"That mute won't let me say, but no matter who you are, Qing-ge will always protect you."
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Rushing on a fine steed, following the Xiaogu River all the way north...
"Your wife came all the way to the Northern Border to look for you!" Li Qingcheng said.
Fang Qingyu didn't seem to be concerned at all. Without a care he said, "My woman has come to look for me, so you're going to let me go?"
Li Qingcheng said, "What you said, you've humiliated her."
Fang Qingyu smiled self-deprecatingly. When Zhang Mu eventually caught up with them, Fang Qingyu consciously drove his horse to avoid him. Controlling the reins with one hand, he moved away from the marching troops, advancing alone on the snowy plain.
Zhang Mu rode in the space between Li Qingcheng and Fang Qingyu, not saying a word.
"He'll follow you," said Zhang Mu.
Li Qingcheng asked, "Why?"
Zhang Mu, "No why. You'll see."
"I've never slept with her!" Fang Qingyu shouted amidst the winds.
Li Qingcheng said, "Doesn't matter whether you have or haven't…"
Fang Qingyu smiled. "It was the Empress Dowager. The Marquis wanted to marry off his daughter, so she forcefully commanded me to marry Princess Tai'an. This escape is not…"
Zhang Mu's hand spread. A cold light flew out and suddenly struck the side of Fang Qingyu's face. Fang Qingyu shouted as he was dismounted from his horse.
Three days later, the bank of Xiaogu River.
The steps ahead were exactly the Duanke Mountain; this was already the northernmost part, the place that bordered the Xiongnus.
Behind the Duanke Mountain, there was only a field of snow as far as the eyes could see, along with the source of the Xiaogu River. Walking north of Mt. Duanke was the place where the Xiongnus had been living for generations. Tang Hong gave a signal to stop; it must've been very dangerous.
"We shouldn't proceed further. It's already too close to the Xiongnus' territory," Tang Hong said. "We can only look along the river."
The ice on the upper reaches of Xiaogu River had an uneven surface, as if someone had broken it before and it had just been frozen again by the cold weather. A big fight had taken place here.
Li Qingcheng got off his horse. A cold wind blew from the gap of Mt. Duanke, it was as if there were ten million giant wolves howling in the valley. On both sides of the shore lay many frozen, stiff corpses, as well as discarded iron spears. Li Qingcheng was able to conjure some speculation even without sweeping through the battlefield: several days ago, the Northern Expedition Army came to this place and had a fierce battle with the Xiongnus.
Tang Hong said, "The footprints lead into Mt. Duanke's valley. Send some people in to have a look?"
Li Qingcheng waved his hand and stood thinking.
Tang Hong continued, "Administrative Assistant said that once we discover the Northern Expedition Army's tracks, we should immediately send people to inform him."
Li Qingcheng said, "Tell them all to get on their horse and return to Langhuan."
Tang Hong frowned. "Why?"
Li Qingcheng explained, "It's very dangerous to enter the valley without proper consideration. Let the Administrative Assistant himself come and lead the army, we'll return and help him defend the city."
It was only then that Tang Hong realized that had he sent people to return and report the situation, it would be impossible for Administrative Assistant Wang to just send thousands of people to them; he had to personally lead the troops to their place. This would leave Langhuan unguarded, which was very dangerous.
If Administrative Assistant Wang first recalled Li Qingcheng's team before leading the troops to leave the city again, more time would've been wasted. The most cost-effective thing would be for Li Qingcheng to go back on his own.
"Let's go." Li Qingcheng, who was about to mount his horse, was full of doubt. "What does this person surnamed Fang want to do?"
Fang Qingyu walked on foot on the uneven, frozen ice towards the middle of the river.
"Come back!" Li Qingcheng ordered. "You go get him."
Fang Qingyu didn't answer and instead looked down at the space under his feet.
Tang Hong almost slipped on the ice before he managed to reach Fang Qingyu. Unexpectedly, both of them stared at the ice surface under them in a daze.
When Li Qingcheng went over, more soldiers were closing in as well, only to see a fluttering red damask ribbon frozen inside the surface. Leisurely winding in the water, its appearance was vivid and lifelike.
"How could there be such a thing on the battlefield?" Tang Hong said.
Li Qingcheng said, "Is it your wife's?"
Fang Qingyu walked away without a care.
"Don't go!" Li Qingcheng said, "Everybody spread out, search around this area."
Fang Qingyu's complexion was unclear. Nobody could guess what was on his mind. Soon, a soldier found a warhorse in the pine forest by the riverside and brought it back.
"Feng Pass's warhorse." Li Qingcheng lifted the saddle to take a look. Full of sympathy, he looked again at Fang Qingyu, gauging the emotions in his eyes. "Do you regret it?"
Fang Qingyu smiled.
Li Qingcheng said, "Bore through the ice and look for the body below the water."
