"Why have you followed me here again, where's E'niang?"
Editor(s): jelly, opal
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A line of people crossed the Han River, leaving the sampans behind for horses. It was late spring, and both banks of the river were enshrouded in a misty fog of rain, which enveloped the green mountains and blue water. The leaves of the parasol trees were a slick green, as if they had just been washed.
The arctic gyr flew into the grove, startling all the sparrows of the grove into flight.
Their journey this time required them to take the ancient road that passed through the Zhe and Mei Mountains. After passing Mount Mei and circling around the foot of the Yuheng Mountains, they would arrive in Jiang Province. Back then, when Zhang Mu had rescued Li Qingcheng on a single steed, he had passed through this winding mountain road to enter the plains.
The ancient path hugged the sky as it ran high up off the ground, and under their feet was the rushing water of the river. Li Qingcheng blew the falcon whistle, calling back the arctic gyr as he rolled up the curtain on the cart. He breathed in the humid air of the mountains as he reclined, lost in thought.
The caravan came to a halt at one side of the ancient path, and Zhang Mu dismounted to organize the troops. Li Qingcheng slumped on the windowsill, looking outside absently, and upon seeing Zhang Mu return from taking a headcount, Li Qingcheng’s gaze drifted subconsciously down to his crotch. Thinking about how under Zhang Mu’s armor was that manly rod tied with a lover’s knot, he couldn’t help how his throat felt parched and his mouth dry, and he licked his lips.
Zhang Mu walked over, his gaze meeting Li Qingcheng’s. At that, both of them felt an itch in their hearts, and Zhang Mu unconsciously dodged Li Qingcheng’s gaze, walking to one side to straighten the horse saddle.
Li Qingcheng began to chuckle, and he let the curtain down. The caravan started moving again.
He had five hundred soldiers under his command; three hundred were Yulin troops who had surrendered and were now under Zhang Mu, while two hundred were Western Plains troops, completely new, led by Fang Qingyu. What good would these few troops do?
Fang Qingyu wore a full set of armor, and he looked heroic and valiant, swaying cockily back and forth on his horse. “What is Your Highness thinking about?”
Li Qingcheng’s brows, which were faintly wrinkled, smoothed out. “I’m thinking about the fact that if we were to be ambushed, these few people wouldn’t be enough.”
From the other side of the carriage, Zhang Mu said, “With our son, there’s no need to be afraid of ambushes.”
Li Qingcheng made a faint en sound from his nose.
The troops entered the mountains, and the ancient towering trees and shade blocked the midday light. Their surroundings were completely silent, and Li QIngcheng grabbed a feather comb, carefully grooming the arctic gyr’s soft belly feathers.
“All of you, get in the carriage,” Li Qingcheng commanded, before releasing the arctic gyr and pulling down the curtains.
The interior of the carriage was cramped. Fang Qingyu and Zhang Mu each sat to one side, squeezed in to the point that their hands were pushed up against their knees, both of them immensely awkward.
Li Qingcheng: “We only have three hundred surrendered troops and two hundred new ones on our hands. When we get to Jiang Province, how we should carry things out still needs to be arranged in detail; we must not put all our stakes on Han Canghai…”
Fang Qingyu smiled gently. “Your Highness, Han Canghai is your uncle, you’ve forgotten all about the past.”
Li Qingcheng raised an eyebrow unhappily. “I know, what of it?”
Fang Qingyu: “This Han Canghai will never betray you. After Your Highness arrives in Jiang Province, you will only need to carry things out as you wish; there will be no more need to defend yourself at every turn.”
Li Qingcheng frowned doubtfully, but Zhang Mu spoke next.
This time, Zhang Mu actually, in a rare turn of events, had the same opinion as Fang Qingyu.
Zhang Mu: “Even if the world turns against you, Han Canghai will not.”
“Why?” Li Qingcheng asked doubtfully.
Zhang Mu replied solemnly, “General Han is the role model for all soldiers in this world.”
With that rare agreement, Fang Qingyu continued, “Your Highness need not worry, after we arrive in Jiang Province, you will understand as soon as you see him. The Han family is not like the Sun family, and as long as Your Highness arrives in person, this subject can promise that these large affairs will come to fruit.”
