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Cold Sands ch 38
Will Murong Yu do what Han Xin wants and stop the siege?!
At dawn, I go to An Shang Gate to inspect the situation, ignoring all attempts to stop me.
Corpses have formed piles on the walls. The bodies of Yan and Rui soldiers lie quietly side by side like comrades in death. The limestone battlements are coated with sprays of blood that are still sticky. I accidentally get some of the warm goo on my hand and I get the sensation that the rest of me is sticky as well.
The sky brightens but the sun is hiding amongst the clouds, as though unwilling to witness this carnage.
With my collar flipped up and a helmet on my head covering the insanity from last night, I look just like a responsible, empathetic emperor.
There are people moving the corpses wearing scraps of armour whose faces cannot be seen through the blood and dirt. Some bodies stick out crookedly on the side of the battlements, their blood dripping down along the wall, painting terrifying lines of crimson. It adds a ghastly spread of colour to the ashy walls.
The war smoke eddies and the metal hooves beat chaotically. The sea of black is shrinking back, edging back one wave at a time and leaving behind it innumerable corpses. The black flags are still billowing in the air like ripples of ink.
I’m standing on the wall with a complicated feeling.
Every bloodbath, no matter which side wins, always leaves mountains of bones lying on the battlefield.
I don’t understand why every ruler of Great Yan always craves battle and ignites warfare with other countries. And I also do not know whether it was right or wrong of me to show my hand to Murong Yu last night.
Like I said:
That was my choice and his choice isn’t something I can predict.
He could choose not to retreat nonetheless and I don’t think I have what it takes to withstand the next brutal attack.
I’m no longer organizing a resistance but rather making a bet with no way out—the stakes are Murong Yu’s current situation and also his feelings towards me.
I let my eyelids drop. I can’t help but sigh when I see the ever-changing floating clouds in the distance, casting heavy shadows on the ground.
I turn and see Heng Ziyu coming towards me with a few armed men behind him. For a while, we don’t say anything.
I face another direction and ask flatly, “How many deaths last night?”
“In reply to Your Majesty,” his voice is just as still. “An Shang Gate had the highest number, around three thousand. The rest of the gates suffered around one thousand each, altogether more than ten thousand.”
“And the Yan?”
“Including the bodies outside the city, more than us.”
I nod as I stare at the black ocean just a ways off.
He looks at me with a frown and then dismisses his generals with a wave of a hand.
“You should be resting in the morning, Your Majesty.” He hasn’t drawn near and his tone is still light. I pull a thin smile, not wanting to say anything.
Last night and this morning, it was all personal. He has no right to be involved and no right to inquire. I need him to understand this. It doesn’t matter if I am willing to give him the throne—and even if I am—he is still my subject before that happens and I his ruler. The lower cannot disrespect the higher. This is the custom between the ruler and his subjects.
“The Yan have pulled back as of now but the next attack could happen anytime. I hope You will take charge of the army and tighten defenses. We must not be careless,” I do not look back at him as I say this.
He stays quiet for a long time before answering, “Yes, Your Majesty.”
I spot him out of the corner of my eye looking in my direction. “What are You looking at, Marshal?” I say with the same old smile. “Is there something on my face?”
No replies come.
The sun rises amongst the clouds after much hesitation and illuminates the lands.
I turn to leave and then he starts, “Your Majesty.”
I stop but do not look back. “What else is the matter, Marshal?”
“Now that the Yan forces have backed away temporarily,” he asks quietly. “I am curious what Your plans are regarding Yongjing.”
I let out a chuckle. “I have plans of my own, naturally. All You need to do is strengthen the capital’s defenses.”
He takes a few steps towards me and his voice sounds extremely close. “Will the Yan really retreat?”
I return to the composed tone I had before. “I am not the Yan’s marshal.”
I walk down the walls and the soldiers quietly and neatly part to either side, heads held high and eyes looking straight ahead. I’ve moved some ways when I spot several soldiers passing by carrying cots woven from hemp and farther off I see a pile of corpses and the soldiers pouring oil on it. Beside them are blazing torches.
I ask the second lieutenant beside me, “Are all the bodies being burned?”
A sorrowful expression flashes on his face. “In reply to Your Majesty, yes. According to tradition, all those who gave up their lives in war are burned and their ashes are gathered and disposed of.”
