”The owners it recognizes are only Chengzu and Zhang Mu."
Editor(s): namio, jelly
The Feng Mountains was a range of rolling mountains that took up thousands of qing, like a long barrier that split the realms of the Northern Border and the Western Plains. When Emperor Qing united the land and led three charges out of Feng Pass, he established that range as the boundary of the region, from the Northern Border to Mt. Duanke upstream of the Xiaogu River. The center of the Feng Mountains had a gorge called the “One-Line Sky”, and the path that led into it was narrow and long. At its end were the gates to the pass that stood like a steel wall, and to the sides were thousands of zhang of cliffs and forests of strange rock formations.
This pass could not be lost. According to what Fang Qingyu had said before, the empress had decided, in order to usurp the throne, to give up both Feng Pass and Feng City within it. If this was true, then as soon as these natural defenses were lost, the Western Plains had no way to defend against any group that wished it harm. In less than ten years, the Xiongnu would definitely fight their way in, invading the Central Plains.
But the imperial court had already sent out supporting troops, and any day now they would arrive in the border territories. What was their best course of action?
A coincidental murder would not solve this issue.
Li Qingcheng followed the path and entered Feng City. The markets of the border territories were flourishing, far beyond what he had expected.
Tang Hong held the shopping list, and as he followed along closely behind he reported, “The leftover luxuries that you commanded the soldiers to scour out, and the snake oil balm that was brought to Langhuan half a month earlier, sold for a total of three thousand liang of silver. Before this, the city commander also assigned us a large house, and the plaza in the east of the city can be used as a military headquarters…”
Li Qingcheng asked, “What’s the fastest that the imperial court’s diplomats can arrive?”
Tang Hong froze for a moment, before responding, “Ten days.”
Li Qingcheng pulled out a letter and gave him an order. “Send someone to Tingzhou with this letter.”
Tang Hong asked, “Tingzhou?” But since Li Qingcheng had already issued his order, Tang Hong had no choice but to carry it out.
Zhang Mu stopped in his tracks in front of one of the market stalls. Li Qingcheng said, “With how things are today, what should we do now?”
Tang Hong said, “Despite you guys crossing swords with the Xiongnu people in Langhuan, I don’t know the lay of the land, so I have no place to start analyzing from.”
Li Qingcheng explained the battle last night in great detail, before he suddenly said, “Zhang Mu?”
Zhang Mu wrinkled his brow as he observed the birdcages placed in that stall. Chirps and trills issued from within as tens of birds were gathered in that one location; they were all pet birds about the size of a parrot.
“Which one do these lord soldiers look favorably upon?” the stall owner hurried to smile and greet them.
At this moment Li Qingcheng, Tang Hong, and Zhang Mu were all still wearing the armor of Yu Country, and the stall owner couldn’t differentiate between the different factions anyways. He smiled and said, “If the lord soldiers like this one, then please take it.”
Zhang Mu reached a finger into the cage, but it was gently pecked by that young bird, and he pulled it back.
Tang Hong lifted the birdcage, and he said perfunctorily, “Let’s go, there’s some pelts that Fang Qingyu thinks are good over there. If we buy some and take it back to the Central Plains to resell, we can make quite a bit of money.”
Li Qingcheng stopped him, asking, “How much?”
The stall owner hurried to say that he didn’t want any money, but Li Qingcheng insisted. Li Qingcheng also said to Tang Hong, “Be sure to warn your subordinates against taking things from the citizens for free.”
Tang Hong nodded. Zhang Mu took that birdcage and followed behind the two of them. As Li Qingcheng walked, he kept talking, not paying attention to Zhang Mu. After walking for a moment more, Zhang Mu casually pushed open the cage door, pulling that little dusty grey bird out.
Just as the two of them thought that doomed little bird’s blood was about to splatter the scene, Zhang Mu opened his hand. The little bird was curled up in his large palm, taking up only half of it, and after a moment it gave a little hop and rustled its wings as it flew away.
Li Qingcheng said, “There's so many people to kill, and you’re spending money to buy a bird and set it free?”
Zhang Mu lifted his chin and watched it for a second, before he suddenly took to his feet and ran. Li Qingcheng and Tang Hong shouted for him to stop at the same time, and Li Qingcheng said, “Come back!”
