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Cold Sands extra 3a
Extra - At Night the Ravens Cry I
The first rays peeked above the eastern horizon while the light, morning mist enshrouded the capital in a foggy white, seeming somewhat chilly.
Xuan Yang Road, not far from the royal palace, was the place where the nobility and the wealthy gathered. It was lined with tall buildings with exquisitely made rooftops. The most extravagant one of them all was the farthest in, and from afar the golden words “The Manor of the Duke of Huai Nan, built according to His Majesty’s wishes” could be seen on the placard above the red gates. The gates of the manor were tightly shut as though the people inside had not yet awoken.
The ink-coloured roof edges carved with mythical creatures seemed to puncture through the clouds, displaying its owner’s elevated and esteemed status.
Every person in the capital knew that the owner of this manor was the only prince without the royal surname since the establishment of Great Rui, the Duke of Huai Nan. What’s more, he was the brother-in-law of the current emperor, the older brother of Consort De, and held an extremely high status.
The red gates swung open with a creak and out walked a few people dressed in servant’s clothing. They began cleaning the steps with sleepy eyes.
Soon, a driver brought a gold-painted carriage to a stop at the front of the manor, and then came the footsteps from inside. “The winds are strong, my Duchess, if You could put on a cape, please.”
The woman who was called duchess climbed onto the carriage, ignoring the maidservant's words. Soon, the carriage left the manor.
The woman in the carriage had a high, palatial hairdo and wore a pure red yunjin robe. Her clear, flawless complexion was a rare work of art but faint traces of sorrow hung by her eyes that not even the rouge and flower prints could conceal.
“It’s been so long…yet I still have to beg Brother…” She paused, leaning on the wall of the carriage, as she appeared to shiver. “But I fear him, as does everyone…”
Her eyes shut as two streams of tears flowed down. “The Eldest Princess or the Duchess of Huai Nan…all just pawns of his…”
The maidservant outside the carriage felt a bitter pang when she heard the duchess muttering to herself. As the duchess’ personal servant, she knew that the duchess had no other choice but to go to the palace. Since the baseless incident twenty years ago, the duchess and duke rarely left the manor and since the empress dowager returned to heaven, they had stopped going to the palace too.
Today, her mistress, the Eldest Princess of Yong Zheng, the Duchess of Huai Nan, was going to the palace for the first time in more than twenty years.
And it was all because the duke’s number was up.
Along with the rocking wagon that seemed to rock even the psyche, the Duchess of Huai Nan stared at the flowery patterns on the curtains and fell into a recollection of the past.
She was only eighteen years old that year, the golden age for girls. She should have found a good husband and been married off merrily. However, a war that rocked the entire country made her, one who had always been in the safety of the inner palace, witness to murder and bloodshed for the first time in her life. Everyday, she had to face the fear of death and people died with a horrifying wail. She hid in the palace, afraid that death would fall upon her next.
But she did not die, because a determined man shouldered everything. That man pitched his all and salvaged the country in the end. For the first time at the post-war ceremony, she saw the cousin whom she had never met: the emperor in royal black and the Pearl Crown.
She realised instantaneously that he was the kid once named Han. She also thought that the emperor liked to smile but had to hold it in to put on a stern expression.
Then… Then came her wedding. The emperor married her to that duke who had made incomparable contributions during the war. She was an unworldly beauty and he was a legendary hero; a match made in heaven.
Life after the marriage was civilized and they treated each other with much respect and manner, but something was missing. She could see that her husband was absentminded and sometimes would stare dumbly at her as if he was seeing someone else through her.
She had thought that the days would go on like that, that she would care for her husband and raise his children until old age prevented her from doing so. However, on that day…
Her husband was a powerful official who had a massive amount of control over the military. She was well aware of this and she guessed that perhaps her marriage was naught but a political trade, but she still fell in love with him and hoped to be with him until the end.
When the Yu Lin Guards, under the lead of the Minister of Dalisi, surrounded the manor and took her husband away, she lunged for him, shrieking as if she was mad. The minister could not do anything to the eldest princess but kneel before her and beg her not to do so.