“I have heard, though, that some have not yet been burned.”
“Yes.” He bows. “There are too many casualties. Half of the army is wounded soldiers. We can barely take care of the live ones, let alone the dead. There are medicine and doctors but a lot of people can’t see the doctor in time.”
He points to the crowd on the other side. “The soldiers over there are all young. They died the night before the last and only now are they being…”
My lips flatten into a line. “Failing to burn the bodies in time is a violation of the army code,” I warn in a low growl. “All personnel in charge of this will be punished by ten hits of the stick. Go and burn them now, and receive your punishment later.”
Then, before I even take two steps, I hear his miserable voice again. “Your Majesty, those soldiers were from the South. The custom there isn’t cremation so their countrymen couldn’t bear to. So…”
I stay in the spot for a moment before saying, “I heard that people from the South are buried with their feet pointing in the direction of their home when they are in unfamiliar lands. That way the deceased will be able to see the way home when they sit up. So… So pass on the word for the soldiers to make sure their feet are pointing south when they light it on fire.”
The second lieutenant stiffens but quickly bows down. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
I almost didn’t catch it.
Cremation isn’t the tradition and it’s not common, but there is no other way. With the city completely surrounded, the bodies could not be buried and have been accumulating. It could very well trigger a disease. Drinking water is already insufficient; there cannot be any more problems.
There are too many who have lost their lives or the ability to return home because of this battle. Those who step onto the battlefield should already know that they may come back wrapped in white and those who rule up high should not be soft. However, I am human after all. I do feel depressed when I see living human beings fall and turn to ashes before my eyes.
They have people thinking about them back home, which they will never again return to.
The Yan forces left the city but made camp at Wu Hui Station about ten li away. Five thousand advanced cavalrymen stand in their grand formation in front of the camp as usual. Reports come into the capital one after another; the guard soldiers still take shifts patrolling along the walls. The city is deathly quiet aside from the suffocating smoke and thundering horse hooves.
When night falls, the soldiers stand guard silently in the shadows with spears in hand. Every ten steps’ distance a torch lights up the walls, sketching thin and disturbing lines.
No more killing. No more bloodshed.
It’s quiet, so quiet that it’s frightening, like the prelude of a storm.
I’m waiting—waiting for Murong Yu to make the ultimate decision. Whatever he chooses, I cannot object.
He actually understands as well as I do, that we are no longer the original us. The burden that he and I carry upon ourselves is too much. We are the same, able to overlook trivial matters but also be clear-headed when it comes to significant ones. We know what is okay and what isn’t. We are always able to remain calm and rational during critical times.
I’ve already made my choice, yet he is still keeping his silence.
In his and in my hands, lie too many people’s lives. With a turn of a hand, we can cause a hurricane and they will die before we can even know of their existence. Even if we fulfill our responsibilities, their families would always hate us.
Since the moment I decided to fight, I’ve used everything I could and killed so many. By purging the court, cleansing the palace, murdering refugees, I’ve stained my hands with innocent blood. I don’t expect anything from future historians—cruel, bloodthirsty or violent, it doesn’t matter—because they would never understand what I have to give up when I make the choices I do.
I don’t know how I will be looked at after death but I can’t be concerned because I am the emperor as of this moment. I am carrying the fate of this country and all its citizens on my shoulders.
Time slips past in the tranquility. Two days have passed since that night. Today is the third day.
The icy moonlight shines through the window and onto the tiles.
I take out Ding Guang from its rack, run my fingers along its sheath and remove it solemnly. As soon as it escapes its confines, a faint glow exudes into the room. I carefully polish it with a silk cloth and the aura of death is released. For a moment, it’s as if I have returned to the desert and open skies, where the yellow sands stretched for miles upon miles in the frontiers.
Just how much nameless sorrow and joy, life and death, war and blood is engraved into this blade?
My hand falters and a skinny line of blood appears, and then a drop of warm liquid falls down. The scarlet bead of blood against the glistening blade looks like an ominous sign.
I pour some wine onto it and watch the amber fluid slide down and dilute the scarlet, washing the metal with a ghost of colour.
