“When you are at the end of your rope, a favorable turn is just around the corner.”
Editor(s): juurensha, namio
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Scroll Two: Nine-Colored Deer
Departing from Chang’an after the first snow, the thousands of residences looked as if they were built from white jade.
After noon, the melting snow clung to the winter plum blossoms as Li Jinglong and Hongjun came to the garden inside the Ministry of War. Within the fragrance of the blossoms, multiple high officials were sitting around enjoying tea. Sitting in on the meeting was still the minister of justice, Wen You, and a purple-robed third-rank official. Crown Prince Li Heng sat imposingly on the main seat, and the moment he saw Li Jinglong, he nodded his head once, saying, “Jinglong, Hongjun, sit.”
“... This is already the fourth military report that has been received this month.”
Jade green tea was poured into the tea bowl, and the Minister of Justice Wen You handed the bowl of tea to Li Jinglong. Li Jinglong then passed it to Hongjun, who was still thinking over the words that Qing Xiong had spoken as well as Chong Ming’s departure last night, and his spirits were still a little low.
Sitting to the right hand side of the crown prince was a high-ranking official wearing a purple robe with a golden sash, but Li Jinglong recognized him. In the past, when his own superior, Hu Sheng, saw him, he also had to lower his head and bow in greeting, showing his utmost respect - that was the Minister of War, Fan Shen.
“In the three regions of Ganzhou, Yizhou, and Shazhou, the enemy always ambushes at night every time, and wherever they pass through, they leave not even a chicken or a dog behind, turning everything into nothing more than rubble.” Fan Shen continued, “No matter if it’s elderly or youths, women or children, they are all slaughtered, and the victims number in the tens of thousands. What the scouts of the Hexi troops have seen when all combined together is a hell on earth!”
Hearing those words, Li Jinglong startled. Hongjun couldn’t help his attention being drawn to the discussion; the scenery of the Ministry of War in the early winter was beautiful, but what the various officials were discussing was such a soul-trembling problem.
Li Jinglong furrowed his brow. Wen You then asked, “Has General Geshu Han not sent out troops to investigate?”
“He’s already sent troops out three times past the Great Wall,” Fan Shen replied. “It is yet unclear whether it is the Uyghurs or the Turks causing this havoc. In the span of a month, they have slaughtered four cities in total, coming without a warning and leaving without a trace. General Geshu Han’s subordinates have been investigating this for a long time, resisting the bitter cold of the region north of Yumen Pass, but they have not been able to find any clues at all.”
“How does Jinglong see this?” Li Heng suddenly asked.
A group of officials looked towards Li Jinglong.
Li Jinglong knew that if the crown prince was summoning him, no matter what had happened, it would definitely have something to do with yaoguai. After listening to these few sentences, he understood the general gist of things and said, “This subject ventures to ask three questions.”
Everyone else in this crowd held an official’s position higher than Li Jinglong’s, and to start off with, they didn’t believe in any talk of spiritual beings or gods. However, since the crown prince believed in such things, they couldn’t say anything, instead hinting that Li Jinglong should speak.
“The first: the soldiers that were slaughtered in the city, what weapons were they attacked with?
“The second: what was the main method of plundering the city? In such a large city, not a single person managed to escape?!
“The third: what is the imperial court’s stance on this affair?”
After Li Jinglong asked those questions, the crown prince smiled and looked at the gathered people.
“This is exactly what we’re worried about,” Fan Shen said. “There’s really no way to explain it… The elderly and young, wives and children were all killed, but the strong, able-bodied young soldiers in the city disappeared in the span of a single night, never to be seen again.”
Hongjun put down his bowl of tea and began to think. This didn’t seem like something that humans would do.
“Of the riches and the grain in the city, not even a bit of it was touched,” Wen You said, “To this, the Judiciary Department is entirely at a loss, and as for the imperial court…”
Wen You looked to Li Heng for assistance. Li Heng breathed lightly but didn’t reply.
“Aside from these, there are no other clues?” Li Jinglong asked.
“Aside from these, there are no other clues at all,” Li Heng replied.
After the time it takes to burn one stick of incense, Li Heng, Li Jinglong, and Hongjun walked out of the main doors of the Ministry of War.
