Cold Sands extra 3b
Extra - At Night the Ravens Cry II
The duke’s sideburns were dotted with flecks of grey. He lay, curled up with his eyes shut in deep slumber, nestled in a heap of beautiful, cold brocade blankets. A strong smell of herbs mixed with calming aromas filled the room, lingering like thick fog unwilling to disperse.
Every time he breathed and closed his eyes, he could almost see the war smoke, the fire, someone riding a fierce, ink black warhorse with his battle robe dyed with blood and his sword splitting the crimson world.
He began to cough in pain, each time rougher than the last. The duchess had just reached the door when she heard the excruciatingly painful sound. She quickly rushed in.
She helped him up and patted his back for him while he coughed violently for some time before finally coming to a stop. She brought a bowl of medicine over for him to take but he shook his head a little. “Not now. All I can taste is medicine.”
She could only turn and pass the bowl to the maidservant and then propped the pillow up so the duke could lean against the bed.
The two faced one another in silence. The duke tried to say something but the duchess shook her head gently. He looked down and took her hand. “I’m sorry, Princess.”
The duchess’ heart was racked with pain but she could only grip her husband’s hands tight and fight back her tears.
She saw him lead tens of thousands of cavalry into the capital. She watched as he fought side by side with the emperor. She witnessed his glorious titles and bestowments, and then his bonding with her, his vows before the heaven and earth to never leave or abandon her.
Holding his wife’s tender hands, he began to feel dizzy, for many years ago he had held another pair of hands in the same way, but one with calluses in its palms from weapon use. The day he took the Eldest Princess of Yong Zheng’s hand in marriage, all he could see was red and it stung his eyes so much that he could not see everybody’s faces.
With the emperor as the witness, every official had come to congratulate.
As the elder brother, he led the bride onto the red carpet until she stood beside him.
He seemed to have been smiling happily, or maybe he had not, or maybe the duke just did not want to see.
That man’s smile was never for him.
The duke leaned on his wife’s shoulder, listening to her singing the tunes that she had learned in her early days in the palace. Her voice was gentle with a dash of the Jiangnan flavour, of the apricot flowers in the spring showers and of the bridges spanning across waterways. For a second, it was as though he returned to Huizhou with the black tiles and white walls, the home in his dreams.
“Ah-Yao…” he unknowingly called the baby name of his sister. The duchess’ voice wavered a bit before finally stopping. She cupped his face as she leaned in. “Ah-Yao is doing well. She’s been living in Yao Guang Palace. Lin Die’s getting big and strong now, just like his uncle.”
At last, the duke smiled. Ah-Yao was a simple girl. He could still remember her in her wedding gown, pearl crown and head piece, with her cheeks bright red as she stepped onto her wedding carriage with excitement. There was not one person who had not heard of the emperor’s heroic feats and to be able to become his wife was the fantasy of countless girls.
He gave his early years up to warfare in exchange for wealth and power for his family as well as fame for himself, but one wrong step spelled doom for him.
Or perhaps, regardless of the wrong step, his life was destined to be so.
Since the end of the war, the emperor halted labour projects, lessened taxes, aided the refugees in settling, encouraging them to cultivate barren land and to farm, and fought against corruption to strengthen the state. The country improved day by day and the people praised the emperor’s name, but no powerful official would remain unscathed under a wise ruler.
At least, he was alive and had the accompaniment of his family.
But he could still remember his lost look after he shot at the refugees and how he shook in the spot. It was in that moment that he saw through his facade of cruelty and heartlessness, when he realised he was naught but a twenty year old who was forced to shoulder such burdening responsibilities.
Thus, he remained by his side and watched the country come back to life from the flames of war, the many industries being revived, the civilian’s lives returning to normal and finally, peace.
He knew he had little time left but he still thought wishfully. He wanted to see him just once, even if it’s just to talk, even briefly, about the old times during the war.
As time passed by, the sky darkened and the rain fell harder. A maidservant burst into the room, angering the duchess.
“What is the meaning of this?” she scolded quietly.
