Proofreaders: Gwen, krabbykabbi, Luzo, Pau, Red
Cold Sands ch27
Han Xin has everything under control...or does he? (fashion lesson #2)
“Could you raise it a bit higher please, Your Majesty?”
Impatiently, I raise my arms so the attendants can dress me. They then comb my hair and put on the crown for me.
These guys are so annoying.
They start wailing like banshees outside the door every morning when the sun has just risen. Even if I hid myself in the blankets, I can still hear their sharp, screechy voices. Neither a man’s nor a woman’s—it just sounds creepy as hell.
What’s the damn point in being the emperor if I can’t even get a good night’s rest?
I sigh as I grab the outermost layer and put it on myself. The attendants quickly step back with their backs bent but sneak glimpses from time to time.
I remember once in the front lines when we were chatting, we started talking about the palace. A soldier who came from a farming family said with a longing expression, ‘The emperor’s hoe must be made of gold too!’ The rest of us almost laughed our asses off. If you asked me, being the emperor sucks. Not only can you not sleep well, you have to change a billion different outfits a day.
The ceremonial apparel during ceremonies and court; the auspicious regalia during celebrations; the regular or casual wear at other occasions; travel attire during hunts. There are corresponding hats: the court crown, royal crown, casual crown, travel crown. Each outfit has five versions: leather, cotton, double, single and chiffon. A violent shudder ran through me when I heard this—I can’t handle all that even if I were a clothes hanger!
The custom is to pay respects to the empress dowager after washing and dressing but on the account that she is recuperating from trauma and shouldn’t be disturbed, I don’t bother wasting my time. After the visit comes the morning read, which includes the Holy Sayings and the Official Records of emperors of past dynasties. The Holy Sayings is just a collection of advice, warnings and sayings uttered by past emperors and the Official Records is a list of major events during their rule. I lose all desire to read these just from looking at them stacked, filling up the entire desk. They expect me to wake before daybreak, miss my meals, be lively during the day and sleep soundly at night—as if anyone could ever do that.
Anyhow, we’re in such a desperate situation that I just cancelled it altogether.
Just as my mind is wandering, Liu An comes forth, quietly urging. “Your Majesty, it is time for breakfast. You have court afterwards.”
If waking up is the most important thing of every day, then eating would definitely be the second most important. And the emperor needs to eat as much as anyone else! I shoot a glare at him before walking around the screen.
The officials have been waiting patiently in the hall. The golden silk drapes are raised and the palace maids bow down to the floor accordingly. I walk from the side hall to my throne, cautious to not lose my stern composure.
The officials kneel down and say their prayers for my longevity. The eunuch in charge of rites calls out, “Report if need be, otherwise you are dismissed!”
I rest my head on my right hand and watch them lazily. Yeah, Heng Ziyu isn’t here. Of course it was I who gave him the permission to. He’s been busy as a bee, strengthening the city’s defense, training the soldiers and organizing the rations. The officials look at each other.
Hmmph, it doesn’t take a genius to know what they’re thinking in their puny minds. The duchess and the Eldest fleeing to the south has undoubtedly given them an excuse to relocate again.
Unsurprisingly, one person steps forth and bows with his jade hu in hand. “In reply to Your Majesty, this humble servant has a few words.”
“With the Yan army approaching the capital, I implore Your Majesty to allow part of the royal family and nobles to head to Jiangnan to ensure the safety of Great Rui’s roots.”
“I have already sent the roots off,” I reply coolly.
“But, Your Majesty, I fear that the duchess and the Eldest–.”
“What is there to fear? Why should they leave when I have not left? Are you saying that their lives are more valuable than mine?” I scoff.
“Your Majesty, the empress dowager…” He suddenly falls to his knees. “Her Graciousness experienced great trauma and needs to recuperate in peace away from the capital. May I humbly suggest that–.”
“The empress dowager is the mother figure of the nation and should share the good and the bad with Her people,” I interrupt with a smile. “I believe Her Graciousness would say the same, don’t you think so?”
Then I warn lowly, “Do not bring this issue up again.”
The officials all lower their heads. I summon the Minister of Revenue after some thought. “How much grain remains in the capital?”
