Proofreaders: Gwen, krabbykabbi, Luzo, Pau & Red
Cold Sands ch 40
Brisk autumn winds pick up, sweeping across the great plains. Slender blades of grass sway and shuffle along. The sun in the distance appears to be blocked, coating everything in sight in dim yellow, and it’s so quiet that it’s easy to start imagining things.
I squint as I study the distance.
The cool wind brushes past my ears, bringing along with it the tang of grass and soil and also the faintest stench of blood.
The fall showers have diluted the blood in the ground. The dead, yellow leaves are doing a poor job of hiding the thousands of skeletons. My horse whinnies uneasily and looks from side to side warily as it steps over the maroon earth.
I spur my steed forward and immediately I hear a deep voice coming from behind me. “Careful, Your Majesty.”
I reply without looking back, “I do not wish to see the remains, Duke.”
In the distance, I can see a pure white military tent surrounded by blinding light and a field of red. I hear the clanging of metals around me and see the soldiers in front of me draw their weapons with a stony look on their faces.
We approach the tent and when we are only two hundred steps or so away, the Blood Mounts charge towards us, spreading out into the two lines to form a V and fence in our party.
I lower my head, pretending to not have seen that, and feel the nephrite lightly bouncing on my chest with each of the horse’s strides.
As we draw near, a Yan cavalryman rides forth, greeting me before turning back around to lead the way. The soldiers behind me are stopped and they are forced to halt their horses and wait alertly with their swords raised. There are already around a hundred soldiers standing in formation before the tent. Their black armour covers themselves and their steeds. The ink black spears and the glistening spear tips form an eerily glowing forest.
The guiding soldier nods and the formation scatters outward like the tide washing away, parting a path for three riders. I spur my horse forward and I sense the person behind me following close behind. The warriors around us let out a low bellow and stick their spears diagonally into the air to crisscross with one another, blocking the light overhead.
I pull a thin smile and sit straighter. “Duke of Huai Nan, what do you think of this formation?”
Heng Ziyu raises his voice. “It certainly looks fancy.”
By now we have reached the tent. The soldier dismounts and kneels down before the tent. “Your Majesty, the Emperor of Great Rui and the Duke of Huai Nan have arrived.”
“Welcome in.” It’s a man’s voice but not that person’s.
I dismount and just as I take one step a guard comes up to me. “Weapons are not allowed inside, Your Majesty.”
“It’s fine. Come in, please.”
The guard immediately backs off and lifts up the tent flap with respect.
The gold-painted cow hide tent held up by eighteen poles is large enough to ride a horse in. A fresh fragrance meanders in the air as a light foggy substance seeps out from a censer shaped like an animal’s face. Behind the censer stands a young man wearing formal Yan silk ceremonial attire and a small smile. He bows slightly and signals for me to sit down in the prearranged seat. I lift up my train and take my seat casually while Heng Ziyu stands behind me.
Beyond the lazy smoke is an elevated couch, and beyond that are a few civil officials with their heads bowed. Murong Yu is reclined on the couch, dressed in golden armour and a black robe with a long sword the colour of spotty black hanging from his waist. He turns his enigmatic gaze over to me, piercing like the blade tip, as dark as obsidian.
I face him calmly without hiding. I then flash a thin smile while resting my elbow on the arm of the chair and my head on my hand.
The young man wearing formal ceremonial clothes gestures with a smile. “Since the Emperor of Great Rui has arrived, let us begin. I am Xiao Xiao, the Left Deputy Minister of Great Yan, here to direct the negotiation for a peace treaty on behalf of His Majesty’s wishes.”
No one else speaks so there is only his voice in the tent.
“The civilians of both countries are the ones who are hurt the most from war. We both suffered severe losses in the battle last year. Our army had to retreat due to the mutiny in the capital. Although Great Rui has settled back down, it cannot withstand another hit, and we do not wish to push either. If I may so suggest, it is the best time to negotiate a treaty.”