The minister told her clearly: This is all in accordance to His Majesty’s wishes. Someone has said that the Duke of Huai Nan is plotting to overthrow the throne, thus His Majesty gave the order to bring the duke into the palace prison and ask him some questions.
She wanted to say something in reply but he burst out laughing and gently wiped off her tears for the first time, before pushing her away and leaving with the minister after muttering something.
The manor fell into chaos. She sat, slumped on the ground with her face wet with tears. Only after some time did she realise what her husband said. It was something like: This day has finally come.
She staggered as she stood up and asked for a carriage. She was going to go to the palace, to see the emperor. She wanted to see what exactly the issue was.
It was a stormy day with lightning and thunder and rain that fell horizontally. She was already three months into her pregnancy but she knelt there in the rain with her head up, stubbornly, staring at the doors of Tai Qing Palace.
The emperor did not summon her and asked the head eunuch to escort her back to the manor but she said no. She was to kneel there until he came out.
The wind and the rain bit into her like a whip. It hurt at first but eventually she lost all feeling. She pushed on with her will but her body began to cool.
Touching her stomach, she began to laugh; it was a depressing laugh.
A black train entered her vision. Her head snapped up and a pair of dark, bottomless eyes met hers.
The emperor in black, with his hair in a simple knot, turned and spared her only a cold side view of his face. The lightning struck and his handsome complexion appeared to be metallic, void of emotion.
She had heard long before that the emperor was cruel and ruthless in his ways, and seeing him now made her feel cold to the core and even made her think of the giant statue of a god, one carved out of lifeless, Han dynasty jade in the royal temple, calmly overlooking all beings from high up in the sky while holding the ultimate power to decide the fate of all of them.
Did you think kneeling here would make me feel pity for you?
She choked on her words. That’s right. She was just a woman. How could she go against the emperor’s almighty power?
She shook her head furiously and said in a hoarse voice: I want to see him.
He is suspected of treason. The Dalisi minister is currently interrogating him.
No, that’s not true! She was almost screaming.
The emperor scoffed: The affairs of the country are not something a woman like you can handle.
The emperor straightened his sleeves and she was dragged away by the imperial guards. She thrashed in the rain, watching the emperor getting farther and farther away, and she shouted: Do You really want Your nephew to be born without a father, Your Majesty?
The emperor halted and stayed there for a while without moving, save for the slight tremor in his shoulders.
She spoke intermittently through sobs: The child is innocent. If Your Majesty wants him dead, I am more than willing to give my own life in return for his, but I beseech Your Holy Benevolence to spare the child.
Through her tears, she saw the emperor leaving in large strides.
Ten days later, he returned to the manor carrying a dejected expression on his sickly pale face. She jumped into his arms, crying: You’re back.
He did not say a word and only held her tightly, his fingers combing through her thick, long hair. He heaved a deep sigh, showing much fatigue and sorrow.
He was stripped of his military command. His subordinates were either demoted or killed. He was no longer his old self. Battles and glory became a stranger to him ever since.
The Duchess of Huai Nan awoke from her recollection only to find herself covered in silent tears.
She took the maidservant’s hand and stepped off the carriage.
The palace seemed to have not changed but at the same time, it had. Ever since the empress dowager passed away more than twenty years ago, she had not stepped into this place.
“His Majesty is reading memorials. If I could ask you to return, m’lady,” the head eunuch said in his screechy voice and bowed to her respectfully with his usual smile.
She chuckled as she looked down in silence at the embroidery of double strings of feathers in gold thread around her cuffs.
It was expected that the emperor refused to see her.
But he could wait no longer. The battles and stress through all those years in addition to the grudge he held worsened his health by the day. Even with the quality medicine from the Imperial Hospital, his condition only became more and more serious. He would lie on his bed dumbly as his consciousness travelled afar. On the occasional brighter days, he would still stare through her at the person she did not know. She did not feel the urge anymore to figure out who that person was. All she could think about was that her husband wanted to see the emperor.