“Chancellor Yang has completed his military service and is returning to the court,” Li Heng explained. “The military reports are currently being detained in his grasp. A hundred thousand troops: if you were to call it a lot, it isn’t a lot, but if you were to call it a little, it also isn’t a little. Four cities being destroyed is a large matter in the border territories. There are many oddities within this matter, but they all believe it’s a case where the Uyghur soldiers are plundering on a large scale before winter arrives.”
Li Jinglong took in a deep breath, his brows furrowing deeply. “It can’t be the Uyghurs. If it was the Uyghurs, how could they have left the riches and goods in the city untouched?”
“You two believe that it’s related to yao?” Li Heng asked.
Hongjun said, “We need to go take a look at the place. Right now, like this, it’s hard to say.”
Li Heng said, “We only have two and a half months. Once spring comes, the Uyghur diplomatic envoy will arrive in Chang’an. If we cannot get evidence by then, perhaps the Chancellor of the Right will consider finding an excuse to send the armies out against the Uyghurs.”
“His Majesty will permit it?” Li Jinglong immediately grew nervous.
Li Heng only watched Li Jinglong quietly, and as he did, Hongjun sensed the faintest sliver of danger.
Immediately, Li Heng nodded his head lightly, saying, “Originally, I believed that fortunes would be born from the depths of misfortune, but I didn’t expect that… this time, everything would depend on you all. That’s right, where are those other subordinates of yours?”
Li Jinglong smiled bitterly. “The yao king has already been dealt with, and each of them had other urgent matters to deal with, so they left for distant places, leaving behind Hongjun to keep me company.”
Saying this, Li Jinglong placed one hand on Hongjun’s shoulder. Li Heng didn’t find it strange at all; he merely said, as if he was deep in thought, “That, though, is the same.”
“There will be people to help you,” Li Jinglong answered. “When you are at the end of your rope, a favorable turn is just around the corner.”
“But isn’t that you?” Li Heng smiled. “Here is a personal handwritten letter from me. After you arrive in Hexi, find General Geshu Han first. Go ba, I will wait for your good news.”
Hongjun found this entire conversation very confusing as he stood to the side listening to the two of them exchanging these pithy, profound remarks. In the end, Li Heng mounted his horse and left.
“What’s the same?”
“His Highness the Crown Prince meant that his current circumstances are very similar to mine back in the day. He spent many years fighting battles in the field, and after all that trouble, Li Linfu finally fell, allowing him to return Chang’an, but he hadn’t expected that a new contender would appear in front of him: Yang Guozhong.”
Li Jinglong was packing his things in the room. Hongjun changed into a set of cultivation martial robes, carrying a bag on his back, squatting on the railings under the cover of the hallway watching him.
“If this knot between the Great Tang and the Uyghurs is unable to be untied,” Li Jinglong retrieved his clothes, passing by Hongjun with a gust of wind as he continued, “Yang Guozhong will once again find a way to send His Highness the Crown Prince out again.”
This was the first time that Hongjun had heard Li Jinglong explain political struggles like this, and he gradually began to understand the friction and conflict between people. In the end, ever since the beginning of time, humans’ lust for “power” had never abated.
“So will they start to fight?” Hongjun exclaimed. “Then isn’t Yang Guozhong rebelling?”
“He wouldn’t dare.” Li Jinglong didn’t know if he should laugh or cry. “The Yang family just wants to keep surviving as well.”
Though it seemed like Yang Guozhong held great power, it was only due to the fact that his younger sister was favored that he could tyrannize and oppress others, and thus he had made many enemies within the court. After the fox yao case happened, it must have had an effect on the Yang family. In the coming days, as soon as Li Longji died and Li Heng took the throne, the first thing he would do would be to settle the accounts with the Yang family.
Because of this, Yang Guozhong had to find a way to ensure the survival of his whole family, so he and the crown prince sank into this action of circling warily around each other.
“So it’s not definite that they’ll start fighting the Uyghurs,” Hongjun said.
“En.” Li Jinglong retrieved the traveling expenses, once again passing by Hongjun, saying, “They may not fight with the Uyghurs, but he can send the crown prince out once again to stand guard in Liangzhou. This way, he can once again stretch his hand out and make arrangements within the court.”
