“It was the winter of that year when Chengzu crossed the river to go north, entering Langhuan City."
Li Xiao: “Take him away and lingchi him.”
The leaves of the book in Xu Lingyun’s hand scattered all over the floor. The guards immediately came over to escort him away.
“Your Majesty!” Xu Lingyun called.
Li Xiao raised an eyebrow.
“Since Your Majesty is adamant on killing this subject, why did Your Majesty delay this subject’s death sentence three days earlier?” Xu Lingyun asked in a quiet voice, his tone neither humble nor arrogant.
Li Xiao turned a page in the accounts book, and he said mildly, “This king felt like it.”
Xu Lingyun lifted his head. “Teacher Fufeng handed the book to this subject, and commanded this subject to come read to Your Majesty.”
Li Xiao jeered. “What story can you tell?”
Xu Lingyun’s words were calm, and without even a shred of fear, he said, “Zhang Mu in the past was the Yingnu, this subject is also a Yingnu.”
Li Xiao did not say yes or no, and after a moment he said, “Speak ba.”
The guards released Xu Lingyun, only for him to stiffly kneel down, tugging at the wounds on his body. In several places, fresh blood seeped out, dyeing his collar and his belt, and after a long time he finally put the pages back in order, before then straightening into a proper kneeling position. He spread out a few leaves of the yellowing book, and quietly he said, “It was the winter of that year when Chengzu crossed the river to go north, entering Langhuan City…”
In Langhuan City, black ash flew through the air. The citizens on the side of the road all bore faces blackened by soot as they stood in front of their destroyed homes, watching the horse carts pass through.
Half a month earlier, the Xiongnu had ridden out to attack the city, and as a result the defenses had been increased now, but Li Qingcheng had his own methods of dealing with that problem. E’niang had obtained a document from the administrative assistant of Western Plains, and when he pulled it out, the city guards closely inspected the goods they were transporting before letting them into the city.
Civilians always looked like civilians, and in the entire group, only Zhang Mu looked like he could fight, which was not a fact that could be hidden. When the horse carts passed by, the city guards of Langhuan City pulled open the curtains of the cart, taking a look inside. In it were three people: a slim youth with an expression filled with relief, a skinny person that was probably a bodyguard.
And one more person wearing a soldier’s inner robes, wrapped in a carpet rug, his face covered with blood. It was unclear if he was dead or alive.
Li Qingcheng took the opportunity when they shook hands to stuff a broken piece of silver into the city guard’s hand, and he asked, “If this lord could give some advice, is there any place inside the city where we can stay?”
The city guard was only thirty, and he had a militaristic look about him. He didn’t accept Li Qingcheng’s bribe, instead lifting up his hand and placing the broken silver back in Li Qingcheng’s palm, saying earnestly, “This young master has come from thousands of miles away to bring us medicinal unguents, and this subordinate does not dare to accept this. If you follow the main road of the city, you can find the northern territories’ administrative assistant’s official residence.”
Li Qingcheng could only take back that broken silver, and he nodded and smiled. “Many thanks.”
The city guard held a long spear in his hand, and he clenched one fist and earnestly placed it on his chest, right below the shoulder.
The carts continued forward, and a gust of icy wind swept into the cart.
“Where is Fang Qingyu!”
The soldier that they had saved earlier jolted awake. He didn’t thank them for saving him, nor did he ask about the battle; rather, his impressive first sentence was to ask about Fang Qingyu.
Li Qingcheng’s gaze held some mirth in them. “He ran off. What is this brother’s honored surname?”
The soldier guardedly watched Li Qingcheng before glancing over at Zhang Mu. Lastly, he looked at his surroundings.
The snow and wind had already stopped.Li Qingcheng lifted the curtains of the horse carriage and peered outside, only to see that though this city’s walls were extremely durable, the inside was already filled with scenes of ruin. Almost half of the houses had been destroyed, and the ground was splattered with kerosene that mixed with the snow, turning it a dirty black.
The soldier said, “My surname… I’m called… Who are you people?”
“You were asked a question, now answer.” Zhang Mu coldly said those seven words, placing his longsword against that soldier’s neck.
Li Qingcheng impishly smiled. “If you don’t tell me, I won’t tell you.”