The maidservant knelt on the ground with a fan in hand. “A man came asking to see the duke but wouldn’t tell us his name. He just gave us this fan saying the duke would know.”
The duke’s eyes snapped open. He leaned over and snatched the fan, moving so fast it was over in a bat of an eye.
His hands shook as he opened the fan, and a fiery spark appeared in his eyes in the dark. “Invite him in! Quick!”
The duchess was left puzzled as to why her husband was acting so, until the veil in front of the door was lifted and a man stepped in along with the splish-splash of rainwater. She began to shudder and fell to her knees.
The emperor, in casual attire, waved his hand to stop her from performing the rituals before letting out a near silent sigh while looking towards the bed.
With the candles burning low, the emperor sat on a chair before the bed. The duchess helped the duke up once more while he stared at the emperor, shaking and mouth opened, but did not speak.
“Duke.” The emperor cleared his throat softly. “How are you feeling?”
But, in all honesty, he did not have to ask to know. The duke’s face was pale and he had a lost expression. The grey in his hair stuck out like a sore thumb and the creases between his brows were larger than usual, making him look all the more senile. All that and the smell of medicine in the room already explained everything.
A look of depression flashed across the duchess’ face. “In reply to Your Majesty, the court doctors said that his lungs are strained from the many years of stress and labour of war and the old injuries from past battles…the condition is dire, they say.”
The duke and the emperor looked at one another without a word as an uncomfortable silence troubled the three.
“You may leave, Qingyi,” the emperor finally spoke. “I have some things to discuss with the duke.”
The duchess looked at the emperor and tightened her arms around her husband, who in turn patted the back of her hand. She remained stiff for a while before leaving quietly.
As the fire crackled, the shadows they casted became so looming it became hard to breathe.
The duke looked steadily at the emperor who had been spared much of the cruelty of time even after two decades. His eyes and his brows were like before except the liveliness and nonchalance was nowhere to be found. All that was left was gloom and desolation.
His pupils were no longer clear as before. Instead, it was replaced by a dark black and chilling coldness.
“Say what it is you wish to say.” The emperor’s tone was flat as can be.
As though it was an illusion, the man who had only just needed help sitting up sat up slowly on his own.
“Your Wise Majesty, I have always been loyal. Never have I planned to usurp Your Holiness.”
He had wanted to say this for quite some time but he never gave him a chance to. He did not want to take regret into the grave with him.
“And never have I plotted to aid my nephew in taking the throne.”
“I know that too.”
“Then…why did You…”
“Just in case.”
The emperor answered quietly. His eyes were dark like the night. The duke stiffened and began to feel cold. It was as though every single move of his was monitored by the emperor and his eyes could almost see through his body and into his soul.
“You have been with me from the beginning,” the emperor suddenly spoke again. “You should know how I do things.” It was something that seemed to be off topic but the duke understood.
Treason he had indeed considered. His subordinates had urged him and he had been hesitant. If he didn’t overthrow him, he could continue to watch him but never get him. And because of his position, he would always be wary of him and might even eliminate him. But if he did, he might lose him but that way he would have a chance of making him his for good.
And it was just in that moment of hesitation that his fate was turned upside down.
“Your Benevolent Majesty–”
The emperor interrupted him with a wave of his hand. He looked up and his eyes were a bit misty. “That time the Yan army laid siege on the capital, I had only just ascended the throne. In order to thwart a formidable enemy, I cleansed the palace, purged the court and even shot refugees. I have received the title of cruel because of this and it’s not hard to imagine what else they will add onto it centuries from now. But I have never regretted it.”
The duke balled his hand, feeling the pain coming from the palms. He spoke cautiously and shakily, “What would You have done if I had not hesitated to overthrow the throne then?”
The emperor quietly studied the man before him. The mighty warrior had turned into a sickly patient. The face that was once full of energy and power was now worn by disease. He cracked a smile. “You would not have made it past the twelve city gates.”
He added after a pause, “And did you truly think all the soldiers who had encouraged you were your men?”