Li Qingcheng nodded, as if he had the same thought, and Fang Qingyu continued, explaining, “To tell the truth, the Han family also does not care about who sits on the dragon throne. In this, they are almost exactly the same as the Sun family. But, the Uncle of the State’s vision looks far into the future, and what his heart is concerned with is only how the inhabitants of this world are living. You are the legitimate descendant of the previous emperor, and you fended off the great Xiongnu army at Feng Pass. When the Uncle of the State saw you back in the day, he said, ‘Though Qingcheng is unruly and unable to sit still, he has a sense of magnanimity, and having him as the successor to the throne is the fortune of all of the citizens’. With this sentence here, I imagine that the Han family will definitely give their all to help you.”
Li Qingcheng said, “Since it’s like this, then there’s nothing more to worry about.”
Fang Qingyu smiled slightly and undid the sword from his belt, holding it in one hand. “When the Uncle of the State entered the capital and took up his position, he personally handed this sword to me.”
Li Qingcheng asked, surprised, “He was the one who gave you the Yunshu Sword?”
Fang Qingyu nodded and smiled. “When Han Canghai was seventeen, he went out, armed with a sword, and fought his way through the twelve provinces of the south without a single loss. He took up the title of my Great Yu’s number one swordsman, and after losing at the peak of Mt. Mei to Zhang Xin, awoke to a great truth, and gave up using a sword, turning instead to the staff. He returned to his clan, and no longer paid heed to any matters of the martial world.
“When Taizu raised his army, Han Canghai put the power of his entire clan behind him to help, crushing every province in the south, only because he believed that the previous emperor was a person who empathized and was compassionate to the myriad living beings and the citizens of the land. The Han family responded to the Taizu with fifty thousand troops, but when they returned to Jiang Province, there were less than ten thousand left. After the Central Plains were calmed, he took off his armor and returned to the fields, turning over all of his military command to the provincial officer that the imperial court had sent. It wasn’t until three years later, when the previous emperor came in person to request, that Han Canghai once again left the mountain and took up the position of the governor of Jiang Province. In a short few years, the tax income from Jiang Province has leapt to the top of the ranks, and in Jiangnan alone, to have been a subject to this level, no one else can compare.”
Li Qingcheng let out a long breath, finally letting go of that burden.
Fang Qingyu put away his sword and left the carriage. Li Qingcheng said, “Zhang Mucheng, stay.”
The interior of the carriage was cramped. Zhang Mu was tall and his legs long, so he could only sit hunched over. Li Qingcheng slung one foot on Zhang Mu’s knee, asking, “My uncle gifted Fang Qingyu a sword, so what did he gift you?”
Zhang Mu: “He didn’t give me anything.”
Li Qingcheng smiled. “Come hug for a bit.”
When Zhang Mu rose, his head hit the ceiling of the carriage, and when he bent over, he hit the funny bones in his elbows. He slammed into things as he managed to adjust his position, embracing Li Qingcheng.
“How come my uncle was that biased?” Li Qingcheng licked at Zhang Mu’s ear and held it in his mouth, before he moved to kiss his lips.
“He said…” Zhang Mu explained, his ears burning hot. “ ‘Since I lost against your father, and thinking about how you carry the Wuming Sabre and have inherited your family’s martial arts, Canghai has nothing to give. I wish upon you, that even when you stand on the tip of success, that you can make good on your further achievements.”
Li Qingcheng listened, entranced, and he thought that Han Canghai’s words showed clearly the graceful demeanour of a gentleman.
After thinking about it for a bit, Li Qingcheng then slid his hand under the space of Zhang Mu’s armor, stroking his chest, rubbing and pinching as he did, moving downwards. Zhang Mu hurried to grab him, feeling awkward, but Li Qingcheng said, “Zhang Mucheng, don’t you miss me, is that thing still tied up, let me take a look…”
Zhang Mu: “I did miss… I did miss, no, Qingcheng, not right now.”
