"You and I have worked together for many years. Although I, Fang Qingyu, don't care about trivial matters, am I that kind of person?"
At dusk, the setting sun showered down on the entire imperial garden. Xu Lingyun stopped his storytelling and gazed towards the Taiye Pond, where the water’s reflection looked akin to that of golden scales, in a trance.
Li Xiao had many suspicions and wanted to ask something, yet he didn't know where to start.
Xu Lingyun smiled. "Your Majesty?"
Li Xiao was startled.grand He then said, "Fang Qingyu… this man's thoughts are hard to decipher."
Xu Lingyun slowly nodded. He then smiled as he asked, "If this subject could be so bold to ask something unrelated —— if Your Majesty were to swap places with this person, how would Your Majesty deploy troops?"
Li Xiao thought for a moment before replying, "Give me 30.000 troops and I would lead them out of the Western Plains. With one move, this king would recall the soldiers and people of the six cities outside the Feng Pass back inside the pass."
Xu Lingyun said, "So it's like this. Your Majesty would abandon the main cities outside the pass."
Li Xiao, "Retreat for the sake of advancing. Feng Pass is long and narrow. Behind it, there are two mountains acting as the main source of supply for the people of Feng City. It's easy to defend and hard to attack, so there won't be any problem surviving the winter. The Xiongnus have fought outside the Great Wall for a long time through raids or guerilla attacks amidst the ice and snow; the Yu Army is no match for them."
Xu Lingyun was lost in thought. "Make good use of your strength and avoid your weakness."
Li Xiao slowly said, "It's more than just 'make good use of your strength and avoid your weakness'? Let them have two empty cities, Hejian and Langhuan. It would soon turn into 'chicken ribs' in their hands and they could only passively occupy it. They couldn't abandon it either, because there was no way to camp outside the Feng Pass and attack it in the ruthless winter. My army, however, could get outside the pass and mount sneak attacks at any time, taking back the momentum."
Xu Lingyun said, "This subject also thinks that this is the best method."
Li Xiao evaluated, "And so, it was because Fang Qingyu made a mistake that kept festering back then that caused 30.000 soldiers to be wiped out and leave himself nowhere to hide."
Xu Lingyun smiled. "Your Majesty might not know, but Fang Qingyu deserted the army out of his own accord, because he himself actually didn't care about resisting foreign invasion."
Li Xiao coldly said, "Presumptuous."
Xu Lingyun didn't seem to hear the reply. "The current court historians have also brought up the subject of Fang Qingyu deserting. There are many speculations, but nobody can explain the real motive behind it. This subject can only say that the experienced teachers are thinking too much about it."
Li Xiao said, "Since you know more than the court historians, you might as well talk about it. If once you finish this king still doesn't understand, 20 flogs. What could make a man become a deserter in the face of a national disaster?"
Xu Lingyun smiled as if mocking himself. "Your Majesty also thinks too much about it. National disaster… for some people, it's not really important."
Li Xiao's complexion turned very gloomy. Xu Lingyun thought about it and explained, "Some people just never care about the country and the lives of common people. Whether it was the subjects who had reached the highest possible position or the people who were begging for food on the street, none mattered to him. Abandoning 30.000 of Great Yu's troops when the enemy was just on the sidelines, it was just because there were more important things for him to do."
Li Xiao, "What matter could be more important than defending against foreign invasion?"
Xu Lingyun bowed. "It's getting chilly. Your Majesty, the weather is getting colder, should we continue once Your Majesty has finished the evening meals?"
Li Xiao saw that the sky was already dark. He had no choice but to get up as to avoid the empress dowager sending someone to nag him again later.
Like this, a few days passed, and on the 7th day of the 8th lunar month, Li Xiao sat on the dragon throne in the Taihe Hall; he didn't say much and was lost in thought.