Hongjun had learned quite a bit, and at this, he asked, “Then, if on the small possibility that they do start fighting, who do we help?”
Li Jinglong: “...”
“Aside from helping the crown prince, who else can you help?” The carp yao couldn’t bear listening to this any longer, and it said, “Are you dumb? When a new regime establishes itself in the human realm, if you don’t help the emperor with destiny on his side, are you actually going to help the traitors? Fate is still with the Great Tang!”
Hongjun said, “But Imperial Consort Yang even gave me pastries to eat…”
Li Jinglong rested his head on his hand, thinking, someday, if Hongjun was coaxed by Imperial Consort Yang into stabbing the crown prince with a throwing knife, with the reason behind that action being pastries, he really didn’t know how the citizens of the realm would see it.
“The crown prince even gave you the nephrite jade beads, why didn’t you mention that?” Li Jinglong said angrily as he finished packing his bags.
The carp yao lifted a bundle as well, hopping into the hallway, saying, “You two, I also must bid farewell here…”
“No way!” Li Jinglong didn’t even listen before he grew enraged.
“Where are you heading off to?” Hongjun asked curiously.
After the carp yao had received the advice of the kun god, it had been very down for the span of a shichen and two ke, but it could not spend its fish life like this every day, so it decided to save 81 people; collecting merits to better itself would also be benefiting the masses.
“Now I’ve saved Imperial Consort Yang,” the carp yao said, “I don’t know if that counts, so I’d better start counting from the next one on.”
Hongjun said, “If you set out just like this, beware of being captured again to be made into braised fish.”
The carp yao mulled that over for a long time. When it had come down from the mountain with Hongjun, there was one time where it went to go dig for earthworms to eat and had almost been captured. Later, it was Hongjun who had saved it and brought it back; acting on its own would definitely be a dangerous endeavor, so it could only let that idea go.
“Then we’ll have to first lay out a few ground rules…”
Li Jinglong said, his tone long-suffering, “No one is going to restrict your freedom -- go get the Lihun Pollen quickly!”
Hongjun then asked, “Is Hexi fun? What good food is there?”
“Did I agree to taking you with me?” Li Jinglong asked.
“Zhangshi!” Hongjun immediately shouted. “My bag is already packed, do you really have the heart to leave me here all alone?!”
Li Jinglong ducked his head as he folded his robes, saying, “When you left your home to come to Chang’an, didn’t you come on your own?”
Hongjun: “That’s not the same!”
“How is it different?” Li Jinglong’s mouth quirked up a little at the corners, and he brushed shoulders with Hongjun as he went to go find his documents.
“Now that I know you, of course it’s different,” Hongjun said. “How can you leave me behind? See, all my things have even been packed!”
Saying this, Hongjun patted his bundle.
Li Jinglong had actually thought about leaving him in Chang’an to watch the house before, because no one knew if more yaoguai would come to cause trouble. But leaving Hongjun in the Exorcism Department was something that he could not stop worrying over. He himself would be on the road, so he would have no way to watch over him. The journey would be long, and both of them would be very lonely.
“Then we’ve got to lay out a few ground rules,” Li Jinglong said. “The first: when we’re outside, you must listen to me about everything.”
“I’ve always listened to you,” Hongjun said, puzzled. “When have I not listened to you?”
Li Jinglong pointed a finger at Hongjun, saying, “That’s not necessarily the case… for example…”
Li Jinglong racked his brains but could not find an example. Now that he thought about it, he found that Hongjun was indeed the most obedient one. He could only continue, “The second…”
Hongjun hopped off the railing, reaching out a hand to tug at Li Jinglong, saying hurriedly, “Zhangshi, just name them, and I’ll follow them all. Take me along ba!”
Li Jinglong looked at Hongjun, and suddenly he began to smile. In that instant, he really wanted to pull him into his embrace and give him a few hard rubs.
He subconsciously lifted his hand, but he sensed something and immediately stopped his movements.
“Don’t keep tugging at me,” Li Jinglong said. “I’ll take you along after all. Go pack your clothes, Hexi’s very cold.”
Hongjun was not very afraid of the cold, but under Li Jinglong’s insistence, he brought a few more clothes, before gleefully, without waiting for any prompting, stuffed the carp yao into his bundle and hopped onto his horse to set off.
