"If you remove the flattery, your mouth might as well be full of endless bragging. When leading troops, you yourself should know that it would lead to trouble one way or another, and still you want to shelter me?"
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And so, Li Qingcheng finally settled down. In one residence, he had: 160 liang of silver, 100 bodyguards, and 3 generals —— Zhang Mu, Tang Hong, Fang Qingyu.
This kind of 'family property' was very fickle. Nobody knew how this battle in the Northern Border would develop in the future, the new recruits weren't compliant, and moreover, Tang Hong was also new at this. Besides, no matter who, nobody could maintain control on their own. The only reliable person, the family servant Zhang Mu, could only act but not talk.
Li Qingcheng assigned their dwellings: Tang Hong and the rest lived on the western side, he and Zhang Mu on the eastern side, and Fang Qingyu in the firewood shed across the main house.
After they had finished organizing the main house, Zhang Mu slept in the outer room while Li Qingcheng slept in the inner room, with a screen separating them just like before. When he had nothing to do, Li Qingcheng would sit on his desk, either writing or drawing, while Zhang Mu would stand on the side watching him, just like a wooden post.
"What are you doing." The wooden post suddenly opened his mouth, startling Li Qingcheng.
Li Qingcheng explained, "Counting. Half of the warming oils we brought have been converted to silver. It has been handed over to Tang Hong for him to dispatch a team to return to the Western Plains and bring back provisions."
Zhang Mu's handsome face slightly flushed. Under the oil lamp, there was an inexplicable sense of intimacy. Li Qingcheng smiled and said, "Why ask all of the sudden?"
Zhang Mu shook his head. Li Qingcheng handed over the list. "Look."
All along, Li Qingcheng had never gotten to the bottom of the matter and asked Zhang Mu about his past experience, but Zhang Mu felt slightly uneasy. After reading it over, he simply nodded. He took a sheet of paper and picked up a brush which he then dipped in the wet inkstone. He seemed to be muttering to himself and planning to write something.
Li Qingcheng sighed. Fang Qingyu's voice interrupted, "If my liege wishes to make money, start with Feng City. My liege shouldn't eye Langhuan at all."
Zhang Mu got up. With just a glance, Li Qingcheng knew that he was going to the door and beat that person up. He quickly shouted, "Sit down!"
Zhang Mu's looks were filled with hostility. He coldly said, "Impudent."
Li Qingcheng said, "Come in."
Fang Qingyu entered the room. He sat down, bending one of his legs and hugging his knee, then said, "My liege plans to spend the silver currency. Is it correct?"
Li Qingcheng nodded. "I also know I should've gone into the Feng Pass. Unfortunately, when I first set out, I didn't know about the war situation in the borders, and now, I can't leave either…"
Fang Qingyu smiled. "If my liege wishes to leave, then leave. What does it matter?"
Li Qingcheng slightly frowned. Fang Qingyu said, "This subject is by no means stupid. Looking at the current situation, Feng Pass is the Northern Border's final supply line. The supplies transported from the capital were sent to Feng City. There's a shortage of food in the battlefield, it's the easiest place to obtain money…"
Li Qingcheng said, "Wait."
"Just now, how did you refer to yourself?" Li Qingcheng murmured. Both his eyes were fixed on Fang Qingyu, and looked as if they were inside of a dream.
The room was dead silent, even a falling needle could be heard.
Fang Qingyu, "This subordinate said…. 'cheng', Mucheng." While saying so, he raised his chin and motioned to Zhang Mu.
Zhang Mu was slowly writing something on a piece of paper, neither acknowledging nor denying it.
"This subordinate thinks that there is no need for my liege to be concerned about the war between the Great Yu and the Xiongnus." Fang Qingyu continued, "It would not be to my liege's advantage at all if he insisted on staying in Langhuan. To be trapped inside a besieged city would be unwise."
"What do you want to say?" Li Qingcheng's mouth opened. However, he wasn't looking towards Fang Qingyu, but rather towards what Zhang Mu was writing on the paper.
"We should move back and forth to Feng Pass," Fang Qingyu said. "This war will certainly end before the beginning of spring. When that time comes, the imperial court would probably surrender the land, giving up the border as an offering to negotiate peace. Is there any use of this impulsive yet momentary struggle?"