The Duchess of Huai Nan knelt there in silence from early morning to noon, still like a figurine.
She did not understand how that older cousin of hers who had made faces at her and teased her changed so abruptly. It was as if he had been the emperor since birth, cold and heartless, overseeing the mortal land from high above.
She did not understand why her husband was obsessed with seeing the emperor again.
She also did not understand what sort of past her husband had with the emperor to cause a small rumour to become evidence for his crime.
All she knew was that the emperor and the duke had fought side by side during the national crisis and left a worthy tale of a ruler and his subject.
In the stuffy, dark palace hall, the officials were reporting to the emperor in a monotonous voice. The emperor was reclined in his throne, eyes shut, with his head on one hand and the other hand massaging his temple.
The emperor had just turned forty, yet his complexion remained clean and his stature tall, as though the years did not leave many traces on him. This ruler had been a diligent one, almost always personally reading the memorials, but today his head began to ache out of nowhere and caused sharp pain around his temples, preventing him from reading. Therefore, the officials had to read out loud every memorial.
“The Great Chu Yun Dam near Jiang Wu County in the South has been built. The floods that had plagued the lower reaches for many years have almost been fully dealt with and the thousands of farmland are able to be irrigated,” the Deputy Minister of Works said with a memorial in hand. “On account of Your Majesty’s Holy benevolence, it could be said that this feat is an accomplishment of this generation that benefits all of humanity for the generations to come.”
The emperor did not speak for a long time, as if he was asleep. “Enough. How is Sir Song doing?”
A shiver ran through the deputy minister. He quickly bowed down. “Sir Song has finished with the majority of the project. He should return to the capital soon after dealing with the trivial matters of the river.”
“Have the provisions been distributed to the counties that suffered from the floods?”
“Yes, over ten aid and relief offices have been established.”
The emperor lifted his hand and opened his eyes just a crack. “Next.”
The deputy minister approached, holding the memorial and bowing. “Reporting to Your Majesty, the newly enlisted defensive forces have completed their training and can be deployed to the borders at once.”
The emperor replied easily, “Head out immediately along with the supplies and equipment. No delays.”
The deputy minister nodded before the emperor spoke again. “Do not move the cavalry at Ye in the North. They are to remain stationed there and stay on full alert.”
“Your Majesty,” he faltered but he still asked quietly, “The Yan army pushed southwards and conquered the three kingdoms of Tubo, Diannan, Jiaozhi. The Yidi tribes surrendered and knelt down as subjects. The situation along the southern borders is tense. Shall we increase our defenses in case the Yan attack?”
Once his words were said, the air in the hall seemed to freeze and uneasiness could be seen on everyone’s faces. The shadows of the disaster that the Yan set upon the lands of Great Rui still lingered and the people who had been through the bloodbath were still anxious.
The emperor did not even bat an eyelash. “Are the advanced troops not in Qianzhou? What is there to worry about?”
“I am just worried…what if…what if?”
The emperor waved his sleeve and dismissed lazily, “No need to worry. Next.”
The deputy minister backed away cautiously and even if his face showed no sign of disagreement, he was still troubled. Though the emperor was paying attention to the news of Yan’s expansions, he did not seem to be bothered by it as though he was certain that the Yan would never invade Great Rui.
The elderly Auditor Wu stepped forth and bowed to the emperor. “If I may speak, Your Majesty. You have reached the age of forty but have only four sons and three daughters. It would be best to select women both wise and talented to populate the inner palace and the royal family.”
Before his raspy voice stopped, the emperor’s eyes snapped open and a dangerous glint flashed across only to disappear from sight.
“Auditor Wu,” the emperor chuckled but no warmth could be heard. “With so many other national matters, why is it that you only have the eyes for my inner palace?”
The auditor straightened himself. “The son of God has no private matters, Your Majesty. Your marrying and begetting a child is to pose a model for the citizens. It symbolises the miracle of birth and is an auspice for the people.”