The soldiers were being courteous. Tang Hong finally understood and was surprised. "What you mean is, she threw herself into the river?"
Li Qingcheng said with a straight face, "The horse is all here. What do you think? Standing there doing nothing, what are you staring at?!"
Tang Hong led the soldiers to take the red damask ribbon off the ice and started to bore a hole. Li Qingcheng looked at Fang Qingyu, and Fang Qingyu said, "I won't go into the water."
"In that case, is anyone willing to substitute for him and retrieve Princess Tai'an's body?" Li Qingcheng said. "You go."
"It's too cold!" the soldiers said one after another. "There's nothing we can do, just let it go."
Tang Hong agreed. "Besides, if a corpse enters the water, it'll drift along the current and won't be seen."
Li Qingcheng, "Try to look along the direction of the river. If you can't find it within 5 zhang radius, return. I'll deploy everyone."
Deputy General Li Hu said, "Young Master, people will really die if they go into the water now."
Li Qingcheng got angry.
At that time, there was a crashing sound from the water; someone had already plunged into the river. Li Qingcheng turned around and shouted, "Ying-ge!"
The icy water was deep and dark. Li Qingcheng slowly took a breath and raised his head to look at Tang Hong. He couldn't help but get angry.
"Don't you know that military orders are like mountains, that they must be obeyed?"
Nobody dared to say anything. Tang Hong lowered his head and said, "Ready to accept punishment."
Li Qingcheng took a deep breath. "You just got your name, yet you're already unwilling to get into the water —— five whips for each person once we get back."
The soldiers knew that they were in the wrong, so they dispersed one after another and waited for another moment. Zhang Mu came out of the water with a crashing sound, dripping wet. Li Qingcheng hurried over, but Zhang Mu gave him a signal, hinting for him not to come over.
He bent down and dragged a hand out of the ice hole —— everyone was shocked.
It was a woman's hand. Immediately afterward, a dead body was pulled out of the hole. When the female corpse was pulled out of the water, her hair was in disarray and layered with ice shards.
"Come identify the body!" Tang Hong turned and shouted.
Zhang Mu hinted not to hurry and dragged another body from under the ice.
Fang Qingyu stopped walking.
The female corpse tightly held onto another headless, male corpse; her fingers were clutching and the joints had deformed, seemingly embedded in that male corpse's armor. The male corpse was wearing indigo-colored armor, military general tiger boots, which were soaked and swollen by the icy water. The cloak was stuck in the ice as it was taken off the water.
"Is this Princess Tai'an?" Li Qingcheng said with a low voice.
Fang Qingyu burst into laughter. He laughed so hard tears came out.
Everyone looked at him. Fang Qingyu laughed, holding his belly with both hands. A moment later, he shook his head. "Stupid girl. You admitted the wrong person."
Tang Hong slowly said, "This is your armor. I saw it the other day when I was drinking the Zhuangxing wine."
Fang Qingyu studied the female corpse. "She thought the Deputy General was me. I asked the Deputy General to wear it to the battle that day."
A chill ran down Li Qingcheng’s spine. "She couldn't find your head, so she died this way."
Fang Qingyu said, "Who would've imagined?"
The Xiongnus had a tradition of bringing the head as a spoil of war. It was impossible for her to chase after the head and bring it back...
Fang Qingyu smiled again and turned away to leave.
"Ying-ge, do you also know her?" Li Qingcheng asked.
Zhang Mu was taking off his martial robe. He didn't lift his head as he said, "Yes, Li Wei's daughter, the Crown Prince's younger cousin."
Li Qingcheng closed his eyes and gave a long sigh.
"Go back and give a generous burial," Li Qingcheng simply said.
A soldier moved the corpse's body and replied, "I can't separate them."
Li Qingcheng, "Just carry them together." He then looked at the woman's pale-colored face. Only fifteen or sixteen years old… dying this way in the borders, sinking into the Xiaogu River while holding an unknown body in her arms...
Fang Qingyu had an expression that said 'please just mind your own business.' Tang Hong was about to scold him when Li Qingcheng said, "Never mind. At least, when she died, she thought that she had found our great general Fang and believed that he had died there too. Ying-ge, dry your clothes before moving again."
Zhang Mu's robe was all drenched. Disregarding Li Qingcheng's instruction, he stood on the bank and slowly made a circle with his palm. He then readied his stance with a closing fist form, turned around, stomped on the ground with one leg, and began to practice his fist.
The soldiers mounted their horses one by one. Li Qingcheng's eyes reflected the ash-blue color of the constant sky, as well as the white of the flying snow. Zhang Mu's palm strikes were getting faster and faster. His true qi circulated around his body, and his body temperature became exceedingly hot; it evaporated the ice off his martial robe, creating a sound like that of a flag being blown by the cold wind. The ice crystals melted into water vapor, and one could only see Zhang Mu engulfed by a white mist before finally, two palms struck forward from the inside, and a clear shout resounded.
