"On one side of his face was a dark red birthmark."
The winter snow froze over the rivers, and the road from Western Plains was long and distant. A lone steed galloped over the snow, and the thousands of mountains were as black as dai.
As they entered winter the blizzards were tardy in their arrival, but as soon as they came they brought with them thousands of li of ice that blanketed the earth and the sky. Along the way from Western Plains to Mt. Feng, there were only commoners bringing along their entire families and small groups of deserting troops who were escaping from the northern territories, and there were no refugees escaping to the north.
After Li Qingcheng had recovered it was already the twelfth month, and with a hundred liang of silver in his pocket and his mute guard at his side, he rode up, with the snow blowing in his face, to the north. At E’niang’s medicine hall in Western Plains he had already gotten the prescriptions, and as they traveled the six hundred li from Ting Province to Mt. Feng, he brought along four carts filled with a total of three thousand boxes of dog oil, hired a cart, and avoided the sentry posts along the roadside as they headed towards Mt. Feng.
The Xiaogu River was like a mass grave, and as the waters of the river flowed south, they passed through Mt. Feng on their way to the Western Plains Basin. As they went along the river, the two banks were blanketed by a heavy snow, and they moved and stopped; the battle had already been temporarily halted, and just north of them was the front lines.
Seventy li outside of Langhuan City, an important city of military affairs, there was a deathly silent city.
The walls of the city were pitch black, as they had already been almost fully burned down, and there was a military barracks outside it, where the Yu Country troops had initially stationed themselves when they first arrived.
Below them, the mountain was filled with flying smoke, and the snow lessened. Li Qingcheng stood at the exit to the military road and peered down. A city of such a size, was only left with the north wind whistling through. The snowflakes fluttered down. There was not a single human voice, as if it was not long ago that the entire city had been torched by the Xiongnu.
The military barracks had been left in tatters. He commanded, “Ying-ge, you stay here and watch the goods, I’ll go down and take a look.”
Li Qingcheng carefully went down, and Zhang Mu turned and slid down, kicking up a light dusting of snow, pressing against the hillside and sliding down as well.
Li Qingcheng didn’t rush him, but rather passed through the trail of blackened bodies into the barracks.
“They were ambushed.” Li Qingcheng bent over to inspect one of the corpses. “Was it the Xiongnu?”
Zhang Mu squatted down, and with a finger he pried aside a guard’s armor. His curved knife hacked open a slice on the armor, bringing with it the burnt, blackened remains of the wound and the intestines.
“It happened yesterday night,” Zhang Mu said without any change in expression.
A single flag bearing the “Fang” character had yet to fall, and it fluttered in the cold wind. Zhang Mu tilted his head up to look at that battle flag, and Li Qingcheng turned to search the troops’ armors, pulling out a few waist plaques and wrapping them up in a torn cloak.
“Ying-ge, pull up the flag, and we’ll take the goods up to Langhuan City,” Li Qingcheng said. “The time is just right.”
Zhang Mu said, “Wait.”
He bent over and pressed his ear against the ground only to hear the distant sound of chaotic hoofbeats, and his expression grew imposing. Li Qingcheng felt this had come out of nowhere, so he also got down, face-to-face with Zhang Mu.
Zhang Mu’s face grew faintly red, and Li Qingcheng immediately got up. “There are still people fighting over there?”
The two of them got onto their horses, galloping across the icy surface of the Xiaogu River, heading towards the other end of the hills.
On the flat plains, an intense, chaotic battle was developing; the Xiongnu cavalry broke through in small groups, smashing the Yu Country troops into a bunch of loose sand, and the small black dots at the foot of the mountain began to escape in all directions.
Li Qingcheng managed to catch the last bit of the end of the fierce battle. The Xiongnu people had managed to achieve a total victory, and all of the squads that had split off to break through the line gathered up again as they began to sweep across the land, slaughtering as they went.
Countless times they rushed back and forth to kill, and their displayed power was earth-shaking. Li Qingcheng knew in his heart that they, the master and servant, with the power of their two people, had absolutely no way to change the tide of the battle with these thousand-man strong troops, so they could only watch closely for any changes.