Behind him, several eunuchs were spreading an embroidered painting of dragon and phoenix, although the pulling stopped halfway through and people just stood still with their hands hanging —— nobody dared to come towards the dragon throne. Since the monarch's head was full of thoughts, it was only natural that they didn't say anything as well and just stood there like some blocks of wood.
In the end, the imperial guard on duty smiled. "Your Majesty."
That one call brought Li Xiao back to reality. The space between his eyebrows was filled with a dark aura that was about to erupt. When he saw the smiling face of that imperial guard, which was Xu Lingyun, he impatiently said, "Audacious!"
Xu Lingyun slightly tilted the corners of his mouth and bowed down to avoid Li Xiao's gaze.
"What's the matter?"
"Since Your Majesty is sitting there, the servants dare not spread the embroiderment." Xu Lingyun's voice was clear, and it hit Li Xiao's ears at dusk with a sense of clarity.
Li Xiao looked sideways; several eunuchs hurriedly knelt down and begged for forgiveness. He then stood up with a muffled hum.
Xu Lingyun walked up and dusted Li Xiao's sleeves. Following that, Li Xiao didn't know where to go, so he said in a deep voice, "How old are you this year?"
Xu Lingyun respectfully said, "Replying Your Majesty, twenty-two."
Li Xiao only thought Xu Lingyun was in his early youth. He didn't think he could be older than twenty, and even at the same age as himself. Annoyed, he said, "When is your birthday?"
Xu Lingyun kept his head down and replied, "10th day of the 12th lunar month."
Li Xiao was even more surprised. He turned around to look at Xu Lingyun, narrowing his eyes. "Only a day younger than this king. You appear several years younger."
Xu Lingyun smiled. "Since childhood, this subject has a weak body, that's why he looks frail."
Nodding, Li Xiao then strolled around the palace. After passing the long corridor leading to the garden, a eunuch's shout was heard from the opposite corridor. "Empress Dowager has arrived——"
When he saw the chief eunuch was following after the empress dowager, Li Xiao became angry —— he knew that the chief eunuch must've complained to the empress dowager. Nothing today had been good, but he still had to give face and restrained himself, saying, "Mother Empress."
The empress dowager didn't enter the hall and only stood in the corridor. With a straight face, she said, "Your Majesty is going to marry tomorrow, has Your Majesty seen everything on the yellow paper?"
Li Xiao nodded. "Have seen them all."
The empress dowager said, "Has Your Majesty really seen them all?"
Xu Lingyun smiled bitterly as he stood behind Li Xiao. After a moment, he took a yellow paper from his sleeve, and he bowed down while holding it with both hands.
Li Xiao, "Yesterday, the Yingnu read it to this sovereign."
The empress dowager looked at Li Xiao, then at Xu Lingyun. She said, "You're the current Yingnu?"
Xu Lingyun knelt down on one knee and put one hand on his shoulder. "Yingnu sees Empress Dowager."
The empress dowager faintly said, "Get up. What do you have in your hands?"
Xu Lingyun said, "Answering Empress Dowager, it's a yellow paper containing the marriage rites."
The two of them had been mother and son for more than ten years. He knew the empress dowager's temperament by heart —— she was kind, tolerant, and magnanimous towards other people but very strict towards himself.
So, whenever something didn't go the way she had planned, he just needed to drag someone to serve as a scapegoat and he definitely wouldn't be scolded. Li Xiao's mind revolved and he said, "Yesterday, the Yingnu had only read half of it and he hasn't continued yet."
The empress dowager said, "Remember to mention it more often. What are you called?"
Xu Lingyun respectfully gave his name. The empress dowager's thin eyebrows, which were neatly trimmed, twitched imperceptibly.
"Xu Lingyun?" The empress dowager was surprised. "Lift up your head and look at me."
Xu Lingyun looked up. The empress dowager looked into his eyes and murmured, "Why don't you look alike?"
"Mother Empress," Li Xiao coldly said.
The empress dowager asked, "Your birthday is on the 9th day of the 12th lunar month?"
Xu Lingyun once again bowed his head. "Yes."