He bows. “In reply to Your Majesty, there are five million nine hundred and three thousand seven hundred and thirty six pikuls left in the state reserves, out of which three thousand pikuls have been allotted to the aid and relief office. Also, eight locations have closed due to the war, so food is actually quite plentiful.”
The current numbers seem sufficient but if we are besieged for the long term then the calculations get complicated.
“How long can we last with the capital’s population in mind?”
“In reply to Your Majesty, half a year at the most, three months at the least. However, winter is approaching and keeping in mind the army and relief expenditures, it may not last long enough if the Yan laid siege for a long time.”
This is a challenging problem. The capital has a large population so in order to ensure food for everyone, a massive amount of food must be transported. Soldiers won’t be able to stand without enough food, let alone fight.
Song Ruoming briskly walks to the center of the hall. “Xingzhou, not far from the capital, has several million pikuls of rice in storage, Your Majesty. It could be transferred to the capital to aid the shortage.”
Before I even open my mouth, Assistant Administrator Xu Zong starts shaking his head. “In my opinion, the rice in Xingzhou would be better off burnt.”
I’m puzzled as to why he would say so. He explains calmly after stroking his beard. “The closest Yan forces have reached Lingzhou and are brandishing themselves in display of power. Anzhou is just past Lingzhou. If we arrange for labour workers to transport the grains, additional troops must be deployed for protection. This is very costly and the grains may very well become the Yan’s. With that in mind, it would be wiser to just burn it all.”
He shoots me a look of slight satisfaction. “If Your Majesty is really concerned about not having sufficient food, why don’t we move some people out of the capital? Less people means less consumption. It would kill two birds with one stone.”
I purse my lips and remain silent.
It’s not that I want to see people in a bad light but he is simply too wicked. I am not allowing the officials and nobles to escape and even imprisoned the empress dowager all so that I can calm and unite the people. Consequently, their selfish goals can’t be reached so they threaten me with the lives of everyone in the city and the several million pikuls of food in Xingzhou.
I see Song Ruoming’s face has already flushed red with anger and he is glaring at Xu Zong, while Xu Zong has his nose held high like he’s in the right. Since he made his speech, his fellow officials have started whispering amongst themselves, mostly words of agreement. I frown. Moving some people out of the capital? Give me a break. I’m not stupid. As if I don’t know who are actually going to be leaving when the time comes.
These swine may be slow when it comes to work but sure are quick to run for their lives.
I restrain my anger as a sense of powerlessness hits me. Every morning court, I leave pent up with anger. Even a young, healthy man like me would get driven mad by these old farts.
Easy, there. You can’t release your anger just yet, I warn myself and try the hardest to stay calm, to look unflustered and normal. What they want is for me to lose my temper.
I must find a solution for both problems. I clench my jaw as I watch those delighted officials and run through some ideas in my mind.
The grains, no matter who transports them, just need to arrive safely at the capital.
And when I reach this conclusion, I see the answer before me.
“Assistant Administrator Xu, you are over-thinking things.”
Heng Ziyu strides in from the open doors dressed in brightly polished armour.
He performs the rituals before turning to face Xu Zong with a thin smile. “It seems like you have forgotten about the twenty thousand men of mine on the road. They are all well-trained and fit for battle. I am sure they are qualified to escort the transportation of grains.”
Wow, we had the same thing in mind.
Using the retreating forces to escort the transportation wouldn’t delay the retreat, the fees for hiring workers would be saved and the safety of the grains would also be guaranteed. I guess you can call it killing three birds with one stone.
Smiling, I tell the Minister of Revenue, “Ask the Governor of Xingzhou to open the reserves for Marshal Heng’s men to collect and ship to the capital.”
He bows in obedience. Heng Ziyu looks at me with an impressed expression.
“Assistant Administrator Xu is worried for the state and its people and suggested evacuating the commoners to relieve them of the hardships of war. You must find proper places for them.”
The Minister of Revenue bows down to the ground. “This subject thanks Your benevolence on behalf of the people!”
I stand up and shake out my sleeves to leave. “That is enough for today. Marshal Heng, come with me.”
