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Cold Sands ch 39
XXXIX A New Era
The Sixth Year of Nan Jing. There has been a lot of snowfall, forming a thick blanket over the dark red dirt. Feathery flakes of snow flutters in the air and the entire world seems to be white. Thick quilts cover the doors and windows of the palace. The maids keep adding beast-shaped coals to the censers around the room. The fire crackles and the warmth entices me to sleep.
I recline on the ta with my chin on my left hand. I yawn carelessly and the maid beside me quickly lowers her head and curls into herself. I frown. I was just yawning. It’s not that scary, is it?
I nod at her and she obediently holds up a cup of tea. Then, she starts massaging my legs. I take a sip and I feel the drowsiness coming back.
Someone starts coughing, not loudly, but I can hear the displeasure. I open my eyes and smile. “Don’t be mad, Master. Go on. I’m listening.”
Master Liao is sitting in the lower seat with a face that says ‘what do I do with you?’
“Your Majesty, even though the Yan have retreated, it would be best if You have a grasp of the situation in Yongjing.”
I shrug. “You have already said what needs to be said. What more could I add?” I say as I hand the cup back to the maid. “Plus, you just came back from over there, you must know more than me.”
He sighs and shows the same frustrated expression as when I used to slack off and try to skip classes. He could still hit my hands with a ruler back then and punish me as much as he wanted but now he can only sigh quietly.
I snicker while he clears his throat.
“Why don’t You take a stab at the current situation in Yan?”
I’m a bit reluctant but I still answer him. “What else is there to say? The eldest prince rushed back at the last minute and foiled the second prince and other princes’ plans. The emperor woke up on his deathbed and gave the eldest prince the power to govern the country in his place.” I take a pause. “Which basically means that the eldest prince is going to be the next emperor.”
Contrary to my retelling the story in a few short words, the reality was much more complicated:
Yongjing fell into a tense, anxious state while Murong Yu was racing nonstop back to Yongjing. The second prince and the right minister had already deployed most of the troops in the capital but made it seem like they hadn’t. The empress ordered the imperial guards to shut the palace gates. They were waiting for Murong Yu to walk into their trap.
Eighty thousand lighthorses and thirty thousand Blood Mounts arrived at Yongjing. Murong Yu proclaimed that the second prince and the right minister were plotting against the crown and threatening the empress in an attempt to take the throne. Although most of the capital’s troops were being forced to obey the right minister, Murong Yu had a strong footing in the army. Many generals laid down their arms after hearing that the eldest prince had returned. The second prince’s shiny, spotless imperial guards were nothing when faced with the bloody, victorious warriors. The left minister’s forces within the palace suddenly moved out. The empress admitted to her crimes. All imperial guards in the palace surrendered.
That night was horrendous. The skies above the towering palaces glowed red from the roaring fires. The palace gates swung open and Murong Yu entered, stepping on the blood running on the ground. The second prince placed all his chips into one last bet and attempted to assassinate his older brother with his personal guards. However, the distance of just a hundred zhang became an uncrossable divide. Deadly arrows shot out from the crooks and corners and his guards used their own bodies as shields to protect him as they pushed forward. The moment the prince drew out his sword, a wolf-tooth white-feathered arrow went straight for him and took his life.
The death of the second prince ended the fight between the princes. The third prince accepted Murong Yu’s conditions and knelt down as his subject. The royal palace’s gates opened wide and the thousands of Blood Mounts surged into the palace in the midst of the faint, early morning rays. Murong Yu was brought to the main palace building by the soldiers and there, the royal families and the officials were awaiting their new ruler under the watch of the soldiers. Some were still unwilling to give up and accused Murong Yu of harming one’s own blood, to which Murong Yu replied with a stack of letters exchanged between the second prince and the enemy state. Instantly, the nobles and officials were silenced.
In his sleeping quarters, the dying emperor opened his eyes and flashed a tired smile at Murong Yu as he handed him the decree he had written previously.
The land that is Great Yan shall welcome its new ruler.
“The prince royal had a private talk with me after the he received the position of acting-emperor.” He chuckles. “He said I know too much and he should not allow me to come back, but he let it go on the account of Your Majesty.”
I press my lips together as a curiously depressing emotion appears for a moment.
“What do you think of this person, Master?”
The smile on his face fades away and is replaced with solemnity. “The prince royal speaks calmly, but his aura is rather fierce and one can feel the thirst for war and strive for success from it. I would think that he will become a great lord.” His tone and expression become harsh as he continues. “However, this person is extremely ambitious and comes from the military. I’m afraid that the world is going to suffer when he becomes emperor.”
I still remember what he had once said.
