"He was like an eagle’s long cry as it led its young in flight."
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Another day passed. Spring aroused drowsiness and autumn brought a lack of spirit, three days before the grand wedding.
Li Xiao really had no desire to review the accounts books. In three days, he was going to sleep in the same bed as a woman who was practically a stranger, have a random child together and watch them grow.
Li Xiao only felt that he himself hadn’t even grown up yet, and this all took on a strangely dreamlike quality. In the blink of an eye, he was to be married like so many other people?
“What needs to be done the day of the wedding, describe it to this king.” Li Xiao put his pen down.
The chief eunuch felt as though he had been given a general pardon; His Majesty was finally asking about these things of his own accord. The chief eunuch had entered the palace at twelve and served two generations of emperors, so naturally the next descendant of the Lin family was also going to be under his charge.
But the perpetrator Li Xiao didn’t care about it nor ask about it, as though this was eating a normal meal on the 15th day of the 8th month. Several times the chief eunuch had tried to open his mouth, but the emperor ordered him to shut up, don’t talk about these fantasies to annoy people.
Because of this, the chief eunuch had gone to ask the empress dowager a few times. Every time, by coincidence, the old secretariat had been there as well. The empress dowager would grow incensed but would be coaxed down by the secretariat, whose view on the matter was:
“As long as His Majesty likes it in his heart, then that will be enough.”
“The grand wedding of the next empress, how can it be so casual as “likes it in his heart”?!” The empress dowager was almost hysterical at the old secretariat’s words. “The ruler of a nation, and he doesn’t ask about any more. The one who’s getting married is him not me; and then, it’ll inevitably become a shambling wreck, so how dare he be so preposterous?”
The old secretariat smiled and said, “The day the previous emperor married was also a shambling wreck. This kind of big life event has always been nothing but a sorry mess.”
The empress dowager’s mouth hung open as she remembered the events of what happened the day she married into the palace, but still, her expression was one of discontent, like that of an overgrown child. “The grand wedding of the previous emperor was decorous, it was only that one time when I became his concubine…”
The old scholar nodded but didn’t speak.
The empress dowager’s old face turned red, and she said, “Whatever, let him be. It would be unbecoming if the emperor isn’t worried, but the empress dowager is dying of worry.”
The old scholar gently nodded his head. “It should be the eunuchs who die of worry.”
The chief eunuch couldn’t get the empress dowager’s favor, so he could only return to the hall with an expression of woe. The day drew ever closer, and still Li Xiao didn’t ask. The people of the palace began to set up the brocades, and all of the red cloth was prepared as well. Within Taihe Palace, the court officials began to draw up the seating list. These kinds of trifles were things the people in the palace could take care of, but why didn’t the emperor ask what exactly he should be doing the day of the wedding?
Very fortunate, very fortunate then, that he finally asked.
The chief eunuch retrieved a yellow piece of paper, and he said joyfully, “Your Majesty is indeed wise.”
Li Xiao sat on his seat in a daze. At last he asked, “What exactly does this king need to do?”
The chief eunuch cleared his throat. “On the day of Your Majesty’s grand wedding, he must be prepared to set off at noon. Since our Great Yu Country is a country founded upon martial skills, the series of events at the wedding, as well as the various ceremonies that the Ministry of Rites has listed, are set exactly as Chengzu’s grand wedding was in the past.”
Li Xiao, “Back then, how did Chengzu receive his new bride? Who did he marry?”
The chief eunuch’s face was filled with confusion, but he bowed and replied, “Back then… it should be the empress of the Sun clan. This subject deserves to die a thousand deaths because he does not know, he will go promptly to check.”
Li Xiao said mildly, “Come back, keep speaking of the proceedings.”
“At the third ke of the ji hour, Your Majesty must begin his journey. The Yulin troops number fourteen hundred, with General Tang at their head; the Twelve Armies each are sending twelve hundred; and the Falcon Squad numbers seventy, for a total of two thousand six hundred and seventy people. Your Majesty, see, when the time comes, will Your Majesty wear the emperor’s gold armor and sword, or a brocade robe embroidered with dragons…”
Li Xiao answered, “Ride a horse and don the armor.”
The chief eunuch nodded his head and noted it down with a vermilion brush, before continuing, “Your Majesty will also be accompanied by an Assistant Minister, who the empress dowager has set to be the youngest young master of the Ting family of Jiangnan, Ting Haisheng.”
Li Xiao said, “What purpose does the Assistant Minister serve? Who is Ting Haisheng, this king has never heard of him.”