The early sunlight coats the palace buildings in vivid colours, making them all the more elegant and dignified. However, it is already approaching the end of autumn so the rays have become weaker and are only scattering loosely in between the wutong leaves onto the ground.
“You are still in armour, Marshal.”
He chuckles. “A long time habit, is all.”
We share a smile before looking away. We know very well.
Ever since the moment I gave the orders, we have passed the point of no return. We are going to have to put in our all, whether it be life or death.
“I just took a walk around our city walls and I found quite a few problems.” He sighs, seemingly tired. “Emperor Shun constructed the capital when he founded the country. The walls were all made with solid boulder, eight zhang and six chi tall, one zhang thick with double layers. The gates were made from steel and the barbicans have contraptions for fire and water attacks, but over a century has passed without any renovation nor improvement. The weather erosion is fairly serious.”
“Do we have enough time?” I inquire quietly.
He scoffs. “According to scouts, the Yan will arrive at the capital in eight days at the least, ten days at the most. I am afraid it is too late even if we put our lives into repairing it.”
“It does not matter how long, we have to try. Just tell me what it is You need.”
His lips press tightly into a line and his expression is extremely heavy. “What if I need time?”
My heart seems to skip a beat and I can’t make a sound.
Even if the Ministry of Works worked day and night, no matter for eight or ten days, it is going to be impossible to restore the walls to its original glory. Heng Ziyu wouldn’t say such a thing if this wasn’t the case.
I can give him manpower. I can give him food. I can give him horses. I can give him weapons. But I can’t give him time.
“How many days can we last under current circumstances?”
He takes a moment before answering. “The Yan cavalry may be fearsome but they cannot just fly over the walls like birds. If my calculations are correct, we can still face our enemies if they attack and we can still last ten to fifteen days. But…after that….”
“It is already October, late autumn. We must hold strong until December. By then it would be winter and the world would be frozen over. Their one hundred sixty thousand men army is going to have a much harder time with supplies than us.”
“You are absolutely right, Your Majesty. But in my experience of many years’ of battle, the Rui army consists mostly of infantry and will not be able to evenly match cavalry. Additionally, with the outer area lost, cavalry will be restricted so it will not be of help to the defense of the city.”
“I have seen Yuwen Yuan, the general of the Blood Mounts. This battle is definitely going to be a tough one if he is involved.”
“Yuwen Yuan has a cruel personality, never giving a care about what he cuts down with his sword. I am worried that he will not only make direct attacks with all he has got but also employ low, dirty measures.”
He looks at me with a frown, looking quite concerned. I take a deep breath to ease the constricting feeling.
The landscape around the capital is flat and vast so cavalry definitely takes the upper hand. Once the Yan completely surround us, the capital will become a deserted island. If so, more horrors are bound to ensue.
With one glance, we understand it all.
It appears that he still has more to say when Liu An comes rushing to tell me quietly that Master Liao is waiting for me. I start and leave right away.
The inner hall is as gloomy as night and not a trace of sound is present. The maids and attendants have been dismissed and only one small candle has been lit. Master Liao personally brings the person to me. He has been tied up like a mummy and his mouth has been stuffed with cloth. His eyes dart restlessly around.
Master Liao says, “Please be cautious, Your Majesty,” and leaves without another word, closing the doors behind him.
“I am the emperor of Rui,” I announce as I keep my eyes on him.
He glares at me and I feel the aura of death. I walk up to him and pull the cloth out from his mouth. “I hear you have been searching for someone.”
He doesn’t answer me but starts laughing instead. “Emperor? You’re gonna cry for mommy, too, when His Highness arrives with His army!” He spits at me. “Fucking effeminate piece of shit! Faggot!”
I smile, not losing my temper. “I fully understand why you would say so given our countries’ current warring situation. However, it only proves immature to think you could make me end your life by upsetting me with words.”
He shuts up and his eyes start shifting again.
I’ve heard much worse. His insults are only elementary.
I sit back down calmly, straightening my sleeves. “I hear you have been staying in the capital looking for someone. Is this true?”
He turns his head away as if he couldn’t bother.
I chuckle, “Could not find anything on Minister Han’s nephew, could you?”