Li Jinglong said, “Don’t be too happy. This is going out on business, we’re not going to play.”
Li Jinglong passed through the Western Market, buying some tea cakes from Jiangnan, salt, rouge and such things, before going to the jeweler’s store and buying a pearl hairpin and a bolt of silk. Coiling it up into a bundle the size of his palm, he then stowed it in his bags. Hongjun watched curiously, asking, “Zhangshi, are you planning to disguise yourself as a woman on this journey? What are you buying rouge for?”
“Zhangshi has wanted to do this for a long time,” the carp yao said from its position on Hongjun’s back. “After leaving Chang’an, no one will recognize him, so he can let loose and bewitch unwitting passerby for a bit, did I guess that right?”
The citizens in the market laughed wildly, while Li Jinglong gritted his teeth and said, “Hongjun! If you keep damaging my reputation like this then go back to the Exorcism Department!”
Hongjun hurried to beg for mercy. Li Jinglong then turned his horse into an alley. Hongjun felt this place was somewhat familiar - it was the Chen residence!
Hongjun hurried to clamber off his horse. Li Jinglong knocked on the door for a visit, and as usual, it was that madam carrying an infant who came out, saying, “Captain Li? You’ve come again?”
Li Jinglong replied, “I’m here to give you some spending money.”
The madam hurried to decline the gift, but Li Jinglong insistently handed her five gold ingots that were ten liang in total. The madam couldn’t win against him, so she could only accept them with tears of gratitude.
“You’ve grown up huh.” Hongjun squeezed that infant’s hand. The infant was already almost ten months old, and his teeth had grown in. He grabbed Hongjun’s fingers and stuffed them right into his mouth, biting down without letting go, and Hongjun hurried to say, “Let… let go! It hurts!”
Li Jinglong tried every method in the book and finally managed to coax that infant into opening his mouth, before he said to the madam, “We’re setting out on some official business, and we’ll come to visit you again when we return. Hongjun, we’re going.”
Hongjun knew that it was because of the Heart Lamp that he couldn't stop worrying about the descendants of the Chen family, and he couldn’t help the swell of emotion in his heart.
The two of them left Chang’an, heading north along the military road. Hongjun was extremely bad at riding his horse, and he kept finding terrible paths for horses to travel along.
After Li Jinglong had left the Ministry of War, he had been constantly mulling things over. He turned his head back and said to Hongjun, “Save some energy, you’ll get tired in just a few shichen!”
Hongjun smiled. “You haven’t told me yet what Liangzhou is like!”
Li Jinglong answered, “I also don’t know! I haven’t left Chang’an in my entire life.”
One shichen later.
Hongjun: “Are we at the way-station yet?”
Li Jinglong answered, “There’s still two more shichen until then. We’ve just left Chang’an, and we haven’t even passed Mt. Li yet.”
Hongjun began to feel bored. Back then, when he had come down from the Taihang Mountains, everything felt new and exciting, but now that he understood more about this world, he didn’t find anything that he saw as strange anymore. It was early winter, and as far as the eye could see, everything was desolate and barren. Aside from hurrying along on their journey, there was only hurrying along on their journey, and if he wanted to talk with Li Jinglong, he had to raise his voice and shout to be heard, which was really too boring.
Two shichen later.
Li Jinglong rode ahead on his horse, his face expressionless, carrying Hongjun behind him. Hongjun rested against Li Jinglong’s back as he slept, and on Hongjun’s back was a carp yao. The carp yao’s mouth didn’t move at all as it too slept.
Li Jinglong’s horse had to carry the burden of two people and one fish, while Hongjun’s horse was completely unburdened, following behind.
Li Jinglong: “...”
Three shichen later.
Li Jinglong patted Hongjun behind him. “Hey, we’re here!”
Hongjun’s gaze was blurred with sleep as he stretched. Li Jinglong clambered off his horse, digging through the luggage for their documents before he went to get them lodgings at the way-station, while also making sure that they hadn’t taken the wrong path. Hongjun stood outside of the way-station, his gaze dull as he looked around at his surroundings. When officials brought their subordinates out on business, it should have been the subordinates who took care of these petty matters, but when Li Jinglong had Hongjun following after him, it was more like he was waiting hand and foot with great humility on a young master. What ordering others around, what gofers clearing the way, those were all things that he probably had no hope of experiencing his entire life.