An attendant sprinted over and whispered in the emperor’s ear. The emperor’s frame shook before he shifted into a taller stance while looking downward. His brows furrowed, losing their usual delicate look, and his tone turned harsh. “Auditor, why don’t you just take a nice trip to the southern borders if you have so much free time on your hands?”
The emperor stood up as he said this and left the kneeling officials behind with a swing of his sleeves.
The officials cowered on the floor, foreheads touching the ground, too scared to even breathe loudly.
They were well aware that the emperor may appear carefree but his mind was extraordinarily sharp and his ways were cruel and harsh. He was like a lazy panther hiding his claws beneath its dark pelt.
Within that pair of sharp, black eyes lied an overpowering source of terror.
The emperor walked into the inner hall, striding past the attendants who were awaiting his arrival up to the bedside. He reached out but did not lift up the veil. Instead, he turned to the palace doctor beside him. “How is the princess?”
“Rest assured, Your Majesty, the eldest princess is fine. She just knelt for too long without ingesting any food thus her body was unable to keep up.”
The emperor dismissed everyone before lifting up the veil and sitting on the edge of the bed.
The duchess was lying quietly in finely made brocade blankets, her slender brows furrowed together and lips tightly pursed while tiny beads of sweat kept collecting on her forehead. The emperor sighed as he carefully wiped it off with a brocade handkerchief.
He shook his head, not understanding why she had to put herself through this.
It seemed that the duchess sensed something as her teeth dug into her lips. Her eyes snapped open to find the emperor watching her in silence with no emotions. She attempted to get up to perform the rituals but he held her down.
“Rest some more, so you don’t faint again.”
The duchess saw the emperor’s faint smile. The fearsome aura dissipated in an instant and instead a cozy warmth exuded like the afternoon sun. She squeezed the blankets in her hands, completely caught off guard. She had seen far too much of the emperor’s cold heartlessness and heard far too much about the emperor’s cruelty and murder to the point this mild-mannered emperor instigated uneasiness in her.
As if he had read her mind, the emperor eased backwards a bit. “What were you dreaming of? I saw you smiling in your dream.”
“I…” She felt a pang in her heart that made it difficult to speak, but she bore with it. “I went back to the days of my childhood.”
The emperor’s smile froze. “Is that so…?”
The duchess nodded and continued softly, “I dreamt that I was flying a kite in the Imperial Garden. The kite got caught on the tree and I, being the dumb me, climbed onto the tree to get it and ended up falling.”
The emperor smiled with his eyes cast down. “You were quite naughty back then, a little girl climbing such a tall tree.”
The duchess gazed at him and tightened her grasp on the blanket. “That was the first time meeting Your Majesty, right? Who knows what would have happened if You had not passed by and caught me.”
“You are right.” The emperor looked away and let out a light sigh. “I have almost forgotten. I don’t think I was a Lin then.”
In the furthest corner of his memories, there might just have been a boy like that, who saw a girl about to fall off a tree and reached out to catch her without a second thought. The two of them ended up tumbling onto the padded grass field, giggling, covered with leaves.
A self-mocking smile danced about his lips. Those things were so far away that he had already forgotten, as though they were memories from a previous life. It was naught but forty years but he was as exhausted as though he had lived through eighty.
“I…” The duchess’ eyes lost focus for a second as they meandered about his face. “I’ll always remember that nice little boy.”
As she said this, she smiled and her face lit up, looking as though time turned back to her early days. “A tiny secret planted itself in my heart. Every day I thought about that boy, wanting to meet him again…” Her words trailed off abruptly. “I had thought that that was love. It wasn’t until I met that man that I learnt that childhood friends can never be the same as sworn lovers.”
A wisp of melancholy appeared on the emperor’s face and the spark in his eyes died.
He understood without a doubt. Childhood friends can share laughter and innocence while sworn lovers never leave, never abandon and are loyal to one another. It could never be the same.
Never leave, never abandon and are loyal to one another.