As soon as Li Qingcheng had spoken those words, the narrow, cramped confines of the horse carriage were filled with a gentle, seductive atmosphere. Li Qingcheng reached out a hand towards the space between Zhang Mu’s legs, undoing his belt. With this previous gentle torment, Zhang Mu had already grown so hard that he was erect, and Li Qingcheng tugged at the true love’s knot. Zhang Mu let out a low moan, clearly succumbing to pleasure.
“The curtain’s secured, come,” Li Qingcheng breathed, before undoing the true love’s knot and wrapping it around his wrist. Zhang Mu’s thing was already so hard that it was leaking.
Zhang Mu did his best to restrain his impatience, and his throat bobbed as he held Li Qingcheng. “I can’t… the road outside isn’t easy to travel, be obedient.”
“General Zhang!” someone shouted from outside. “Where’s General Zhang?”
Li Qingcheng’s interest waned, and he could only say, “You go ba.”
Zhang Mu kissed the corner of Li Qingcheng’s lips, smiling as he said, “Tonight.”
And saying this, he hastily retied his belt and left the carriage, leaving Li Qingcheng leaning on his own in that carriage, playing idly with that true love’s knot that he had just undid. The red string of the start of the knot was half-wet, yet the rope remained firm and springy, and it also bore an extremely faint scent of a man’s sweat, causing Li Qingcheng to be unable to resist the arousal that sprouted in him.
At night, the mountain peaks were a swathe of darkness. The guards had set up camp on some high ground within the valley of Mt. Mei, and the wolves howled from all around them. The arctic gyr stood proudly at the top of Li Qingcheng’s tent, its falcon eyes glinting with light.
“Zhang -- Mu -- cheng.” Li Qingcheng had finished his meal, and now he laid lazily in the tent, calling without even turning his head.
“Reporting back to Your Highness, General Zhang has gone to patrol the encampment,” a bodyguard replied from outside.
Li Qingcheng could only lie there in a daze. A moment later, a thunderbolt slashed across the sky, and the spring scene roared with thunder as raindrops began to patter down on the tent. Li Qingcheng blew the bamboo whistle, and the arctic gyr came flying into the tent.
In the distance came the sounds of the wolves howling in the mountains, and as he heard this, Li Qingcheng felt the hairs on his neck rise. He rose and sat upright, his legs criss-crossed, asking, “Has everything outside been taken care of?”
This time, it was Fang Qingyu who replied. “It’s all been taken care of. We cannot start fires on a rainy night, so we have to send more people out to keep watch.
Li Qingcheng lifted aside the tent flap and peeked out, only to see that his surroundings were all a murky black, and the grove no longer looked like how it had during the day.
The entirety of Mt. Mei looked like a monster with its maw gaping open, and glowing green dots were dispersed amongst the wilderness.
Zhang Mu returned to his tent, and the raindrops pattered down along his armor, onto the ground. He stood for a while, before saying, “Qingcheng, don’t go outside on this night.”
Saying this, he lit the lamp in the tent, before he turned and walked outside, shouting, “All of you light a lamp!”
The camp was completely encircled by the glowing green eyes of wolves, and when the arctic gyr let out a long cry, those wolves’ eyes backed up, while within the scattered tents of the soldiers, each one was lit up by the light of a lantern.
Zhang Mu readied his blade, sitting outside the tent on night watch, looking like an imposing statue in the dark.
“Zhang Mucheng,” Li Qingcheng said unhappily.
Zhang Mu: “You sleep.”
Li Qingcheng: “Are you cold?”
Zhang Mu: “No.”
Li Qingcheng teased, “On such a long night, for our beloved minister Zhang to sit alone, does your heart not feel empty?”
Zhang Mu replied earnestly, “I will not speak, but my heart is very happy.”
Li Qingcheng: “What are you so happy about.”
Zhang Mu stopped speaking again.
“Wood,” Li Qingcheng teased.
Zhang Mu’s face was tinged a slight red, and the arctic gyr hopped back and forth, taking advantage of the water flowing past the side of the tent to lower its head and take a drink.
