"In the seventeenth year of the Tongli era, on the fifth day of the second month, the entirety of the Western Plains surrendered."
Editor(s): jelly, opal
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“Beloved minister Xu,” Li Xiao said darkly.
Xu Lingyun immediately closed the book and lifted his head, smiling. His eyes lit up.
Li Xiao was wearing a guard’s uniform that had been washed so many times the hems were going white. He stood outside the palace gates, wordlessly meeting Xu Lingyun’s gaze. A moment later, both of them began to chuckle simultaneously.
The members of the falcon squad all came over and knelt before him on one knee. Li Xiao said, “At ease. All of you, rise.”
Xu Lingyun continued, “Men, mount your horses.”
When the bodyguards of the Falcon Squad saw Li Xiao, they stared at him for some time, taken aback; only afterwards did they know that there was a secret mission to carry out. In the ten years since the emperor had ascended the throne, he had only dispatched the Falcon Squad bodyguards for a few matters, so this was indeed a great honor. Immediately, they each pinched their fingers and whistled for their falcons, climbing onto their horses and following behind Xu Lingyun and Li Xiao as they chirruped their horses into a lightning fast gallop through the main street.
The sky to the east was fish-belly white as Xu Lingyun led his troops to the Nanhua Gates of the capital. At this time, the gates were not yet open.
Xu Lingyun raised his voice. “Open the city gates, His Majesty has decreed that the Yingnu are to head out of the city to carry out business.”
The guards at the Nanhua Gates replied, “What business! Lord Xu, please show your imperial edict!”
Xu Lingyun replied, “I only have a verbal command, no imperial edict! How is this lord addressed?”
The guard did not respond to his question, instead replying, “Without an imperial edict, you cannot exit these gates. Lord Xu, please wait here. This officer will go henceforth to send someone into the palace for proof.”
“How dare you!” Xu Lingyun let out an explosive roar! Everyone in earshot trembled.
“His Majesty has secretly ordered me to leave the capital and carry out my mission. What is this lord’s name? Did Minister Lin of Internal Affairs send you, or are you a subordinate of General Tang?! Unless, no one told you last night that today, the Falcon Squad was leaving the city?” Xu Lingyun said coldly. “Who exactly are you? I remember that three years ago, there was no character like yours in the capital’s riders on the autumn hunt.
“Since you are not afraid of word spreading and rousing the full force of His Majesty’s anger, then let the consequences of your own actions today fall on your shoulders,” Xu Lingyun continued icily. “I will send the arctic gyr back right now with the news.”
Saying this, he twitched his right shoulder, and the arctic gyr spread its wings and flew into the sky. The guard fell silent for a moment, before turning to issue an order to someone. With that, the guards rushed hurriedly down the watchtowers, opening a side gate which would allow a single person to leave at a time.
Xu Lingyun didn’t say another word, instead leading his troops out of the city. The guards however, stood to one side, doing a headcount. Five, ten… fifteen… Suddenly, they found one tall individual who did not belong to the Falcon Squad.
Li Xiao’s black bodyguard robe was a far cry from the brilliance of the Falcon Squad’s, as he was wearing an old martial robe. Though the cut was the same, he stuck out like a sore thumb from the rest of the group.
“Doesn’t the Falcon Squad only have twenty one members?” the guard asked. “Lord Xu, please step…”
Xu Lingyun blew the eagle whistle, and the arctic gyr pounced viciously. The guard fled, his tail between his legs, and Xu Lingyun turned his horse’s head, saying coldly, “What?”
The guard didn’t dare to speak further. Instead, he glanced away hastily, only to squarely meet Li Xiao’s gaze. He was shocked internally by it, and he said, “Lord Xu, please do as you wish.”
Xu Lingyun led his squad out of the Nanhua gates, coming to the outer section of the capital. That was Tang Si’s territory, and the three thousand Yulin troops were already waiting there. Tang Si gripped the Fanhai Halberd, waiting anxiously. When he saw Xu Lingyun come, he looked over the members of the squad and recognized Li Xiao’s build. Only then did he breathe a sigh of relief.