The emperor flashed a quick, thin smile that faded out of existence like the tiny ripples gliding across the surface of a pond.
“My duchess, you have said all this for that issue, right?”
The duchess jerked and sat up with fright and pleas in her eyes. He watched as her face paled and her body trembled like a single piece of dead leaf about to be whipped away by the wind.
He reached for the hair by her ears and pushed it back. “Do not fear, for I am your brother no matter what.”
The tears finally broke free. The duchess covered her face with her hands as she bawled as though to let everything out. The emperor held her by the shoulders and let out nothing but a long sigh.
“Your Majesty, I’m begging You…please…go see him…” She leaned on his shoulder while her tears flowed out like a river without a dam. “He…doesn’t have…much longer.”
The emperor did not speak and only held her, letting her tears wet his garments.
After much comforting, she finally began to settle down. She was still shivering and along with her teary eyes, she looked like a frightened fawn, terrified but still pleading.
The emperor did not know what to say.
To go or not to go?
The favours and debts throughout the years and the political and military battles were not something a woman kept in the safe confines of her manor could understand.
In the end, he let her go after patting her back.
“Your health has never been quite good since childbirth, my duchess, and this time you fainted again,” he said as he paced to the window. “Stay overnight in the palace and rest well. I will find someone to send you back tomorrow.”
The hope in the duchess’ eyes dwindled and cold began to intrude from her skin, spreading into her heart.
So, the emperor was still the emperor.
He had no heart. He had no love. There was only calculations and power.
She instead began to laugh as she struggled to get out of bed. She bowed to him. “This idiot of a woman has disturbed Your administration, but how could she stand by when her husband’s life is at stake? Please pardon my leave, Your Maejsty.”
Without waiting for his permission, she slipped on her outer robe and walked around the screen decorated with a red phoenix and the morning sun, leaving in grace.
The emperor turned in his spot in front of the window. As the evening sun shone on the side of his face, his expression gradually changed. His eyes became filled with a sorrow so rich it seemed to be indissoluble.
The sun had just been glowing bright but the next moment, the world fell dark as inky clouds rolled in from the horizon, blocking out an entire side of the sky. Immediately after, a downpour ensued. The wild winds swept the plants in the garden up into the air and the large droplets of rain whipped and slapped them.
The emperor stayed there by the windows as his thoughts hovered in the dark.
He knew that the duke must have hated him. When the duke’s subordinates had encouraged him to overthrow him, he had been unwilling. That night, however, he came to the palace to see him. The emperor knew he was trying to test his stance, thus he went along and they spoke about the war and the past. That night of flickering candlelight became their last peaceful and last encounter between ruler and subject.
It was but a way to feign safety and stall him. The corner of the emperor’s lips danced up as he recollected.
He obtained concrete evidence and used lightning quick methods to deal with the soldiers who had prompted him to commit treason before giving orders for his capture and interrogation by the Dalisi minister.
But he did not want to kill him, not only because he had contributed to the country and not because of their in-law relationship.
Thus, he let go. On the tenth day that the princess pleaded, he returned to his manor with his authority and army taken away, only to be an idle duke for the rest of his life.
So many people had their eyes on him, in the court and in the army, wanting to hinder him. This was all that the emperor could give him and the most protection he could provide.
Suddenly the emperor cracked a smile amidst his recollection. His brows danced upwards, painting a charismatic picture.
Although you refused this time, who is to say there won’t be a second or third time that they persuade you to commit treason? And who is to say you will never do so? Keeping you will always mean trouble.
I won’t kill you, Heng Ziyu, for the sake of our partnership during the war and the sake of my princess sister, but I cannot let a tiger keep its claws. Thus, I could only pull out your fangs and rip out your talons so that you may never again stand proud.
ayszhang: I am so so so so sorry for being late! D: Internet problems came up and I couldn't get good access to uncensored internet :(
Click here for a translation of the poem where the title of this chapter came from: At Night the Ravens Cry by Li Bai.
Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.