Li Qingcheng, "How did you know the court will negotiate peace?"
Fang Qingyu sneered. "One of the Fangs had once served as the Zhendong General, taking charge of thousands of li along the northeast border from Yubi Pass to Qixue Spring. The post has been passed down from generation to generation, accumulating over several periods and resulting in them becoming a force to be reckoned with. One of the reasons is because the Xiongnu King, Arius, is assisting them."
"At that time, after the former empress died early, this relationship was the reason the former emperor crowned Maiden Fang as the empress —— as a way to win over the Fang family of the Northern Border."
"When the news of the war in the frontier broke out, the Empress Dowager and the Xiongnus had already been colluding. Now that the former emperor is dead, in accordance with their original agreement, the Xiongnu King invaded the western territory. Since the Empress Dowager and the Xiongnus have reached an agreement, she has planned her final move —— pretend to give up the five cities outside the Feng Pass, as well as the Feng City inside it, to the Xiongnus when the war ends. With this 'act' to negotiate peace, if my liege is willing to fight, would he be able to resist the official document issued by the court?"
Li Qingcheng knitted his eyebrows. "It was all planned?"
With a smile, Fang Qingyu nodded. "The court had known that the frontier generals wouldn't listen to the Empress Dowager's imperial decree. And so, they transferred the Eastern Army to the West and the Western Army to the East, killed Liaoyuan and stripped Wang Yichen of his military power, driving him back home 'due to his old age.' The faction of military generals and families supporting the Great General Tang's family inside the court has now collapsed, and the rest of them are on my Fang family's side."
Li Qingcheng silently mulled over it.
Fang Qingyu faintly smiled. "The court, ever since the moment Liaoyuan set out with his troops, has been drafting the peace treaty with an intention to cede the territory to the Xiongnus. However, they still failed to include a group of people into their calculations. This group of people is hiding in a secret place, but it's enough to force the Empress Dowager and Arius to experience a setback."
Li Qingcheng, "Don't beat around the bush. Just say it, which group of people?"
Fang Qingyu said, "Us."
Li Qingcheng narrowed his eyes, feeling that the man in front of him was really not simple.
"First, we need people. Later, we need money, as well as territory," Fang Qingyu said with a mild tone. "If it hadn't been for this deputy general called Liaoyuan… At that time, I was thinking of taking over the Northern Expedition Army before wandering outside the pass to seize a city, offering it to you as our base. Only, with Liaoyuan in the picture, he wouldn't listen to me no matter what I said. Wasting this 30.000 troops, it's truly unfortunate."
Li Qingcheng, "If you remove the flattery, your mouth might as well be full of endless bragging. When leading troops, you yourself should know that it would lead to trouble one way or another, and still you want to shelter me?"
Fang Qingyu laughed, his eyes full of warmth. "Since my liege does not believe it, there is also no need for this subordinate to say the rest. This subordinate asks to be excused." Saying so, he cupped his hands and saluted before leaving the room.
After Fang Qingyu walked away, Zhang Mu put away the brush. The lines of ink on the paper had yet to dry, showing three sentences in a bold, cursive style of flying dragon and dancing phoenix:
"Look for Tingzhou's Sun family, pawn the huang jade for the following things:
Iron 10.000 jin, silver 10.000 liang.
Ask Sun Qing about the news inside the court, expect Empress Fang to negotiate peace next year."
Li Qingcheng supported his forehead with one hand. He frowned, deep in thought. He then asked, "Ying-ge, are you familiar with the Suns?"
Folding the letter, Zhang Mu slowly nodded, but after thinking for a moment, he hesitantly shook his head.
Li Qingcheng said, "Just send someone to deliver it. But this huang jade can… be pawned for so many things? 10.000 jin of iron, 10.000 liang of silver?"
Zhang Mu looked at Li Qingcheng. Li Qingcheng couldn't figure out the reason. Suddenly, he smiled. "Your handwriting is really beautiful."
Li Qingcheng, "Ying-ge, what's your name?"
Zhang Mu tore off a piece of paper. The brush moved like a serpent, unconstrained and bold, and soon, a wild, cursive calligraphy of the character "Cheng" appeared vividly on the paper, its power seemingly able to swallow even the mountains and rivers.