The throne to an empire—now which man wouldn’t want that?
I sigh out of melancholy but flash a thin smile as I grow sorrowful.
Master Liao’s tone abruptly takes a quick turn. “There is one thing I would like to ask, Your Majesty, and I hope You will be honest with me.”
“The prince royal said to me, ‘I hope His Majesty has not forgotten what he promised.’” His gaze is intense, not giving me room to hide. “If I may ask, what is this promise exactly?”
I cough out of awkwardness as I scream ‘crap!’ in my head. Master Liao has a straightforward temper. He would jump up here and rip me into pieces if he knew the three conditions I have promised to Murong Yu.
“Um, well, it’s okay if you do not know.”
“Your Majesty!” he warns.
No matter what I do or say, I won’t be getting away unscathed today so I can only dismiss the servants and tell him in nervous stutters. As expected, he springs up to his feet and glares angrily at me, flames of fury burning in his eyes.
“Your Majesty, the land of Rui should not be trespassed, not even an inch, by foreign peoples. This is what so many young men have bled and died for! How could You just hand over seven hundred li of land to an outsider?!”
Filled with anguish, I can only pull a bitter smile.
The people all think the Yan army retreated because they were forced to while Master thought we altered the Yan’s plans solely with the disturbance in Yongjing. They would never know that if someone like Murong Yu was angered, the end result would be even more horrifying than a massacre.
I did everything in my power, working within the constraints of each force of power, only hoping to salvage my country.
Giving away seven hundred li of land is going to be an unchangeable flaw in my section of the history books. But I know better than they that Great Rui cannot withstand another hit. She needs time to recover.
Murong Yu still needs to face the many parties within his country. He has too many people to soothe and manage. He won’t have the opportunity to invade again within the next ten years.
Seven hundred li of land for several years of peaceful recovery is more valuable than going insane from fighting back against the Yan army.
“All that I have learnt was taught by you, Master,” I reply calmly. “You told me, ‘where there is life there is hope.’ I was unwilling to relocate the capital because I wanted to tell them that we cannot be conquered and now I am parting with the country because I want to tell them that we will have the chance to rise again if we endure the present. The two messages do not contradict each other.”
Master Liao watches me steadily while the emotions fluctuate in his eyes.
“They can call me spineless or they can call me weak but the day will come when they understand me.” I let out a deep sigh.
“Your Majesty,” Master Liao lowers his head. “You speak rightly but if we really are to give the land away, the court officials…”
“Sure, I will have to take a few bad words but I’ve had worse. It does not matter.”
He is bowed so low I cannot see his face clearly, so I just let out a scoff. “It’s not just you who are mad. I bet my dad and mom would disown me if they heard of this down there. But, it is impossible to please everybody as the emperor.”
Master Liao raises his head and his expression changes slightly as he gets up from his seat.
I sigh, “I do not wish for Great Rui’s lands to be divided either but what can I do? Between annihilation and resting time, I had no other choice but this. I’ve already done all that I could.”
The hall is eerily silent for a moment.
Master Liao lifts up the train of his robe and kneels down on one knee. “I cannot express my gratitude for Your Majesty’s honesty. ‘Tis an emperor who endures that which others cannot.”
I crack a smile. That is definitely true.
“Ever since Your ascension, I have witnessed You growing day by day and I feel relieved that I have not let down His Lordship’s wishes. I have one favour to beg of You now.”
I nod. “Yes, please, Master.”
“I am reaching old age and Your Majesty does not need my assistance anymore. I beg that You grant my wishes to retire and return home.”
“But I remember you said that you don’t have a home anymore, Master.”
“I beg that You grant the Xiang Lu Academy to me. I will continue being a teacher.”
I’m slightly taken by surprise. Xiang Lu Academy is the most accredited academy aside from the Capital University. I can make a few guesses as to why he would ask for retirement—it’s none other than for those reasons that cannot be spoken of—but why would he ask for the academy?
He looks at me with a smirk. “I think someone needs to teach those academics and students the reason behind Your actions.”
I laugh along and wave my hand. “Granted.”
Master Liao looks back down in contemplation and asks after a while, “What do You want to do with His and Her Lordship’s remains?”
“I asked some older servants in the palace,” I answer in a depressed tone. “Mother was buried in a small coffin in the Empress and Cypress Garden in the south of the city. I do not know about Father. Do you?”
He nods solemnly.
“Then I’ll ask that you please retrieve Father’s remains in secret. I will find a good time in the near future to give him a posthumous title and build a temple in his honour. Then we would have one less thing to worry about.”
He kneels down and touches his head to the ground. “You have my gratitude, Your Majesty.”