The duke lowered his head as a cold wave of air seemed to exude from the person in front of him and envelop the entire room, making him shiver for no reason.
The emperor played with the fan in his hands with pursed lips. It was bought from a shop on the bank of Lake Yu during their first survey in disguise. He had scanned the array of trinkets and toys and took the one that the duke had picked for him.
Sorrow began to brew in the duke’s heart. The man before him had only wanted to test if he would refuse, hesitate or decide to commit treason, but regardless of which he would have done, the emperor would still find leverage against him. All in all, he was wary of him, as all rulers are since the beginning of time.
Then, he smiled. For the first time in twenty years, he smiled without restraint.
It wasn’t because he was not ruthless or heartless but because this man was his soft spot, a poison that makes him lose himself.
Yet, seeing this man, he would willingly fall for it and chase after the poison.
He licked his cracked lips and said with a bit of stubbornness. “If you and I had different identities in a different time, Your Majesty, would we also be different?” He paused before saying, “Maybe we could be…friends?”
The emperor was not angered by the use of ‘you and I’. He sat still save for the fingers stroking the ivory fan handle. “Emperors do not have friends but perhaps we could be friends if I were not the emperor. But only friends.”
His eyes revealed no secrets. “It is said that the holy mind of the emperor is not easily understood, but after all these years, you have already understood, haven’t you?”
The duke was relieved. He realised that the emperor had long known about his feelings. Perhaps it was because of that one kiss on that night ravaged by war and bloodshed or his companionship throughout the years, but that was no longer important. It was one-sided on his behalf from the beginning to the end.
He watched the emperor’s back as he got up from his seat, lifting his sleeves and walking towards the door.
“I didn’t kill you then, Ziyu, and I won’t kill you now.” Wind lifted up the emperor’s train. His body appeared even skinnier clad in loose clothing. “So just concentrate on getting better.”
Just as he was about to step over the doorstep, the duke exclaimed, “Please wait, Your Majesty!”
The emperor turned around to see the weak man getting up shakily, seemingly to step down to the floor. He quickly shot forward and stopped him. “Are you insane? You can’t leave the bed in this condition!”
The duke pulled a bitter smile and in the next moment, knelt down on the bed. “I sincerely hope that Your Majesty will not hold a grudge against my wrongdoings after I leave. A sinner’s deed has naught to do with his family.”
The emperor’s hand froze in midair before falling limp and shrinking back into the sleeve. He backed away discreetly.
“Rest assured. Qingyi is my sister and Heng Chu is my nephew. I would not ever mistreat them.” The emperor turned once more and scanned the figure kneeling respectfully on the bed, not lingering for one moment.
The duke watched him leave and his hopeful heart froze over. His limbs grew weak and he collapsed on the bed.
The duchess came sprinting in and was scared witless by the sight of her husband coughing so violently blood was gushing out. She bawled as she held him. “What happened, Ziyu? What did you say with His Majesty?”
The duke shook his head and let her wipe the blood from his lips and tuck him back into bed. All of his strength seemed to have been siphoned away and soon he lost consciousness.
The doctor shook his head with a grim expression at the duchess after looking over the duke's pulse. The duchess felt as though she was falling deeper and deeper into a world of ice where it is so cold one cannot behave properly.
“I’m sorry, m’lady…the duke…”
The scholastics were preferred in Great Rui and the gentries only participated in horseback hunting as a social hobby. However, the emperor enjoyed sports and the princes were adept in hunting, thus it became popular amongst the gentries and the civilians.
Every autumn, the emperor would lead officials and the royal family to hunt in the Bei Yuan Summer Palace.
The horns rang and the ceremonial swords were raised. The emperor clad in black robe and silver plates rode forth on a white horse with the eldest and second prince close in toll. In a heartbeat, he nocked his bow and fired. A white bird wailed as it fell from the sky onto the ground in front of the white horse.
The party roared, applauding and cheering. A faint smile appeared on the emperor’s face as he tossed the bow to the prince royal.
