor of Great Rui that fighting to the death like this brings no benefit to him or me. The only people benefitting will be those watching quietly on the side.
Specifically his enemies.
Every time he invests time and resources into attacking the city, his chances of victory in Yongjing decreases.
I had promised the second prince that I would assist him in taking the throne, hand over the seven hundred li of land north of Rope Hill Creek to Great Yan and make offerings every year. All of this, I can promise to Murong Yu, too. My objective is simple. So long as I can save Great Rui, it does not matter whom I pledge allegiance with.
I retrieve the jade seal after writing the letter and press it down with a serious expression.
I believe he is even more aware than I am, an outsider, of what this battle between Yan royalty will entail.
I pass the letter to the Wraith who has had his head bowed this whole time. “Do you have what it takes to deliver this directly to the hands of the enemy marshal?” I inquire in a deep voice.
He flinches but does not respond.
“This letter is of utmost importance. You must deliver it even if it means losing your life!” I state with force while staring fixedly at him.
There is only one chance and it is right before me. I must give it a try no matter the risk!
He clutches the letter between his fingers while his shoulders quiver. He abruptly bows down to me before disappearing.
The premises fall silent once again and only then do I have time to go through that dream bit by bit.
Dreams are a person’s true reactions, nullifying all facades, shining light on the darkest crooks in the heart.
And he is a thorn stuck in there. Pulling it out would hurt but leaving it there hurts even more.
What is the most terrifying thing? Perhaps, his leaving will be enough to make me crumble into pieces.
In the wee hours of the morning, the Wraith returns. He is covered in blood but his expression speaks of no emotions as he hands me a letter with his head bowed. The paper has wrinkles and dried blood stains that have turned black.
Tentatively, I unfold it but its contents puzzle me so much that I cannot form words for the longest time.
It is the letter I had written, returned in its original state save for the extra lines at the end.
“The items listed concern both states and is no small matter. As this requires the utmost delicacy in its treatment, I have decided that I would like to discuss this in person with the Emperor of Great Rui so as to express the mutual sincerity for partnership.”
ayszhang: <3 They're finally gonna meet!
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.