That clear shout resonated throughout heaven and earth. Zhang Mu then turned around and got on his horse.
"After we return, I'll punish them with the army baton," said Zhang Mu.
Li Qingcheng said, "I've told them of the punishment, and they've also accepted it. Five whips per person."
Zhang Mu gave a slight nod and let Li Qingcheng go ahead. The troops set out one by one, returning to Langhuan to make a report.
The night was deep when Xu Lingyun closed the book. Li Xiao unhurriedly said, "You're making that story up."
Xu Lingyun gave a smile. "This subject dare not spout even a word of deceit, this is all fact."
Li Xiao, "In this world, how could there be such a fickle and cold-blooded person? Even if they didn't share a pillow, they were still nominally husband and wife."
Xu Lingyun, "People who are born cold and indifferent and don't put other people's lives in their eyes, does this world lack them?"
Li Xiao suddenly got up. Xu Lingyun immediately realized that he had said something stupid and was afraid that the emperor might think that he was mocking him; he might've touched his inverse scale. His brain instantly whirled, trying to think of some thousand words, yet still he didn't know what to say. However, Li Xiao coldly said, "He didn't seem cold nor indifferent."
Inside, Xu Lingyun sighed in relief. Li Xiao left and walked to the front of the hall, putting his hands behind his back. "How could a cold-blooded man have this kind of loyalty?"
Xu Lingyun faintly said, "Your Majesty doesn't know, but this man really wasn't a person with a noble character. He absolutely didn't act like a noble person who was loyal towards Chengzu.
"This person, Fang Qingyu, was both praised and blamed in the current era. A court historian once commented that he has 'loyalty of a villain.'"
Li Xiao sneered. "Isn't ‘having loyalty of a villain' the same as 'crafty officials'?"
Xu Lingyun said, "'Loyalty of a villain' still has 'loyalty', and if compared to 'crafty officials,' they're different to some extent. It's really beyond… this humble subject's authority to say. It's late, and tomorrow is Your Majesty's grand wedding."
It was almost the third period of the night. In several more hours, the eunuchs would come to serve Li Xiao. Xu Lingyun closed the book and reminded Li Xiao to take a rest.
Xu Lingyun smiled. "Your Majesty, the day is about to start soon. Your Majesty has to prepare for the wedding. If Your Majesty didn't rest now, Your Majesty would easily feel provoked tomorrow."
Unhurried, Li Xiao said, "This king has a sense of propriety. You continue talking."
Xu Lingyun had no choice but to open the book once more. He lowered his voice and said, "Several days later, Fang Qingyu was brought back to Langhuan by Chengzu."
The actual situation was just as Li Qingcheng had imagined. Several troops entered the city and once Administrative Assistant Wang heard of the news, he immediately gathered the soldiers and told Li Qingcheng to stay in Langhuan and guard the mansion. He also summoned the City Guard Yin Lie and gave detailed instructions about how to deal with the matter.
Yin Lie was that city guard captain that Li Qingcheng had met when he first entered Langhuan. He led 4.000 cavalry and was in charge of patrolling the city and guarding important matters. He was upright, but it didn't make him lose his humility; he didn't think low of Li Qingcheng just because he was an outsider nor because they had a dispute, and accepted the order at once.
General Assistant Wang personally led 6.000 cavalry, following Xiaogu River and entering Duanke Mountain to investigate the whereabouts of the Northern Expedition Army, ready to lend them support at any time.
At this time, Yin Lie and Li Qingcheng guarded the city together.
Li Qingcheng knew that he was inexperienced and dared not rush. After Administrative Assistant Wang dispatched the troops, several people also discussed some plans inside the mansion. They finally came to a conclusion that Li Qingcheng wouldn't be able to interfere with the city defense arrangement, but if Yin Lie had some matters that he couldn't decide, he could come any time and inquire about it.
Yin Lie led the soldiers and left. For convenience, Li Qingcheng packed his clothes and things and moved out of the Administrative Assistant Mansion, and found a temporary residence on the main street on the western part of Langhuan, near the city gate.
The citizens of Langhuan had withdrawn into the Feng Pass. The city was half-empty because the people had evacuated a long time ago —— out of ten rooms, five were empty; people could just choose one residence at will and move in. There were, however, still the other half unwilling to leave and wished to stay in their homeland, sticking to Langhuan.
It was fortunate that these people were here —— once Langhuan closed its gate for winter, it wouldn't become too deserted.
"Go." Li Qingcheng finished pawning off several boxes of valuables.
Fang Qingyu was hugging his arms as he kept his head low, gaze staying on the ground. He stood outside the Administrative Assistant Mansion. He never turned to face the army and people of Langhuan, as to avoid being identified.