Zhang Mu’s legs were long, and he pushed aside the passerby in the market as he followed the bird, racing alongside it out of Feng City.
Untying the satchel filled to the brim with silver pieces, Li Qingcheng handed it to Tang Hong. “You go buy the pelts.”
Tang Hong said, “And where are you going?”
Li Qingcheng chased after Zhang Mu, running out of the market. Seeing several Langhuan troops gathered outside the market talking, he headed over and saddled a horse, before flipping onto it and racing after Zhang Mu, following behind him.
“What are you doing now?”
As he ran, Zhang Mu turned his head back. Seeing that Li Qingcheng was coming towards him, without stopping in his steps, he leapt onto the horse, taking the reins and commanding, “Jia !”
That voice brimmed with joy. Li Qingcheng, his head filled with fog, lifted his gaze towards the grey cloudy sky, only to see a small dot that was very difficult to make out with the naked eye flying towards the Feng Mountains in the distance.
The wind gusted. The horse rushed along a small path up the mountain, before finally coming to a stop in front of a small waterfall that had frozen into ice.
Further ahead, if one faced north of the Feng Mountains in the direction of Saiwai, to their west would be a long and narrow valley.
The soldiers had been sent here to cut firewood earlier; this place was already less harshly cold than Langhuan, and the winter sunlight shone down on the bare branches of the maple grove, lending a little bit of warmth.
Fang Qingyu sat on a large rock, head lowered as he toyed with something, watching over his subordinates as they chopped down trees. When he lifted his head, he saw Li Qingcheng and Zhang Mu riding a single horse up the mountain, and his expression turned complicated. “What orders does my liege have now?”
The two of them dismounted. Zhang Mu didn’t respond; he merely took a few steps in the grove, lifting his gaze to watch the horizon.
Li Qingcheng said, “The mute bought a bird at the market, and after he let it fly free we chased after it. I don’t know what we’re here for.”
Fang Qingyu smiled and brushed off the rock, gesturing to Li Qingcheng to go over there to sit while he stood to one side, prim and proper.
From afar came a bird’s cry, and Zhang Mu followed the sound into the depths of the grove. Li Qingcheng wanted to follow, but he was held back by Fang Qingyu.
“The mountain roads are not easy to travel,” Fang Qingyu said.
Li Qingcheng shot him an unreadable glance as he asked, “Before, what were you looking at?”
He reached out a hand, feeling around the chest area of Fang Qingyu’s robe before pulling out that brass fish. There were a few grass seeds stuffed in its mouth, and it was once again filled with mud by Fang Qingyu.
“I also have one,” Li Qingcheng said, pulling out his own brass fish. When their heads and tails were aligned, the two fish were a pair that were exchanging a mutual kiss.
Fang Qingyu, “You’ve remembered it all?”
Li Qingcheng shook his head.
“I can’t remember any of it. Zhang Mu told me,” Li Qingcheng explained. “I’m the crown prince of the current dynasty.”
After a long, long time, Fang Qingyu lightly spoke a single sentence. “Qing-ge is sorry for you.”
This confirmed, even further, one of Li Qingcheng’s guesses. Everything had fallen into place: the empress started a revolt, and after the crown prince escaped the large fire that swept through the capital, Fang Qingyu led thirty thousand troops on a military campaign to the northern border. But he deserted right before the battle, preparing to wander even the most remote territories of the world to find the exiled crown prince.
“No, since you had this desire, I’m very moved.” Li Qingcheng didn’t know about past events in the palace; he could only pull up a few bedraggled, fuzzy memories, which he then linked together using his own reasoning, coming up with the motive for Fang Qingyu’s actions.
“You aren’t afraid of being slandered, nor do you care for your country, family, or the world. Though I do not agree with your decision, I know that you came to find me,” Li Qingcheng said slowly. “I am very grateful.”
Fang Qingyu smiled slightly and reached out a finger, gently touching Li Qingcheng’s ear.
Li Qingcheng furrowed his brow. “What are you doing? Impudent!”
Stunned, Fang Qingyu had an expression of wanting to smile yet being unable to summon one. After a moment, he said, “This subject has transgressed.”
