"As long as there is one person who hasn’t yet entered Feng Pass, then I will die with the city when it falls.”
Editor(s): namio, jelly
Li Xiao had just returned from the morning court session, and he was flipping through memorials to the throne in the imperial study. Last night he had replenished his sleep, and he was bright-eyed and bushy tailed now. When he finished reviewing the account books that had piled up over the past days, it was already high noon.
When the eunuchs came forth to remind him that it was time to eat lunch, Li Xiao finally remembered that he hadn’t taken his breakfast yet. He walked out of the imperial study to see Xu Lingyun in the distance, prodding at the dead lotus leaves in the Taiye Pond with a tree branch, and asked, “You’re awake?”
Xu Lingyun hurried over to make his greetings. Everyone around them knew that this bodyguard was highly favored, and they all backed off, leaving this subject and their lord to walk towards Yanhe Hall.
“Your Majesty is awake,” Xu Lingyun smiled. “Has Your Majesty finished your homework for the day? Your Majesty seems to be in a good mood.”
Li Xiao’s expression switched between dark and light as he saw Xu Lingyun sneaking looks at him non-stop. Clearly, he was wondering if the emperor had consummated his marriage last night, and Li Xiao couldn’t help his rage. “Impudent!”
Xu Lingyun began to smile. His eyebrows just happened to curve in such a way that he looked exactly the same as the empress dowager when she was young, and the anger in Li Xiao’s heart died out.
“This king asks you,” Li Xiao said coldly, stopping in his tracks, “what filthy ideas are you coming up with in your head?”
Xu Lingyun lowered his head. “This subject does not dare. This subject is just thinking that he should marry a wife sooner rather than later and have a daughter in the future who can be married to the crown prince, so that he may be connected to Your Majesty via an arranged marriage between son and daughter.”
Li Xiao turned and continued walking down the corridor, saying mildly, “With your moral conduct, no sense of responsibility, and lack of skills, at most being able to fool around with an arctic gyr all day, what girl would want you?”
Xu Lingyun smiled. “When it comes time for love, naturally there will be someone to love. Loving someone needs no excuse; when you don’t like someone, everything is an excuse.”
Li Xiao seemed to be moved by this, but then they arrived at Yanhe Hall, and he took the hot towel he was handed to wipe his hands. Xu Lingyun followed him until the outside of the hall, where he stopped.
“Go to the room in the corner for your meal, and wait outside the hall after noon,” Li Xiao commanded.
Xu Lingyun bowed and went to the room that had been arranged for the bodyguards. Lin Wan had woken up early and had visited with the empress dowager in the early morning, after which she remained in Yanhe Hall. She sent away the palace maids and toyed absentmindedly with the things on the vanity dresser, but once she saw Li Xiao returning to the hall, she hurried to rise and greet him.
As soon as Li Xiao returned to the hall he grew silent again. After a few moments, he said, “Bring in the midday meal ba.”
The eunuchs brought in the royal meal, which covered the entire table. Lin Wan personally served the food as she said warmly, “After Your Majesty ended the court session, did Your Majesty spend the entire morning reviewing the accounts books?”
“Wu.” Li Xiao was currently chewing, and in his mind he was thinking of topics to talk to Lin Wan about.
Li Xiao dug through the depths of his mind, but he could only think of one sentence. “What did Mother Empress ask about?”
Quietly, Lin Wan said, “She asked how much Your Majesty had to drink, and said that autumn was cold and I should watch my health.”
Li Xiao said mildly, “Didn’t drink much. What dishes are these?”
The eunuch hurried to answer. “Responding to Your Majesty, they are a Jiangzhou dish that the empress dowager had the empress bring over: four-delight shrimp steamed with osmanthus wine.”
After he drank a mouthful of tea, Li Xiao said, “Why did she suddenly think of eating these?”
Lin Wan followed up with, “Mother Empress is probably reminiscing about the Jiangzhou of the past.”
Li Xiao commanded, “Take a portion and grant it to the Yingnu in the corner room to eat.”
The eunuch nodded and hurried forth to do so, while Lin Wan personally filled Li Xiao’s plate with more food. “Is the Yingnu also from Jiangzhou?”
Li Xiao nodded and said, “Since your father took over the governance of the twelve counties of Jiangzhou, do you normally eat Jiangzhou dishes at home? If you like to eat them, then have the royal kitchens make them for you.”
Lin Wan smiled. “Since this wife has entered the palace, I am Your Majesty’s wife now, so naturally I cannot bring my culinary habits from my old home.”
When Li Xiao heard this, he was pleased, and he said casually, “This king is able to tell it apart clearly. If there are any family matters, just say them without reserve.”