Murong Yu, if you insist on taking the capital, the only thing I can do if it comes down to it is drawing my sword and dying along with the city.
“If you died—died under my sword—I would let you have a proper end as well.”
But I don’t need you to give me a proper end. I shall protect my dignity as an emperor with this sword.
Scrutinizing Ding Guang, I do not sleep for the whole night.
Liu An comes in at daybreak, reminding quietly, “Marshal Heng is outside awaiting Your summons according to Your orders.”
Heng Ziyu is in full armour, kneeling below with a stern face.
We haven’t met in private since our conflict the other night. When we do meet, others are always present and I speak to him in a flat tone. I need him to understand that I am his ruler and he cannot disobey me for the time being.
“I would like to say a few things, Marshal.”
“Please, Your Majesty.”
“Give the order to the lighthorses in Lingzhou immediately, they are to retreat southward in the most discreet fashion possible and stop north of the Qihe River.”
His shoulders jerk, as if he was about to lift his head up. “If I may ask, what is the meaning of this?”
I tap on a tea cup lightly. “I will get them to immediately relocate the capital if the capital cannot be secured and set up defense with the Qihe as protection. Lord Jin Xiu will also rendezvous there and provide assistance.”
His head whips up and shock flashes across his face. “Your Majesty?”
“Prince Lie does not seem to have any intention of retreating despite the disturbance in Yongjing.” I pull a smile and it pulls on my heart. “He insists on taking down the capital but he must also return home. This way, even if the capital falls, the South would not be affected and the fifty thousand in Lingzhou would not have to become a needless sacrifice.”
“Perhaps You are being too pessimistic?” he remarks after a pause.
“We must strive for the best but prepare for the worst.”
He lowers his head. No emotions play on his face. His lips are pressed tightly in a line and his eyes are casted on the ground, as if to stare a hole into the tile. I watch him in silence and he kneels there, motionless.
Then he speaks, “Even if the city falls, I shall make sure that Your Majesty arrives in the South, even if it means losing my life.”
I scrutinize him, trying to decipher from his eyes the validity of his words.
If I died here, he could escape and when he returns to the South, he would still be the ultimate authority with his operations there. And without my control, he can take all the power and the place of the Eldest.
“There is no need!” I reject. “We have been resisting for such a long time that if the city falls, the Yan would certainly not have mercy in their wrath. What would become of me if I abandoned the people and lived on pathetically? How would I face the world? The captain must go down with his ship!”
“But Your Majesty!” He blurts sharply, his voice echoing in the building. “You are the basis of the state and what the people depend upon. You cannot make such plans!”
I lift the cup and take a sip of tea. Not getting a response from me, he looks up and stares at me with an intent gaze. And when I keep my silence, the glow in his eyes die down. “Your Majesty…You still don’t trust me?” He asks bitterly.
A heavy wave of misery rushes over me, pressing down on me.
I know he’s loyal and just, I know he’s passionate and hot-blooded, I know he cares for the people’s welfare and I know he despises corruption and war. I think if not for our identities and statuses, we probably could have become the best of friends, the most loyal of companions—could have.
I’m inherently suspicious and wary. I doubt not only him but everyone.
Really, he shouldn’t be so sad. The one who should feel sad is me.
I bear with the pain and order flatly, “Do not waste time.”
He’s still looking at me, not moving or speaking. Our eyes stay connected in silence.
Suddenly, a loud commotion starts outside as if coming down from the skies. Then I hear hurried footsteps rushing by like thunder. It sounds like many people sprinting and shouting.
“The Yan army!”
I look up at the entrance and my heart pounds. The noise is so sudden it hit me right in the chest. It couldn’t possibly be…
The doors of the palace are shoved open. Liu An enters, gasping for air, with a joyful expression. “Your Majesty…the report…said…the Ya-the Yan retreated!”
When he finishes, deafening roars are heard from the Golden Guardians outside the hall.
I shoot up and take the report amidst the exhilaration. I skim over it quickly and I feel my nose stinging. Heng Ziyu is looking at me with a calm expression but his eyes speak of glee.
“Excellent. Prepare the carriage. I am to go to the walls.” I nod with a smile while trying to control the delight so that my voice is steady.
The carriage and the accompanying guards traverse the city that looks as usual. The civilians stay in their homes and only the patrols roam the streets, enshrouding the capital with a heavy air.
