One was an imperial bodyguard, and the other was also an imperial bodyguard.
The fragrance of late autumn, a hall turned bloody scarlet.
An imperial bodyguard on the verge of getting a death sentence kneeled outside the Longyang Hall. Luan, which symbolized a grand wedding, was displayed all over the area, the bright red pattern was dazzling; there were still ten days before the emperor's wedding day.
Li Xiao, the Emperor of Yu Country, sat on the golden imperial chair with a gloomy face.
The grand secretariat, holding an accounts book, hurriedly passed by the Qinghe Hall, his feet ever moving. He entered the hall and bowed.
"This subject salutes Your Majesty."
Li Xiao said in a deep voice, "Grant him a seat."
Two eunuchs brought a chair in. The grand secretariat brushed off his sleeves, sat carefully on the chair, then looked up at the emperor's face. With a glance, he became aware of the situation.
He watched Li Xiao growing up. Since he has ascended the throne at the age of 16, he has been temperamental, bloodthirsty, ruthless, wasn't close to women, and didn't pleasure himself. He was more difficult to serve than any Yu Country's previous emperor.
Today, the grand secretariat saw an imperial bodyguard kneeling outside the hall with a tile for "death of a thousand cuts" inserted on his shirt collar. He didn't know which of Li Xiao's nerves had the guard touched; he was close to the death's door.
The grand secretariat couldn't be more familiar with the guard's clothing: Yingnu.
The falcons raised in the palace were used by princes, nobles, and officials for spring and autumn hunts. This had been first initiated by their ancestors a hundred years before. A few years ago, on the court, some officials used an empty treasury as their reason to jointly hand over a missive; they wanted to disband the falcon squad. The emperor didn't approve, but the falcon squad was reduced from 60 to 15 people. The ordinary guards were on the Fourth Lower Rank, while the leader of guards was on the Fourth Principal Rank. The leader of the falcon keepers was called "Yingnu."
The guard kneeling outside had a fair and neat appearance, probably yet to reach twenty. Five colorful feathers were inserted on the guard's crown, representing his position as the current Yingnu.
The grand secretariat stroked his white beard and pondered for a long time. "This subject is unaware as to why Your Majesty is summoning him?"
Li Xiao said in a cold tone, "Teacher wants to retire?"
On the dragon table, there was an accounts book regarding the grand secretariat's request to retire and return home.
The grand secretariat smiled in delight and gently sighed. "This subject is old and can't stand anymore."
A rare gentleness appeared in Li Xiao's face. "If you can't stand, sitting is fine."
The grand secretariat shook his head as if mocking himself. "Your Majesty is going to marry this year. After Your Majesty finishes exchanging wine, this old subject can also rest assured and return home."
Li Xiao's wedding day was close, but there was this kind of inexplicable feeling in his heart. Originally, he had wanted to have the grand secretariat come to talk, but he was somewhat distracted and suddenly changed the subject. He lightly asked, "What book has Teacher been reading recently?"
The grand secretariat replied, "Answering Your Majesty, this old subject has been reading The Historical Records of Yu."
Li Xiao: "Teacher used to tell me many stories when I was young."
The grand secretariat nodded, full of thoughts. "Every time this subject rereads it, there's always some insight."
Li Xiao: "What insight?"
The grand secretariat asked, "Your Majesty might've remembered about the second emperor of our dynasty, Emperor Chengzu, the Changle Emperor. It was more than a hundred years ago, during the Tongli era."
Li Xiao: "I remembered. There's still a painting of the Changle Emperor inside the Minghuang Hall. During the Tongli era, the Xiongnus invaded and conspired with the empress to revolt. In the autumn of the 16th year of Tongli, the court was overturned and the fire of war was everywhere. In one night, the traitors conspired to usurp the throne. The country was in peril. Chengzu fled the capital that very night and kept a low profile. He seized back the political power, cleaned out the border, and raised the prestige of my Great Yu."
"Chengzu was able to turn the tide against all odds, and for that, he became the most respected person in this king's life."
The grand secretariat glanced at the guard outside the hall and said with a gentle smile, "Your Majesty knows everything. This old subject has no more story to tell."
Li Xiao said, "No, Teacher's story is still very interesting. Moreover, this king knows very little about Chengzu; only about his heroic spirit, but not about his trivial matters. This king is quite interested."
The grand secretariat gladly said, "In that case, let this old subject recount it?"
The eunuch served the tea. The grand secretariat smoothed out the floating leaves, took a sip, and slowly said, "When Chengzu was alive, there were two people at his side."
Li Qingcheng, the Crown Prince of Yu Country, had only two people at his side, one was an imperial bodyguard, and the other was also an imperial bodyguard.