The chief eunuch said respectfully, “The Ting family is a rich merchant family of Jiangnan, and the empress dowager looks favorably upon them… Ting Haisheng is eighteen this year, and he fills the role of the Supervisor of the Ministry of Revenue…”
Li Xiao furrowed his brows, and the chief eunuch hurried to change the topic. “The Assistant Minister goes with Your Majesty to receive the bride. The young lady of the Lin family will enter the palace through the Xuanhua Gate, and at that point the servants of her household accompanying her carriage will have to leave. Your Majesty must take her to Yangxin Hall, and in the front hall Your Majesty will wait to change into the dragon robe, which is a process the Assistant Minister will wait on you for.”
“Back then,” Li Xiao asked, “When Chengzu’s grand wedding happened, who was the Assistant Minister of the time?”
The chief eunuch said carefully, “The Assistant Minister was General Fang Qingyu.”
Li Xiao said, “It wasn’t Zhang Mu?”
The chief eunuch sighed and said, “Your Majesty also knows of this matter? Back in the day, when Chengzu had his grand wedding, it turned out to be a strange affair. Finally the Assistant Minister was changed to be General Zhang Mu, so that he could take charge of the entire matter…”
Li Xiao, “Since it’s like that, then change it out so a guard accompanies me instead.”
“This…” The chief eunuch saw that Li Xiao’s expression was dark, and he hurried to agree. “Yes, yes.”
Li Xiao, “That’s the end right?”
The chief eunuch hurried to say, “No no, at this point the wedding has not occurred yet. The Empress Dowager will send people to wait within Yangxin Hall, and after the bride’s makeup has been retouched and her phoenix headdress put on, Lady Lin will come out. At that time, Your Majesty will have changed into his dragon robe and climbed onto the emperor’s carriage, passing through the Wu Gate to head towards Jinluan Hall.”
“At this time the hundred officials will be waiting within, and when they bow to the empress at the right time, Lady Lin will then officially be considered married into the palace. The emperor can then refer to Lady Lin as ‘beloved wife’, and Lady Lin will refer to herself as ‘this lowly wife’...”
Li Xiao, “That’s it ba.”
The chief eunuch hurried to say, “Please be calm, Your Majesty, there’s more.”
Li Xiao, “...”
The chief eunuch, “After the officials take their leave, Your Majesty must lead the Empress out of Jinluan Hall, towards Minghuan Hall, to pay respects to the former emperor of Great Yu…”
Li Xiao watched the chief eunuch.
The chief eunuch continued, “After paying respects to the previous emperor, then it is on to Yanhe Hall, where the female officials will be waiting outside, and the Empress must, together with Your Majesty, present tea to the Empress Dowager, and pay respects to her…”
“That is the end.”
“No no, there’s more…”
Out of the corner of his eye, Li Xiao saw a flash of red cloth, and an object reflecting red light flew past. He turned around, and with large steps walked out of the study.
The eunuch was greatly startled, and he hurried to chase after Li Xiao, saying, “Your Majesty?”
“Continue this tomorrow!” Li Xiao said impatiently.
The eunuch could only respectfully retreat.
Li Xiao entered the imperial gardens only to see multiple guards laughing and chatting under the bright autumn sun, kicking around a wedding ball made of red cloth. Amongst them, one of them kicked high as if he was flying, his shadow fluttering, and this person was exactly Xu Lingyun.
“I caught it!” Xu Lingyun turned around and snatched the red ball, and it passed over multiple guards’ heads as it flew towards the lake. Li Xiao lifted the front of his dragon robe, flipping up into the air, and with a handsome turn of his body, kicked the red ball right back.
Xu Lingyun caught that red ball. The guards all suddenly realized that it was Li Xiao, so they each hurried to kneel and utter a “Long live”.
“What are you doing?” Li Xiao said in a low voice. “Playing cuju outside of this king’s imperial study?”
Xu Lingyun bowed and said, “It’s the autumn weariness, since we are off shift and had nothing to do. These thoughtless actions led to the collision with Your Majesty just now, this subject deserves to die a thousand deaths.”
Li Xiao said coldly, “Get up ba, it seems like you’ve basically recovered.”
Xu Lingyun smiled and said, “The wounds were only skin deep.”
The sunlight was bright, and the autumn air was crisp. All around were dignified, handsome guards, each of them wearing robes of fine brocade, and five or six guards, along with the Son of Heaven wearing a dragon robe with a gilded golden belt tied around his waist, shouted and clamored as they dashed about in the imperial gardens.
This scene swept away the sulkiness in Li Xiao’s heart, and afterwards he strolled about casually in the garden, before picking a pavilion and sitting down.