“I am Minister Han’s nephew,” I enunciate, “Xin is my name.”
His eyes goes on stalks and he stares at me with an odd expression.
“You could say Prince Lie and I are old acquaintances.” My smile fades. “If you really are His Highness’ man and are searching for me, say whatever it is you have to say. You would not be disobeying orders doing so.”
He keeps his head down for some time before taking a big breath and nodding.
“Indeed, we came to find him. His Highness had given orders to take him out of the city as soon as we find him.”
I let my eyelids drop and move my gaze away from him as my heart seems to be squeezed furiously by an invisible hand. Its grip gets tighter and tighter, so tight I can’t even breathe.
Of course I understand what this order means. It means the destruction of the capital. It means massacre and bloodshed. It means bare, burnt lands. It also means that he doesn’t want me to be in the middle of all that.
I scrutinize the man. “Do you still remember the details of the city’s defense?”
He determinedly shakes his head but his eyes show wariness.
Suddenly, I feel fatigue looking at his face—his young face.
“I will take good care of Prince Lie’s man and not let you feel one bit of pain.”
I walk out in large strides and Master Liao follows me with his head lowered in anticipation of my directions. After some debate, I spit out two coldblooded words.
I’ve never felt so cold, so scared, in the autumn winds of the capital.
To kill or to set free?
Set him free and let him take news of me to him; or kill him to ensure the secrecy of our defenses.
Which is right? And which is wrong?
He would not have sent his people into the city simply to look for me. He’s not that kind of person.
If the city had a dozen Yan spies, then it would be vulnerable and its destruction would be imminent no matter how sturdy our walls are or how able our people are.
One side is my country while the other is love. Everything and anything has come down to one point and I finally am forced to make my ultimate choice.
Is love really worthless compared to my responsibility to my country?
Since I’ve made that decision, he and I can never go back.
I hide my face in my hands and lower my head against the wall, attempting to hide my unkempt and helpless self.
Do you regret it?
The evacuation is currently underway with the help of officials at all levels. The Ministry of Revenue and the Ministry of Defense worked together, not only using the allotted five hundred carts to transport the grains day and night but also urging commoners and the family and friends of the soldiers to head to Xingzhou with their own carts. It was also announced that those who bring back more than twenty pikuls will receive one tael of silver in addition to shipping fees as an incentive.
There are always takers when the stakes are high. The flow of shipments was endless and continued through day and night. In only a few days, several millions of the grains have been shipped to and stored in the capital. Additionally, all soldiers were given half a year’s salary in advance. Everyone rejoiced.
The Ministry of Works have assembled artisans of all specialties—wood, soil, tiles, stone—into an engineering team and given training. They have also prepared large amounts of brick, rock, wood, cement and tools for future emergencies. The Minister also arranged for the renovation of the outer walls, strengthening the city gates, especially the An Shun and An Ding Gates to the north, the Yong Yang and Bei Zhi Gates to the east, changing the material on the inside from soil to brick. The moats have been deepened and the defense patrol has been increased. He also gave orders for windows to be added to the embrasures and wooden spikes to the eastern, western and southern walls to fortify defense even more.
Heng Ziyu is now wholly in charge of the military and has become even busier with training the soldiers and inspecting their living quarters. Meanwhile, I have been consoling the nobles, directing the officials to strengthen our defense. It’s been one trivial matter after another. We each have our own work so we haven’t been able to discuss the Yan’s possible methods of attack.
The Yan spies had sneaked their way into the capital and made an impact on us. I had thought about sending some of our own undercover into the Yan capital. However, when I asked Master Liao if the Eidolons were fit for the job, he shook his head and asked for forgiveness. He said when my father was still present, the Eidolons were as potent as the sun during midday and had quite a few people undercover, but the Eidolons suffered greatly ever since Father’s death and those undercover in Yan could not be reached anymore.
With nowhere else to turn to, I decide to try my luck with Uncle’s Wraiths. Uncle has been absent from court in the name of illness ever since I split from the empress dowager, and has not bothered with politics at all. In the few times he did come to court, he didn’t say anything. I have to think of some way to get his permission.
