“This kind of enduring will probably kill our son."
Editor(s): jelly, namio
graphic depictions of falcon handling and falcons hunting prey (gore, violence on animals)
The arctic gyr was faint with fatigue. After that bowl of stomach-cleansing tea, it had completely wilted, and it squatted there listlessly. That night, Zhang Mu called over two more guards to keep night watch. Whenever the fledging gyr stopped moving, they were to shake the wooden stand, preventing it from sleeping.
The arctic gyr hadn’t eaten at all, and that day it began to have diarrhea. There was a wet patch on the wooden rod, and when Li Qingcheng retired for the night, the distant sound of wings beating the air came to his ear.
“This kind of enduring will probably kill our son ba,” Li Qingcheng said from his position on the inner bed.
Zhang Mu said mildly, from outside, “It won’t.”
Li Qingcheng closed his eyes, and the pitiful sound of the arctic gyr struggling as it flapped its wings occupied his mind for the rest of the night.
The next day, when he got up, Li Qingcheng didn’t dare to go and take a look again. It wasn’t until three days later, when Zhang Mu brought the arctic gyr that had starved until it was skin and bones into the yard, ordering the servants to bring over a bucket of warm water so it could be washed that Li Qingcheng stood in the hallway, watching from a distance.
As Zhang Mu washed it, he muttered quietly under his breath, as if he was speaking to the arctic gyr. His expression was extremely focused.
Li Qingcheng took a few steps in that direction, and Zhang Mu immediately stopped talking, lifting his head to glance at him.
“What are you saying?” Li Qingcheng asked, smiling.
Zhang Mu didn’t respond. He merely washed the arctic gyr clean, upon which it looked like a skinny chicken. When he used a cotton cloth to wipe the water off its wings, it began to struggle wildly with its entire body, its feathers even puffing out a little in intimidation a little, as if it was feeling murderous hatred.
Zhang Mu said, “It can eat now, feed it ba.” Saying this, he pulled over a box by his feet, which held a few strips of lean meat about a finger wide.
The arctic gyr dodged away impatiently, and Li Qingcheng remarked, “It’s hating you.”
But Zhang Mu responded, “That’s fine. You come and feed it, and talk to it for a while.”
Li Qingcheng took the gyrfalcon’s feed. Bringing it in front of the blindfolded fledgling’s beak, he said quietly, “Son, this is for you to eat.”
Saying this, he fed it the meat. The fledgling, with an air of resentment, nipped away the meat strip, before vengefully pecking Li Qingcheng’s hand once!
Li Qingcheng’s heart hurt the most at that, and he unconsciously lifted his hand to strike back. Zhang Mu’s expression changed as he grabbed the fledgling and said, “Don’t… don’t hit it, you can’t hit it now, let me see!”
The arctic gyr was caught wholly off guard by its throat being grabbed by Zhang Mu, his fingers clenching around it. Its neck close to being broken, it flapped its wings and waved its claws wildly, on the verge of death. Li Qingcheng said, “No, no… it’s fine, let go! You’re going to choke it to death!”
Zhang Mu released his grip and grabbed Li Qingcheng’s finger to inspect instead. Seeing that his finger was already bleeding, he hurried to tear off a strip of cloth from his robe , before applying medicine and dressing the wound. The fledgling fell onto the ground, spasming as it suffered.
Li Qingcheng asked, “It’s alright ba?”
Zhang Mu remorsefully picked up the fledgling, and upon seeing that it was still alive, let out a breath.
“Don’t be angry, come.” Li Qingcheng switched to his other hand and continued to feed it. This time, the fledgling didn’t attack Li Qingcheng again, and it ate all of the meat.
Zhang Mu said, “Alright. Just now, everything almost fell apart, but now it’ll listen to you.”
The afternoon of that same day, Li Qingcheng held the arctic gyr, comforting it endlessly, as Zhang Mu ordered the servants to bring several cages in and place them on an open space in the garden. He then took the fledgling falcon, which was still irritable and uneasy, and commanded, “Open the cages.”