Li Qingcheng asked, “What did you want to tell me before?”
Fang Qingyu finally put away his frivolous attitude, and he bowed and said, “This subject remembered…”
Li Qingcheng, “As of today, our path forward is yet unclear, so we can just use ‘you’ and ‘me’ when speaking.”
Fang Qingyu nodded. “I remembered when I was studying the arts at Hongmen in my youth, where I heard of a wine called ‘Dream of a Life Departed’. After drinking it, the drinker can remember the events of their past life.”
Li Qingcheng said, “This kind of thing exists?”
Mildly, Fang Qingyu said, “‘It’s a kind of medicinal wine. When I was young I glanced over one of Shifu’s books that he had at hand, and I vaguely remember seeing such a thing. But the months and years have stretched long, and it might not have the effects that I remember. But either way, it should be correct that it can cause someone to recall their memories of a lifetime.”
Li Qingcheng mused, “Even if such a wine exists in this world, it’s probably very hard to find.”
Fang Qingyu said, “Even if I have to climb mountains and ford rivers, swim through water and leap through fire, Qing-ge will still definitely find it for you.”
Li Qingcheng, “What good does it do you, if I remember the past?”
Fang Qingyu smiled a little self-mockingly as he watched Li Qingcheng without a sound. His gaze held a little bit of ridicule, but even more so anticipation.
Li Qingcheng said, “No need.” And saying this, he rose. Fang Qingyu chased after him. “Your Highness!”
Zhang Mu walked towards the frozen-over river, his fingers pressed together in a circle in front of his lips as he let out a whistle.
In the vast sky overhead, groups of birds left the grove as a very faint cry of a falcon came, but Zhang Mu alertly twitched his ears.
Li Qingcheng came after him, approaching from behind. “Mu-ge, what are you looking for?”
Zhang Mu hurried to hold up Li Qingcheng, preventing him from slipping down the riverbank.
“A falcon,” Zhang Mu said.
Li Qingcheng said, “There are falcons here?”
Fang Qingyu had come chasing after him. Li Qingcheng asked, “The bird in that cage before, did you see that it had a little tuft of green feathers on its forehead?”
After thinking for a moment, Fang Qingyu smiled. “You guys bought a merlin? No wonder.”
Li Qingcheng, “What’s that?”
Zhang Mu turned his head back, as if threatening Fang Qingyu to not come any closer.
Fang Qingyu explained, “The merlin lives communally with the flock of falcons, and it specially protects newly-hatched chicks, preventing other beasts that live on these rocky slopes, like the monkeys and such creatures, from stealing the eggs. They often live not far from the falcons’ nests, and if the falcons are away for too long, the merlin will also take up the role of raising the young hatchlings.”
Li Qingcheng, “But on our entire way here, I didn’t see any falcons.”
Zhang Mu looked towards the sheer cliffs to the west of the waterfall, and Fang Qingyu nodded. “Normal falcons are not suited for surviving in this place. So…”
Li Qingcheng, “So what?”
Zhang Mu’s expression was hesitant; he clearly hadn’t had a chance to confirm his guess yet.
After the soldiers finished cutting down trees for firewood, Li Qingcheng ordered, “You head down the mountain ba.”
So Fang Qingyu had no choice but to bow and take his leave, leaving behind Zhang Mu and Li Qingcheng to stand in front of the frozen-over waterfall.
Zhang Mu pointed at Fang Qingyu, indicating that Li Qingcheng should go back with him.
Li Qingcheng said, “I’m not going back. Whatever you’re going to do, go do it, I won’t be in your way.”
Zhang Mu deliberated for a little, before clambering onto the rocks, leaping up by the waterfall and pinning himself solidly against the steep precipice. Whenever he found a protruding rock, he grabbed onto it and lifted himself upwards.
Li Qingcheng watched for a moment before turning and leaving. Before the troop of soldiers escorting the firewood down the mountain left, he went to obtain a rope from them. He then circled around the cliffs in fits and spurts, before finding the source of the waterfall.
The sun started to fall behind the western mountains, and on the cliffside facing the west, from the light of a distant, fiery red sunset, the gild-like golden light shone onto Zhang Mu’s body.