Dinner has been served for nearly two hours. I move my gaze from the memorial to the gourmet food but for some reason I don’t have any appetite.
Liu An is kneeling before me, quietly begging me to eat even a little. I shoo him away after a short lapse. “Heat the ones that have cooled. Also, fetch Marshal Heng.”
After he leaves with my orders, the hall becomes deserted. I return to the memorial. Most of the officials who are still submitting memorials are the ones still clinging on to the relocation, using the empress dowager as their excuse. They write such pretty words that I suspect they are flowers, all being excuses that the empress dowager must leave the capital.
The candlelight shines gently onto the memorial but I am aggravated.
The empress dowager isn’t your old lady. Have you people got nothing better to do with your goddamn lives than worrying about her?
Suddenly, the aroma of wine wafts in my nose. I look up to see a beautiful court lady walking towards me holding a jade pot and luminous jade glass. She kneels down, pours a glass and holds it out to me.
“Your Majesty, some wine to relieve the stress.”
Her voice is crisp and nice to the ears like the black-naped oriole. A lot of the frustration that has built up goes away in an instant. I smile and take the glass.
Liu An might not be that great with his job but sure knows how to please.
I pick up another memorial and just as my lips touch the glass, I unknowingly steal a glance at the lady. She has a delightful smile on her slightly lowered face, looking bashful. What an alluring beauty.
I look back to the memorial. These damn old farts…trying to annoy me to death…
“Better drink it before it gets cold, Your Majesty,” she says in her captivating voice and edges closer to the desk. I chuckle and take a few sips. I take another glance at her. She looks kind of familiar from the side, kind of like someone…
Something resurfaces from the old memories…
I throw the glass away. “Who are you?!” I demand.
Before I finish, I see a cold flash before my eyes. The lady breaks out like a loaded spring, drawing a red iron dagger. Well acquainted with the aura of death, I immediately jump up and kick the desk, hitting her in the waist. She grunts but leaps for me nonetheless.
Briskly, I back up. The layered dress slows my steps. Suddenly, my vision blurs and I feel light on my feet as if I am going to fall down.
“You foolish ruler! I’m gonna avenge my family!”
The gleaming blade rushes towards me along with her furious shouts. I feel limp and when I see the snowy white metal flashing dangerously close, I pivot and it scrapes by me. I grab onto her arm and twist. She yelps out in pain but lunges forth with all her might. I feel a cold breeze by my ear; I think the blade almost touched it.
I put more force into my grip and as she screams in pain, I too feel an acute pain in my arms. I can’t move anymore as though I’ve been drained of energy.
The wine…it must be the wine.
She crawls up painstakingly, bloody all over, and comes towards me.
“One hundred fifty-something people. They owed you nothing but you were coldblooded enough to kill and exile them. You devil!”
I pant while propping myself up. “No wonder you looked familiar. You…Xie…”
She snickers. “Say what you have to say in hell!”
Then she raises her dagger and brings it down towards me.
Fucking hell. I’ve made it through the roughest seas only to have my ship sink in a tiny, little gutter.
I’m limp and powerless. All I can do is lie on the ground, waiting for death. I close my eyes and in that final moment, Murong Yu’s figure flits in front of my mind’s eye.
His dark, enigmatic gaze remains as though melted into my flesh.
Everything becomes still.
Then an ear-splitting crack, not unlike that of breaking bones.
I open my eyes to see blood welling out of the lady’s mouth and her pale, almost transparent face. Her body falls limply on to the ground.
There is a person moving. “Guards! There’s an assassin!”
The next moment, I’m in that person’s arms. Heng Ziyu rips open my sleeve to reveal a long wound from my elbow to wrist. Blood is dripping out, soaking the sleeve red.
I feel my consciousness slipping. I want to sleep.
“Your Majesty?!” He squeezes my hand forcefully and barks in the other direction, “What’re you waiting for? Go get the doctor!”
I clench my teeth to keep myself awake. “Summon Pei Yuan to increase the number of Guardians guarding the palace and to close the palace gates. Summon the Dalisi Minister to search for any accomplices. Do not spare any!”
