"I don't 'remember,' but I know."
Late at night, the candles were half-lit half-extinguished; they flickered in the breeze, and after some time, it was blown by the wind until it grew faint.
The monarch and the subject stood opposite each other. The city was still and silent, as if a dangerous atmosphere was brewing inside the palace hall.
Xu Lingyun knew in his heart that Li Xiao had become furious when he heard this paragraph.
Li Xiao suddenly rose and strode straight to the front of the hall. He folded his hands behind his back and said, "Since Fang Qingyu didn't care about the life of 30.000 soldiers, it was clear that he basically didn't care at all about the safety or destruction of this Great Yu Country. This king now asks you, all civil and military officials in the court, why are they taking orders from this king?"
In a low voice, Xu Lingyun said, "It's because Your Majesty is the Son of Heaven. Your Majesty's whole person is connected to the fate of my Great Yu: Your Majesty's glory means the prosperity of the country, and Your Majesty's disgrace means its downfall."
Li Xiao indifferently said, "It is as you said. So, being loyal to the ruler, in the end, is essentially the same as 'loving the people.' First, there is a country, and then, a monarch. With that basis, you have to first vow loyalty to the Great Yu before you're qualified to be loyal to the monarch. Otherwise, no matter how much you act on it, you're still nothing but a sycophant."
The corners of Xu Lingyun's mouth slightly rose. "But in the past dynasties, there have been people who put the cart before the horse. Regardless of everything, they abandoned the will of people, only obeying the will of the emperor. Throughout history, are these kinds of crafty ministers truly rare?"
Li Xiao said, "This king isn't convinced that with Fang Qingyu's talent and ability, he couldn't understand this point either."
Xu Lingyun slowly nodded. "Or maybe, there is more to it than just that. Your Majesty is wise."
Li Xiao said, "And so, you're making up a story. Regarding the fire on that day, there have been varying opinions amongst the generations of court historians —— there must be something behind it. Xu Lingyun, you tell this king, between Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu, who was loyal and who was treacherous."
Xu Lingyun faintly said, "This subject dare not be presumptuous nor judge at random, nor does he know the details of the fire on that day. However, there are two things during Taizu's reign that might be able to tell Your Majesty who was the main culprit of this coup."
"The first thing is when Chengzu was young, when he followed Taizu to Jiangnan to appreciate the spring scenery as well as perform an inspection, Fang Qingyu and Zhang Mu accompanied him. When Chengzu saw the beautiful, prosperous land of Jiangnan in its full glory, he couldn't help but feel moved. Taizu then said, 'This wonderful landscape, it will be yours in the future. Huang'er, whatever you see, you can take it as you see fit.' And so, Chengzu moved to pick a crown of thorns . Has Your Majesty ever seen a crown of crowns?" Xu Lingyun looked up.
Li Xiao lightly nodded. "Also known as iron spurge or qilin's thorns, their branches are full of sharp thorns."
Xu Lingyun was lost in thought. "Taizu was afraid Chengzu would injure his hand, so he came forward, picked the flower by grasping the end of the branch, and then said, 'Here you go.' It was obvious that Chengzu dared not take it, so Taizu once again pulled out his sword and cut off the thorns before personally handing it over to Chengzu while smoothing his beard and saying, 'The thing Father Emperor hands over to you, is naturally something you're able to securely hold.'"
After these words, Li Xiao and Xu Lingyun both stayed silent for a long time.
Li Xiao finally opened his mouth, "This matter of putting accomplished ministers to death had existed since ancient times. That fire, there's no doubt it was started by Taizu."
Xu Lingyun said, voice low, "This subject dare not be presumptuous."
Li Xiao nodded. "It was just the fire, but it was set off at a wrong time, and this unexpected event ended up profiting the Empress. Heaven truly wasn't on my Great Yu's side."
Xu Lingyun said, "In this land under heaven, there is no secret that can be kept forever. Starting from several years prior, Taizu's dragon body had started to decline, and Chengzu had also reached the age of 16, which meant he had met the age requirement to govern the country. For people who had certain intentions in their hearts, given that they kept their eyes open most of the time, they would also act at that moment."
Li Xiao nodded. "Correct. This kind of thing, if someone spent a lot of money to bribe the Yulin Army as well as the people in the palace, they would definitely be able to find tiny hints scattered around within some insignificant details. For example: the placement of firewood inside the palace, the quantity of lamp and oil, or the sitting arrangement of the banquet at that night of Mid-Autumn Festival… minutiae. It can only be said that Taizu was all-mighty at his prime, capable of even rebuking heaven and earth, yet in his later years, he turned muddle-headed. Despite all his meticulous planning, it only needed a single lapse of judgment for everything to go downhill, even leading to this great disaster."