Why not an eunuch, ne?
His Majesty thought that having too many eunuchs wasn't good. The cascrates' mind was vicious; it was easy for them to corrupt their students. Since the foundation of Yu Country was military, it would be better if some 'masculine' men accompany him, furthermore, he could make his main son learn from military men that way. And so, he gave Li Qingcheng a personal bodyguard.
The empress gave her consent and also gave Li Qingcheng a personal bodyguard. Thus, the crown prince had two personal bodyguards.
Bodyguard A, who was sent by the empress: 8 chi 7 cun tall, looked handsome, strong, and had a dignified aura. He wore a falcon, red brocade martial robe. On his head was a jade-like martial crown, on his feet were tiger, black boots, and on his waist was Yu Country's famous sword: "Yunshu."
When the sword was unsheathed, just like a dragon's roar, it could split the river water for thousands of miles and break through the clouds.
Bodyguard A was called "Fang Qingyu." He had a jade-like face, high nose bridge, thick eyebrows, and beautiful eyes. When he smiled, he looked handsome and full of confidence. The way he moved his hands and feet resembled those who came from the Wulin families. There was a sound akin to spring breeze accompanying his walks, just like a dragon or a crane's steps. He was as proud as a crane, yet also as modest as a crane; his outstanding looks could clearly be seen.
It was said that this man was Yu Country's number one martial arts expert. He came from the empress's maiden family. In the palace, only the emperor and empress called him "Qingyu, Qingyu," and even the crown prince had to call him "Qing-ge."
The rest had to be respectful and call him "Lord Fang."
Although imperial bodyguards were only on the Fourth Rank, they were people beside the future emperor; nobody dared to offend them.
Bodyguard B, who was sent by the emperor: 9 chi tall, had a tanned complexion, an aquiline nose, eyebrows as sharp as weapons, and lips like an inverted sword. He wore a black martial robe; its lapel was already fading in color because it hadn't been changed since he first entered the palace. His limbs were slender and tall, around half a head taller than Bodyguard A. He had a good stature, but sadly, he was reserved, taciturn, and had a ruthless face.
Bodyguard B's knuckles were distinct, his fingernails short, and the veins on the back of his hands were intertwined; it was as if he were ready to crush someone's throat at all times. He stood in the dark just like a silent owl. At night, when the palace maids or the eunuchs leisurely walked, they would be able to feel his eyes looking at them from the dark, making them scared witless.
What's more frightening was that on the left side of his face, he wore a half mask made of silver. The origin of the mask had become a talk in the palace for a long time. Some said that his face had been slashed by his enemies, while some said that half of his face had been burned during his childhood. In short, that half mask, coupled with his cold and gloomy look, made people can't help but stay away and dare not provoke him.
As time went by, people in the palace took a detour each time they saw him; his popularity among people fell short by that of Bodyguard A.
Bodyguard B also had a name, it was "Zhang Mucheng." Later, since the crown prince had the same "Cheng" character on his name, it was changed to "Zhang Mu." However, it seemed to be only an agreement inside the palace, because, except when meeting him face-to-face, he wouldn't be called "Lord Zhang." Behind his back, he was always called "that person" or "that man."
The crown prince also didn't call him "Mu-ge" nor "Zhang-ge." He only called him offhandedly, sometimes with "hey," sometimes with "mute," but most of the time, he didn't take the initiative to call him.
The empress didn't want to see him, only the emperor summoned him occasionally. The time when the emperor called Zhang Mu was, in general, the time for the crown prince to be disciplined by a ruler or a plank.
For the majority of the time, the emperor was clear about what Li Qingcheng had been doing inside the hall. He summoned Zhang Mu just to confirm a few things.
Zhang Mu either just nodded his head, shook his head, made a "hm" sound, or gestured with his hand; it determined how many lessons the crown prince would have to endure.
This kind of bodyguard was really too annoying. Work quality determined treatment. Who the crown prince liked and didn't like, it was clear with just a glance.
When this man was on duty, he would carry a 3 chi 9 cun sabre on his back; the sabre had no name and was never unsheathed. He stood still in the front corridor of the hall, not saying any word, and he looked like an ominous log chunk.
Bodyguard B had entered the palace earlier than Bodyguard A. It was said that he had begun to follow the crown prince when he was 17 years old. Back then, the crown prince was 6 years old, and now, he was 16. Bodyguard B had been staying near him in the palace for a whole 10 years.
Li Qingcheng recognized this man ever since he could form coherent thoughts. In his memory, he had never seen Zhang Mu take off his mask, nor could he hear his voice that much.
The only memory he had regarding this mute was about many years ago, when he was tricked by the Fourth Prince.