“Son, don’t mind him.” Li QIngcheng grabbed the arctic gyr’s tail and picked it up, pulling the blankets over himself and falling asleep with his gyr in his arms.
The rain fell heavier and heavier, and the first rain of early summer kept going without end. The forked lightning mixing with the white blossoms of water filled the entire world.
A thunderbolt streaked past, turning dark night into bright day. Li Qingcheng, Zhang Mu, and Fang Qingyu narrowed their eyes at the same time, only to hear in the distance, through the sound of the rain, the cry of a wolf fighting for its life.
Right after came a heart-wrenching wail!
“Wu--” The wolf howls were faintly audible, and Li Qingcheng immediately turned over and rose, letting the arctic gyr fly. The scouting falcon braved the rain and shot out of the tent, sending out a shining arc of water in the rainy night as it flew into the forest.
The wolf pack roared with one voice, and the horses let out long whinnies of terror as they ran in all directions. In that instant, the entire camp was startled awake, and sank into a chaotic frenzy!
“What’s going on?!” Li Qingcheng called.
“Hold steady!” Fang Qingyu left the tent despite the rain. “What time is it? Where are the night patrols?”
Zhang Mu pulled out the long sabre on his back, standing guard in front of Li Qingcheng’s tent, roaring, “Don’t come out!” He then lifted his sabre and knocked aside the flying arrows.
With that, the entire camp also exploded with commotion. Li Qingcheng immediately sensed the danger in front of them - they had been ambushed!
The soldiers all around them that had just rushed out of their tents were pounced on by groups of wolves, and after a brief surge of chaos, they all managed to pick up their shields and spears, heading towards Li Qingcheng’s tent to regroup.
The first wave of wolves retreated temporarily. Another peal of thunder exploded above their heads, accompanied by the loud huahua of the heavy rain. The wolfpack in the camp turned and ran off.
Many of the soldiers had been scratched or bit by the wolves, and the camp was filled with pained shouts and the sounds of crying.
Fang Qingyu said, “You go give chase, I’ll stand guard here.”
“No.” Li Qingcheng walked out of the tent. “Both of you go give chase. Zhang Mu, head west and circle around the hills. Fang Qingyu, you go east.”
Li Qingcheng had already changed into his leather armor, holding his longsword in his hand, and now he stood in the rain, getting completely drenched.
“All of you, get up!” Li Qingcheng shouted. “Everyone who can move, get up!”
Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu each led a hundred men, pressing on in the face of the rain, sinking into the night.
Li Qingcheng said, “Raise your shields, and get into formation, bring the wounded troops into the tents!”
Li Qingcheng took headcount of the horses. Since they had been startled by the wolfpack earlier, there were only less than forty horses left. Li Qingcheng stood in the rain, holding a shield in one hand and his sword in the other, thinking deeply.
Which faction had sent the ambushers?
The matter of him leaving Ting Province was one that basically no one knew about, and the only people who knew about it were Tang Hong, Sun Yan, and a few others that he could number on his fingers. Along the way, Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu had also kept a close watch on their troops, and had also often strayed from the main roads to prevent news from spreading. The imperial court probably believed that he was still in Ting Province.
Before Li Qingcheng had set off for Jiang Province, he had sent someone ahead with a message, sealing it with his own private seal as he sent the news along to Han Canghai. That side had also responded with a missive, and according to the words of the ones surnamed Fang and Zhang, they shouldn’t have been sold out.
And if Han Canghai wanted to sell him out, wouldn’t tricking him into coming to Jiang Province, then making his move on his own territory, be more convenient?
Then, this person definitely did not dare to act on Han Canghai’s territory, nor did he dare to let the Jiang Province forces know.
They didn’t know how many assassins had been sent, and Li Qingcheng jolted, surprised. In the worst case, if every group was over a thousand people, then Fang Qingyu could be in danger.
“Your Highness!” a deputy general said. “Your Highness, please go into your tent to avoid the rain.”
Li Qingcheng came back to himself and replied, “No, I will fight by your side. How are the wounded? Are there any that are seriously injured?”
That deputy general said, “Seventy two brothers were killed by arrows, and thirty plus are lightly injured.”