“Who assigned the guards for the Nanhua Gates?” Li Xiao asked first.
Tang Si replied, “Your Majesty, please change into something else first… after exiting the city, this one will fill Your Majesty in on the details.”
Li Xiao replied, “Let it be, let’s go first.”
Tang Si called loudly, “Form ranks --”
The Yulin troops scattered all around immediately formed tidy ranks, protecting the Falcon Squad and Li Xiao in the center. Tang Si reached his arm back and stowed the halberd away against his back, calling, “Move out!”
The three thousand Yulin cavalry moved out in an orderly fashion, and the first row of riders led the way as the entire army majestically departed the main gates of the capital city, heading towards the southern road with the fiery circle of the rising sun above them.
“Lord -- Tang --”
“The empress has issued an edict --”
“Lord Xu, Lord Tang, please wait!”
Ting Haisheng raised the jade pendant up high, leading a thousand riders of the capital cavalry racing towards them. Xu Lingyun and Tang Si both felt their hearts skip a beat.
“The safety of Your Majesty’s body signifies the safety of all the citizens in Yu Country, so Your Majesty must not leave the capital without explicit permission,” Ting Haisheng announced in a clear voice. “The Six Ministers and the Ministers of Internal Affairs are all on the way here. For this subject’s trespass, I am willing to bear even the punishment of death…”
The Yulin Army did not know that Li Xiao was within their ranks. They only believed that this was some secret army, and when Ting Haisheng’s shout revealed the truth, the crowd immediately grew agitated, afraid for themselves first and foremost.
Tang Si and Li Xiao exchanged glances.
Li Xiao had never expected that the news would have traveled faster than even his own horse. When the city guard at the Nanhua Gates had seen Li Xiao, he had probably gone forth to report.
Li Xiao responded, “Oh well, I’ve troubled these two beloved ministers.”
Tang Si’s expression fell, but Xu Lingyun turned his head and gave him a glance. He commented mildly, “The Yulin Army is under the control of the imperial court, but the Yingnu has always only obeyed Your Majesty’s wishes. Your Majesty, please give the order.”
Li Xiao stilled for a moment, before he immediately grasped this chance and shouted, “Xu Lingyun! This king commands that you act accordingly to the situation at hand!”
As soon as that verbal order was given, Ting Haisheng immediately froze, and he reined his horse to a halt.
Xu Lingyun said, “You go first! Falcon Squad, hear my orders! Left and right flanks, form up!”
Tang Si immediately issued an order as well, and the Yulin troops protected Li Xiao as they retreated towards the southern gates.
Ting Haisheng was at a loss for what to do, and he cried out without thinking, “Lord Xu, what are you doing! Are you trying to disobey an edict?”
Xu Lingyun smiled. “The Yingnu has only ever had His Majesty as their lord, and they do not acknowledge anyone else. Sorry for the offense, Lord Ting!”
At this time, the brilliant sun shed its rays over the world, and a river of gold coated the Street of Heaven. A whistle pierced the heavens, and the Falcon Squad let out loud shouts at the same time as Xu Lingyun, a lone rider in front, vigorously shook the reins, suddenly rushing towards the riders of the capital!
“Men --!” Xu Lingyun, at the head of the squad, called.
“We are willing to accompany our emperor as his left and right hands!” the members of the Falcon Squad roared in response.
The arctic gyr let out a long cry, before leading twenty black falcons in spreading their wings and rushing down. Ting Haisheng was immediately frightened into running with his tail between his legs as he frantically whipped his reins, turning to flee. The horse was so startled that its knees went weak, and though the riders of the capital rushed forth, Xu Lingyun turned his horse sideways and rammed into them. Though there were only some twenty people charging, that formation was as powerful as if it was composed of an army of some thousand strong. With a boom, they sent the capital riders, which were outfitted like metal pails, collapsing in on their own ranks!