Heng Ziyu helps me to my throne as the court doctor comes running in. When the attendants take off my outer robes, the wound gets tugged too and an unbearable pain shoots through me. After the emergency care, my head starts to clear up. The doctor kneels down and explains cautiously, “Reporting to Your Majesty, there was a numbing poison in the wine that takes effect immediately after consumption. That was why You had felt limp and dizzy.”
I take the tea and sip some to calm my nerves. I take a glimpse at the lady. “Is she dead?”
“The injuries are critical. Broken wrist. Probably will not last much longer.”
“As long as she is not dead now.”
I dismiss the attendants and the doctor, giving strict orders for secrecy. At once, the huge hall is empty save for me, Heng Ziyu, Liu An and the unconscious woman.
Shakily, Liu An flattens himself on the ground and explains the situation in the inner palace.
In Great Rui, most of the women chosen to serve in the palace come from high-class families. This court lady is a child born to one of the concubines of the Xie household and has been with the empress dowager for a very long time. The empress dowager experienced trauma and has been away recuperating and the Xie household’s punishment didn’t include her; she only got sent to the needlework department. They didn’t think things would become like this.
My head starts aching so I rub my temples as I think.
Xie’s daughter is only the tip of the iceberg of the various forces in the palace. In this unimaginably huge royal palace, there is no way she could have done this without any outside help. I’ve imprisoned the empress dowager, impeached high-ranking officials, chosen to face the Yan and promoted many martial officials and jinshi. This has been the complaint of many officials and nobles but they are too scared to say no to my face and instead have done much more in the dark.
There are many women like her who remain loyal to officials or nobles while living in the inner palace. That day, I had taken back the apparent power but I haven’t yet cleansed through the inner palace. And this is what led to the incident today.
The woman lets out a moan as she comes to. When she spots me, her eyes fill with hatred.
“Foolish king, you were lucky today but don’t you forget, you’re going to die a pathetic death!”
Heng Ziyu’s face darkens and he barks, “Watch your mouth!”
She laughs with a mouthful of bloody foam. “Am I wrong to say so? Once the Yan break through the city, you’re all going to die!” Then she glares at Heng Ziyu. “You’re just a petty commoner, yet you dare hold yourself so highly.”
Holding back the fury, I speak calmly, “Do you have any accomplices? If you tell me, I can spare your life.”
She struggles to sit up a little taller and lies on the ground laughing. “I take the responsibility of my own deeds. I’ll take whatever it is you have waiting for me!”
Heng Ziyu scoffs and looks to me. Our eyes meet and I begin to hatch an idea.
Normally, these people conceal themselves extremely well, but since this happened already, why don’t I make it look bigger than it is and use this assassination as an opportunity to cleanse the inner palace? I could also get rid of the nobles and even the empress dowager…as long as I want to.
I stop smiling and tell her coldly, “Then I hope you are certain you can bear the Dalisi’s interrogation.”
She looks up with a shocked expression and the colour drains from her face.
The Dalisi is in charge of judicial matters in the palace and are known for their cruel and unforgiving methods. Whoever enters their care would lead a life worse than death.
Her figure suddenly springs up right before my eyes. She runs towards the nearest pillar and rams her head on it. Her skull cracks and she falls to the floor.
The two of us gasp in surprise. Heng Ziyu quickly lunges forth and pulls her up by the shoulder.
Blood snakes down slowly from her forehead. She gazes at me with a wide grin. “The dead won’t say a thing.”
I snicker and step down from my throne, stopping beside her. Her pupils are already enlarging; she’s on her last breath.
I lift her head up by the chin and flash a cold smile. “The dead won’t say a thing. But they could also say anything.”
For an explanation on the basic government structure, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Departments_and_Six_Ministries
Luminous jade cup
Fashion lesson #2!
ayszhang says: OAO Han Xin got injured again! But this time it's Heng Ziyu who comes to his rescue. (BTW I added a picture of a pavilion to the previous chapter^^) Let us know who you like better, Heng or Murong, in the poll on the sidebar (bottom of page for mobile users). The poll will be opened until the last release of this story!
dairytea says: Han Xin! QAQ Uwaah~ Wh-where is Murong when you need him?!
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.