Xu Lingyun dared not say anything and used his silence to answer. Li Xiao said, "Where did Zhang Mu go during the fire that night?"
Xu Lingyun slowly said, "This subject thinks that Fang Qingyu was amongst the whistleblowers. Fang Qingyu informed the Empress of this matter, and the Empress ordered him to take Chengzu out of the palace. Both Fang Qingyu and Zhang Mu didn't expect that Taizu would die on the fire that night. The inside story is very complicated; there were too many people telling different stories about that night, making it too difficult to tell the truth, and so we can only speculate based on some old affairs. But, there is also the second thing.
"The second thing is, during the fire at that night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, after Taizu died, Zhang Mu went to Minghuang Hall because he intended to fetch an item buried under the floor tile at the end of the palace corridor."
Li Xiao frowned. "And that is?"
Xu Lingyun said, "That place was said to have a trapdoor mechanism which hid Taizu's posthumous edict. The secret imperial edict was drafted as early as the year Chengzu was crowned as the crown prince, and only Taizu and Zhang Mu knew about it. But Zhang Mu was stopped by the Yulin Army before he managed to reach Minghuang Hall."
Li Xiao asked, "How about this secret imperial edict? Order someone to take it out, this king wants to see it."
Xu Lingyun smiled. "It had been burned a long time ago. Today, there is another item buried under that trapdoor, which Your Majesty shouldn't have any interest in."
Li Xiao said, "What's buried there now?"
Xu Lingyun faintly said, "A small porcelain bottle and two ceramic glazed cups, affixed with Fang Qingyu's seal."
Li Xiao's eyebrows moved. Xu Lingyun said nothing more and got up. "Tomorrow is Your Majesty's grand wedding, please take a rest."
Li Xiao sat down. "It's difficult to sleep tonight. Just continue."
Xu Lingyun smiled as he said, "Your Majesty, forgive this subject for being long-winded… but Your Majesty's grand event tomorrow is also a major event for the entire Great Yu."
Uncharacteristically, Li Xiao didn't explode upon hearing this. Instead, he slowly said, "This king knows. But these past few years, this king has never had sleeping problems like tonight. You continue and this king will lie down while listening. Once this king feels sleepy, naturally this king will fall asleep. So, Fang Qingyu followed them back?"
Xu Lingyun had no choice but to open the book once again, softening his tone a bit as he said:
Li Qingcheng lay in bed; it was a sleepless night. Fang Qingyu reconnected his bones and leaned against the broken door outside the house. Before daybreak, the mountains and snowfields were completely engulfed by the dark. Li Qingcheng put on his robe, went out of the room, and said in a small voice, "Ying-ge?"
Crouching, Li Qingcheng then asked, "Bring Fang Qingyu back to be detained?"
Zhang Mu had quietly lay down. A sharp word came out of his lips, "No."
Li Qingcheng was at a loss. Zhang Mu's eyes were clear, and he said in a low voice, "Don't mention him out loud."
Li Qingcheng still had many doubts, but Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu seemed to have reached some kind of tacit understanding. At dawn, the soldiers gathered in the ruins of Hejian. Li Qingcheng, Tang Hong, and Fang Qingyu all stood in the same place, while Zhang Mu stood far away, as to not share space with Fang Qingyu.
"Where are you going?" Tang Hong looked at Fang Qingyu in distrust.
Fang Qingyu used a piece of rag to cover half of his face. His black, sword-like eyebrows made him look very handsome, and his two eyes were so beautiful it made Li Qingcheng feel ashamed of himself. He and Tang Hong looked at Fang Qingyu for a moment. Tang Hong said, "Return to Langhuan?"
Li Qingcheng said, "Fang Qingyu, come over."
"You know who I am?" Li Qingcheng asked.
Fang Qingyu titled his head, looking carefully at Li Qingcheng, and replied, "I do not know."
He couldn't see the covered nose bridge and lips, but both of Fang Qingyu's eyes slightly moved, hinting at a smile.
Li Qingcheng's heart stirred and he felt an unspeakable sense of familiarity. But one moment after he started to think about it, his head began to ache again. Fang Qingyu's eyes were filled with nervousness. He reached out and put his hand on Li Qingcheng's shoulder before asking, "What? You're not feeling well?"
Li Qingcheng swatted Fang Qingyu's hand away. "Where did you bring the soldiers? Tell me the truth, else I'll hand you over to the court."
Fang Qingyu's eyes gracefully narrowed. "You're reluctant."