The flock of falcons swooped down towards the riders, and the horses immediately let out long neighs, so frightened that they ran amok, colliding with each other. Both the front and the rear ends of the formation immediately fell into havoc, as Xu Lingyun, his horse galloping away in the front, suddenly reared and shouted, “Retreat!”
The twenty men whistled in unison, and the black falcons neatly circled around and returned to the ranks. Their movements were all in unison, and Xu Lingyun squeezed his knees around his horse’s flanks, let out a loud laugh, and with Ting Haisheng in hand, swaggered away in pursuit of the Yulin Army.
Rumor had it that after Li Xiao left the city, after waiting for a while, Xu Lingyun finally led his men in pursuit. Not a single one of the twenty members of the Falcon Squad had fallen behind. The guards all set their military falcons free, and under the lead of the arctic gyr, they soared into the sky, a scene of unspeakable joy.
Tang Si had long since prepared a carriage outside the city. The Tang family had been a military family for many generations, and though they were not as wealthy as a distinguished family from a region, they were very well-off, and long before, when Xu Lingyun had come to inform them of the plan, had prepared a spacious carriage. In the carriage was one table and two seats, which had all been prepared beforehand for Li Xiao’s use.
Li Xiao had not galloped on a horse at full speed for a long time, and at this moment, it was as if he was a runaway horse as the urge overcame him. He raced recklessly along the main road, and when Xu Lingyun, still dangling Ting Haisheng, came forth, three black lines hung from Tang Si’s temple.
Xu Lingyun smiled. “Where is His Majesty?”
Tang Si replied, “In front, there’s men following him. How come you brought this fellow along as well?”
Xu Lingyun instructed, “Lock him in the carriage. I’ll have some things to tempt him with later. It's possible this fellow knows some major secret of the imperial court.”
Tang Si furrowed his brow, meeting Xu Lingyun’s gaze for a moment. Xu Lingyun licked his lips and put on an expression of tacit understanding. Tang Si also warily felt a little uneasy, and he commanded his men to put Ting Haisheng in the carriage.
A moment later, the morning sun slowly rose. Li Xiao’s high spirits returned, and he ducked into the carriage, coming face to face with Ting Haisheng.
Ting Haisheng refused to speak, while Li Xiao was stunned. “Who brought him?”
Ting Haisheng immediately hurried to kneel, and he kowtowed. “This subject deserves death, this subject deserves death…”
Li Xiao put one booted foot up on the table as he smiled. “Oh well, since you have come, then relax. Come with this king to go hunting ba. Your clan’s always taken up civil roles, so I imagine you are not used to riding a horse. Stay in the carriage.”
The Yulin Army changed their riding formation, and Ting Haisheng, still shaky, managed to take a seat on the side chair. The carriage moved forward very smoothly, and the curtains on both sides were drawn up, revealing an endless golden ocean that stretched as far as the eye could see. The fields were filled with tenant farmers bending over, working hard as they harvested the rice in the paddy fields before winter came.
Li Xiao watched this scene, his heart soaring with joy. The autumn wind gusted through the carriage, and its dry, refreshing scent gave him a sense of indescribable relaxation.
A moment later, there was a gugu sound, and the arctic gyr landed on the window of the carriage, holding a stalk of rice in its beak. Li Xiao took the stalk that the arctic gyr was handing him, and he shook a few grains out, putting them into his mouth to chew on.
“Can you taste the flavor of the rice? Beloved Minister Ting.” Li Xiao asked mildly, after glancing to the side, only to see Ting Haisheng watching him. He pinched his fingers and gave him a little bit.
Ting Haisheng copied Li Xiao’s chewing movements, but he couldn’t taste anything special.
Xu Lingyun, riding his horse, caught up to the emperor’s carriage, and from the outside, he chuckled and remarked, “The taste of the grains are bitter and powerful, and the rice grain itself fills the shell well. This year’s sunlight was plentiful, and it will be a year of good harvests; the opposite is when there is too much rain, and the plants don’t get enough sun. This year was a sunny, abundant year, and the third such year of that, so preparations should be made for a drought in the future in the regions around the capital.”
Li Xiao nodded. “Have you understood and learned?”