“Mu-ge!” Li Qingcheng called from above as he panted. He tossed the rope down, and Zhang Mu grabbed it as he clambered up to the small ledge set in the middle of the cliffside.
There, there were two nests not too far away. One nest had the merlin, hopping up and down excitedly, and in the other was a completely white fledgling, which was struggling weakly.
Li Qingcheng also slid down the rope, and the two of them stood on one small outcropping. Zhang Mu tied the rope in a loop, tightening it against Li Qingcheng’s waist.
The falcon nest had several pieces of broken eggshell in it, and the fledgling falcon cawed as it tumbled about inside. To one side, several chi away, the merlin in the other nest warily watched these two unexpected visitors.
“Where are its parents?” Li Qingcheng asked.
Zhang Mu shook his head faintly, before using his fingers to gently push the falcon into the middle of the nest. Li Qingcheng reached out a hand, wanting to grab it and take it back, but Zhang Mu fiercely grabbed his wrist.
Zhang Mu said, “You can’t touch it now.”
Li Qingcheng frowned. “Its parents aren’t here anymore. Did they die away from the nest?”
He found several bird droppings frozen over by the side of the nest, and he estimated that they were probably several days old.
Zhang Mu said, “Or perhaps they were captured by the Xiongnu. Let’s go.”
Hugging Li Qingcheng, Zhang Mu began to climb up, leaving the steep precipice behind as they got onto the horse and rode back to Feng City.
The following days were very busy. When Li Qingcheng returned to Feng City he began to discuss the matter of the defenses with Tang Hong. At night, Zhang Mu pillowed his head on his arm as he quietly gazed towards the ridge-beam of the roof, and early in the morning of the next day, he rose and rode out of the city on horseback.
“Where’s the mute?” Li Qingcheng finished eating his breakfast.
Tang Hong said, “I don’t know where he’s gone.”
Li Qingcheng’s heart jolted. After breakfast, he had a servant chop some meat up into paste before he climbed onto a horse and rode out of the city, following the path to the side of the steep precipice from yesterday, only to see a person standing up on the cliff. It was Zhang Mu.
“Zhang Mu!” Li Qingcheng called.
Zhang Mu turned his head and glanced down. Li Qingcheng circled around to the top of the cliff before clambering down.
“You’ve come to feed it?” Li Qingcheng saw that there was a small piece of raw meat in Zhang Mu’s hand.
Zhang Mu nodded. “Yes.”
Li Qingcheng was held in Zhang Mu’s embrace by his powerful arms. Zhang Mu opened the palm with that chopped up raw meat, lowering his head and looking at Li Qingcheng. His gaze seemed to communicate something.
Li Qingcheng, “?”
Zhang Mu, “You feed it.”
Taking it, Li Qingcheng pinched it between his fingers as he scooted towards the fledgling falcon in the nest, only to be tugged back gently by Zhang Mu.
“No,” Zhang Mu said, before pointing to his own mouth, watching Li Qingcheng with anticipation.
Li Qingcheng furrowed his brow, his mind filled with fog.
Zhang Mu’s expression was a little dejected, and he picked up the piece of meat with his mouth. Li Qingcheng froze.
“Wait, so you mean,” Li Qingcheng said, “Whoever’s… saliva, whoever uses their saliva to feed it, it’ll recognize them as the owner?”
Zhang Mu nodded very faintly. Li Qingcheng took that piece of meat dangling between Zhang Mu’s lips, chewing it gently in his mouth. Zhang Mu then gestured at him to go over.
Li Qingcheng chewed it a few times, before pulling it back out and feeding it to Zhang Mu, smiling as he did so.
Zhang Mu held that piece of falcon’s feed in his mouth, and in that instant his entire face turned red. He stood there awkwardly, not knowing if he should stay still or move. A moment later, Li Qingcheng said, “With this, it’ll recognize us.”
Zhang Mu’s face and ears were red, and his lips trembled faintly. Not too long after, he closed his eyes and moved in front of the fledgling falcon, pressing his lips against the bird’s beak, feeding it the raw meat.
The fledgling lifted its head and swallowed it with great difficulty.