"Where's Tang Hong?" Fang Qingyu asked.
Li Qingcheng replied, "I am Tang Hong."
Fang Qingyu smiled. "You're not Tang Hong."
Li Qingcheng, "Have you seen Tang Hong before?"
Fang Qingyu didn't answer; he drove the cart and set out.
Li Qingcheng sat at the end of the open cart with one feet dangling, his boot trailing the snow. He absent-mindedly said, "Who am I after all?"
Fang Qingyu said, "That mute won't let me say, but no matter who you are, Qing-ge will always protect you."
Li Qingcheng faintly said, "Get lost."
"General Fang, your soldiers are no more, and you're the only one left," Li Qingcheng said in a cold tone, "Excuse me for talking bluntly, but your conduct and deeds, although it has nothing to do with me, I still have some words for you."
Fang Qingyu gave a self-deprecating smile.
"Every man bears responsibility for the rise and fall of the country," Li Qingcheng showed no mercy as he reprimanded him. "You are neither loyal to your ruler nor love your country. Even if you managed to lead 1.000 troops against 10.000 enemies, you might say you're going to betray them one day, and you would. This kind of person who based everything on mood, what use is there for them?"
Fang Qingyu faintly said, "There is a use."
Li Qingcheng, "After we return, you leave. There is no one that knows who you are as of now. I'll lend you a horse, you can return to the Central Plains. People who walk different paths cannot make plans together. We'll meet again another day, General Fang."
Fang Qingyu said, "My liege."
Li Qingcheng said, "I'm not your 'liege,' I can't bear the burden."
The cart stopped in front of the residence. Fang Qingyu looked at Li Qingcheng carefully, eyes carrying a hint of a smile. "Qingyu's loyalty is as bright as the sun and as clear as the moon, in no way will I betray you."
Li Qingcheng sat calmly, not appearing to be mad. Fang Qingyu said again, "You will know after several years have passed, in this world, who is loyal to you and who is selfish. I won't go if you drive me away now. I will squat by the door and freeze to death in this cold wind."
Li Qingcheng sneered. "Easy for you to say."
Fang Qingyu didn't answer, saying instead, "If you're willing to give me shelter, I won't hesitate to be at your beck and call. I can lead the troops for you, tell you stories, help you do the heavy lifting, warm your bed in the winter, and give you wind in the summer. When you're happy, I can laugh with you; when you're unhappy, you can curse me, beat me, scorn me, and kick me —— Qingyu will never fight back, and will not dare utter a single word of complaint."
"No need, your good intention is appreciated." Li Qingcheng said, "Ying-ge! Give me a hand!"
Zhang Mu appeared like a gust of wind. He walked in with a wooden box clasped under his arm. Inside the yard, Tang Hong held a leather whip and was currently handing out punishment. The soldiers were all half-naked and kneeling in the snow, each having four to five lash marks on their back.
Fang Qingyu still followed behind Li Qingcheng all the way. Once they reached the hall, Zhang Mu put down the box and turned his head to look carefully at Fang Qingyu who was standing with his hands down, looking very well-behaved.
Li Qingcheng, "Who told you to follow me here? Ying-ge, give him a kick, boot him out."
Zhang Mu spurred around at once; Fang Qingyu's complexion changed and he immediately jumped back. Zhang Mu made continuous, rapid kicks in the air and Fang Qingyu flashed out to the courtyard. For a while, the soldiers all stopped what they were doing and watched the two wrestle.
Zhang Mu used his palm to make a move "Splitting the Mountain." Fang Qingyu's wrist injury had yet to recover. As he retreated, the stable made a loud boom before half of it collapsed.
Li Qingcheng taunted, "What did you just say? 'Will not fight back'?
Fang Qingyu said, "You can beat me or scold me, so long as you're happy…"
Zhang Mu drew the sabre on his back. Fang Qingyu shouted, "Stay away from this!"
Li Qingcheng stepped forward. Fang Qingyu stopped moving. He stood in the snow as he said in an imposing manner, "But you can't order another person to humiliate me, or I will just die here, right now, in front of you."
Li Qingcheng looked at Fang Qingyu for a short moment before raising his hand to give him a punch —— everyone around them was moved.
Fang Qingyu neither avoided nor rebuffed, receiving this punch head-on. Although Li Qingcheng's strength wasn't strong, he still had some basic foundation; that punch caused Fang Qingyu to have a nosebleed for a long time.
"Look." Fang Qingyu, wiping the blood on his nose, smiled. "It's just like this. Qing-ge stays true to his words."
Li Qingcheng said, "Never mind. If you want to pay your debt, even dying several times is not enough. I also have no rights to judge you."
Fang Qingyu bowed and knelt down on one knee to Li Qingcheng.
"Get up and do some odd jobs," Li Qingcheng said. "Ying-ge, go find a servant garb for him to wear."
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.