Li Qingcheng sighed, before looking towards the camp in the distance, down the slope. Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu had brought the cavalry that had surrendered to them, leaving behind many of the new troops that Ting Province had drafted, and though these new troops had learned quite a bit about battlefield strategies, they had never had any practical experience facing down an enemy. Because they had been in a hurry and they hadn’t had enough time to prepare, many of them had died.
Li Qingcheng said, “Give the order, break camp and prepare to set out.”
“Your Highness!” the deputy general said. “Our injured brothers have not yet finished treating their wounds…”
“Go immediately!” Li Qingcheng roared.
The deputy general shivered, watching Li Qingcheng with horror. Li Qingcheng realized that he had been too fierce, and he pressed his hand down on that lieutenant’s shoulder pad, explaining patiently, “The enemy already knows that we’ve made camp here, and since their ambush failed, what will they do next?”
The lieutenant replied, “Is Your Highness… afraid that they’ll… come again in a bit?”
Li Qingcheng replied, exasperated, “They won’t come again. Because their ambush failed, we’ll definitely be on our guard, so until day breaks, we are safe.
“But because the opponent knows to ambush, you must ambush carefully, you understand?” Li Qingcheng continued earnestly. “Since they didn’t manage to kill us, they’ll definitely set down fresh troops for another ambush nearby. It could happen on the mountain path that we have to take tomorrow, or perhaps in some grove on the side of the road. More likely, they might throw down mud and rocks, and rolling logs from the summit, this kind of trap.”
The lieutenant seemed to understand somewhat, and Li Qingcheng pressed on. “So the sooner we move out, the less time they have to set up an ambush. Their ambush point will keep shifting backwards because they must keep finding new positions that are geographically beneficial to their ambush, and with that, we’ll gain time for a counterattack.”
The lieutenant understood, and Li Qingcheng added, “Go quickly! Have everyone break camp and move out. Leave the warhorses for the injured to ride, and have everyone else walk!”
At this time, the arctic gyr let out another long cry. Li Qingcheng lifted his head and blew the bamboo whistle three times in succession, but the arctic gyr cried again, loud and clear, evidently unwilling to return.
Lightning flashed overhead, lighting up Li Qingcheng’s entire body, sopping wet, with silver light. The arctic gyr seemed to be holding something in its beak, and it spread its wings, circling in the air, before it soared down towards Li Qingcheng.
“What’s this?” Li Qingcheng took the round sphere from the arctic gyr’s mouth, holding it up to the firelight to see. That sight temporarily stunned him.
The arctic gyr had brought back a human eyeball.
Li Qingcheng sucked in a deep breath. “You’ve done well, now go call Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu back.” And saying this, he turned and pulled out Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu’s outer robes.
The arctic gyr once again flew into the sky, and not long after, Fang Qingyu and Zhang Mu returned to the camp.
“Have you found them?”
Fang Qingyu shook his head. “No, we don’t even know how many men the opponent has.”
Zhang Mu replied, “You go inside and keep out of the rain. I’ll go search the forest again.”
Li Qingcheng replied, “No need, break camp now, everyone’s about to leave. We’ll find a place to rest come daybreak.”
Fang Qingyu and Zhang Mu searched their thoughts for a moment before they understood Li Qingcheng’s hidden meaning. Though setting off right now seemed hasty, it was safer than staying at this campsite, and it could be said that this was an action their enemies would not expect them to take.
At the fourth geng, the soldiers had buried their fellows that had lost their lives, and they broke camp. The injured rode the horses, while the rest set off on foot, only bringing with them simple rations as they headed up the road, towards the mountains.
The rain grew heavier and heavier, and everywhere in Mt. Mei was rivulets of water that gathered at the bottom of the valley, turning into a fast-moving torrent that brought with it dirt and rocks.
At daybreak, though the sky was still grey, it was already possible to make out the shapes of things around them. Li Qingcheng held a torch and studied the map for a while, before he picked a road, and a line of people left the main road, specially picking a remote mountain trail to travel.