Ting Haisheng’s eyes still held a little bit of doubt, but he hurried to bow and thank Xu Lingyun for his teachings.
Li Xiao asked, “This was also what Teacher Fufeng taught you?”
Xu Lingyun en-ed from the outside. Li Xiao continued, “Every three or four years, Yu Country will go through a flood and a drought; there is no such thing as perfect weather every year. Preparations will also have to be made for the coming year. Yingnu, come into the carriage to speak.”
Xu Lingyun responded in the affirmative and got on, taking the tea that Ting Haisheng handed to him. The moment that their eyes met, Ting Haisheng’s eyes dodged away, as if he felt unspeakably guilty.
Li Xiao said, “Since there is nothing to do, did you bring the book?”
Xu Lingyun took a sip of tea, smiled, and pulled out The Historical Records of Yu from his robes. He flipped to the page that he had folded before, and he easily continued, “Legend has it that that day, Chengzu and the Yingnu had nothing to do, so they stayed within the city for an entire day…”
Li Xiao leaned back in his seat, hooking one foot on the windowsill as he drawled, “What there was to play around with in the Western Plains, you haven’t even mentioned.”
Xu Lingyun smiled gently. “This subject also does not know how those two played around that day, so this part will have to be skipped over…”
Li Xiao said unhappily, “How come it’s been skipped over so hastily?”
Xu Lingyun was torn between laughter and tears. “This subject was not there in person, was this subject supposed to make up a story and lie to Your Majesty? Since ancient times, Ting City of the Western Plains has been a prosperous land, and after Your Majesty arrives, Your Majesty can personally go and have a good time. When the time comes, Your Majesty will know, so there is no need to mention any more. Legend has it that the next day, when Chengzu rose, he felt that his waist and back were very sore, and he was in great discomfort…”
Li Xiao interrupted. “Hold on, what exactly happened that day for him to feel discomfort even the next day?”
“Your Majesty!” Xu Lingyun slapped the book down.
Li Xiao could only placate him. “Alright, alright, continue on as you were.” Li Xiao’s mood was very good, and he didn’t feel like making a fuss with this slippery fellow.
With that, Xu Lingyun flipped open the book and took a look, continuing on, “Legend has it…”
Legend has it that after that night, when Li Qingcheng woke, it was already noon of the next day. When he thought of what had transpired the night before, he couldn’t help the rapid beating of his heart, nor did he know how to deal with Zhang Mu when he saw him today.
Li Qingcheng, his head heavy and steps light, clambered off the bed, only to see an inner robe washed to the clean white of snow placed by the bedside. Underneath that was a simple but elegant brocade robe, folded neatly. When he shook it out, he saw that the robe was completely new, and the material was luxurious. He didn’t know when that had been obtained, but he imagined it was probably a tailored garment that Zhang Mu had bought when he went out in the morning.
When he put it on, it fit him well; the robes had been tailored to fit him perfectly. The brocade robe used grey threads for embroidery, which traced out a barely visible dragon. When it was not under the light, only a faint cloud pattern could be seen, and only when he stood under the light could someone recognize the embroidery on it. After Li Qingcheng put it on, he straightened up in front of the mirror and tried out a smile. In that instant, it became even more apparent that his face was like a fine piece of jade, of graceful bearing, handsome beyond comparison.
When Li Qingcheng stepped out into the corridor, the estate was empty. When he walked out, there was no one in the hall, and only Tang Hong’s slave girl was there to wait on him.
“Where are the rest of them?” Li Qingcheng asked, confused.
Yan Hong replied, “In the morning, General Tang received a missive from a courier, and together with General Zhang and General Fang, he headed to the city gates.”
Li Qingcheng asked, “Why did they not call me?”
Yan Hong bowed. “General Zhang said that Your Highness slept late last night, and after Hong-ge… General Tang discussed some matters with the two lords, the three of them left separately. General Zhang even specially ordered not to wake Your Highness with the commotion, and he asked that after Your Highness ate breakfast, if Your Highness was bored, to then take a stroll outside.”