Frowning, Li Qingcheng reprimanded, "Be more serious!"
Fang Qingyu said, "Commander Assistant and I really aren't in the same faction. Do you understand?"
Li Qingcheng silently pondered over it. Fang Qingyu continued, "It's a long story. We have to start with the Empress. There was a change of weather in the capital during the night of Mid-Autumn last year, do you remember this?"
Li Qingcheng said, "I don't 'remember,' but I know."
Fang Qingyu's heart thumped —— he didn't anticipate that Li Qingcheng would be this cautious. He thought for a while before saying to himself, "The Empress killed the Grand Secretariat, executed General Fu, the commander of the imperial defensive squad, subdued the Northern Great General Tang's family, and put Prince Pingdong's entire family to death. However, there were also people who were dissatisfied with this, one of them being this Deputy General Liaoyuan who came to fight the Xiongnus with me."
"Lord Liaoyuan was originally guarding the Yubi Pass in the Northeast. He was known for his 'strong armor and golden spear.' He was promoted by General Tang some years prior, didn't form any clique with the other ministers, and he was also very upright, so there was no gap that could be exploited. For the Empress, this was a very difficult situation."
Li Qingcheng said, "And so, in order to get rid of this Lord Liaoyuan, she planned to sell the soldiers who defend their country to the Xiongnus —— that's how it was?"
Fang Qingyu nodded. "We can say that although Liaoyuan's military achievement was brilliant, he was impetuous and wouldn't listen to suggestions. The late emperor had ordered him to guard the Northeast's Yubi Pass, which did well to keep his temper in check. However, the Empress knew that once she transferred him to defend the city outside the Feng Pass, he wouldn't be able to hold back and would go to war without authorization."
"That day when our army arrived outside the pass, Lord Liaoyuan received a false report from a spy. He thought that since the Xiongnus had just attacked Langhuan, they would've barely settled down, even yet to drink water. And so he led the main forces out, bringing out our full force and leaving me with less than 2.000 soldiers to defend Hejian City, saying that they would go support Langhuan."
Tone cold, Li Qingcheng said, "In fact, after Liaoyuan dispatched the troops, he made a turn halfway through, rerouting to Mt. Duanke in order to mount a sneak attack on the Xiongnus' base camp."
Fang Qingyu smiled. "Exactly."
Li Qingcheng said, "That, Administrative Assistant Wang said that in the beginning, the Northern Expedition Army had sent over a letter, and it was one of your subordinates…"
Fang Qingyu said, "They're false reports. At that time, I sent a group of messengers to go to Langhuan. There was no battle in Langhuan, but when they returned, they informed Liaoyuan that Langhuan was under a great struggle, that Wang Yichen was leading the whole army and civilians of the city to resist the invasions of 50.000 Xiongnu troops."
Li Qingcheng, "Sure enough, it was you who set him up."
Fang Qingyu, "This has nothing to do with me. The people around me were all dispatched by the court. Qing-ge was all alone, there was no way to win against them. And since the Empress was determined to borrow the Xiongnus' hands to kill General Liaoyuan, there was nothing I could do either, right? There is also the fact that the group of messengers had been instructed by the Empress way before and had rehearsed their lines numerous times. Once they came back, they looked so very scared; they spoke of the details so vividly, to the point that I too almost believed it…"
Li Qingcheng angrily said, "Shut up! Even if Liaoyuan had to die, what crimes did the 30.000 Northern Expedition's troops ever commit?"
Fang Qingyu lazily said, "That 30.000 troops, of course they were all under Lord Liaoyuan's direct command."
Tang Hong, who was listening on the side, suddenly said, "That stupid woman. So she wasn't worried and even dared to ask a tiger for its skin, and ultimately led the Xiongnus to storm the capital?"
Fang Qingyu replied, "No, she wasn't stupid at all. She, without doubt, had colluded with the Xiongnus. Once she had swept clean Liaoyuan's entire military force, she once again made peace with the Xiongnus. But the main objective should've been to get rid of Liaoyuan. Had the emperor died first, do you think Liaoyuan would leave the matter just like that?
"If the rebellion during the Mid-Autumn night had been planned by the empress, she would've made many preparations beforehand; she would keep the death news hidden, ask Liaoyuan to return using a letter, and kill him then. But still, misfortune struck, that fire rose out of nowhere and burned many ministers to death. After the fire died out, the former emperor didn't show his face, and at once, a great general stationed in the frontier started to move back. Isn't it evident that he wanted to kill some people?"