Lin Wan smiled faintly as she thanked him. After the two of them finished their meal, on a regular day Li Xiao would take an afternoon nap before going to the imperial study, waiting for the court officials to come forth with important matters. But in these past few years, Lin Wan’s father, Lin Yi, was a very capable and hard-working individual, and he had taken over more than half of the duties of the court; thus Li Xiao had no need to oversee them personally.
No matter if he was horizontal or vertical, there was nothing for him to do, so Li Xiao laid on the bed staring off into space. A moment later he called over an eunuch and commanded, “See if the Yingnu has finished eating yet, and send him into the hall.”
Lin Wan was a little taken aback. Before she had married in, at her family home, she had heard of many things about Li Xiao -- he grew joyful or angry for no apparent reason, he had a natural inclination towards making others into scapegoats, he never treated his subjects and officials as human, and he would command the execution of others on a whim. After she married into the palace, this royal king was actually not the same as what she knew, and even in summoning a bodyguard he would first ask “has he finished eating?”. Could it be that the portrait they painted of him in the streets of the capital were rumors?
Just as she was contemplating this, Li Xiao commanded, “Beloved wife, come sit here.”
Lin Wan and Li Xiao each sat on a chair, and the servants brought over tea before setting up a screen in front of the chairs. On the other side of a screen came the sound of a footstep, and with a wave of his sleeve, Xu Lingyun waited outside the hall.
Li Xiao said, “You are granted a seat, so sit ba.”
Xu Lingyun said, “I hear and obey.” He then sat down outside of the folding screen, pulling out the book in his sleeve. Lin Wan found this strange, only to see at that moment, the shadow of Xu Lingyun’s side profile cast upon the screen as he said quietly, “Does Your Majesty remember where this subject spoke to last?”
Lin Wan furrowed her brow unhappily, thinking, how can this bodyguard speak in such an uncouth manner?
Mildly, Li Xiao replied, “Pick a random spot and read. If this king is unclear about the contents, then he will ask.”
Xu Lingyun said, “Legend has it that that night Fang Qingyu and Tang Hong rushed out of Feng City, while Zhang Mu brought his troops around from the back to catch the Xiongnu king Arius in a pincer attack. The Xiongnu troops could only fight or die, and Chengzu did not have the time to retreat in such a hasty situation, so he was trapped under Feng Pass…”
Li Xiao, “Earlier.”
Xu Lingyun, “Legend has it that Fang Qingyu shot down the guarding general of Feng Pass with one arrow, thus conquering the pass…”
Li Xiao, “Earlier.”
Xu Lingyun turned another page, and he said, very mildly, “Legend has it that Langhuan had fallen into enemy hands…”
Li Xiao was clearly a little fed up. “You didn’t even think of marking where you read to last time?”
Xu Lingyun said amusedly, “The screen is obstructing the view of Your Majesty’s expression. Originally this subject had wanted to take a sneak peek, and from there this subject would know where to start… When Chengzu had retired for the night, Fang Qingyu escaped under the cover of the night… At this moment, Administrative Assistant Wang Yichen was travelling alongside the Xiaogu River towards the north…”
Li Xiao began to smile. “It is exactly this spot. Why did Fang Qingyu escape under the cover of the night?
Xu Lingyun said, “It wasn’t only Fang Qingyu, even Zhang Mu disappeared without a trace. Legend has it that that night, after Chengzu went to sleep, tossing and turning relentlessly as he heard Fang Qingyu’s spiel, he had not yet made up his mind as for what to do.”
Li Xiao said, “If this king were in his place, it would still be very difficult to make a choice.”
Xu Lingyun nodded. “If he wanted to gain the entire city’s troops and through them, the foundation for his future campaign of regaining the capital, then in this instant he should ruthlessly get rid of Wang Yichen, or force him to return under his control. But Chengzu could not make up his mind, nor did he know of his own identity… Even if he were to reveal his identity as the crown prince, Wang Yichen would still place defending the border against the Xiongnu as the most important, as the movements of the court were unclear. He also could not rely on Fang Qingyu to win over the northern border’s Administrative Assistant with his empty promises. And in this intricate, disorderly mess, just as Chengzu was in the midst of pondering, Fang Qingyu had already left Langhuan City in the night.”
Li Xiao said, “And why did he go forth?”
Xu Lingyun smiled. “Less than an instant after Chengzu fell soundly asleep, Zhang Mu tailed Fang Qingyu.”
Legend has it that that night, Li Qingcheng laid on his bed thinking about how to persuade Wang Yichen. Should he reveal Tang Hong’s identity and let Tang Hong personally persuade him, or would it be better to warn him of the consequences and analyze the movements within the court?