The guards opened the door of a cage, and Zhang Mu immediately untied the cloth around the arctic gyr’s eyes. Li Qingcheng said, “Go!”
In an instant, the wings spread open with a snap, and the arctic gyr shot out like an arrow, snapping its beak closed around a fleeing grey rabbit. With a few fierce pecks, the rabbit’s brain matter burst out, and it died instantly.
Li Qingcheng said, “Come back.”
The arctic gyr didn’t listen to that at all, instead lifting the grey rabbit onto the wall, slamming and beating it against the wall ferociously. Fresh blood splattered from its claws. Zhang Mu was breathing rapidly, as if he was extremely nervous, and he brought his index and middle finger to his lips before putting them down again. Instead, he picked up Li Qingcheng’s hand, grasping his fingers and blowing with them.
The whistle rang out distinctly. With a turn of its head, the arctic gyr picked up its heavy prey and flew back with difficulty, landing by Li Qingcheng’s feet.
It wasn’t until this moment that Zhang Mu let out a genuine breath of relief, and he said, smiling happily, “It’s done!”
Li Qingcheng dumbly watched him. Zhang Mu’s smile was handsome, and it evoked an indescribable emotion.
Zhang Mu smiled at Li Qingcheng as he said, “In the future, it’ll forever listen to your words, Your Highness.”
“You…” Li Qingcheng smiled. “You are… Mu-ge? Wait? You’re smiling?”
Zhang Mu at first was startled, before he grew extremely awkward. Li Qingcheng said, “Don’t… don’t put on that long face, smile again? Mu-ge, when you smile you look really good. Come, don’t be like this…”
Zhang Mu’s expression looked as if he wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. After a long while, he finally said, “Open… open the cage, there’s more.”
At that time, Tang Hong and Fang Qingyu also came. Another cage was opened, and what wandered out was a lethally venomous king cobra with white markings. Li Qingcheng said, “It won’t be able to ba.”
Zhang Mu said, “Give the order.”
The arctic gyr turned its head and glanced, its sharp eyes locking onto the movements of the king cobra. That lethally venomous long snake lifted its head, revealing its fangs as it hissed. Even though Tang Hong had his martial ability to speak of, even he couldn't help the way his expression shifted.
Fang Qingyu said, "Be careful, if you start bleeding then you're already dead. Getting bit even once is not a game."
Zhang Mu brought Li Qingcheng's fingertips to his mouth again, and he let out another whistle.
The arctic gyr shot out like an arrow. The venomous snake sprung up ferociously, but after a few sounds of something striking something else, before they could even see clearly, the fledgling had already figured out the cobra’s weak point and threw it onto a rock. The venomous snake wriggled violently, but with a few pecks, the skin and flesh on the back of its neck was torn open, and its brain matter splattered everywhere. After just a few short breaths, it had already died under the arctic gyr's claws.
Tang Hong said, shocked, "This falcon's resentment is too strong. After the military falcons defeat their enemies, they know to bring the bodies of their prey back, how come this one isn't even turning its head?"
Zhang Mu said, “It’s too wild and untameable, it isn’t able to be that thorough.”
Li Qingcheng protested, “It’s already enough. I’m raising a falcon, not a dog. Mu-ge, try and see if you can call it back.”
Zhang Mu pursed his lips and whistled, and upon hearing that the whistle had changed, the arctic gyr turned its head to stare coldly at Zhang Mu. With another chiding whistle from Zhang Mu, the arctic gyr flew back reluctantly, tossing the body of the snake at their feet.
Tang Hong smiled. "It just managed to recognize you as its owner."
Li Qingcheng said, "Mu-ge, you should keep our son company more and slowly it'll grow used to you. How are you all? Are there any new developments? Let's go into the hall to talk."
Zhang Mu lowered his head to observe the arctic gyr, his gaze filled with indulgence and comfort. The arctic gyr, still minding its own business, lifted the snake corpse. With a few pecks, it pulled out the snake's guts and swallowed it into its stomach with a few bobbles of its head. It then stopped caring about that snake at all, looking left and right with pride.