Li Qingcheng thought that since the tasks that he had given to them had already been handed over, Tang Hong could take care of wrapping up the battle on his own. Upon seeing that Yan Hong was bringing over a wooden tray with breakfast, he realized that for many days now, they had yet to bring in servants for the estate, so this family of men was being looked after by this single woman. He said, with a placating tone, “It’s been hard on you, because there have been many small tasks in recent days. After the situation in Ting City is stable, it will be time for others to wait on you. Compared to when you lived at the Sun estate, is this still acceptable?”
Yan Hong smiled delicately. “The difference is like heaven and earth.”
Li Qingcheng’s eyebrows twitched a little; he was still reasonably satisfied with such a response. Yan Hong continued, “To be able to serve Your Highness is because of all the merits this humble maid’s ancestors accumulated.”
Li Qingcheng smiled slightly, lifting the lid off the bowl that Yan Hong brought over. “The Sun family sent this?” he asked.
A porridge of yams stewed with rice rested on the tray, along with a bowl of fried river prawns, fermented beancurd, and two small plates of preserved melons, accompanied by a cup of tea.
Yan Hong smiled. “The Feng River has thawed, autumn has passed and spring has come. It was General Zhang who went in person to the riverbanks to buy them. The first catch of river prawns after the ice thaws is very tender. The porridge was also made first in a branch of Qihuang Hall in the city before it was sent over, because Young Master needs more nourishment.” And saying this, she moved the tray away and took her leave.
Li Qingcheng couldn’t help the swift movements of his index finger as he cleaned off the entire table’s worth of dishes. Just as he was chewing with great relish, a soldier arrived outside the estate.
“Reporting in --” the guard called, kneeling outside the hall. “Great news, Your Highness!”
“What?” Li Qingcheng hadn’t had enough yet, and he was still carefully disassembling a shrimp head. “Speak.”
“Two thousand riders of the imperial court have forded the Feng River and come west. Under the shadow of Mt. Wenzhong, they fell prey to General Tang Hong’s ambush, and they changed routes to retreat back into Jia City!”
Li Qingcheng: “Very good, immediately send out all of the troops in the city to block their path!”
The soldier went back to pass on the message. A moment later, another messenger rushed in.
“Reporting in --”
“A report for Your Highness! General Zhang Mu has launched a surprise attack from the eastern end of the Feng River! The four thousand men of my troop advanced at the same time, and they have captured all of the capital’s cavalry!”
Li Qingcheng: “What a beautiful move!”
The soldier: “General Fang is currently escorting the prisoners of war back into the city. Whether they should be held inside or outside the city, if Your Highness could please give the order!”
Li Qingcheng abandoned his chopsticks and said, “Prepare a carriage to the city gates.”
The flowers were blooming in the warm spring air, and the entirety of Ting City was filled with life. The last battle had actually quietly ended as Li Qingcheng was still sound asleep.
When Zhang Mu received the news, his first action was to send out the arctic gyr, which soared above the city, scouting out the troops. He, Fang Qingyu, and Tang Hong spread out a map in the hall, discussing tactics.
At this moment, Li Qingcheng was still in the land of dreams, and Tang Hong made slight adjustments to Li Qingcheng’s overall strategy, until the arctic gyr returned, confirming that there were no enemy troops hidden on the other three sides of the city, and that they wouldn’t fall prey to drawing the tiger out of his mountain.
With that, Tang Hong came up with an extremely daring plan. He borrowed the eight thousand riders under Zhang Yan’s command and handed them over to Li Qingcheng’s personal bodyguards, who became their squad leaders. One hundred men was counted as one unit, and one person would be assigned as the group leader. He then split these eighty groups into three divisions. Tang Hong led two thousand, Fang Qingyu led another two thousand, while Zhang Mu led the last four thousand to hide themselves along the southern bank of the Feng River.
When the riders met the ambush on Mt. Wenzhong, they were caught off guard, and they hastily tried to retreat their entire force towards Jia City. Outside Jia City, they then fell prey to Fang Qingyu’s ambush, and with enemies on their flank and their back, they would retreat towards the Feng River.