The proud tone right off the bat is making me angry. I take a glimpse at Murong Yu to find him playing with his sword hilt with his head lowered. His expression is hard to define but his eyes look a bit unfocused.
“Our army had been triumphant during the war, seizing several counties, killing more than fifty thousand cavalrymen and capturing countless prisoners, not to mention equipment and weaponry. At one point, we even laid siege to your capital.” His smile becomes tinged with spite. “According to our scouts, Rui only seems to have fifty thousand lighthorses unscathed while the rest have suffered greatly. I hope my information is correct.”
Heng Ziyu lets out a soft scoff. “When Yan invaded, it was proclaimed that the army numbered two hundred and thirty thousand. Less than one hundred fifty thousand remained when you retreated. In that sense, Yan appears to have suffered more than us, not to mention that the war was initiated by Yan.”
Xiao Xiao starts to laugh. “What a straightforward person you are, Duke of Huai Nan. However, I do not see any fault in this. The victor is king while the defeated is the sinner. This is the natural law of the world.”
“If that is so, why does the Yan army show no mercy towards helpless civilians? They are not even treated as beings! Is this what you call military prowess?!” Then Heng Ziyu snorts disdainfully. “Just barbarians, after all.”
Xiao Xiao isn’t angered by Heng Ziyu’s attitude. “Helpless? Then why did your emperor request the shooting of Rui refugees? I thought Rui has always put benevolence first. Not just watching your citizens starve, you even fired at them. You call us barbarians but who here is the barbaric one?”
It takes Heng Ziyu a moment before he scoffs coldly. “The refugees were naught but human shields used for your invasion. You herded them because you had something to gain. Your emperor, His Majesty, said he wishes to secure grazing land for the Yan herdsmen, but we, the people of Great Rui, are also humans who have our needs. We just want to protect our country and our land. We are only barbaric because you made us to be!”
“Nice,” Murong Yu interrupts as his arrow-like gaze is aimed behind me.
I let out a dry laugh. “Let us skip the chitchat and speak to the important matters.”
“If Your Majesty insists,” Xiao Xiao bows towards me and says, “I shall take the offer.”
“Cede the seven hundred li of land north of Rope Hill Creek to Yan; Rui soldiers shall not cross Rope Hill Creek; Yan shall erect a city northwest of the river, station five thousand soldiers and establish a protectorate general.”
“Is that all?”
“Great Rui shall offer annual tribute of two thousand pikuls of quality rice, one thousand bolts of silk, eight hundred jin of tea leaves and numerous porcelain—no less and no delays.” His smile is so faint I can barely see it.
I still have mine on my face but I spit venomously at him, “You have missed one more thing, Deputy Minister Xiao.”
“What may that be, Your Majesty?” He sounds confused.
I shoot up from my seat. “You forgot to make Great Rui offer a princess to serve your emperor, make us suffer shame for the generations to come for begging for peace with women!”
Murong Yu’s head snaps up and his gaze bores into me.
I take another step forward, pointing at Xiao Xiao. “The only person worthy of negotiating with me is your emperor!” I say with my nose in the air. “I need to hear him say it himself that he wants me to hand him everything on two hands as the loser! Whether that be Great Rui’s princess or my life!”
Murong Yu lowers his head again and after his frame shudders a bit, he gets up and walks up to me.
He stops one step away from me. His face is pale and bony and his lips are tightly pursed, forming a blade-like line. His eyes, however, are as piercing as always.
I flash a smile at him.
“Nice, very nice,” he says under his breath before chuckling. “You…you are the same old.”
“I could say the same, Your Highness, Prince Lie. You seem even gloomier than before.”
“It wouldn’t be you if you agreed so easily.”
I replied coolly after a short pause. “Your conditions are too harsh. I cannot agree to them.” He retorts just as coolly, “You brought these up before yourself. How can you take it back?”
“The seven hundred li I had offered was in exchange for a full retreat, but you didn’t do that,” I explain as I stare at him. “You left thirty thousand men north of Rope Hill Creek when you left, so you violated our contract first.”