If he could receive an official order from the court for them to retreat, then he imagined it would not be difficult to convince Wang Yichen to give up Langhuan and retreat into Feng Pass.
Then, the next step would be to set his eyes on that target. Li Qingcheng decided to first forge a letter of negotiation, before revealing Fang Qingyu’s identity, then figuring out a way to persuade Wang Yichen and have him lead his troops back to guard Feng Pass.
If Wang Yichen stubbornly held out against it, then he could only move to arrest him. First restrain him, and then use Tang Hong’s identity to take command of the troops afterwards.
But this process would be incomparably dangerous. Wang Yichen definitely had loyal troops under his command, and they might not be willing to listen to many of their own.
Li Qingcheng slept until the middle of the night, when he suddenly felt that something wasn’t right. When he jolted awake, the chilly northern wind was still gusting outside his window. “Ying-ge?”
Outside there was no movement, and everything was silent and still.
Li Qingcheng hastily rose, feeling the bunk that Zhang Mu had behind the screen. It was icy and hard. A cold wind blew in from the air vent. He then dug through the thin mattress, finding a rock-hard pit, like a peach pit.
Finding this to be very strange, Li Qingcheng held it in his hands, inspecting it for a while. He saw that the peach pit actually had a hole bored in it and a red string running through, on which hung a pendant. There was also a square piece of paper underneath the pillow, on which was written two half-words: I also...
Clearly he had not yet finished deliberating, and he had kept the paper.
“Fang Qingyu,” Li Qingcheng called as he pushed open the door.
There was no noise from the woodshed across the courtyard, and Li Qingcheng’s heart jolted. Fang Qingyu was also gone? Had he run off? So Zhang Mu went after him in pursuit? But seeing how Fang Qingyu had acted during the day, that didn’t seem very likely. Li Qingcheng tried to let him go, but he shamelessly clung on, so why would he escape now?
Li Qingcheng sat in the house, his mind churning as he thought only about that matter with the northern border’s administrative assistant.
When the sky brightened, a ruckus came from outside of the manor, accompanied by loud crying and shouting.
Li Qingcheng rushed out of the manor, while Tang Hong asked, “What’s wrong?!”
Li Qingcheng indicated that he remain calm, just as the city guard Yin Lie spurred his horse over wildly, before sliding off and falling to one knee as he saluted.
“The Zhengbei troops have been trapped in Mt. Duanke! The lord administrative assistant led his troops into a valley, where he was wounded by a hidden arrow --”
Li Qingcheng’s heart skipped a beat, and he asked, “Quick, get up, how is Administrative Assistant Wang now?”
Yin Lie cupped his hands. “I don’t know, the old administrative assistant sent someone over with the message. As for what to do next, if Young Master Tang could please provide his guidance!”
Tang Hong said, “Give me a squad, and I’ll go meet them head on!”
Li Qingcheng’s expression changed. “No way! If on the off-chance the Xiongnu people come now for a sneak attack, then Langhuan will be difficult to take care of.”
Tang Hong, “Where are your mute servant and Fang… that new general who surrendered to your command?”
Li Qingcheng stayed quiet, before saying a moment later, “Bring all of the troops we have, and split them into ten squads, heading towards the northern bank of the Xiaogu River on patrol. Make sure they conceal themselves well, and as soon as they find anything strange, have them come back immediately to report.”
Tang Hong went forth with that order. Li Qingcheng then said, “If the Xiongnu attack the city, how many days can we hold out with the troops we have on hand?”
Yin Lie and Li Qingcheng walked towards the northern gate and Yin Lie answered, “At least three days. If no reinforcements come after ten days, then the city will fall.”
The two of them arrived at the northern gate of the city to the sight of troops rushing back and forth. Yin Lie scolded them loudly before distributing duties amongst them. Li Qingcheng then said, “Increase the patrols. In these few days, the entire city should stay on guard. Has the report on the status of the lord administrative assistant not come yet?”
Just as Li Qingcheng was about to trace down the whereabouts of the report, he suddenly saw a lone rider coming south.
That messenger’s face was covered with blood as he spurred his horse, rushing into the city. He was still in shock, and he stared at Li Qingcheng as he panted incessantly.
Li Qingcheng was in shock, but Yin Lie immediately reacted. He sent away the troops at their side, only leaving the commander of the city guard, the assistant general, and a few of the officers.
“Speak.” Li Qingcheng’s voice was trembling.