With that, Zhang Mu’s entire army would charge out and slaughter en masse. The two thousand riders of the capital had already sustained over a thousand casualties from the previous battles, and only some three hundred were left. The remainder all fell into the net and were taken as prisoners of war.
The three of them had fought an extremely beautiful battle. When Li Qingcheng arrived at the city walls, Fang Qingyu and Tang Hong’s armies were returning to the city, and they handed the armies back to Zhang Yan for inspection.
“Where is Zhang Mucheng?” Li Qingcheng called, smiling. “You three bastards, you didn’t even wake me before you finished fighting. I wanted to go in person on a killing spree.”
Tang Hong chuckled. “That mute didn’t let me wake you, he said you were sleeping very soundly.”
Fang Qingyu replied, “I don’t want to get beat up anymore. In the future, go on a few less of these military expeditions with you as the head, and that’ll do.”
Li Qingcheng began to chuckle. Upon hearing that the riders of the capital had all fallen into the trap in the span of a short half a day, Sun Yan led quite a few of his own clan members over. The governor of the Ting Province brought even more of his own soldiers from his estate, and they climbed up onto the city walls to congratulate Li Qingcheng.
Li Qingcheng greeted them one by one, not forgetting a single name as it passed by his ear, as if he was meeting a king for a negotiation. When he called out the names of the officials again, he immediately left a deep impression on them.
Fang Qingyu and Tang Hong finished counting the troops, but they did not hand them over, nor did they remove their armor, instead bringing their horses to a stop in front of the city gates to await the arrival of the prisoners of war.
Sun Yan and Wang Zhi stood respectfully behind Li Qingcheng. As Li Qingcheng asked one sentence about some matter regarding the civilians of the Western Plains, Wang Zhi responded in turn, and every one of his answers was clear and reasonable.
Li Qingcheng nodded once, very slightly. “Very good. Minister Sun did not promote the wrong person.”
Wang Zhi smiled. “It is only expected that this one exerts all his efforts for Your Highness’s cause.”
Li Qingcheng was very pleased with this new governor. Sun Yan then asked, “How does Your Highness plan on dealing with these prisoners? Should they be imprisoned within the city, or outside?”
Li Qingcheng lifted his head to watch the four-thousand-strong army head north, a black mass traveling along the military road at the foot of Mt. Wenzhong. He replied, “What do you think?”
Sun Yan first thought deeply, before replying, “This subject believes that since this group of soldiers is very troublesome, and very difficult to deal with, the only option is to split them up and scatter them amongst the troops in charge of the city defenses.”
But Li Qingcheng replied, “Not a good solution. What if Empress Fang predicted that they would lose, and planted her own spies within the riders, what would you do then?”
Sun Yan was internally very shocked. He thought that Li Qingcheng was being too paranoid; according to the previous reports, the empress should still believe that the governor's report was true, and that the army was only awaiting the arrival of more troops to take command from them. How would she have planned for the defeat of her troops?
Li Qingcheng smiled slightly. “Though it is not very possible, making preparations for the worst is a good thing. Come with me to take a look down below.”
The smaller gate opened, and Li Qingcheng and Sun Yan rode out. However, the person who arrived outside the city gates was not Zhang Mu, but rather the leader of that group of personal bodyguards, Li Hu, who was clad in martial attire, his entire body bathed in blood.
“Reporting to Your Highness,” Li Hu shouted . “General Zhang Mu assigned me with the task of escorting the prisoners here! There are a total of eight hundred and seventeen men!”
Li Qingcheng asked, “Where is Zhang Mucheng?”
Li Hu replied, “During the fierce battle, the enemy general sent out a messenger who fled east, attempting to report about the battle situation in the Western Plains to the imperial court. When General Zhang was performing a head count, he discovered that there was one less person, and he left on his own, with his godly falcon, in pursuit. Before he left, he asked that Your Highness rest assured!”
Tang Hong said, shrugging, “Letting one run off isn’t a big deal.”