I proceed to yawn. “This is not all you came for today, right?”
“Two more things.” He continues after a short pause. “First, You are of age to choose an empress and take in consorts.”
I was in the middle of drinking tea when he spoke and I almost spit it out. I take a handkerchief and wipe my mouth. “Master,” I say with a frown. “Those old farts are annoying enough. Why are you nagging at me too?”
He frowns back at me. “You are already twenty-one years old. Commoners this age would have many children already. Furthermore, the royal family is the ruler of this land and Your Majesty taking a wife is for the sake of the land. It symbolises the miracle of birth and is the auspice of the people. The country is currently recovering from chaos. Naming an empress and consorts is a good way to soothe the people.”
Here we go again!
I wave my hand at him to stop. “Master, if you want to lecture me, at least pick something new. Those old farts must have said it a hundred times already. Leading a good example this, fulfilling an emperor’s duty that, blah blah blah.” I get moody as I go on. “According to the ceremonial laws, the emperor takes nine women’s hand in marriage. They just don’t want to see me live long, do they?”
He seems to heave a sigh, looking helpless. “Great Rui’s ceremonial laws state that the emperor must take nine women: one wife, the empress; two concubines, the royal consorts; and each one brings along two accompanying concubines. Your Majesty does not have any wives or concubines as of now, so it must be so.”
I grit my teeth because I just want to turn and escape, not wanting to listen to what he has to say anymore.
“This is Your responsibility, Your Majesty. You must act appropriately.”
“All right, all right, all right!” My head is starting to hurt again. “You just want me to get a wife, right? Let’s at least wait until spring.”
“If You want to marry in spring, we must begin planning and settle on the proper persons now.” He drops his smile and his eyes flash with wariness. “Inside the palace and outside the palace as well, every party must be considered.”
My head is swimming with thoughts and frustration and my heart feels constricted as though an invisible hand is tugging at it.
Marriage, bleh. It’s finally here. I thought I could stall it indefinitely but it seems I have no chance of avoiding it now.
“His and Her Lordship—bless their souls—would be delighted to see Your Majesty marry and bear children, continuing the lineage.”
Annoyed, I interrupt him. “Enough. I got it. Next.”
He watches me for a bit before asking tentatively, “What do You plan to do with regards to the Protector of the Seas?”
I heave a deep breath and lie back down on the ta while rubbing my temple.
“What else? He made the highest contribution during the siege. It’s only natural that I promote him and raise his peerage,” I say as I look right back at him. “I know what he’s thinking and I know what he wants.”
“Although this siege has taken a toll on his power, he is not to be underestimated. It is wise to make preparations now.”
For a moment, I’m not sure what to say. After some contemplation, I tell him, “I have thought about it. I won’t make things sour between us as long as he stay put for two or three years. Raising his peerage and his salary, also those of all of his soldiers, as long as he doesn’t push my limit, I can turn a blind eye.”
He stays quiet so I continue after a while, “If it must be, I won’t hold back. It is not up to me, but Heng Ziyu.” I heave a sigh. “This country cannot take another hit.”
He finally makes a sound, “The army and the officials need to be calmed and soothed after this war. Why don’t You start with the Protector of the Seas? Position and peerage seem rather conventional. If You would like, forming familial bonds through marriage is also an option.”
“Do you mean marrying a princess off to him?” I confirm hesitantly, “There are still two princesses not yet in wedlock. If possible, we can choose one and I will request the empress dowager’s blessings.”
“That is an option, of course. Your Majesty can also take someone’s hand in marriage, especially a daughter of the military. I heard that the Protector of the Sea’s younger sister has not wedded yet,” he speaks calmly.
I’m puzzled for a second but I realize right away. “Now you’re just not playing fair, Master. You set me up.”
“It is commonplace for the ruler and subject to become in-laws. The Protector of the Seas seems to love his sister very much. You must consider everything, Your Majesty.”
I purse my lips as I don’t know what to say.
Of course it’s normal for the emperor to reach an alliance and display friendliness with his subjects through women and marriage. The subject in turn uses this to solidify his family’s power. If she happens to give birth to a prince, then the child becomes another powerful political leverage.
I sigh. “Once a teacher, always a father, Master. Why can’t you be more considerate of my future happiness? Don’t just push whatever you see onto me. I still want to live a long life, okay?”
He stops and frowns at me, but finally turns his head away and sighs.
Not getting married is probably just my wishful thinking. I need to have an empress and consorts and continue the royal lineage so long as I’m still the emperor. Master is right. This is my responsibility. Whether I want to or not, I have to.
What about you, Murong Yu? You have to marry Xiao Qinyun in order to repay the left minister, and you probably have to make her your empress after ascending the throne, right?