Zhang Mu retrieved another piece, not daring to look at Li Qingcheng. Li Qingcheng asked, “Again?”
Zhang Mu said, “No-no need.”
Li Qingcheng was very curious. He continued, “It recognizes me just like that?”
Zhang Mu didn’t dare to look at Li Qingcheng as his face flushed red to the base of his ears. He nodded.
Li Qingcheng watched that wholly grey-white fledgling and felt that it was pretty entertaining, but he couldn’t tell what kind of falcon it was. The ledge was narrow and not suitable for turning around in, so he climbed back up the cliffside using the rope to find a place to sit down.
A moment later, Zhang Mu finished feeding the fledgling falcon, and he too came up.
Li Qingcheng asked, “When can we take it away?”
Zhang Mu responded, “When it is willing to go with Your Highness.”
Li Qingcheng pretended to understand, even though he hadn’t, and he slowly nodded his head before asking, “What kind of falcon is it?”
Zhang Mu said, “Arctic gyr.”
Li Qingcheng, “...”
An arctic gyr! The legendary king of all falcons! In that instant, Li Qingcheng understood Zhang Mu’s previous actions. No wonder he was so intent on having the fledgling familiarize itself with his own scent.
“That’s the king of falcons?” Li Qingcheng almost couldn’t believe his own ears.
Zhang Mu nodded. Before, Li Qingcheng had just glanced casually at it, but in this instant he realized how coveted that fledgling falcon was. A previous emperor had once wanted one for an imperial pet, and he had offered up the seventeen cities outside of the pass in exchange for one of the Xiongnu’s arctic gyrs. It was clear how valuable it was.
Li Qingcheng once again clambered down the cliff, Zhang Mu following behind him.
Intently studying this palm-sized fledgling eagle, he furrowed his brows. “This an arctic gyr? Your eyes really weren’t mistaken.”
Zhang Mu nodded his head. His voice was chilly, but it was tinged with a little bit of the joy he felt in his heart, as if he had been affected by Li Qingcheng’s emotional state. “This subject… knows that Your Highness might like it.”
Li Qingcheng went into a daze as he watched that falcon, and he couldn’t resist reaching out a hand to stroke it, only for the fledgling to gently peck him instead.
“Send some people over to stand guard, it’s too precious,” Li Qingcheng said.
Zhang Mu waved his hand, indicating that it was unnecessary.
Li Qingcheng then asked, “It’s full? How many pieces of meat did you feed it?”
Zhang Mu waited for a bit before answering, “It’s full.” After saying that, he gently grabbed that fledgling falcon’s tender claws, lifting it into the air with its head down.
The fledgling didn’t move at all, not understanding Zhang Mu’s intentions.
Zhang Mu lowered his head and looked down from the falcon’s nest, as if he was determining their location. A few breaths later, he tossed the falcon into the gorge below.
In that instant, Li Qingcheng couldn’t react in time. He couldn’t help the loud shout he let out, only to see the fledgling that hadn’t yet opened its wings plummeting down towards the cliffside, smacking into the rock face some six or seven chi below them and letting out a light, muffled thud.
“Ah --” Lin Wan pressed a hand against her mouth, unable to help the shrill cry that escaped her.
When Xu Lingyun got to this point in the story, he paused for a moment, before saying in a quiet voice, “Empress, please stay calm. The arctic gyr from then is still alive now.”
Lin Wan found it hard to believe, and she asked, “Such a thing actually happened back then?”
Li Xiao asked, “What was this for?”
Xu Lingyun answered, “When fledgling falcons break out of their shell, after their parents raise them, they slowly lose their downy covering. Then, when they are three months old, it’s time for them to learn to fly, and when that time comes the male falcon drives its young out of the nest. No matter if it can fly or not, it first falls onto the ground, and after struggling for a bit it learns to flap its wings and leap about, before it returns to the nest.”
Li Xiao understood, and he nodded his head slightly. “And then it’s once again expelled, until the fledgling is fully capable of flight.”
Xu Lingyun said, “Your Majesty is very knowledgeable. It is exactly thus, and back then when Chengzu and the Yingnu found this arctic gyr, it was almost past the time for it to learn to fly. If they disregarded that fact and kept feeding it blindly, or brought it back to Feng City to raise, it would only be able to become a family pet in the end.”