The messenger said, “The northern territory troops… the entire army has been captured, and the Xiongnu king Arius brought six thousand more troops to meet up with the Xiongnu main forces… They fought in Mt. Duanke, but the lord administrative assistant fell prey to a trap and entered the valley to save his troops, and was caught up in a pincer attack from the front and the back. My… Langhuan northern border troops had more three thousand losses… and the administrative assistant is gravely wounded.”
Li Qingcheng said, “How many days will it take to go back and rescue them?”
The messenger panted, “Less than three days.”
Li Qingcheng nodded his head, and the messenger continued, “When the northern border troops were scattered… the lord administrative assistant… was ambushed by hidden forces… He was shot by an arrow and perished.”
Yin Lie and the multiple commanders let out pained cries and loud shouts at the same time.
Li Qingcheng only felt that the world spun around him, and his heart was filled with a tumult of emotions.
The messenger then said, “Before the lord administrative assistant died… he decreed that his assistant generals hand over control of all the military troops within Langhuan City to Young Master Tang, requesting that Young Master Tang weigh the advantages and disadvantages of his situation and do his best to ensure that Langhuan City survives.”
At that time, countless ideas rose in Li Qingcheng’s mind, even as he felt both joy and grief. He was grieving over the fact that Administrative Assistant Wang and he were not very well acquainted with each other, and how the man was Tang Hong’s family servant, but after guarding the northern border for fifty plus years, he still ended up dying on the battlefield. When he thought about it again, though he had used the Tang family’s name and inheritance to cover up his identity, Wang Yichen had not objected at all before handing over a hundred plus soldiers to him. And today, having died on the battlefield, sacrificing his own life in this icy, snowy landscape, he had not lived his life in vain.
The joy came from the fact that before he died, he had handed Langhuan City over to Li Qingcheng. After thinking about it over and over again last night, the most pressing problem had actually been fully resolved just like that with Wang Yichen’s death.
“Zhugong, as things stand today, how should we fight?”
One person’s clear voice rang out, and it was Fang Qingyu who had appeared who knows when.
Li Qingcheng gave Fang Qingyu a look, but he didn’t bring up what had happened last night, instead asking, “Where’s Ying-ge?”
Fang Qingyu said mildly, “He thought you were still in the manor, so he went back there after entering the city. I, however, guessed that at this moment you would most likely be in front of the north gate.”
Yin Lie said, “Now is not the time to exchange idle words, if Young Master could please issue your orders.”
Li Qingcheng opened his mouth. “What skill and abilities do I possess, to be worthy of this position?”
Yin Lie said, “Young Master, how can you say such words?”
Fang Qingyu began to smile. Li Qingcheng said, “I am cowardly and have no talents, and I can only send letters requesting assistance once we return to Feng Pass.”
Yin Lie raged, “Before the administrative assistant died, he gave over all responsibility of the entire city’s troops and citizens to you, but you want to push off your duty and walk away?!”
“Speak,” Zhang Mu’s cold voice spoke. He was still carrying his blade on his back as he stood not far from the northern gate, bringing a gust of coppery blood scent with him. The blood on his sleeves had frosted over with a layer of ice.
Li Qingcheng said, “Where did you go last night! You’re hurt?!”
Zhang Mu waved his hand, indicating that it was fine, before pointing at Yin Lie, meaning there were more important matters at hand.
Li Qingcheng sucked in a deep breath. “It isn’t that I’m not willing to shoulder the consequences, but rather, would these lords be willing to listen to what I have to say?”
Yin Lie said, “Military orders are as solid as a mountain, why would they not listen! Since the lord administrative assistant appointed you as the commander in chief on his deathbed, then naturally the entire city will follow your orders and fight to the death with the Xiongnu!”
Li Qingcheng said, “Since it’s like that, then may the lords please wait a little, I’ll issue my orders presently.”
Of the three assistant generals, some of them wanted to escape with their lives, and some of them didn’t dare to shoulder this heavy responsibility, afraid that they would be chased down by the imperial court. They all nodded in agreement as they turned their gazes towards Li Qingcheng.
Yin Lie cupped his fists. “We are all of one mind, we’ll listen to the young master’s orders and defend against the Xiongnu.”
But he hadn’t expected that in the next instant, Li Qingcheng’s decision would be instead, “Immediately gather all of the troops in the city and recall the patrol squads. Within two shichen we’ll move out, escorting the citizens as we retreat to Feng Pass.”
In that instant a hubbub rose amongst the troops, and Yin Lie’s expression turned furious. Li Qingcheng continued, “I will guard Langhuan and be the rearguard to the citizens and the troops. As long as there is one person who hasn’t yet entered Feng Pass, then I will die with the city when it falls.”
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.