The horse cart stopped. Alarmed by this, the soldier asked, “Where is this?”
Zhang Mu shook out a furred cloak and gave it to Li Qingcheng to put on, before he climbed off to wait.
“Langhuan City. You’ve been in the army for this long, can’t you tell where this is?” Li Qingcheng said mildly. “The Northern Territories’ Administrative Assistant’s manor. Can you walk?”
The soldier stared blankly for a while. “I came from the capital and was on my way to Mt. Feng, without having drunk a single drop of water, when my brothers-in-arms were ambushed by the Xiongnu. I wanted to seek assistance from General Fang who was guarding Hejian City, but I heard that Hejian had already fallen, and it was unknown if General Fang Qingyu was dead or alive…”
Li Qingcheng interrupted. “That has nothing to do with me. I want to ask, who did you learn your martial skills from?”
The soldier sized Li Qingcheng up. Li Qingcheng said, “Come down, accompany me into the manor.”
Li Qingcheng went up ahead. A guard had long since gone in to report, and the northern territories’ administrative assistant had changed into an official uniform and came out to welcome the guests. Li Qingcheng didn’t say a word, instead handing over the document from Western Plains.
“Lord Administrative Assistant is surnamed Wang?” Li Qingcheng said.
The administrative assistant read over the letter, stroking his greying beard as he nodded his head. His eyes held a glimmer of tears. “It’s rare that this young master has such a kind heart to bring us precious medicinal supplies from thousands of li away.”
Li Qingcheng gently skimmed the top of his tea with the cup lid. Seeing that the inside was filled with a piecemeal amount of withered leaves, making this cup of tea basically a bowl of boiled water, he raised an eyebrow and said, “Ordinary men have not the ability, yet they still yearn to repay their country.”
The administrative assistant slammed the letter onto the table. “Good! How is this young master addressed?”
Li Qingcheng said, “To tell you the truth, this junior is surnamed Tang.”
Alerted by his tone, Administrative Assistant Wang sensed that something was not right. Li Qingcheng continued, “My father, Tang Ying, was originally an official at court, and this junior is named Tang Hong, the youngest of the Tang family. Three months earlier the ruler of the sky changed in the capital, my father was accused of treason by the traitors, and in an instant my Tang family was torn apart. My father and mother were locked away in prison, and my servants took me away that night to escape the capital…”
Administrative Assistant Wang sat there as if he had been struck by lightning, and for a long time he couldn’t speak.
Li Qingcheng’s eyes reddened. “I escaped to Western Plains, and I didn’t have a lot of money on me. Originally, I thought to go hide out in the woods and live out the rest of my life like that, but then I heard that the Xiongnu had invaded again and the borders were shifting about as if they were being blown about in the wind and rain. Previously, when my father was alive, he had been stationed in Mt. Feng and blocked the Xiongnu from invading, and this junior thought… the Xiongnu cannot conquer Mt. Feng again… so…”
This was originally one of the tactics that Li Qingcheng had in his hand. He had planned it out with E’niang before, and he had learned that the northern territories’ administrative assistant was surnamed Wang. He had guarded the border for forty years without returning to the capital, as the various forces of the court had squeezed him out of there. At seventeen, he joined the army, and clearly he was going to end his days in Mt. Feng as well.
When he was young, Administrative Assistant Wang had originally helped “his own father” lead his horse, and afterwards, when the Great General Tang Ying of Yu Country had returned to the capital to serve as the guard there, he rarely interacted with these outside generals. This person's bones were hard, and he held a good number of soldiers in his grasp to defend the northern territories, so he probably did not fear the court. It was because of this that Li Qingcheng decided to be truthful and lay his cards out on the table, in exchange for trust.
And as expected, this strategy worked beautifully.
Administrative Assistant Wang ignorantly nodded his head. “You’re already this big.”
In his heart, Li Qingcheng grew sad; his father dying and his family toppling were things he long since had an imprint of in his memories, but he couldn’t name these people. But in the instant he himself said the words, a vague emotion seemed to rise in his heart. He swallowed and said, “Yes.”
Bitter tears welled up in Wang Canzhi’s eyes, and he sighed regretfully, “Fourteen years ago when I returned to court, you were just this big.”