Li Qingcheng slowly nodded. Fang Qingyu continued, "The Xiongnus' invasion of the Western Frontier was neither too early nor too late. It had also been arranged for some time. The Empress didn't dare to let Liaoyuan have his way, so she directly transferred him from outside of the Great Wall's Eastern Frontier to the Western Frontier and made him fight Arius, the king of Xiongnus, to the death. If there was a foreign invasion, Liaoyuan would have no choice but to put aside even the most important thing and come to Feng Pass to fight."
"And this war," Fang Qingyu slowly said, "regardless of the outcome, would satisfy the Empress's intention. This Liaoyuan was only loyal to the former emperor, and with this, the most unstable chess piece would finally be taken care of. If he won, it could be presumed that the remaining soldiers wouldn't be in great numbers, and she could start to incorporate them into the main army. If he lost, he would send a letter, and she would curse at him and order him to commit suicide. Once the main problem is taken care of, everything will be over."
With icy tone, Li Qingcheng said, "So that night Hejian was attacked, it was just to your liking; you gave up the operation and became a deserter."
Fang Qingyu smiled. "In fact, that was exactly what I wanted. Once the General had run away, there were no more than 2.000 people inside the city. Without the commander-in-chief, several places fell into the enemy's hands and we had no alternative but to retreat to the barracks. Then, people were chased and killed by the Xiongnus until there weren't many left. Hejian also was set on fire and burned down."
Li Qingcheng really had nothing to say to him. This guy was such a scourge to the nation and its people, why did the court let him lead 30.000 troops in an expedition?
In front of them was the Feng Pass. Tang Hong urged his horse over. Soldiers, grouped in twos and threes, were stationed in front of the pass encircling Fang Qingyu in the open space. Zhang Mu also watched from afar, but didn't come over.
Tang Hong, "Why did you become a deserter?"
Fang Qingyu didn't answer.
Li Qingcheng conveniently pulled out the Yunshu Sword on his waist and placed it against Fang Qingyu's neck. "His words are my words. Wrong answer and your head falls to the ground."
Fang Qingyu raised his eyebrows. In a refined and polite manner, he said, "I had more important things to do."
Li Qingcheng, "What could be more important than protecting one's family and country?"
Fang Qingyu replied, "Looking for someone."
Li Qingcheng, "Who."
Fang Qingyu turned his head away and looked at the snow flying for thousands of li over the besieged city, lost in thought.
Knowing that there was nothing more he could do, Li Qingcheng finally put away his sword, returning it to its scabbard. He turned around and approached the pass.
From a high place, a shout came. "Those who come have to show either the token of the Northern Expedition Army or the pass of the Frontier Army!"
Li Qingcheng replied, "There is no need to enter the pass. We've come from Langhuan, under the command of Northern Border's Administrative Assistant Wang Yichen, and only here to ask you something! We'll leave soon after, listen clearly!"
Li Qingcheng's words were full of dignity; the soldier dared not make a mistake and informed the people on the tower. A guard soon approached Li Qingcheng from afar, and Li Qingcheng said, "Three to ten days ago, did the Northern Expedition Army go through the pass?"
The pass guard hesitated. A steel arrow whirled and flew straight from hundreds of paces away. It landed right on the pillar of the Feng Pass's defensive tower —— a wooden spleen tied with a red string was attached to its tail, exactly the symbol of the Northern Expedition Army.
Li Qingcheng turned his head and looked: Fang Qingyu, the archer, was putting away his longbow.
"There was no report from the Northern Expedition Army!" said the pass guard. "My lord, would you like to enter the pass to rest a bit and reorganize the army?"
Li Qingcheng waved his hands and instructed, "We're going!"
The troops had just started to move when the Feng Pass's small gate opened and a mounted soldier rushed out at tremendous speed. He bowed and said, "My lord, seven days ago, General Fang Qingyu's wife headed northwest to the upper reaches of Xiaogu River."
Li Qingcheng doubted. "Where did you get the news?"
That scout reported, "A few days ago, a guest from the capital, a woman disguised as a man, came to Feng Pass and stayed for a while. I didn't know what kind of methods she used to bribe for information, but when she came to the pass to borrow a warhorse from us, she showed us the waist plate of the Fang family, and reportedly, she was going northwards…" After spending a lot of effort, Li Qingcheng finally managed to dispel the idea to turn around to look at Fang Qingyu. A moment later, he said with a grave expression, "Thank you."
Splitting this into two parts because it’s around 7.5k English words… /_ \
For those who have read the raws in jjwxc, this chapter has some added scene because I used the physical, 繁体 version given to me by Ly (@Lycieratia#7472). It contains more description of what happened to Qing-ge’s wife, which should allow a certain future event to make more sense 〒▽〒
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.