Being loyal to one another is just the most beautiful illusion. Not to mention, neither you nor I ever made such pledges anyways.
I let out a deep sigh as my temples start stinging painfully like a spike.
The wisps of pain are slow but strong, turning into a dull ache in the deepest part of my heart.
Five days later, the military and civil officials in the capital gather at the Yuanxiao banquet. Many military officials have brought their family. The festivity has cleaned out the gloominess from the war and the capital, after the storm, has begun to return to its original prosperity.
The glazed lanterns light up when night falls, and the banquet begins.
Music fills the hall, sliding between the seats. The opulence of the royal family is apparent. Silk veils and lanterns hang high along the building and corridors, casting fuzzy, enigmatic light and shadows. Maidservants adorned with pearl and jade stand behind the guests, pouring wine with a coy smile. It is a picture of luxury.
I’ve never enjoyed loud and crowded occasions. After drinking all the toasts from my subjects while sitting at the foremost seat, I exit discreetly, leaving them to their fun and games.
Walking down the tiled steps covered by a silk carpet, I notice a brightly lit chamber a little ways off. I can faintly hear music and the shy laughs of girls. I ask Liu An beside me, “What is going on over there?”
“That is Yao Guang Hall. The female family members are there.”
I nod as the winds pick up. I wrap the fox fur cloak tighter around myself and lower my head. I just want to go back as soon as possible. When I reach the corridor in front of the hall, I spot a petit figure looking around.
“Who is it?” I call out.
The person halts and quickly runs over. With the light, I see that it’s a young girl wearing puce coloured palatial attire and dangling trinkets. Her face glows healthily under the hazy lantern light and her eyes are beautiful.
Wearing only thin indoor attire, she seems to be shivering from the night wind. She looks at me with a careful expression, “Excuse me, um, how do I get to Yao Guang Hall? I came out for just a second and now I can’t find my way back.”
Liu An looks like he’s about to scold her but I stop him. Seeing her shivering, I take off my fox fur and put it on her. “Are you a family member attending the banquet?”
She pulls the cloak close and nods. “I came with my brother. He’s in the hall over there.”
I think about it for a bit. She’s probably what she says she is, so I tell her, “Yao Guang Hall is not far from here. I, ahem, I will walk you back.”
She stays still while looking me up and down with her big, round eyes. She sticks her tongue out playfully. “I’m holding you to that.”
She keeps studying me. “Are you a duke?”
I’m not sure how to reply. “Something like that.” She quickly adds, “Then have you seen the emperor?”
Before I can answer, she starts off on her own. “The rumour goes amongst the civilians that the emperor is handsome and talented. He is able as well, able to go up against the enemy army and their marshall. Even the Yan army is afraid of him.”
I find this girl lively and innocent and I start chuckling. “That is because he was lucky.”
She turns around when I say this and glares at me with what appears to be discontentment. “How could you say that about him? He is a hero who can ride into battle and wield his weapon, unlike you who has peerage at such a young age and only lives each day idly, not wanting to better yourself.”
I burst out in laughter and shake my head. This girl really is naive. I wonder whose sister she is. What a funny character.
With that in mind, I tease her, “So, it appears you have fallen for him?”
A red flush appears on her cheeks as she bites her lips. “I haven’t seen him yet. Earlier at the banquet, I heard some noblewomen speaking about him, saying that he’s handsome and he’s a gentleman…” Her voice trails off so that I can barely catch the end.
I fix the cloak for her and tell her quietly, “You should not marry the emperor.”
She looks up with her bottom lip still in her teeth. “Why not?”
“He will have many other women and you will only be one of them. If he does not adore you and have you in his heart, you will just stay in the palace, separated from your family for the rest of your life.” I let out a scoff. “Spending the final days of life and dying alone, is that not–”
“I don’t believe you one bit.” Her brows furrow together.
I chuckle at her reply. She pouts and doesn’t talk to me again. Thankfully, we have arrived at Yao Guang Hall. I stand at the bottom of the stairs and say to her, “You go on inside. I will take my leave.”
She looks back with a confused expression. “You braced the cold wind for so long after letting me wear your cloak. At least warm up inside before you go.”
I shake my head with a smile. “It’s fine. Also, keep in mind what I said earlier.”
I have not yet taken a step when she jumps down the steps and latches on my sleeve. “Wait. Tell me your name.”
I look at the girl in front of me and reach up to fix the cloak. “It’s naught but a chance meeting.”
Before I finish, someone calls out from behind me in a deep voice, “Watch your behaviour, Zixiang.”