The senior officials present were thinking to themselves that the prince royal was born to the empress thus he was the heir and the eldest son. He was obedient to his elders, compassionate, smart and hard working, and most importantly of all he was not as bloodthirsty as his father. He was the perfect successor no matter how one looked at it.
The next moment, a soldier came racing in on a horse. He jumped off and said with his hands clasped together. “Reporting to Your Majesty, the news just came that the Duke of Huai Nan had passed away!”
The news was not unlike a thunder clap out of the middle of nowhere. The Duke of Huai Nan had been a taboo topic for twenty years. Everyone held their breaths in anticipation and kept their heads down but a few were glancing at the emperor.
The prince royal tightened his grip on the bow and looked at his father only to see that his expression had not changed one bit. It was the same old, nonchalant face.
The emperor plucked the bowstring. “Continue.”
The prince thought for a second that he had been mistaken but he had not been. There was not a hint of sorrow on that handsome face of his father’s.
And since then, the entire court knew the emperor’s attitude.
The prince rode into the forest after his father. His mind raced as his horse did.
He was never able to see through his father’s bottomless eyes to the past buried deep within. He was respectful towards his father but he was also slightly afraid. His father would rarely smile. He displayed nothing but unchallengable authority to others.
He even felt that his father only had him and his siblings because of responsibility.
The only people to whom his father would smile to were Consort Yuan and her two children, especially that cute, delicate baby princess sister of his. His father would look at her as his most precious treasure. Out of his father’s seven children, he would only hold her in his arms.
However, even so, when his father saw the youngest princess being over-bearing and bossy, he slapped her palms hard twenty times. While she wept, his father scolded the seven of them, “My children can be proud but never arrogant!”
The prince sighed. He could never understand his father.
The Seventh Year of Qian Ning, spring, the Duke of Huai Nan passed away.
The funeral of the only prince without the royal surname was extremely simple. The Ministry of Rites arranged the service according to the emperor’s wishes and bestowed jade, carts, horses and many other treasures as burial tributes. The emperor did not attend on the day of the funeral, and only sent the prince royal to read the speech, and Consort De and her son.
Not many officials came, perhaps because the world was a cold place or perhaps they were afraid of being associated with disloyalty and angering the holy ruler. Only a few senior, accredited officials and honourable auditors attended. As for the old subordinates of the duke, they had died, been demoted or been exiled. No more than one-tenths remained.
Consort De wept with her red, swollen eyes, and kept wake for the duke with the Duchess of Huai Nan who was clad in white.
The duke was buried in a mausoleum in the southern most edge of the royal burial site.
The night was cool like water. The single light was naught but a tiny dot in the palace hall. The emperor was enshrouded by the darkness while the Duchess of Huai Nan knelt on the freezing, hard tiles. The coldness climbed up her legs and into her very being.
“And for what did you come today?” The emperor spoke casually but what came out could make one shiver.
She lowered her head and held up a letter with both hands. “My husband left this letter before leaving and asked me to give it to Your Majesty with my own two hands.”
“You may do so.”
She bowed down and kowtowed while holding back her tears. “Pardon my leave.”
“Do you hate me?” the emperor suddenly asked.
She heard the emperor’s laughter, a resonant but chilling sound.
“You all say so. But I know. It’s not that you do not hate me. You merely do not dare to,” the emperor mumbled. He knew the human mind too well. He knew, too, how to dictate it.
“Are you grieving that I never defended him even though I knew that he never plotted against the crown?”
The duchess’ face was pale. She bit on her lips and murmured, “He was only fifty.”
The emperor ignored her and. continued, “Did I not protect him? If I did not care for him, why did I give him the noble eldest princess’ hand in marriage? Why did I not strip him of his peerage and send him to prison after his plans were spoiled? Why have I continued to use his son in court and why have the allowances for your manor never decreased?”
The duchess glared at the emperor with hatred. The holy mind was difficult to predict and his thoughts had always been masked by a thick veil.