“Look over there, Ying-ge.” Li Qingcheng made a slight gesture.
That last squad was composed of almost a hundred people, and the general had long since escaped with his tail between his legs, leaving behind a few soldiers to bitterly bring up the rear.
“Those who try to stop me will die --!” An explosive roar came from the mouth of a distant soldier who carried a long spear in each hand. When he waved them about it was as if a rainbow spanned the sky, sending the Xiongnu cavalry, humans and horses both flying out of their battle formation.
Li Qingcheng couldn’t help the shock he felt in his heart; this person had been bestowed with extremely powerful physical strength, so how was he only an ordinary soldier?
Zhang Mu seemed to be a little moved, but just then the Xiongnu people had begun to clean up after the battle, and that soldier was just unlucky. Li Qingcheng said, “Can he be saved?”
Zhang Mu said brusquely, “He can be.”
Li Qingcheng answered, “This kind of hero, if he were to die surrounded by Xiongnu people…”
Zhang Mu reached over and pulled out the broadsword strapped to his back, and he let out a long roar.
Without needing Li Qingcheng to expound on the principles of doing good for the country, Zhang Mu already leapt out down the mountain, like a grey owl hunting in the snow!
That series of events was far too shocking, and Li Qingcheng would never be able to forget Zhang Mu’s martial prowess for the rest of his life.
Whether it was many years later when Tang Hong, one lone man, guarded the pass so that thousands could not pass, wielding his Sea-Turning Halberd in front of the Spring of Weeping Blood, one steed blocking the path of a hundred thousand Xiongnu armored cavalry; or if it was Fang Qingyu drawing his Moon-Breaking Godly Bow, and with a single arrow successfully slaughtered the Emperor who stood over a thousand steps away on the sacrificial altar; or if it was Zhang Mu, drawing his Moonlight Guiding Blade with a long roar as millions of powerful cavalry came charging towards Yubi Pass, and with one slice splitting the Xiongnu king into two, man and horse both… Nearly a hundred large battles, and thousands of small ones, but all of them paled in comparison with the sudden feeling that overcame him when he watched today’s battle, the intensity of those emotions.
The instant that Zhang Mu landed in the formation, Li Qingcheng felt that there was a swell of warm blood inside of him that began to burn. Zhang Mu’s bearing and heroic spirit was comparable to a martial god’s, and he would never lose; with him by his side, Li Qingcheng would also never be in any danger.
This idea, until Li Qingcheng’s death, never changed a single whit.
At that time he only saw a grey shadow streak swiftly by like a gust of wind. Zhang Mu shook out his longsword, and with a single wave of his blunt blade, the rider blocking the way was cut off his horse. Zhang Mu’s clothes fluttered as the arrows came down like rain, clearly not letting him take a single step forward.
Zhang Mu’s gaze was clear and limpid, but his gaze was unfocused, as if he wasn’t watching any single person, but was also seeing the entirety of this battle unfold before him. He passed through the thickly clustered arrow rain, and when he lifted his blade again not a single drop of blood from the horses or the riders had splattered on to him.
He cumbersomely cut down horses and riders to open up a bloody path, and the corpses of the riders had long since been left behind him. In that instant he slaughtered the Xiongnu troops until their formation collapsed. Horses fell, the flags were cut, and a singular indomitable banner was carried away by the fierce wind. The horses whinnied loudly, and the pained cries before death began to sound. One flag broke with energy to spare, and it actually stabbed through the chests of six of the Xiongnu soldiers blocking the way, skewering them together!
Zhang Mu stopped in his tracks and put his blade away.
The Xiongnu soldiers formed a wall of soldiers like a steel wall, but no one dared to go up front.
Zhang Mu had killed enough to grow excited, and his eyes were filled with heavy bloodlust; he still wanted to fight a fierce battle, so he took a step forward.
The Xiongnu riders’ formation was briefly thrown into chaos as they took a half step back.
Zhang Mu moved his hand back, sheathing the sword once more on his back, stopping in his massacre.