He looked directly at Li Qingcheng, and one hand gestured in front of his knee. Li Qingcheng responded, "I… can't remember Lord Administrative Assistant anymore."
Administrative Assistant Wang finally began to cry. The administrative assistant had already passed sixty years of age, and as soon as he was moved no one could talk him out of it. Immediately, his old eyes filled with tears that trickled down, and he sat down with the support of his cane within that hall, shaking his head non-stop as he said, “How could General Tang plot a rebellion…”
After a long time, once both of them had dried their tears, Li Qingcheng said, “Junior really has no place to go, and perhaps the imperial court has already issued an edict…”
Administrative Assistant Wang heavily thumped his cane. “Even without my past relations with the general, today I am here to dedicate my life to the service of the country. No one can take you away from this old man’s place!”
Li Qingcheng let out a breath of relief; after drifting about for so long, he finally had a place to stay.
Administrative Assistant Wang was still sunken in his grief, and he said slowly, “The news from the imperial court has been locked down tight, and this old one had no idea of such a thing. Previously, it was only said that the Taihe Palace had caught fire, and the emperor and the crown prince… ay!”
“Great General Tang failed in his attempt to rescue the emperor, and his position was lowered by three levels,” Administrative Assistant Wang said. “Originally, I thought that his crimes would not be visited upon his family, but I never expected, I never expected… This old one will immediately make a trip back to the capital…”
Li Qingcheng hurried to say, "Lord Administrative Assistant…"
Administrative Assistant Wang said, “You can just call me uncle. Originally I was an old servant who just led General Tang’s horses to and from the stables, and it was all because of the general’s support that I could reach where I am today. This old man who has outlived his usefulness has no manners, having you to call me Senior simply because of my age…” And saying this, he got up, wobbling as he tried to kneel down to Li Qingcheng. Li Qingcheng hurried forward to lift him up, saying, “Today, the country is more important than family, and since the Xiongnu have invaded, this is a matter that can be put off for discussion until later.”
Administrative Assistant Wang finally calmed himself, knowing in his heart that Li Qingcheng spoke the truth.
But there were so many issues that arose from this one thing that there was no good point to start. Soon after, Administrative Assistant Wang tapped the ground to his side, asking after events of the past with Li Qingcheng. Li Qingcheng easily diverted the topic away from those difficult questions without a problem.
Neither of them expected that the new guard that they had recruited would voluntarily open his mouth and follow up with those questions.
Administrative Assistant Wang asked, “Who is this little brother?”
Li Qingcheng nodded and said, “The two of them are my servants.”
Inside his heart, Li Qingcheng began to calculate as he threateningly narrowed his eyes. While mulling things over, he heard that guard say, “Madam third auntie’s fortune was good, she died long before the family was split apart. After she fell ill with a sudden fever, she didn’t eat nor drink, and finally she died ten days later.”
Administrative Assistant Wang let out a sigh. “Madam third auntie wasn’t from the Central Plains, and back then when she married into the Tang family, this old servant led her horse for her…” At that time, after both of them shared a common grief, he could finally confirm that the person in front of him was really someone from the Tang manor. After they finished their discussion, he had someone bring Li Qingcheng and his group to a side hall to rest, and promising that after he thought it through, they would begin to plan properly.
This state of affairs was exactly what Li Qingcheng hoped for; after several days of rushing on their journey, he was very tired, and he went forth with the servant to go rest.
Just as the servant had been sent away, he was once again sent for. He didn’t know Li Qingcheng’s identity, and as he led the three of them to the side hall he explained that the administrative assistant’s manor was simple and crude, with no good place to receive guests. Administrative Assistant Wang had come from the army, and his entire manor consisted of only two courtyards and six rooms.
As they passed through the doorway into the western courtyard, the servant pointed them in the direction of their rooms and then proceeded to go on his way. Li Qingcheng was also happy that there was no one to overhear, as he could talk with Zhang Mu for a bit.
At that time, he saw Zhang Mu move their things in and place them in the courtyard. Li Qingcheng sat down on a chest, and just as he was about to go ask that soldier some questions, the soldier beat him to it.
“Your father is Tang Yingzhao? You’re the youngest young master of the Tang family? You’re called Tang Hong?” that soldier that Li Qingcheng had saved from that dangerous situation suddenly asked.