“Little young master,” Li Jinglong called from inside. “Come in to eat, what are you standing around dumbly outside for?”
As soon as Hongjun heard eating, he walked in rapidly. That way-station’s waiter first shot a glance at Li Jinglong, before sliding it over to Hongjun, saying, “Young master, right this way.”
“Two of your best rooms,” Li Jinglong said to the waiter.
“One best room,” the waiter said confusedly.
Li Jinglong repeated, “Two of your best rooms.”
The waiter stuck out one finger, saying, “Every way-station only has one best room. Bodyguard, how about you go sleep in the woodshed out back?”
Hongjun said, “No worries, I’ll go sleep in the woodshed.”
“How can the young master sleep in the woodshed?” the waiter said. “Does your family still have any basic principles left?”
Li Jinglong: “...”
Li Jinglong had never left Chang’an, so he didn’t know that every way-station along the military road only had one best room, and if any passing merchant wanted to take a rest, they would also have to set up a screen in the great hall meant for food and drinks and manage there for the night. The best room was left for those rich merchants with official documents or officials from Chang’an carrying out their duties to reside in.
“Whatever, let’s sleep together ba.” Li Jinglong saw that that best room could still be considered clean, and the bed was pretty big, so he did some simple cleaning first. He had Hongjun sleep on the inside, before finding a basin to store water in, letting the carp yao soak in it. The carp yao had been blown by the wind and shone on by the sun for a whole day, and its entire fishy body was almost dried.
He rushed back and forth, and only after finishing taking care of the young master did Li Jinglong lie down, thinking, before, at least I was also a young master, so why didn’t I get to live for many days like one?
“Zhangshi,” Hongjun said.
Li Jinglong responded, “Since we are out traveling, it’s not the same as being at home, let this suffice for now ba.”
“I can’t sleep.”
During the day, Hongjun had been carried by Li Jinglong for the entire way, so he had slept too much, and right now he was very awake. But Li Jinglong, ever since last night when Chong Ming had come to make his life difficult, had been in a state of high-strung tension, and so many things had happened during the day that now he only felt extremely wrung out, and as soon as his head hit the pillow his eyelids drooped.
“En,” Li Jinglong said, his eyes closed. “Then what do you want to do?”
“I think that, for the yaoguai in the north, there are three possibilities…”
“Speak.” Li Jinglong said shortly. His consciousness had already begun to drift off as Hongjun said, “Legend has it that ever since the Shanhai period, there’s been a kind of yaoguai in the northwest called ‘drought fiends’. These yaoguai cause their surroundings for thousands of li to undergo a huge drought, so that’s why much of the land to the west is desert…”
Li Jinglong didn’t make a sound. Hongjun scooted a little closer, asking quietly, “Zhang… shi… are you asleep?”
Before, in Yaojin Palace, Hongjun always liked to take the opportunity while Chong Ming was sleeping to play pranks on him. After he watched Li Jinglong for a while, he also started thinking about how to play around with him a little. Li Jinglong had already fallen soundly asleep. After observing him for a moment, Hongjun felt that his features were very pleasing to the eye, so he grabbed a piece of paper and brushed it over his face a few times.
Li Jinglong lifted a hand, swiping Hongjun’s wrist away. Hongjun then went to go find a brush.
Nightfall, on a desolate plain covered with withered trees.
Mo Rigen left Mt. Li, turning towards the north, and after galloping for a full day, he arrived on the banks of the Yellow River.
This horse was like a gust of divine wind, and from the time the sun rose to the time it set, in the span of an entire day, it had run a whole 600 li.
“Do I need to go north again?” Mo Rigen’s outfit of cloth robes fluttered in the cold breeze as he let out a sigh. The winters of the North were extremely harsh and cold, and after leaving the Lake Hulun region, he originally had four choices: the first was to head west to the Gobi region; the second was to go south towards Suhang, before turning towards Nanyue; the third was to head towards Chang’an in Guanzhong. And the fourth was to enter Shu.