Heng Ziyu walks over briskly wearing a light cloak and casual dress with his hair coiffed. It gives a different feel compared to the armour that he usually wears. Bewilderment flashes in his eyes when he spots me and he tries to kneel down to perform the rituals but I stop him with a signal.
The girl calls brightly, “Brother.” I slowly turn to look at her. A-hah, I see.
“So this is your sister, Heng Zixiang. What a rare beauty.” He and I smile at each other as I take back the hand around the cloak collar. His expression returns to normal and he nods. “My sister does not understand the rules of the palace. I ask…to forgive us.”
I ignore the weird emotion in his eyes and flash a smile to the girl. “Your name is Heng Zixiang?”
The girl nods furiously while showing a sweet smile. “Yeah, Brother usually calls me ‘Ah-Yao.’”
I sneak a glance at Heng Ziyu before laughing meaningfully, “Ah-Yao, it’s a nice name.”
Heng Ziyu’s face turns even sourer by the second but I pretend as if I can’t see it. I lean in closer and lift up a strand of her hair. “I am thinking of a folk song,” I say as I sniff it. “The Xiang splish and splash, the Yao ladies twirl and swirl; the beauties await their lovers by the hazy banks.”
Heng Zixiang immediately lowers her head and drops her gaze, and blushes after hearing my words.
I glance at Heng Ziyu from the corner of my eye while smirking. “You are here to pick Your sister up, right, Marshal? I will stop being a bother now. The night is dark and cold. Careful not to let her catch a cold, now.” Then, I let out an ambiguous chuckle as I stride away.
I hear a yelp of surprise from behind me and Heng Zixiang’s soft, shaky voice asking, “Brother…was that His Majesty?”
I chortle. This girl is indeed very interesting.
The beginning of April. Spring has brought back hope for the future and the spirits of the people have settled down for now.
I release a decree, changing the era name to Yan Xing, making it the First Year of Yan Xing.
Heng Ziyu is given the title of Duke of Huai Nan. Xu Zheng is given the posthumous title of Marquis of Guang De. The ones who were brave and active in the war out of the remaining officials and soldiers are all promoted and awarded with a large amount of gold and silver.
I deploy twenty-five thousand lighthorses to be stationed south of Rope Hill Creek, across from the Yan soldiers on the other side. I also gather the refugees who have lost their homes due to the war south of Rope Hill Creek and teach them farming techniques to develop the land and recover production.
Master, on the other hand, has secretly transported Father’s remains back to the capital. Father and Mother’s remains are being kept temporarily in the underground hall of the Yi Xin Temple until the appropriate occasion comes along for me to give them posthumous titles. Under my request, Master has not immediately gone to Xiang Lu Academy, but instead returned to Father’s enfeoffment, the County of Feng Hai, to secretly prepare for war.
The month of May in the First Year of Yan Xing, the Yan Emperor passed away to heaven. The country mourned. The princes, dukes and the officials cried until the night in Feng Zi Palace and Chong De Hall. The next day, a decree was announced and the prince royal ascended the throne. The Archduke of Zhen Guo, the Left Minister, Xiao Yong, and the Marshal of Jian Wei, Yuwen Yuan were to assist the emperor in governing the country.
Soon after, the new emperor changed the era name to Tian De.
Hundreds or thousands of years later, all that will be left in the historical records are a few lines of words like this, erasing the disaster and bloodshed that accompanies every ascension of a new emperor. With the skilled brush of a historian, all that is left is the peace between each word.
I close the official letter from Yan and crack a smile to the kneeling officials below me. “Do not forget, everyone, that this is only the beginning.”
They all raise their heads and look at me with worry.
Holding my smile, I glance at Heng Ziyu. He is now wearing the Nine Ornaments Panlong Regalia stitched with gold befitting of a prince. The air he gives off is mighty and overwhelming, making it hard to look directly at him.
His gaze is not sharp and intrusive but rather dark and bottomless, and on his lips dances a calm and collected smile.
The month of September in the First Year of Yan Xing, delegates arrive in the capital from Yan to deliver another official letter requesting the meeting of the emperors of the two countries at the border of Rope Hill Creek to discuss the ownership of the seven hundred li of land.
The letter has caused a controversy in the court when many auditors expressed strong opinions against the emperor personally attending the meeting, but I cast aside all the arguments and make up my mind to go.
Murong Yu, if you dare invite me then I dare accept!
ayszhang: It's the beginning of the end OAO It's so sad to see that this project will be over soon! My baby has grown up *wipes tears* Ahem. Anyways, I've finished with chapter 41... Then there are the extras after that... Wow, one year has passed really fast huh!
And of course, the author left us at a cliffhanger once again...
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.