He raises a brow and his voice hints anger. “Would you have come to negotiate with me if not for the thirty thousand?”
As our gazes connect, the anger disappears in an instant. I take a deep breath. “Wasn’t that just to put pressure on me? Thirty thousand lighthorses, six hundred li of flat plains from South Hill Pass to the capital: you just didn’t want me to rest easy on my throne.”
He leans in a little and presses his voice lower. “You’re blaming me.”
“I’m just pointing out the truth.” I chuckle.
He lets out a laugh. His brows arch up, making his expression look softer. He watches me and sighs after a while.
“I can’t give you all seven hundred li.” I wipe my smile off. “There’s a line for everything. Don’t be too greedy.”
“What do you want?”
“We each take one step back. The annual tributes can stay the same but I can’t part with all the land.”
He contemplates for a bit. “Each take a step back? You mean splitting the seven hundred li in half?”
I give him a dirty look. “Why not? There is a river called Ye three hundred li north of Rope Hill Creek. With the Ye as the boundary, the north will belong to you and the south will belong to me.” Then I add, “The water is plentiful and the grass is lush north of the Ye. The land is flat and good for grazing, too.”
He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. “The water and grass are probably even better in the south. You wouldn’t let it go to waste by turning it into farming land, would you? I don’t think you’re that stupid.”
“Take care of yourself,” I pull a smile slowly as I say, “before taking care of others.”
I spot the change in Xiao Xiao’s expression and add, “This negotiation can’t go on when we are at each other’s throats.”
He waves a hand. “A welcome toast for His Majesty’s long journey.”
A maidservant steps out from behind the curtains only wearing a translucent robe held together by beads. She staggers over with her head bowed and holds a silver tray up to us.
I stay put as he looks at me. Then he picks up one glass. I smile and reach out for one too but the man behind me snatches it instead. Heng Ziyu has a stony expression. “It is not too late to drink this after the negotiation!”
The maidservant shakes even more and her head bends lower.
Murong Yu turns to face the speaker. He stares at Heng Ziyu with a very scrutinizing gaze while a cold smile dances about his lips. “Protector of the Seas? Or should I say Duke of Huai Nan?”
Fury is apparent on Heng Ziyu’s face. His lips are pressed into a line and the knuckles around the glass are white.
Murong Yu smirks arrogantly at him. “I am speaking to His Majesty, your emperor. As a subject, you have no right to interrupt.”
Heng Ziyu’s face gets darker by the second. His frame quivers and a few drops of liquid splash out from the glass.
Murong Yu turns his head away as he takes a sip of wine before passing it to me. “The Yan tradition is to drink in celebration when there are no more disagreements,” he says as he glances at Heng Ziyu. “And since Your wine has been taken by Your subject, please have this.”
I pause in puzzlement but I understand in an instant. He must have meant…
I take another good look at Murong Yu. After spotting hints of warmth in his eyes, I take the glass. His cold fingertips slightly brush me. I turn the glass bottom-up after a moment of hesitation and drink it all.
I toss the glass back onto the tray. “Then it shall be as Your Majesty said. The four hundred li north of the Ye shall belong to Yan and the three hundred li south of it shall belong to Rui. You may decide for Yourself whether to station soldiers or not.”
Murong Yu rubs his lips together a little before shouting in another direction. “Retrieve my seal!”
Murong Yu and I use our own seals and stamp the two treaties added with the conditions we agreed upon in thick ink. With that, bright red vermillion is left upon the page.
I roll up the paper and look at him with a smile. “Since the negotiation is complete, I shall take my leave. Goodbye!”
“One moment, please.” I hear when I reach the tent entrance.
I halt and turn my head a little. “Is there anything else?”
He sighs and shakes his head. “No.”
Late autumn is chilly and desolate in the frontiers. The wind swooshes low across the plains. The tent is very spacious and the cold air sneaks in every now and then before slipping back out, making a low howling sound.
I put down the tea that has nearly turned cold and pick up another memorial. I lie back on the ta and read over it carefully.