In the distance, Tang Hong and Fang Qingyu followed Li Qingcheng through the corridor. When Tang Hong turned his head back to look at the arctic gyr's heroic pose, he suddenly felt moved, and he copied Zhang Mu, using his fingers to let out a whistle.
The arctic gyr lifted its head swiftly, its fiery gaze staring unblinking at Tang Hong, who asked apprehensive, "Even this… can… call it over?"
What he hadn't expected was that to the arctic gyr's ear, that wasn't a command, but rather a jeer. Before any of them could react, a grey shadow had already streaked in front of him, its claws swiping down mercilessly towards Tang Hong!
“Wait!” Li Qingcheng said. “Don’t claw him!”
As Tang Hong shouted loudly, he moved to dodge. When he waved his hand to swat at it with his palm, the gyrfalcon flew into the air, circling around the pillar without ruffling a single feather, before it once again swiped down at Tang Hong's head!
Li Qingcheng hurried to copy that whistle as well, but he couldn't make any noise. It wasn't until Zhang Mu let out three whistles that the arctic gyr finally gave up on its prey, flying back to him.
Tang Hong's face was the same color as the dirt, and Li Qingcheng laughed until he couldn't stand up straight anymore, gesturing for them to go quickly.
"You're seeking death." There was a hint of a smile in Zhang Mu's eyes.
“Speak ba.” Li Qingcheng sat down in the hall, while Fang Qingyu and Tang Hong each stood on their own.
This was already the fourth day after they had sent out spies, and the news came back later than what was laid out in the original plan. Li Qingcheng had already come up with many scenarios, which were dependent on the separation and the ties between the military, political, and financial powers of Tingzhou. This was a method that his own father, the previous emperor, had left from his time. The provincial officer was a position that he had created when he was conquering his land, whereas the political officials were directly appointed by the court, the result of the infighting between different courtly factions.
The Sun family was also an aristocratic family of the region, so the three branches had formed a delicate balance in Tingzhou. This had allowed Ting and Jia City to maintain their wealth and form their own independent body while still listening to the orders from the court.
What Li Qingcheng wanted to do today was to first destroy this balance, obtain the support of the military and financial powers of Tingzhou, before forcing the Sun family to bow to only him, thus wholly severing any relationship they could have to the imperial court.
The entirety of the Western Plains boasted fifty thousand troops, but most of them were dispatched to Feng Pass and the six cities in Guanwai. As of today, Yin Lie had brought the remnants of his army to the foot of Mt. Feng. After the draft, there were still about eight thousand people in Tingzhou, with no word of supporting troops being dispatched from the capital. But for Li Qingcheng, these eight thousand people were already more than enough.
The Sun family, even until now, hadn't confirmed their stance, and they didn't want to pick a side. Li Qingcheng had to take action on someone else to push Sun Yan to the point of being wholly isolated from anyone else, binding his life solely to the crown prince's faction.
"The Tingzhou Provincial Officer is surnamed Lin. You already know him, his name is Lin Xi." Fang Qingyu took a sip of tea before continuing slowly, "The first day, I sent people out pretending to be local ruffians, and had them beat up the owner of a meat stall until he was heavily injured. This meat stall was originally the one that was designated to provide ingredients for the provincial officer's manor. As the end of the year is approaching, and New Year's Eve is three days away, the provincial officer manor will have to source from elsewhere. They switched to another store, and the person who is going to deliver the meat is one of us."
Li Qingcheng said, “Very good. Is the buyer an old servant or a family slave?”
Fang Qingyu replied, "The buyer has already been bribed. This person is not a soldier of Provincial Officer Lin's, he's no more than a common citizen who fled his hometown in search of work. The lackey in charge of delivering the meat entered the manor that same day. Coincidentally, there were a lot of matters to take care of, and because it's the end of the year, he stayed behind to work short-term. The second day, when he was chatting idly with the stable hands, he got quite a bit of news about Provincial Officer Lin's treatment of his troops. Here is a detailed report on his personality, I compiled it from what I heard."