“This is also considered not a big deal? Your battle prowess is alright, but in everything else, you have a block of wood for a brain,” Li Qingcheng said, rising and kicking Tang Hong so that he went reeling. He commanded, “Fang Qingyu, bring them all into the eastern barracks in the city and put them under watch. Do not let a single one escape.”
Before Tang Hong could even make a sound, Li Qingcheng continued, “We must let the imperial court think that their entire army has perished before this troop can be of use to me. It’s alright now, all of you go back to rest ba.”
Li Qingcheng was still outside the walls, staring off into space, while some guards escorted the prisoners to the barracks and placed them under guard. The rest of them didn’t dare to take their leave, so they kept Li Qingcheng company under the shadows of the watchtowers.
The corners of Li Qingcheng’s mouth quirked up slightly as he watched the south. It wasn’t until the evening sun sank into the west, casting his shadow long over the desolate plain, that the arctic gyr let out a screech, flying towards him from over the unbroken line of green mountains. That sight seemed like something out of a painting.
At the end of the military path, Zhang Mu rode alone on his war horse, carrying his long saber on his back as he slowly returned to the city.
Looking down from the vantage point on the city watchtowers.
Zhang Mu discovered that Li Qingcheng was waiting for him in front of the city gates. At that, he subconsciously reined the horse under him to a stop, turning to leave.
“Stop right there!” Li Qingcheng said, torn between laughter and tears. “Where are you going?!”
Zhang Mu turned his horse’s head, shuffling slowly as he made a turn. He moved back and and forth along the military road, doing anything but drawing closer.
Li Qingcheng shouted from afar, “Where is the messenger that escaped?”
Zhang Mu replied, “I killed him.”
Li Qingcheng asked, “Then what are you doing? Still not coming back?”
Zhang Mu didn’t make a sound. Under the watchful gazes of everyone else, Li Qingcheng roared angrily, “Get over here!”
The men on the city walls burst out into raucous laughter, but Li Qingcheng said unhappily, “What are you laughing about? All of you, disperse.”
The guards rushed to go their separate ways, while Sun Yan shook his head, smiling slightly. He walked down the stairs, and the sun sank below the mountains. Li Qingcheng spurred his horse on, watching Zhang Mu out of the corner of his eye. His gaze swept from the bare arms that stuck out from under his shoulder pads to his waist. Zhang Mu’s set of armor looked very good, and his chest and arms were bare. There were only several pieces of armor protecting his chest, and strong muscles peeked out from the area around his waist.
Zhang Mu lowered his head and turned his face to the side to watch Li Qingcheng.
Li Qingcheng then looked down at the skirt of the armor that Zhang Mu was wearing with no good intentions in mind. He wondered if the lovers’ knot from the night before was still there, and he picked up Zhang Mu’s hand, tugging it towards him a little. Zhang Mu’s entire face turned bright red, but he was not willing to let go, and the two of them held hands, swinging their joined hands back and forth as they returned to the city.
Ten days later, the Qinwang’s edict was issued across the Western Plains, and the sixteen armies began to retreat towards the various provinces of the Central Plains from where they were stationed in Ting City. From Mengze in the south to Yubi Pass in the north, and from Feng Pass in the west to the various counties of Donghai in Qin Province to the east, all received a deceptively edict light in weight.
In the Qinwang’s edict, it detailed Empress Fang’s thirty-three offenses, including the murder of officials, cleansing the military counselors’ positions with blood, and ceding territory and committing treason, among many others. It explicitly stated that in the sixteenth year of the Tongli era, on the fifteenth day of the eight month, the Fang clan had launched their rebellion, and the previous emperor had perished, while the crown prince escaped the tragedy. Right now, in the name of Li Qingcheng, they were gathering troops for the Qinwang from the sixteen provinces of the Central Plains, and if there were any rebels who wanted to change sides, their past crimes would be pardoned. The various armies were to gather in the capital and serve under the crown prince to regain the territories of Great Yu, and they would be duly rewarded.