“All of you can leave,” Li Xiao said.
Xu Lingyun’s eyebrows moved a little, and he asked, “Does Your Majesty want to eat some pastries? Before this, this subject heard the steward mention that the kitchens had made cassia blossom cakes, which go well with the Lao Jun Mei that Jiangdong sent as tribute.”
Li Xiao’s mood was very good. “Send that command down. How come today the soldiers were not as usual, gossiping about matters?”
Li Xiao’s observation skills were very strong, and with a casual glance, he could tell that the guards didn’t act as if they were afraid of stretching their necks out too far, all trembling and afraid.
The guards took their leave. Only Xu Lingyun remained, standing behind Li Xiao, smiling softly. “It’s only because they grew excited over playing cuju, so their limbs moved more naturally. Your Majesty shouldn’t see it as anything strange.”
In a little while the tea and pastries were brought up. The chief eunuch kept glancing over at Xu Lingyun, before pulling out the yellow paper in his sleeve and nudging it towards him.
Xu Lingyun good-naturedly took it as he stood behind Li Xiao, so naturally the emperor didn’t notice. He merely said, “Bring the book here. Where did you stop yesterday?”
Xu Lingyun said, “This subject read over it last night, and now remembers it all. How about this subject narrate it for Your Majesty to listen to?”
Li Xiao narrowed his eyes. “You really remember it? If even one part is wrong, then your tongue will be chopped off.”
Xu Lingyun hurried to say, “Then this subject had better go back to retrieve the book.”
Li Xiao originally said it thoughtlessly, but it would take a long time for Xu Lingyun to return to his lodgings and get the book, so unhappily he said, “For now, your tongue will be kept, just speak. You are granted a seat, go lean on the railings to the side, don’t destroy this good scenery.”
Xu Lingyun adjusted the collar of his robe, saying lightly, “Having my tongue cut off wouldn’t be anything major, but I am afraid that in the future I would not be able to read for Your Majesty’s ears.” And saying this he sat down on the railings with ease.
The autumn day was calm, and the blue sky was clear. A fresh, warm breeze blew over the several acres of Taiye Pond, where the sky was reflected in the waters, showcasing its brilliance. Thousands of li of misty waters stretching off into the distance was really a scene that soothed and refreshed people’s hearts.
Xu Lingyun watched the waters of the lake, as he said, as if in a trace, “It was said that that day, after they returned to the courtyard, General Tang Hong revealed his own identity…”
It is said that that day, when Tang Hong informed the others of his own identity, Li Qingcheng and Zhang Mu stayed there for a long time without saying anything.
Zhang Mu’s first move was to reach behind him and pull out his blade to kill the person and prevent the secret from spreading, but as quick as a flash of lightning Li Qingcheng pressed his hand down.
“You are Tang Hong,” Li Qingcheng smiled mildly. “Then why, just now in the hall, didn’t you expose me?”
Tang Hong subconsciously took a step back.
Li Qingcheng said quietly, “You’re afraid.”
Tang Hong narrowed his eyes as he sized up Li Qingcheng. The latter said coldly, “You’re afraid that the Administrative Assistant would send you back to the capital. Because you couldn’t come up with a good plan, you first wanted to hear me sound him out, and after confirming, you would then take the opportunity to act, is that it?”
Tang Hong didn’t respond.
Li Qingcheng raised his eyebrows imperiously. “You originally had an opportunity, but no courage, so you are not Tang Hong. From today onwards, I am Tang Hong. You go think of a name for yourself, sorry to offend.”
Zhang Mu lowered the hand he used to pull out his knife, switching places with Li Qingcheng, before Li Qingcheng once again ridiculed Tang Hong. “If you want to fight until both the net breaks and the fish die, you can very well try, and we’ll see who dies first.”
Tang Hong disregarded that, calling out to Li Qingcheng. “When can I become myself again?”
Li Qingcheng understood that Tang Hong had accepted this situation, and he said casually, “Wait. The time will come.”
Tang Hong, “When.”
Li Qingcheng: “When I know who I am.”
That day, Li Qingcheng made his home in the administrative assistant’s manor.
The place that Administrative Assistant Wang provided him was no more than a small courtyard. There was a large room, a woodshed, and behind the large room there was a stable piled high with hay, where multiple old horses were. There were two servants, which made up the entirety of the servants in the manor.
Within the room it was dark and damp, and Zhang Mu split up the silver pieces, paying the laborers who had brought over the goods from Western Plains. The large room was partitioned into an inner and outer portion by a screen. Li Qingcheng slept on the inside, while Zhang Mu made a floor bunk outside, and that was where they lived.