I’ve been here for half a month already. The weather has become cool and the negotiation is over. Logically, I should have left for the capital but for some reason I don’t want to.
Maybe it’s because of the freedom in the air here. Or maybe I just want to be closer to that person.
He is the same, still reluctant to return to Yongjing.
The two parties’ tents are still standing on the wide, empty lands south of Rope Hill Creek, as if in a silent confrontation of their own.
I sit cross-legged after reading the memorials delivered by the fastest horses from the capital, and stare dumbly at the tent flap. The wind picks up the thick curtains, making it slap against the tent flap.
Stalling my time like this is probably just because I want to see him again. I know very well once I leave this time, I probably will never see him again. A pang of sorrow hits me. But I can’t see him. Every time we meet, it would be under the eyes of everybody and what comes out of our mouths can only be formal, elevated speech. We will never have private time.
Heng Ziyu walks in and asks after performing the rituals. “When do You plan to return to the capital, Your Majesty?”
I sigh softly. “In a couple more days.”
“Messengers have come from the capital urging Your return. I’m afraid the hearts of some may act up with Your absence.”
Annoyed, I wave my hand. “I know what I am doing.”
Heng Ziyu stares at me with confusion. “Your Majesty?” He then pauses and continues with his head lowered, “If I dare say, You and the Yan emperor seem to have known each other for a long time?”
I open my eyes. “What are You trying to say, Marshal?”
He lifts his head and his face spells a peculiar air. I face another direction and answer casually, “As You said, the Yan emperor and I are old friends, but that is just a thing of the past.”
With complicated emotions flicking across his eyes, he opens his mouth as though to speak. I’m not in a good mood and I don’t want to raise my voice at him so I just pull a thin smile. “Do not stare at me like that, Duke. I know that it was improper of me to tease Your sister. If I am to be responsible and there is no way around that, I do not mind taking her hand in marriage. It is just that, well, I do not know how You feel about that, Duke.”
He shudders and nothing comes out of the opened mouth of his. Then, he bows down low. Awkwardness appears and I dismiss him. I lie back on the ta as sorrow seeps in followed by coldness the next moment. I don’t even know what it is.
Heng Ziyu’s gaze has become clearer and more unrestrained. I might be thick but even I can tell that there’s something going on after all this time. However, I do not want to delve deeper.
That is his problem. I still have a say.
I let my eyes flutter close and amidst the blurriness I can almost see a pair of glowing eyes, intense with joy and ire as if to penetrate through my soul. Startled, I open my eyes only to find that I cannot see a thing. Something jerks at my heart and the pain spreads but doesn’t fade away. After a while, I cannot bear with it anymore and jump up from the ta and walk out of the tent after throwing on a cape.
It is late dusk already. The clouds are stormy and the bloody sun has taken its hiding spot behind a group of mountain peaks. The spreads of clouds roll in from the north, shielding the entire sky.
I’m on an aimless stroll with about a hundred guards in my toll. I sigh, watching the grey peaks in the distance.
It was the same season when I had met him that year, yet in just one year, the world has tipped upside down and nothing is the same.
What a funny thing destiny is.
The guards beside me suddenly rush forth and block my path. This alarms me and brings me out of my deep thought. I find a squad of Yan cavalry about ten zhang away and Murong Yu is amongst them. His face and expression is half-hidden by the twilight.
Only when I scan around me do I realise I’ve unknowingly left the main camp. The two sides have stopped, locked in anticipation.
There seems to be a hint of a smile on his face. I smile back at him from afar.
Anymore anger and hatred will do nothing now that things have turned out like this, we can only face this with a smile. I am the emperor of Great Rui first, Han Xin second; he is the ruler of Great Yan first, Murong Yu second. This I know and he as well.
Following the signing of the treaty, the Yan emperor hosted a feast for Great Rui.
The moon is bright and the fire roars.
The empty lot on the outskirts of the thick forest is bustling with festivity and the aroma of wine and meat. Foreign instruments are being played and the exotic dancers are clad with thin and colourful robes that flutter in the wind, showing their delicate hourglass figures.