Li Qingcheng nodded and said, “Yes, what about?”
That soldier looked at Li Qingcheng for a long while, and seeing that his expression didn’t change, opened his mouth and said, “My father is also Tang Yingzhao, I’m also the youngest young master of the Tang family. I… am also called Tang Hong.”
Li Qingcheng, “......”
Zhang Mu, “......”
Li Qingcheng, “If you’re Tang Hong, then who am I?”
When Xu Lingyun got to this point, the corners of his mouth quirked up slightly with warm mirth.
When Li Xiao heard this part, he couldn’t help laughing out loud.
“Was it really like this?” Li Xiao finished laughing, and in his eyes were a mischievous light. His tone was cold, as if he was interrogating more than he was asking.
Xu Lingyun closed the volume and said lightly, “This subject made it up to get Your Majesty to laugh.
“The book only states, Chengzu took on the identity of Tang Hong, and went forth to meet the northern territories’ administrative assistant Wang Yichen; on the way, he saved a soldier, who believed that he himself was the youngest son of the Tang family, Tang Hong. The will of heaven works in mysterious ways to create such a coincidence. Later he followed Chengzu, fulfilling the Great General Tang Yingzhao’s dying wish, and achieved a generation of greatness.”
Li Xiao said, “That is rather unusual.”
Xu Lingyun smiled softly. “Actually after thinking it through, there is nothing unusual about it. Since Chengzu was told that he was the descendant of the Tang family by the medicine goddess, by a normal person’s train of thought, it was natural that he go seek shelter in Beijiang, under his own father’s former subordinate. Only an old border general would be able to protect his old officer’s flesh and blood.”
Li Xiao nodded slightly.
Xu Lingyun continued, “Chengzu and Tang Hong had the same idea. Tang Hong took the opportunity to join the army to come to Mt. Feng, so that he could avoid the danger of being persecuted; Chengzu had General Ying as his bodyguard, and he was not afraid of being thoroughly questioned, so he headed to the north. But now that I think of it, for them to meet in the same place, and for Tang Hong to have been saved by Chengzu, could be said to be a bright spot of destiny in a dark world.”
Li Xiao said, “Not bad, it does make sense. He also does not seem like an ignorant, stupid person.”
Xu Lingyun, “Though Chengzu was not versed in martial skills, his thinking was very thorough. Countless generations of my Great Yu have spent their time discussing his strategies, and he had courage that no one could surpass, so how could he be an ignorant, stupid person?”
Li Xiao said, “The stupidity this king speaks of is you.”
Xu Lingyun lowered his head and shook his body like a ruffian, as if he were a child that had been scolded by their master, nonchalantly facing his punishment.
Li Xiao said, “The position of the Yingnu has been eliminated. For now, you’ll be a guard of the imperial study, and starting tomorrow you are to change your uniform and stand here.”
Xu Lingyun said quietly, “I hear and obey.”
Li Xiao said coldly, “Are you unhappy with this?”
Xu Lingyun hurried to answer, “This subject does not dare.”
Xu Lingyun raised his head, and Li Xiao’s hawk-like gaze honed in on him, seeing a sliver of humbleness in this wounded soldier’s eyes.
Ever since Xu Lingyun went into the study, he had been kneeling, and now it had been a whole three shichen. The wounds across his body had also been jostled about, and now fresh blood seeped out. He still had a black eye on his face from the day he was beaten in the prison, and all of the sudden Li Xiao felt this was a little unbearable.
Ah well, Li Xiao thought in his heart. When he was young, he once had tripped in the palace, and the empress dowager had been wholly inconsolable about it; to his face she shouted at him, but behind his back she shed tears. Who didn’t have parents who, after sending their child into the palace only to be beaten up like this, would feel incredibly sad, even in their graves under the earth?
“Your family…” Li Xiao suddenly asked, before he changed his mind. Asking that question now was still too early, and he said mildly, “You may leave.”
Finally, Xu Lingyun had managed to win his life back, and ceremoniously he kowtowed in thanks. The captain of the guard half-hugged him back up, making sure he was standing firm, before Xu Lingyun cleaned up the book and took his leave.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.