"It's truly beautiful," Li Qingcheng praised. This writing skill was sufficient to be used as a role model when practicing calligraphy.
Li Qingcheng said, "You are called Cheng."
Zhang Mu replied, "You are called Cheng."
Li Qingcheng was baffled. When communicating with people like Zhang Mu, he had always known that he could only understand one or two points out of ten. After a moment, he decided to put the matter at the back of his head, thinking to himself that he would ask about it again later.
He said, "Ying-ge, I was just thinking…"
Casually, Zhang Mu threw the letter into the brazier, burning it. Li Qingcheng hurriedly said, "Don't burn it."
Zhang Mu, "I will write for you again."
Li Qingcheng said, "I've been thinking that what Fang Qingyu said shouldn't be wrong. Although Wang Yichen is a general stationed to guard the frontier, he most likely still wouldn't dare to resist the court's order. When the official document written by the court comes, he will want to withdraw his troops, and will be obliged to withdraw his troops."
Zhang Mu nodded, his eyes showing appreciation.
After being silent for a while, Li Qingcheng then said, "I want to guard the Northern Border, and so, I need troops. No matter who holds power inside the court, Feng Pass must not be lost. Otherwise, the Xiongnus would definitely march into our country unhindered; they would go down south, attacking cities and territories in a span of only a few years. Administrative Assistant Wang has the rights to lay low and he's also determined not to defy the court's will. If we wait until they hand over that 'exchange peace with territory' document, the only result will be for him to withdraw his troops. He might as well hand over all these troops to me and let me lead them into the Feng Pass. I'll find a way to guard the pass."
Zhang Mu, "Just say the word and I'll do it."
Li Qingcheng's heart thumped. He knew that Zhang Mu must've already known that he had another idea.
"We'll have to think of a way to forcibly take over Langhuan, otherwise, these innumerable soldiers and civilians will continuously tussle and fight against the Xiongnus, serving as meaningless sacrificial lambs for this 'peace negotiation.' However, Administrative Assistant Wang doesn't know the inside story, and even if he did know, he would most likely be unable to accept the territory handover. The only path he would've chosen is to die serving the country..."
Zhang Mu silently stood up. Li Qingcheng said, "What are you going to do? Wait a bit, our discussion tonight should be put off until later. I must think of it carefully. This letter… I'll hand it over to Tang Hong and let him send it. Who should I deliver it to?"
Zhang Mu turned over the sealed letter. Written on the surface was a name Li Qingcheng wasn't familiar with, alongside an address.
Li Qingcheng ordered someone to call Tang Hong and told him to go through the pass and deliver the letter.
That night was a sleepless night for Li Qingcheng. He just tossed about in bed.
From outside the hall came three claps of a watchman's clapper. Xu Lingyun closed the book and in a low voice, he called, "Your Majesty?"
The curtain of the emperor's bed wasn't pulled, but there was no answer from Li Xiao —— he must've already fallen asleep.
Xu Lingyun came forward and pulled down the golden covering. Li Xiao's sleeping appearance looked nothing like his daytime look, which was full of dignity and intimidation at the first glance. Instead, it resembled the look of a big boy who was tired after playing around.
Each of the emperors of the Yu Country had clear eyebrows and bright eyes. The only exception was Li Xiao, who was completely different from his ancestors, neither resembling the empress dowager nor the late emperor —— both of Li Xiao's eyebrows were sharp and bold, resembling broken swords. He had high cheekbones, and on the left side, was a butterfly-shaped scarlet birthmark.
Xu Lingyun knelt beside the bed and couldn't help but try reaching out, wanting to touch it. However, for fear it would wake Li Xiao up, he just stretched out his hand to carefully tuck him in. He then leaned on the edge of the bed, quietly staring at him.
Not long after, the chief eunuch led six other eunuchs as they waited outside the hall. The eunuchs, with both of their hands, were each holding up the emperor's armor, the Tianzi Sword, and the golden boots.
15th day of the 8th lunar month. It was time for the Emperor of the Yu Country, Li Xiao, to get married.
Qing-ge oh Qing-ge, what a mosquito you are: elusive, hard-to-kill, and always the third wheel.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.