But Tang Hong did not get treated this well; he was sent to sleep in the woodshed on the other side of the courtyard.
Not long after, some soldiers in the Beijiang troops came over to get the balm. After everything was taken care of, Li Qingcheng bent over and sat down on the edge of the bed, opening his mouth and saying,
“Ying-ge, who exactly am I.”
Zhang Mu didn’t respond. Li Qingcheng said, “He’s Tang Hong, right? You all were lying to me?”
Zhang Mu remained silent.
Li Qingcheng rose and said, “Ying-ge!”
Zhang Mu shook his head.
Li Qingcheng grabbed his collar. Zhang Mu didn’t dodge nor try to duck away, and Li Qingcheng fired off questions in a barrage: “Who are you? And what background does E’niang have?
“Why didn’t you explain it clearly to me? You still want to play mute? How about this, I ask a question, and you nod or shake your head.”
Zhang Mu finally opened his mouth and said slowly, “I do not wish to tell you, nor do I wish to deceive you.”
Li Qingcheng raised an eyebrow as he looked at Zhang Mu, asking with a trembling voice, “Who is my father?”
Zhang Mu was like a dead person, once again falling into a long silence.
Li Qingcheng sighed deeply and laid down on the bed in exhaustion.
The sky slowly grew dark, and the servants in the manor brought over dinner. It was nothing more than a few steamed buns and a bowl of salted beans with a few bits of steam-softened cured meat scattered within. Li Qingcheng didn’t eat it and Zhang Mu didn’t move as well, and the food grew cold as it sat there.
The time came for the lanterns to be lit, but the cold airflow wrapped around Langhuan City, and a gust of heavy snow and wind that had been fermenting in the air for a long time blew the oil lamps into flickering between light and dark.
Zhang Mu rose and took a look in the direction of the other room, where Tang Hong was sitting on a pile of logs wiping his battle spear. Zhang Mu took one glance at the crack in the window before patching up the hole that let in cold air with his cloak, and, holding the rivets in his fingers, pressed them into the wood of the window and around the door frame so that he left a vent that pointed directly at his own bunk, to prevent the fumes from the charcoal suffocating Li Qingcheng.
He then added some dry firewood to the brazier before finally turning and walking towards Li Qingcheng on the bed.
Li Qingcheng’s head hurt so much it felt like it was splitting, and the deeper he tried to delve, the more it hurt. He rolled over to face the wall spotted with mildew.
Zhang Mu carried the food over, placing it on the table, before respectfully kneeling in front of the bed without saying a word.
Li Qingcheng heard the noises and turned to glance at Zhang Mu.
Zhang Mu’s expression was as usual as he knelt in front of the bed. His meaning was clear: he wanted to invite Li Qingcheng to get up and eat dinner with him.
“I can’t eat it,” Li Qingcheng moaned subconsciously. “You go eat ba, I won’t annoy you.”
A second later, Li Qingcheng felt a broad hand with a hint of chill to it rest against his own forehead. He pushed Zhang Mu’s hand aside, saying impatiently, “I’m not sick, just let me sleep for a while.”
Li Qingcheng dozed and woke again several times, without knowing how long. Within the wild winds dimly came the sound of the watchman’s claves and two beats of the geng drum. This woke the person in a foreign land from his dream of standing in a foreign street filled with snow and ice.
He flipped over, only to see Zhang Mu still kneeling in front of the bed, earnestly watching him.
Li Qingcheng couldn’t gather up enough air for a single breath; he wanted only to curse him out once, but as he changed his mind his anger dissipated again, and he got up and said, “Eat ba.”
Li Qingcheng randomly ate some, and Zhang Mu still knelt there without moving. If Li Qingcheng ate too little this mute servant was not happy, so he could only forcefully eat a little more. The buns were already cold and hard, but after they traveled into his stomach his body still warmed a little.
With this, Zhang Mu finally took the food, sitting outside the folding screen as he took large bites.
“Ying-ge,” Li Qingcheng rolled up in his quilt as he let out a breath. “Is it cold in your bunk, do you want to move inside and sleep?”
“Wu,” Zhang Mu’s mouth was stuffed with food, so he grunted in agreement.
Absentmindedly, Li Qingcheng said, “My body is not good, so I should have been from an official’s family… was my dad a literary official?”