In the seventeenth year of the Tongli era, on the fifth day of the second month, the entirety of the Western Plains surrendered, slaughtering the envoys from the imperial court, and announced that they were at irreconcilable odds with the Fang family.
On the twelfth day of the third month, the ministers in the capital issued an imperial edict to gather the various lords in annihilating the rebels. At the same time, they hastily drafted up the coronation ceremony for Li Gong, where on the sixth day of the fifth month, they would head to Mt. Yuheng, outside Jiang Province and the imperial province, to pay their respects to the heavens and crown him as emperor.
On the sixth day of the fourth month, Li Qingcheng handed over the affairs of Ting Province to Sun Yan and Tang Hong, while he himself prepared to head to Jiang Province.
At this time, Sun Yan mobilized the power of his entire clan, and the silver flowed endlessly out of Ting Province. Large amounts of iron began to pour into the Western Plains, the Feng Mountains, Saiwai, and the surrounding regions, and the price of iron skyrocketed all across the land. Supply could not keep up with the demand, and Li Qingcheng began to take note of the trade routes that he had not noticed before, because they had been hidden away in the darkness. Every day, thousands of traveling caravans entered the city.
Merchants sought profits, and the Sun family’s actions could only mean one thing -- they were about to go to war. All of the commercial caravans around the Central Plains were bought out by the Sun family with gold in a direct manner, or, under the influence of more subtle currents, began to gather in the Ting and Jia cities in the Western Plains. For a time, silver flowed like water as the Sun family stockpiled almost two hundred thousand jin of pure iron.
At the same time, they had already recruited the first group of soldiers, which numbered almost four thousand. Tang Hong began to make preparations for battle, and as soon as everything stabilized, Li Qingcheng began preparations to head to Jiang Province.
There were members of his mother’s side of the family in Jiang Province, the aristocratic Han family. Back in the day, when the Taizu of Yu Country had taken that first step out to accomplish his great undertaking, it was the Han family that had spent great amounts of wealth to pave a way for Li Mou.
As long as Li Qingcheng gained the support of the Han family of Jiang Province, and troops were sent out from both sides, he was already halfway to claiming this realm as own. In the late spring, Empress Fang issued an imperial edict, calling upon the citizens of the realm to root out the false crown prince, Li Qingcheng. He could no longer wait; he had to set out now.
The capital’s cavalrymen had been shut outside of the city for almost a month. In the end, even though Li Qingcheng successfully persuaded them, Tang Hong was still suspicious, and finally, Zhang Yan handed Li Qingcheng two hundred more cavalry, which were added to the riders. Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu, as they always had, went with him.
Li Qingcheng, leading these five hundred people, bid farewell to Tang Hong on the southern bank of the Feng River.
Li Qingcheng said, “You go back ba, don’t go making any more trouble for me.”
Tang Hong’s words dried up once again, and in the end, he nodded his head solemnly.
In a rare show of emotion, Tang Hong’s eyes reddened. “Be careful this time.”
Li Qingcheng smiled as he patted his shoulder, ordering, “Men, head out, prepare to ford the river!”
The soldiers all filed onto the sampans, and the tens of sampans undocked.
Tang Hong intoned solemnly, “This subject ceremoniously sees Your Highness off. May Your Highness’s trip be quick and successful, and may Your Highness return swiftly!”
The almost thousand troops that had accompanied him to see them off all dropped to one knee, shouting loudly at the same time, “May Your Highness’s trip be quick and successful, and may Your Highness return swiftly!”
The ten li of cattails along the river drifted in the late spring breeze, and Li Qingcheng’s robes danced as well. He smiled and called, in a clear voice, “Tang Hong, you and I are both of the same background and the same kind of person. You are my shadow, and the fortune in your future will stretch long. Work hard, and this sovereign swears to all those gathered here that, as long as you do your best, these rich lands will be ruled equally by the both of us.”
His voice gradually quieted with the distance, with the surging current of the Feng River that traveled east, where it merged with the Han River. Tang Hong’s eyes were bright red, and filled with warm tears.
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