The soldiers standing guard on the walls are as always, armed and silent, on full alert as though facing their mortal enemies. I take a good look out to the distance, all that is left is the never-ending plains and the turbid tranquility bobbing lazily above, the five thousand cavalry stationed there nowhere to be found. The land is so quiet that the massacre in the past two months and the invasions before that were mere nightmares.
And now, the nightmares have finally come to an end.
In the latter half of December, Sixth Year of Nan Jing, the Yan army left the capital of Great Rui. The marshal of the army, Prince Lie, led eighty thousand lighthorses back first while the rest retreated slowly in the heavy snowfall.
The solid steel gates swing open. A swarm of cavalrymen surge out, the hooves of their horses pound heavily on the earth.
I have on a silver suit of armour and a black robe while Heng Ziyu is wearing a black helmet with a white feather. The two of us race on horseback through the path cleared by the soldiers and out the city gates.
The sky is a hue of greyish blue and hangs extremely low as if it is going to fall any moment. Tiny snowflakes flutter down, tickling and freezing my bare skin taut along with the brisk winds blowing across the plains.
Casting my gaze about, all I see are corpses. They overlap over one another, their faces no longer recognizable. Blanketed with a light layer of snow, they look like white mounds of dirt. Their blood has dripped dry and has been sucked up by the crimson, frozen ground below.
The well-trained steeds stand still away from the piles of bodies.
A rich stench of rotting flesh still exudes from the battlefield. Broken plates and mail lie scattered about. Ghastly, white bones are showing through the degrading bodies. The death toll is too high to imagine. Their spears are stuck in the earth, forming a crooked forest of sorts.
There’s one near me with its spearhead pointing skyward, still reflecting bone-chilling light, and skewered on it is a head. The spearhead is buried deep in the broken neck and blood flows down along the spear, dyeing the ground below maroon. The eyes are still open as if it has witnessed the ruthless murder of this land.
A plot of land has been cleared already before me and the soldiers are stacking the bodies and covering them in tung oil. These stacks are numerous and the soldiers quietly stand in a half-circle around it.
I raise my hand and crack my whip.
They pitch the torches forth and fire rises up to swallow the pile of bodies, painting the sky red as if it has caught on fire. The blaze turns the many mounds of bodies into a mountain of fire and smoke. A nauseating odour of burning corpses spreads with the smoke across the land.
I take the wine that is served. I cast my voice out loudly after clearing my throat.
“You are the warriors of Great Rui, the heroes of Great Rui! Your sacrifice shall be respected by the generations to come and your stories shall forever be told. I thank you. Great Rui thanks you. The world thanks you!”
“Your accomplishments shall be remembered by everyone. I shall care for your parents and adopt your wife and children. I ask that you all rest assured and head on your way!”
Heng Ziyu and I share a look before drinking the glass of wine in one gulp. I pick up another glass and pour it out in an arc.
This adds a fragrant wisp of wine into the cold air which is mixed with the stench of corpses and the coolness of snow.
I look to the north through the rising smoke at the six hundred li of plains and the most majestic pass, South Hill Pass, and beyond that the ever-flowing Rope Hill Creek, and finally the wild, boundless desert.
My emotions fluctuate as I gaze northward and no one makes a sound.
Have you finally let go, Murong Yu?
If so, I hope you get everything that you want: hailing the land and ruling the realm.
I’m just not sure what the two of us should do when that happens.
I hear a horse approaching, its hooves beating on the ground. Its rider jumps off and hands a military report on his palms. I take it and scan it quickly before tossing it to Heng Ziyu calmly.
“Your Majesty?” he calls out uncertainly.
“The last thirty thousand Yan soldiers to leave have made camp north of Rope Hill Creek. It does not look like they are going to return for the time being.” I chuckle while my chest burns as if someone rubbed salt on a wound.
He opens it and only takes a glimpse.
“Do You regret not giving chase?”
I yank on the reins and turn around. “I am just glad I have given my all.”
ayszhang: RIP Rui soldiers...
Good news, I have finished translating The Rental Shop Owner and will be starting a story whose name I translated as Till Death Do Us Part. ^^ I hope you will continue to support us. <3
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.