Lin Wan said, “This is… too harsh, uncaring of its life or death. What if it falls and breaks a bone?”
Xu Lingyun smiled. “Falcons have the strongest healing ability, and of the thirty-six thousand kinds of flying beasts, falcons are the most hardy. Additionally, the arctic gyr is the king of the falcons, and even if it broke both its wings, they would heal in less than three days.”
Lin Wan let out a quiet sigh. Xu Lingyun said mildly, “If you think of it, was Chengzu not like a fledgling falcon that had been expelled from his nest?”
Li Xiao seemed to have had that very same thought. He suddenly asked, “You say that the arctic gyr from back then is still alive today?”
Xu Lingyun lifted the falcon whistle around his neck with his mouth, and he blew it loudly. As the ear-piercing whistle sounded, the sound of wings flapping came to them, and the arctic gyr from the day of the wedding flew into the hall. The eunuchs hurried to duck away from it, as Li Xiao commanded, “Move the screen aside.”
The screen was moved, revealing Xu Lingyun still sitting in front of the table.
Xu Lingyun smiled. “This is it.”
Lin Wan rolled up her gauzy sleeve and went forward, asking in surprise, “It’s lived two hundred years? How is this possible?”
Xu Lingyun said, “Every forty years, the arctic gyr molts its beak, loses its feathers, exchanges its claws, and is reborn, like a phoenix reincarnating. There was a legend that back in ancient times, one of the arctic gyrs, as the king of all falcons, lived for almost a thousand years.”
Lin Wan murmured, “A crane lives a thousand years, and a tortoise lives ten thousand; doesn’t that mean that they’ve lived for longer than humans?”
Xu Lingyun smiled. “Isn’t that saintly tortoise in Taiye Pond one of those as well? It has lived for thousands of years, and the previous rulers of the dynasties have perished, the mountains and rivers have been renamed, and several dynasties have risen since, but it’s still alive today. This shows that the joy and grief of humans is, at its heart… en…”
Li Xiao couldn’t hold back his laughter, and he walked forward, standing shoulder to shoulder with Lin Wan.
Lin Wan said, “It… does this falcon ancestor still remember the events of those years?” And saying this, her heart was moved, and she reached out a jade-like hand to stroke it.
Xu Lingyun, “That is a question only it knows the answer to. Empress, please forgive this subject’s lack of manners, it doesn’t recognize people. If it becomes enraged, it won’t even listen to this subject’s words.”
Li Xiao said, “You’re still a Yingnu, how is it that even you can’t control it?”
Xu Lingyun, “This subject is a Yingnu, whose duty is to serve it, but this subject is not the owner of the falcon.”
Li Xiao didn’t care for his words at all as he reached out a hand to touch. “Even if this king is the emperor, I cannot be its owner?”
Xu Lingyun looked into Li Xiao’s eyes, a trace of amusement in his gaze. “This subject guesses… that more likely than not, it’s impossible. Its owners, from the past until now, have only been two individuals.”
Li Xiao murmured, “Which two individuals?”
As they spoke, the emperor’s long, slender fingers reached over, landing on the arctic gyr’s neck. To his surprise, Xu Lingyun didn’t stop him.
Li Xiao stroked the arctic gyr, which didn’t duck away nor move. It turned its head and quietly looked into Li Xiao’s eyes, and after that, it warmly lowered its head, rubbing its beak gently against the skin between Li Xiao’s thumb and index fingers.
Xu Lingyun said, “The owners it recognizes are only Chengzu and Zhang Mu.”
The author has something to say: Tomorrow daily updates are going to begin yo~
Before we enter VIP status they’ll dadadada~dadada~dada
moon: don’t actually go finding gyrfalcons and feeding them with raw meat coated in your own saliva
BUT ANYWAYS LOOK IT’S BIRB SON BIRB SON IS HERE
MERRY XMAS (or just happy holidays if you don’t celebrate christmas!), BIRB SON IS HERE
(also if you’re wondering what that author’s note was at the end, feitian left that on this chapter, so i translated it. dw about it.)
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.