That year, the Fourth Prince went to the capital. In the imperial garden, he urged the crown prince to do something, but what exactly it had been about was quite unclear in the crown prince's memory. It seemed he had asked the crown prince to play in that big winter, so the crown prince rolled up his sleeve and shouted, "Good, good, good. This prince wants to play, let's go to the lake."
The crown prince had yet to take action when Zhang Mu extended out a hand; with no explanation, he pushed the emperor's younger brother's butt before kicking him once again. The Fourth Prince was really unfortunate; he stumbled down and with a thunderous sound, he broke the frozen ice and fell into the Taiye Pond. As a result, he became seriously ill for three days and his small life had almost ended in the capital.
That event made the emperor's dragon face turn furious; this dog bodyguard was seriously a pain in the neck. The emperor compelled Zhang Mu to kowtow to the Fourth Prince, knocking his head on the ground three times to make amends, and that was how that matter was concluded.
That didn't count, there was something even more annoying.
When the crown prince was reading in the study, the two bodyguards, one on the left and one on the right, stood on the corridor and waited—— day after day, year after year. The crown prince and Fang Qingyu talked, while Zhang Mu listened.
"Qing-ge, come and continue this section for me, I don't feel like writing it," Li Qingcheng laughed.
Fang Qingyu declined and smiled, "This can't continue. Be careful of the Grand Tutor's punishment."
Li Qingcheng said, "Our handwritings are alike, no one can see the difference in one or two sections."
Fang Qingyu's mouth still rejected, but he moved and helped Li Qingcheng write. Li Qingcheng lazily leaned on the table as he watched the guard help him with his writings, making an idle talk once in a while.
Fang Qingyu smiled and stood up, his thick eyebrows furrowing. "It's almost finished, you have to write the rest by yourself. I read aloud, you write."
Li Qingcheng threw a grape into his mouth and took the brush. He learned most of the characters from Fang Qingyu. Not only did he call him "ge," he also learned to write characters from him. Fang Qingyu had an outstanding aura and was good-looking. He had a good writing skill as he was well-versed in both literature and military, and he could be said to be a master in calligraphy himself. For the crown prince to also be taught to write by him, the emperor truly appreciated it.
As for the log chunk outside, Li Qingcheng couldn't help but take a glance. Him? I don't even know whether he's literate or not.
The next day, the emperor inspected his assignment.
Li Qingcheng was standing and the emperor was sitting. Two sentences in a flying dragon and dancing phoenix wild cursive calligraphy were hung on the wall of the study room: "An era of gold and prosperity for the land under heaven makes for a marvelous sight of rivers and mountains."
In his entire life, Li Qingcheng loved this calligraphy the most; the characters looked free and unbound, casual and without restrain, majestic and impressive. He had asked his Father Emperor about it on many occasions, but the emperor never answered him.
Li Qingcheng couldn't stop looking at his biological father; the emperor was old.
The expedition on the border four years ago left him with an incurable illness. His Father Emperor, sitting on the dragon chair, spent most of his time half-leaned and covered with a blanket; his hair and beard were grizzled, his bearing senile.
However, the old dragon's prestige was no less intimidating.
"Your own writings?" The emperor's voice was dignified.
Li Qingcheng was akin to a rat that met a cat. He was trembling with fear as he answered, "Ye… yes, this son made it himself."
"Recite it once." The man on the dragon chair was calm.
Li Qingcheng stammered; he recited the rough idea and completely forgot the middle part of it. The Grand Tutor couldn't watch anymore and changed the subject, "Recently, Your Highness has been studying hard."
Li Qingcheng said with a smile, "Father Emperor, people who write essays, in many cases, can't recite them."
The Old Dragon said in a cold tone, "Stop messing around. This topic, 'Obtain rivers and mountains with power, govern rivers and mountains with culture,' you can make do with your own thought. You've already off to a good start, why not write the rest by yourself? Opening, developing, changing, concluding. You wrote the start and the end by yourself, why did you ask someone to help you in the middle?"
Li Qingcheng broke down. He braced himself and said, "N… no, everything is this son's own thought."
The emperor threw back the essay. "Go back and rewrite it. If you make Qingyu ghost-write again, you will be punished to copy the document a hundred times."
Li Qingcheng could only hold the essay, lowered his head, and left.
"You haven't practiced archery," the Old Dragon's heavy voice sounded again.
Li Qingcheng had bowed and withdrawn a few steps. He raised his head again to say, "This son has practiced… This son didn't practice yesterday, Zhang Mu… If it rains, he doesn't let this son go out."
A eunuch whispered something in the emperor's ear.
The emperor commanded, "Go back and practice archery diligently."