Her husband’s death allowed her to see through this veil. Even she, his cousin, was part of his plan.
It’s as though he had no heart and never loved anybody, not even himself. Every person is just his pawn. He could part the seas and shake the earth, do anything in the world, and even calculate the most wonderful thing in the world, love.
She shook uncontrollably, not able to hold back. “Your Majesty? Do You know what it’s like to love a person? Have you ever even loved?”
The emperor stiffened while she raised her head, flashing a bitter smile. She was no longer concerned with disrespecting the crown. “Being a lonely old man doesn’t feel too good, does it, Your Majesty?”
And in that moment, she saw the sadness and pain in the emperor’s eyes, within which had held untold loneliness. His eyes were like the boundless ocean, able to devour everything. However in the next second, she thought she saw wrong. The emperor’s eyes were the same thick black but with hints of mockery.
“You chose inadequate words in your state of mourning, Qingyi, so I will not find fault in you.” The emperor cracked a thin smile that seemed to ridicule her. “Love? There is not one person in this world that has the right to point fingers at me because of that!”
The emperor heaved a deep sigh as he waved his sleeve. The duchess knew that saying anymore would be pointless so she bowed once more and left after performing the rituals.
The emperor unfolded the letter and read each word carefully.
Dear Your Majesty:
I come from a low background and invested my life, though weak and puny, towards warfare and endured much hardship. However, the most perilous time of my life was not recovering North Dian, nor fighting the pirates in Jin An, nor life in prison, but the days battling side by side with Your Majesty against Great Yan. It is also the times that I miss the most. I do not hate or resent what Your Majesty has done; I do not have any regrets regarding how I feel. I will no longer be able to serve by Your Majesty's side after I leave, but nonetheless, I wish to be able to meet and know You in the next life if there is one. My feelings will not change even in the next life. May Your Majesty live as long as the Heavens with the most excellent health.
Your sinful subject, Heng Ziyu.
The emperor let out a light sigh and folded up the letter. He took out the fan and studied it for a long time before finally sticking the letter above the candle. Flames burst into life and lick at the writing, turning them into mere ash drifting through the air.
“In the next life?” He shook his head. “I do not want that. I have already had enough in this life.”
Surely, his sharp eyes caught the hatred in the duchess’ eyes when she turned to leave. It was not only the malice from her husband passing away but it also contained things of a much more taboo nature.
And in the next moment, it was concealed by heavy melancholy.
Women were best if dumb just like the women in his inner palace.
Slowly, he reached up to his neck. He could feel through the fabric the nephrite pendant peacefully hanging around his neck. His life had stopped for twenty years since their farewell and the person that had lived until now was just a ruler who went by the name of Lin Xin.
How could one ask someone who has no heart, no feelings to reciprocate another person’s feelings?
He could just barely recall that there once was a fire that burned in his heart in his younger days but that fire had long been extinguished. He lived for four decades but had only been alive for the first two. The latter two did not seem to belong to him.
For twenty years, he lived in his deserted palace. He was a wise emperor, a ruler in a time of prosperity, who alleviated labour and taxes, who reorganized the court, who empathized with the people and who devoted his entirety to the country, yet who could possibly imagine the pitiful man who would wake from fright in the middle of the night?
He belonged to the realm, to the country, to the royal clan of Lin, to everybody except to himself and that man in the north.
He had aged too. After getting through the countless battles and challenges, he had given his golden years to the endless flow of time. The only time he was truly alive was in the first half.
The fire blinked precariously in the bronze lantern under the blow of the cold wind.
The emperor walked out of the hall and stood at the top of Tai Qing Palace, gazing at the dark skies in the north. A hoarse sigh escaped along with an unbreakable bitterness.
In this extraordinary and wild life of his, this was a word that he could not ever call out. It could only be heard from his lips in the darkest of night as a silent attempt at self comfort.
ayszhang: TAT Didn't get time to send it to the proofreaders so please bear with my mistakes :( The good news I bring this time is that I will be flying to Korea in less than 24 hours!
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.