Qiu Yongsi had agreed to help him ask after the whereabouts of the White Deer in the south on his way, and Tegla would do the same in the Kuertai and Tianshan region. The other two both persuaded him that the best thing to do would be to spend winter in Chang’an before heading north, so that he could avoid the cruel cold of the Gobi.
But waiting until the end of next spring to the beginning of summer was far too long, and who knows what variables would appear in that time.
Mo Rigen carefully stowed the uniform of the Exorcism Department away, lest the robes become dirtied. Like before, he wore that set of hunter’s martial robes made of linen, but those summer clothes were far too thin. As soon as the cold wind blew at him, no matter how in-shape he was, he couldn’t resist a little shiver. He thought to himself, after crossing the Yellow River, he would have to buy a set of clothes to wear in a town.
Not many days later, the Yellow River would be frozen over. Mo Rigen led his horse onto the last ferry. When the ferry was about to set off, he couldn’t resist turning his head back to send a longing glance at the vast Central Plains to the south.
As night fell, Yulin County on the northern bank was still shining with bright lights. Mo Rigen kept rubbing his hands together and breathing on them as he strode to the furrier’s stall, moving like a meteor. Mo Rigen was tall, lithe, and handsome, and he led a divine steed around by the reins; that attracted the envious gazes of many people on the street. A moment later, he strode out, having changed into a fur-lined coat, wearing a fox pelt hat, recovering the look of a Shiwei man’s outfit, which only caused him to look more energetic and handsome.
After Mo Rigen changed into his new clothes, he casually pulled out an already-made leather mask out from his bag, putting it on his face to block the wind and snow. His bright eyes looked towards the street.
Tonight he could only find some temporary lodgings in Yulin. He put on gloves, preparing to go find some wine to drink in the city, but just at this instant, along the street there came a person, rushing over, mad and flighty, his hair loose as he let out loud, wild shouts.
Mo Rigen turned his head and glanced at him, but his feet didn’t stop moving as he continued to lead his horse towards a wine shop.
“Hey! You there, stop!”
That madman fell onto the snowy ground outside of the medicine hall, and a man raced up from behind, shouting angrily as he grabbed the baked bing from his hand.
The madman had stolen a bing, and now he trembled uncontrollably as that man walked away, spitting out curses.
“Don’t block the front of the stall, I’m doing business here!” the boss shouted. “Fuck off!”
The madman crawled and scrambled as he escaped to one side, muttering something incessantly as he did so. With a flash of thought, Mo Rigen felt around and pulled out a few copper coins. Just as he was thinking about buying a bing to give to him, he suddenly heard in the distance, the madman muttering quietly, “Ghost… ghost… ghost… where’s the deer? … Deer!”
Behind the mask, Mo Rigen’s eyes widened instantly, and he turned and ran towards that madman.
That madman kept ducking away to escape, panting like a bellows.
Mo Rigen took a knee in the snow, asking quietly, “Just now, what did you say?”
“That person’s mad!” the proprietress of the medicine hall dumped a basin of water out, saying, “He came from the northwest, all mad and flighty, and before he was even muttering that there were ghosts that came out at night on the Great Wall.”
Mo Rigen said quietly, “What did you see? Don’t be nervous.”
The madman dumbly watched Mo Rigen. His gaze was unfocused, but his eyes were bright.
In a low voice, Mo Rigen muttered an incantation and held his palm horizontally, slowly pressing it down onto that madman’s forehead. That madman went slowly from shuddering and trembling to calm.
The madman widened his eyes, and in his bright eyes appeared Mo Rigen’s reflection.
“Everything is okay now,” Mo Rigen comforted him in a quiet voice. “Don’t be afraid.”
Mo Rigen searched through the clothes on that madman’s body, and in a pocket pressed up against his body, he found a tiny piece of metal.
On the piece of metal was written: Tianshui City Guard 273, Lu.
The proprietress of the medicine hall looked over Mo Rigen, and seeing the leather mask that he wore, she suddenly let out a “yi”.
“Hey, husband, come look quick, isn’t this the one that they spoke of, that Saiwai one…”
“Get up, come with me.”
Mo Rigen nodded to the proprietress of the medicine hall as he supported that madman, taking him along as they left the stall behind.
moon: LU XU IS HERE!
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.