"Yes, yes." Li Qingcheng, as if he were granted amnesty, ran away like a rabbit.
Li Qingcheng walked out of the Chengqian Hall. He saw several senior officials waiting respectfully inside the court; he greeted them and went east. He thought that had it not been because his old man was preoccupied with some matters, he wouldn't have told Li Qingcheng to study again.
After the crown prince had left, the Grand Tutor requested to withdraw as well, and the hall was quiet. The emperor said, "You also go back, ba. You always mention Qing'er, don't neglect your own martial arts' training."
Zhang Mu walked out from behind the screen and said, "Hm."
The emperor began to cough. Zhang Mu seemed to change his mind; he knelt on one knee, unmoved, and didn't stand up.
The emperor knew he still had something to say. After a while, he asked, "What else do you want to report?"
Zhang Mu didn't answer. The emperor waved his hand and said, "This sovereign's body will not become a hindrance."
The eunuch served the tea. Zhang Mu got his answer; he bowed again with an expressionless face. This time, he asked to be excused and left.
Eastern Palace, Kunhe Hall.
As Li Qingcheng passed by, he lifted the curtain of his carriage to take a quick glance and saw several carriages outside the palace.
We have guests? Li Qingcheng thought, I haven't seen them, what's their purpose? The Empress's maiden family?
The eunuch announced him and Li Qingcheng went into the hall; it was filled with a sweet scent. The empress was draped in a pale red embroidered gown; she sat elegantly on the couch with her elbow leaning on a small tea table as she looked at the chessboard on the table in full details.
The empress wasn't Li Qingcheng's biological mother, but she was very good to Li Qingcheng.
Li Qingcheng's biological mother died early; the empress was the one who raised the crown prince, so he felt they were similar to biological mother and son. This Madam was over 40 years old, but she took excellent care of herself; she didn't look old at all.
"This son pays respect to Mother Empress," said Li Qingcheng first.
The empress said, "Have you met your Father Emperor?"
Li Qingcheng took off his outer coat and handed it to the palace maid. He said with a smile, "This son just came from Father Emperor's place. This son couldn't recite the document and was scolded."
The empress seemed to be displeased as she looked at the crown prince. "Recite what document? Qingyu only said that the Grand Tutor had asked you to do an essay, but he didn't say anything about reciting a document."
Li Qingcheng made a "hehe" sound and smiled. "Qing-ge helped this son write. This son couldn't recite it and was found out. What is Mother Empress looking at, ne?"
The empress smiled in a languid manner and smoothed out her hair. "Master Miaoyin has just been summoned into the emperor's palace. I'm looking at the match we had been playing."
Li Qingcheng stood up, moved closer, and pointed out, "I've seen the Buddhist monks of the Huangjian Temple doing the set-up called 'the Guest acts as the Host.' Mother Empress, look..."
Li Qingcheng pulled up his sleeve and moved the white chess piece. The empress made a soft "oh?" sound.
"This piece will fill in the gap."
The empress said, "These two pieces correlate well."
Li Qingcheng: "If you suppressed one piece, wouldn't both get removed? If you sweep off the master piece, there's also no use in keeping the guest piece beside it."
The empress's graceful eyebrows were slightly furrowed. Clutching on her sleeves, she looked at Li Qingcheng's eyes with a smile. "What did His Majesty say to Huang'er today?"
Li Qingcheng pursed his lips. "He didn't say anything."
On the side, Fang Qingyu said with a smile, "It's this subordinate who has caused trouble for the Crown Prince."
Li Qingcheng picked his ear and said, "It's not Qing-ge's fault. Empress Mother, you see, this matter has been resolved."
The empress smiled sweetly, and her thoughts returned to the chessboard. Sure enough, when she used Li Qingcheng's move: 'the Guest acts as the Host,' she cleared the match thoroughly.
"Let us, this mother-son pair, have an afternoon meal together," the empress said.
Li Qingcheng thought for a moment and said, "The mute accompanied me to the Emperor's palace, but this son doesn't know where he has gone to."
The empress indifferently said, "Have someone get a meal box and send it later."
The palace maids arranged the table. Fang Qingyu, just like before, stood on the side to wait on them. Li Qingcheng said, "Tomorrow is the Mid Autumn Festival."
The empress said, "It is. Have you done all your assignments? When your Father Emperor is entertaining the lords in the court, remember what you have to say. Qingyu will also help Your Highness point it out."
Li Qingcheng said with a smile, "Naturally. I'm already this old."
The empress trailed her spoon around in her bowl, and she seemed a little absent-minded. After the meal, Imperial Guard Fang sent Li Qingcheng back.
23… T/Ns… for a chapter that is less than 5000 words… Oh boy…
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.