They alternated between walking and stopping, and Zhang Mu said a few words by the arctic gyr’s ear, before letting it go. He turned his head up to observe, and the arctic gyr shot past the summit of Mt. Mei, made a loop, returned, and circled a few times.
“How is it?” Li Qingcheng asked. “Have we left them behind?”
Zhang Mu replied, “The enemy has two thousand men.”
Fang Qingyu and Li Qingcheng both stirred at that, as Zhang Mu continued, “They’re three li away from here, on the two sides of the steep slot canyon.”
Li Qingcheng rubbed his forehead, sinking into deep thought.
Fang Qingyu replied, “Let’s go around ba. We only have four hundred men left, and more than a hundred of those are inexperienced troops. We cannot use an egg to strike a rock.”
Li Qingcheng said, “Use me as bait to draw them out, then find an area of low ground, and we’ll counterattack there. I want to see who it is that is so well-informed.”
Zhang Mu’s expression instantly changed. “You must not be reckless!”
Li Qingcheng replied with a question. “The enemy is hidden, but I am exposed. If it turns out to be people that Jiang Province sent, should we keep heading forward to certain death?”
Li Qingcheng sat on a rock, thinking over various strategies, but he only felt that his mind was a muddled mess, and when he opened his mouth again, he let out a boiling hot breath. The rain came down in buckets, and there was no sign of it letting up, so he had been completely drenched from inside to out.
It was late spring, yet the mountain streams remained icily cold. Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu had zhenqi circulating in their bodies all this time, so naturally they were not afraid of this little bit of cold, but Li Qingcheng was a little unable to hold out any longer.
He had directed the troops through the night, while being drenched by the rain and buffeted by the winds, and now, his face was already bright red, and the skin over his entire body, under his leather armor, was boiling hot. His thoughts were a half-beat too slow, and finally he said, “Oh well, let’s circle around first and then come up with a plan.”
Li Qingcheng tried to rise several times, but he felt that his head was heavy and his feet light, and he had no way to take a step. Fang Qingyu finally sensed that something was wrong, and his voice trembled as he asked, “Qingcheng?”
Li Qingcheng looked as if he was about to rise, before he plummeted head-first to the ground, falling into the mud. Beside his ear, the last thing he could remember was Zhang Mu’s anxious voice.
Zhang Mu carried Li Qingcheng on his back, while Fang Qingyu gathered up the remnants of their troops, circling around to the east. Li Qingcheng had begun to run a high fever, and he murmured nonsensical phrases. Sometimes it was “Mu-ge”, and other times it was “Qing-ge”, completely muddled and unintelligible.
Zhang Mu remained silent for the entire journey, and at the end, the sky was growing dark when Fang Qingyu found a secluded hill. The entire army once again took a rest, organizing their wounded, preparing to set off again the next day.
The next day, at the darkest time before dawn, when Li Qingcheng woke again, firelight lit up his delicate features.
Li Qingcheng let out a groan. He was lying in a mountain cave, a blanket laid out under him, his mouth filled with the bitter taste of herbal medicine.
Zhang Mu: “If you felt cold, why didn’t you say so?”
Li Qingcheng narrowed his eyes slightly, his eyebrows wrinkling in doubt.
Zhang Mu held Li Qingcheng’s hand, gently rubbing it. Pure, dense zhenqi was pouring into the hegu point of his hand, the flesh between his finger and thumb, passing through the yangming channel, through the tanzhong point, into his sea of qi. Li Qingcheng’s consciousness grew a little more aware, and the first thing he said after he woke was,
"The rain's stopped?"
Zhang Mu replied, "It's a little lighter, are you still feeling uncomfortable?"
Li Qingcheng shook his head, managing to sit up. "Why have you followed me here again, where's E'niang?"
Zhang Mu froze.
Li Qingcheng let out a long breath. "Is the horse still here? This is nothing, go, let's set out."
Zhang Mu's voice trembled. "Where to?"
Li Qingcheng's eyes were filled with incomprehension as he watched Zhang Mu, replying, "Beiliang, to find my fourth uncle."
moon: and according to el, that’s the end of yingnu, enjoy
extra 1 chapter 39 next time~
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.