He lifted up that soldier, put him on the back of the horse, and with the reins in hand he turned to leave. Three thousand Xiongnu troops, and not one of them dared to block his way. Li Qingcheng was waiting on the slope of the mountain, and seeing that Zhang Mu was coming back, he hurried to flip up onto the horse, and they took the snow-filled remote road away.
When the Grand Secretariat spoke to this point, he came to a halt.
Li Xiao listened to this point, and he leaned up against the dragon chair, his long, slender fingers rubbing his temples, not saying a word. By his side, the eunuchs hurried to bring over a warm towel, applying it against the emperor’s hand and pressing gently.
“This person definitely has experienced a lot,” Li Xiao said suddenly.
The Grand Secretariat nodded, and said slowly, “Who does Your Majesty think he is?”
Li Xiao couldn’t guess, and he shook his head. “Keep speaking, today I won’t be reviewing the accounts books.”
The Grand Secretariat said in amusement, “Your Majesty, this is a long story.”
Li Xiao said, “What Teacher speaks of is…”
The Grand Secretariat, “The empress dowager requested that this old subject go see her…”
Li Xiao could only answer, “Then… until here for now.”
Two shichen had already passed, and the Grand Secretariat was already over seventy. Though his spirit was hale and hearty, he was still growing old, and he could not sit for long.
The Grand Secretariat got up to take his leave, and Li Xiao continued, “The empress dowager said it last night too, that if Teacher had some time, that he visit the Eastern Palace and accompany her in chatting for a while.”
The Grand Secretariat stroked his beard and said, “These old bones actually do have something to discuss with the empress dowager. Was that child from yesterday locked up?”
Li Xiao said, “When he was brought up, he was already unable to tell apart his surroundings, so this king had someone heal him first before sending him into a side yard. When he can open his mouth again, then his interrogation will resume.”
The Grand Secretariat then said, “This old subject has no sons in his family, and this bodyguard came to me as a young child. Later, when the military selection for the capital came around, this old subject let him come forth to be selected, and he was looked upon favorably…”
Li Xiao didn’t show any joy or anger. “Why didn’t you say so earlier? The bodyguard that Teacher recommended, this king naturally will watch out for.”
The Grand Secretariat smiled. “That young one usually refrains from any spoken criticism, but his personality is stubborn. If he doesn’t please Your Majesty, then have him be soundly beaten one round, and let this old subject take him home ba.”
Li Xiao waved his hand. “Never mind. Since Teacher has opened his mouth, this king will not press him further. As for the crime of discussing his king, it will be pardoned.”
The Grand Secretariat nodded slowly, and Li Xiao continued, “Find someone to bring him over?”
The Grand Secretariat hurried to say, “Your Majesty need not worry about this, if Your Majesty is willing, then allow this old subject to take a walk around the side courtyard, and that will be all.”
Li Xiao responded, “If it’s like that, then in just a while this king will send Teacher over to walk around.”
Li Xiao was just about to read a few more memorials to the throne, when the list about the wedding rituals sent by the Ministry of Rites for verification was brought to him. It was filled with fly-sized words crammed all together. Looking at it, his head spun, and an instant later he put down his pen and returned to his chambers.
To one side were people who came forward to serve him. Li Xiao changed his dragon robe, took the warm towel and wiped his face, and stared at his own reflection in the bronze mirror.
He was nine chi tall, and his eyes carried the sharpness of a twenty-something young person, but on one side of his face was a dark red birthmark, like a disgraceful brand. It extended from the side of his ear all the way to the corner of his eye, a patch shaped like a butterfly.
Li Xiao stared at his own face in the mirror. He couldn’t be counted as stately or handsome, and compared to his several cousins, he could not be said to have been made of the same mold.
His skin had darkened to a bronze color, and his lips were thin and unfeeling, his nose was hooked slightly like a hawk’s beak, and though his features were proper, he was nowhere near being considered a handsome man. Even as a child he had loved to hunt and didn’t like to study, he liked to practice martial arts but didn’t like to sit still, and at best he had a little of the heroic spirit of a martial practitioner.
In his heart, Li Xiao understood clearly that no matter if it was appearance, background, or civil skills, he would not pass in court. He even didn’t look one whit like the previous emperor. The emperors of the Yu Country had always been handsome like a jade tree bending in the wind, with dark brows and large eyes, handsome beyond compare.