I look to the side and share a smile with Murong Yu. We raise our glasses and everyone in the feast follows suit and drink. Many frowns have been soothed flat with Jade Green Soul. When enough alcohol has been consumed, a few young fellows start singing and dancing around the campfire while the others start clapping and cheering them on.
I’ve just brought the glass to my lips when I stop as the realisation hits me: the drawn weapons are being sheathed and the looming shadow of war is dissipating.
Murong Yu leans over. “What’re you thinking about?”
I turn to look at him. “That it’s nice the war is over.”
He snickers as he picks up his glass. “Some people say the emperor of Great Rui is a hero amidst a world of chaos and some people say he has no fears. They would never have guessed that their so-called hero thinks it’s nice the war is over.”
I let out a soft scoff. “The alliance between Great Yan and Great Rui has been on and off and the hatred between us was once very deep, but many peoples live amongst each other near the borders and intermarry. They are the innocent ones through the wars and battles all these years.”
“Are you trying to persuade me to not invade?” He turns his gaze away and drinks out of his glass. I shake my head and answer, “The alliance of the two countries benefits all citizens. You want to be a legendary ruler, not a cruel one.”
His frame quivers for a moment before returning to normal. He flashes a smile at me.
“As for me,” I scoff at myself. “I don’t want to be legendary. I’m fine as long as my citizens can live a good life.”
As my eyes stray around, I find Heng Ziyu sitting on a seat far below me in the midst of a wild group of fun and alcohol while looking off to some other direction with a cool, emotionless look.
The crowd starts to get boisterous and the most men have squished in beside the seductive dancers. Suddenly, Murong Yu grabs my right hand that was hanging freely and leans in. His voice is husky and suggestive. “Let’s go.”
His words seem to contain a mystifying magic that I cannot fight it off.
I’m pulled by him quietly away from the crowd, leaving all the noise behind me. The wind of a late autumn evening is a bit chilly and blows away the alcohol buzz, leaving me a bit dizzy. We walk along the bumpy forest floor into the short forest. The world suddenly goes silent. The night sky reaches far and wide and the stars dazzle. The only sound left is the shuffling tree leaves.
He pushes me against the trunk of a tree and our bodies flank each other, unified even in respiration. Our alcohol-tainted breaths merge in the air.
His eyelids flutter down as he leans in a little. My mind goes blank from seeing his handsome face. Unknowingly, I lick my lips before tilting my head back and joining our lips together.
Our lips and tongue entangle with each other, sucking one another. His soft tongue brushes over my teeth and the roof of my mouth. Our breathing speeds up but neither of us wants to let go. Only when we cannot catch our breaths do we reluctantly separate.
I can’t see anything clearly under the moonlight. His face seems to be coated with white frost. The breeze is gentle and the moon is bright. All of this just makes my heart beat faster and even gives me the pleasure of sinning.
He lowers his head a bit and presses his forehead on mine. I whisper, “We’re just like a couple having an affair.”
He chuckles. “We definitely are.”
I purse my lips. “I just feel sinful when I think of the people who died in the battle, no matter who they were.”
His hands reach around my waist and he breathes in my ear, “You’re wrong. We’re people being controlled by fate as well.”
I look down in silence. His lips close around my earlobe and the hot air from his lungs tickles my skin. “The night is young. Let’s not let it go to waste.”
“We’re finally able to meet in private,” I say after the silence.
“Wasn’t easy getting away from everybody, huh,” he scoffs in a self-mocking way. “I just knew you want to see me from the way you looked at me, but you just won’t say it.” He tilts his head sideways as he studies me. “I really have no idea what I saw in you. You’re awkward and not honest. You’re still just a punk in my eyes even after becoming the emperor.”
I stop the urge to cry that reach my throat and gulp it back down. How could I ruin a wonderful rendezvous? If I get to spend just a little more time with him, then I’ll have bits and pieces I can treasure for the long road ahead of me, no matter how dark it gets.