Li Qingcheng nodded. There was already a piece of paper in his hand, on which were words written in Fang Qingyu's well-formed, handsome hand.
Fang Qingyu continued, "You can look it over again in detail. That lackey is very handsome, so I'm having him try seducing Provincial Officer Lin's mistress's handmaiden. When the time comes, if we need to have someone spread rumors or poison someone, it'll also be easier."
But Li Qingcheng pointed out, "If this person is easy to persuade, then he must be removed."
Fang Qingyu replied, "This person's temper is explosive, and he's quick to anger. Plus, there's one extremely important thing that Lin Xi and the county governor disagree on."
Li Qingcheng: “It’s not too different from what I guessed…”
Fang Qingyu: "How did you guess that?”
Li Qingcheng answered, "Because the military power is not united, the first priority should lie with the safety of the city. The governor and the provincial officer each hold their own power, and neither of them want to care about anything beyond their own jurisdiction, which is why the city has many people working as local ruffians. If the wielders of the military power were in agreement, then perhaps they would have long since accepted the imperial edict and joined forces to oppress the Sun family. Just like the day when we came into the city, Sun Cheng's provocation, placed in a way where it seemed like the governor and the provincial officer were colluding, means that it would bring Sun Yan a lot of trouble. However, Sun Yan didn't mind it at all, which indicates that one of the two have been bribed thoroughly by him. How many people does Lin Yi have stationed in the city?"
Fang Qingyu nodded. "I thought about it like that as well. Lin Xi's troops are split into two camps in the east and the west. The eastern camp is at the foot of Mt. Wenzhong, while the western camp is situated between Jia and Ting City. He also has five hundred soldiers at his manor."
Li Qingcheng: “Tell me about the governor ba.”
Tang Hong spoke, "The news from the governor's side is mine to take care of. This governor is surnamed Sun, but he has no relation at all to the Sun family. He had achieved great political achievements in the past on the Eastern Sea, and the court promoted him to govern over Tingzhou. The person who recommended him was from Empress Fang's faction."
Li Qingcheng licked his lips, deep in thought.
Fang Qingyu asked, "How did your subordinates muddle their way in?"
Tang Hong replied, "They didn't muddle their way into the governor's manor. It just so happened that there was a woman in the brothel in Tingzhou who was taking clients, and she knew a lot about the situation."
Li Qingcheng asked, "How old is the governor? Does he spend time around prostitutes often? Which family's business does that brothel belong to? The Sun family?"
Tang Hong replied, "He does. The brothel is called the Hall of Brimming Spring; it isn't the Sun family's, nor is it owned by the governor. The Sun family has always wanted to seize that business… Since the governor is the kind of official who takes bribes but also acts for the good of the people, he understands his duty, and he knows how to interact with the major families of the region."
Li Qingcheng said, “Since his results were pretty good when he was in office, I imagine he also understands how to stretch the rules.”
Tang Hong responded, “The governor, Sun Huairen, is fifty-three this year. His legal wife was unable to bear him children, but his mistress gave birth to a son, who is twenty-two this year. This child is following in the footsteps of his role model; since the old one likes to go to brothels, the son also likes to live in a world of women and wine. He’s unable to shoulder the heavy responsibility of such a role, at which Sun Huairen is very vexed. Sometimes, that father and son duo even run into each other in the Hall of Brimming Spring, which then gets spread around as a laughingstock.”
Li Qingcheng smiled softly. “Interesting.”
Fang Qingyu: “Should we start from him?”
But Li Qingcheng responded, “No rush. You two go tell them to ask more about and verify the truth of this news. After this, the most important thing is to figure out the relationship between the Sun family, the governor, and the provincial officer. I still need to think through the plan in more detail. No matter what, we must make sure that Sun Yan doesn’t find out; I don’t want to act carelessly and startle our enemy. This news must be leaked out only at the last step.”
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.