Zhang Mu stopped in his movements, and Li Qingcheng continued fuzzily, “Lacking a strong body from practicing martial arts, without needing to wait for the Xiongnu to slaughter their way in, I might first die of illness in Beijiang… Curse the heavens, why is it so cold…”
Zhang Mu put down his bowl and stuffed some more coal into the bronze fish’s mouth before sealing it again. He then tucked it firmly into Li Qingcheng’s quilt, before lying down on the outside and going to sleep, with only a thin blanket on him.
The next morning the snowstorm had lessened, and Tang Hong woke up very early. The shua shua of the wind didn’t stop, even as a long snow broom began to sound, hua hua, as it swept away the accumulated snow in the yard.
Zhang Mu’s torso was bared, and with a toned, fit body he walked out into the courtyard, Li Qingcheng following behind.
“Watch,” Zhang Mu spoke succinctly, before taking up the horse pose and moving his open palms forward.
Li Qingcheng still looked very drowsy, but Zhang Mu had taken his blearily spoken words last night to heart, and early in the morning he had roused him to teach him martial arts.
Li Qingcheng also took up a horse pose, and Zhang Mu pulled one foot back before treading out with his right foot, firmly stepping on the ground. His palms pulled back, one to the front one to the back, and he slowly turned them, pressing them outwards.
Li Qingcheng mimicked him as best he could, following along with Zhang Mu’s movements as an example. Zhang Mu’s feet never stopped moving, and his hand motions sped up as well. His feet kicked up little broken flurries of snow, and his bare back was covered with sweat. Li Qingcheng slowly realized, upon submerging himself in this martial realm, that every lift of Zhang Mu’s hand, every tread of his feet, was like a goshawk flapping its wings — all of it was done with a startling beauty and an indescribable fluency.
“This is from one of the schools of Western Plains… the Respected Master’s style?” Tang Hong had been watching from the side for a while. He furrowed his brow and asked, “This brother is named Zhang?”
Zhang Mu put his fists down and straightened up, gaze directed at the ground, as if he was in deep thought.
Li Qingcheng said, “He’s called Ying-ge. Why did you say that?”
Tang Hong, “The respected martial family of Zhang has the thirteen techniques of the Eagle Vanquishing the Vast Sky, which are wholly unique throughout the world. Just now those movements had a hint of the Goshawk Wrestling a Rabbit; how are this brother’s archery techniques?”
Zhang Mu shook his head, before once again settling into his stance and drawing his fists apart, saying quietly, “Watch.”
Li Qingcheng said, “Wait, Tang… just calling you Tang whatever works, have you thought of a name yet? Tang San?”
Tang Hong’s expression was very abject, but Li Qingcheng continued, “The thirteen techniques of the Eagle Vanquishing the Vast Sky, explain them to me clearly, in detail.”
Tang Hong, “My father once mentioned that there was a family in Western Plains surnamed Zhang, a martial family. The thirteen techniques of the Eagle Vanquishing the Vast Sky were rumored to have already been lost, and they were Eagle’s Claws Slay Humans, Eagle’s Gaze Dominates Arrows, Eagle’s Palms Destroy Enemies, Eagle’s Cry Frightens Livestock, Eagle Knife like Metal Piercing Through the Vast Sky, and the move called Flower Rain Across the Sky that uses iron eagle feathers, which was an assassination technique…”
Zhang Mu once again broke his stance, walking towards Tang Hong.
Before Tang Hong could finish, Zhang Mu was already in front of him, and without any warning gave Tang Hong a slap!
Li Qingcheng was so frightened he shouted loudly. Tang Hong was wholly defenseless. He had been slapped so hard that his mouth and nose bled, and the sky spun around him as he fell onto the ground.
Li Qingcheng, “...”
Zhang Mu himself only took up his original stance, and said quietly, “Watch,” before once again moving his fists.
Tang Hong pitifully escaped back to the woodshed, and only after a long while did he dare to peek out from a crack in the door. Li Qingcheng also grew obedient after that, and for a while the courtyard was devoid of all sound except for Li Qingcheng’s and Zhang Mu’s footsteps.
Li Qingcheng shot a sympathetic look towards Tang Hong, only for Zhang Mu to stop in his steps again. Li Qingcheng hurried to say, “I’m studying closely!”
Zhang Mu nodded. He finished going through one set of forms before beginning another, and Li Qingcheng gradually began to follow along. He was starting to get a sense of the unity between the heavens and man as the ten thousand objects became one, as if his heart was the same color as the vault of the sky, and as far as the eye could see, all was open and spacious, with no boundaries present.
He was like an eagle’s long cry as it led its young in flight, and spreading their wings they circled over a grassy sea thousands of li wide, beneath an unbroken line of snowy mountains.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.