He reaches up but drops his hand again. The voice in my ear is deep but distinct, tender to the point it makes my heart flutter. “Xin, I miss you.”
My vision blurs up instantly. I shut my eyes tightly and whisper back, “I miss you, too.”
“You…” His hand finally reaches my cheek. “You sure are honest this time.”
My lips jerk into a bitter smile. I feel tears forming behind my eyes. “What’s the use? When I used to be awkward with you, we could still make fun of each other. Now that I’m honest, there’s no place for us to be together privately. We can’t even say what we want.”
He sighs quietly and holds me by the shoulders. He ducks down while lightly pinching my chin. The next thing I know, he’s planting burning kisses from my forehead and brows to my cheeks and neck, finally ending with a long battle between our tongues. I pant as I feel his thin yet searing lips on my neck, causing numbness and tingling sensations.
“I think we met here, didn’t we?” he says softly as he pulls my collar loose using his teeth and nibbling underneath gently.
“Yeah…it’s been…over a year…hmm.”
His tongue tip rolls over my collarbone, causing a strange shudder. I’m breathing hard as I clutch at his clothes. I suddenly feel thirsty as though I’m burning up. His hands move down to my waist, untying my belt and snaking in. He starts fondling me over a thin silk shirt.
He even teases me, “Not so tough and intimidating now, are we?”
I feel all my blood rushing to my face in an instant. I grit my teeth and glare at him who is snickering. “L-let me go!”
“Don’t be so stubborn.” He raises a brow. “I know you’ve wanted me a long time, am I right?”
My heart pounds and I push on his chest. “Not here–”
His lips block my words from being heard. After the kiss, he speaks with a light pant, “I came with two goals.”
His palms bring scorching heat that passes through the silk onto my skin. “One, sign the treaty with the emperor of Great Rui; two, see if I can make you my prisoner and take you with me for the rest of my life.”
His gaze is strong and a bit hazy with lust. His hands slide around my waist as he parts the layers of fabric and sneaks beneath the silk. My panting hastens and the sweet and bitter emotions surge in my heart. “And you said I’m inconsiderate and reckless. You’re worse.”
He closes in on my earlobe again. “I just wanna take my man with me. What’s so reckless about that?” He presses me against the tree bark again so hard that I can’t budge. His lips skim across my neck, making me tilt my head back and gasp for air. I feel his hot lips and tongue on my shoulder, sucking and licking.
Pain of a comfortable degree spreads from my collarbone and makes me burn and shudder. Unable to handle it, I turn my head away. He chortles, “Why, you don’t like it?”
How could I not like it? I feel soft in the knees when he holds me and I can’t help but anticipate his kiss and his love. Only in his arms can I depend on someone and let myself go without holding back.
Not to mention, this might just be the last time I can.
I shake my head, trying all I can to evade his lips. I grab his shoulders. “Not here. Someone will come.”
He sucks on my earlobe and fondle it with his tongue. “If one of us was a woman, then it would be an epic tale of a romantic emperor. Sadly, when it’s two men, we’re only going to be shamed.”
A bitter emotion pervades my chest and I lower my head as bits of anguish rise up, filling my heart to the brim so that it slightly aches.
He seems to have sensed my melancholy and reaches out to caress my face. “Don’t think about it.” His tone is a bit blue. “It’s time now for our private matters after all the official ones.” Then he kisses me. “Don’t worry. No one will disturb us tonight.”
I choke a little. “Okay.”
The fleeting twenty years of my life has brought me so much upheaval but to me, his embrace is eternal.
ayszhang: dundundun! The end is near! D:
I'm leaving Canada on the 28th and will arrive in Hong Kong on the 29th! Then I'll be going to a ton of places --- Shenzhen, Shanghai, Changshu, Suzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xi'an, Harbin, Yanji and Changchun --- before I go to Korea, where I will be able to freely use Google (and Blogger)!!! So starting from the next week, Dairytea will be posting my translations again~
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.