But though Li Xiao had a heroic aura about him, he was nowhere close to being “delicately handsome”. If he put on a bodyguard’s uniform and passed the military selection, there was still a good chance that he would be removed due to his bad appearance.
He sometimes even wondered if he was actually a blood-related descendant of the Yu Country emperors. In the years since he became king, the now empress dowager always listened to the going ons of the court behind a hanging curtain. In that time, there were many wild, foolish rumors about how the little crown prince was not actually born from the previous emperor, but was rather exchanged at birth by this concubine, and that the real emperor’s blood and bone had already been lost within the commoners, and it was unknown if he lived or died.
The rumors were passed along within the court. Because of them the empress dowager had a fit of temper and finally had all of the previous princes killed, sparing none of them.
Thankfully, eleven years ago the Crown Prince passed away, and the yellow robe fell upon him instead. If it were not the case, any member of the Li family was more handsome than him, and more scholarly, more to the court officials’ liking.
From his childhood onwards, there had never been anyone who made any advances towards him -- aside from that antagonistic bodyguard.
And now, he was about to be married, but what Lin Wan married was the dragon throne, not him.
Within Yangxin Hall, the Grand Secretariat and the empress dowager sat down and drank their tea. They were born in the same generation, and they had weathered several large waves.
In the hundred and some years after Chengzu’s demise, the eunuchs were in charge of the politics, and it was only under the Grand Secretariat’s power that he could persuade the military officials of the court. With the reason of changing the guard, a single sealed letter called back Great General Tang who had been stationed far away to guard the border, and in the depths of the night the palace was cleansed with blood.
The empress dowager faithfully took up the duty of being the master of the imperial harem, and she designed it so that the eunuchs would be gathered in one section, finally successfully catching them all in one net.
Of course, she had also washed away the young emperor of the time, lifting her own son up to the dragon throne instead. Outside there was the Grand Secretariat, and inside there was the empress dowager and her son, thus ensuring these ten years of peace for the country of Yu.
“After starting a family, the nature of every man who becomes a father is to grow warm and settle down, so the empress need not worry,” the Grand Secretariat said, slowly and logically.
The empress dowager said mildly, “How can I not worry? The emperor always acts as if he has not yet grown up. What is His Majesty up to?”
One old eunuch bowed and said, “Responding to the empress dowager’s inquiry, His Majesty went to the royal gardens and sent away the servants, and he has stood there alone for a shichen.”
The empress dowager shook her head, and the Grand Secretariat smiled softly. “Ever since he was young, His Majesty has been like that, not liking to talk, preferring to stand there slowly mulling over things. Naturally he will think things through.”
The empress dowager sighed again, and said, “The daughter of the Lin family, you’ve also seen.”
The Grand Secretariat nodded slightly, and didn’t pass any judgement. The empress dowager couldn’t help but say, “Fufeng, after Huang’er’s grand wedding, if you want to retire…”
The Grand Secretariat smiled. “Anyone who is to be married soon will always have some form of knot in his heart. He must learn to be a husband and a father, that is how it always is.”
And after finishing that sentence, the Grand Secretariat and an eunuch holding a book took their leave, passing through the Eastern Palace towards the side courtyard.
Li Xiao stood in the Royal Gardens for a shichen, and when he went back he fell ill.
The next day, the morning court was cancelled as the royal physician came to diagnose his patient, and his findings were thus: since His Majesty was originally a practitioner of martial arts, his body’s base was good, and he would be able to recover after resting quietly for a few days.
And after three more days, five more days until the wedding, the palace was bustling with preparations for the happy affair, but Li Xiao didn’t have even a whit of desire to start a family. After taking breakfast that morning, he felt everything was drab, so he asked for the Grand Secretariat to be brought into the imperial study so that he could listen to the story.
The Grand Secretariat didn’t come, but the one who came was someone else -- Xu Lingyun.
Xu Lingyun’s wounds were better, but he still bore a black eye that had yet to disappear, and the corners of his lips still had scabbed-over broken areas. He hugged a yellowing volume as he stood outside of the imperial study, waiting for him.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.