The empress dowager slowly shook her head. "Your mother Zhao Yan… As far as I remember, you don't look like her…"
Li Xiao frowned. "How bold! When this king asked your birthday before, how did you answer this king? You clearly said 10th day of the 12th month!"
The empress dowager said in a cold tone, "Your Majesty!"
Li Xiao stopped with an angry grunt. Xu Lingyun said, "This subject wouldn't dare, Your Majesty… Yes, this subject should be younger."
The empress dowager said in a rare gentle tone, "For you and the Emperor to be born on the same day and at the same time, it's clear that this thing called 'fated relationship' is very difficult to tell."
Xu Lingyun heaved a sigh. He bowed his head and replied, "Yes. This subject's… crime deserves a thousand deaths."
Li Xiao didn't know whether to laugh or cry. If the empress dowager knew he had almost arrested Xu Lingyun and had him punished with 'death of a thousand cuts,' he didn't know what she would've thought. He spoke without thinking, "Yingnu… Hm, alright, you are pardoned."
The empress dowager closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, she seemed to have put the past behind her. She ordered, "Xu Lingyun, since you're already following the Emperor, you should remind him more everyday."
Xu Lingyun bowed. "This subject obeys Empress Dowager's command."
Li Xiao was very baffled when he heard that. After she finished giving the order, the empress dowager left and entered the palace; she attentively watched the arrangements for the next day's grand wedding. Li Xiao, however, stopped walking; he just stood in the winding corridor and stared at Xu Lingyun.
Xu Lingyun was half a head shorter than Li Xiao. His eyes were staring at the ground as he dared not look directly at the emperor, but the corners of his mouth still had that faint smile; he was respectful yet not humble, forthright yet not rude.
Li Xiao asked, "Your family is Xu… You! Come here!"
Li Xiao had seen the empress dowager leave. The chief eunuch was alone as he led several eunuchs out of the hall. Suddenly getting angry, regardless of his image, Li Xiao berated, "What did you say behind this king!"
Li Xiao was angry. Xu Lingyun was startled and rushed to say, "Your Majesty, restrain your anger!"
L Xiao said, "Audacious…"
Xu Lingyun said, "Your Majesty! Listen to this subject…"
The chief eunuch had long been scared out of his wits and went kneeling outside the hall. Li Xiao moved and kicked him. In which way did he look like an emperor right now? In a flurry, Xu Lingyun grasped Li Xiao in order to restrain him, pulling the emperor's shoulder; his face couldn't help but turn red.
When Li Xiao was touched by Xu Lingyun, his heart also felt a bit uneasy, and he gently tried to free himself. Xu Lingyun also let him go quickly and said in a low voice, "This subject was too bold. Your Majesty, please punish this subject."
"Whatever is happening outside? Who's making a ruckus?" At that time, the empress dowager's voice traveled again from inside the palace.
There was nothing Li Xiao was afraid of in this heaven and earth except his mother. He originally thought that the empress dowager was already far away. Looking at this situation, he was afraid that the empress dowager would pester him again, and so he took a deep breath, pinned the blame on the three kneeling eunuchs, turned around, and ran away like a rabbit.
Xu Lingyun chased after Li Xiao. In his heart, he found it extremely funny. After taking a short detour, Li Xiao stopped and stood still, his anger subsided.
"What's so funny?" Li Xiao was angry again.
Xu Lingyun said, "It's extremely funny to see the eunuchs panicking."
Li Xiao coldly snorted. "Just a bunch of castrated men."
The emperor was walking in the front, while the imperial guard followed behind him. Xu Lingyun casually mentioned, "Even though their bodies have become disabled with castration, they're still loyal towards Your Majesty. As they say, there is no pure gold in this world —— everyone has their defect, no matter whether they are a ruler or a minister. This subject thinks that as long as the other person is sincere, people can afford to have a friendly word."
Li Xiao coldly said, "You're lecturing this king?"
Xu Lingyun hurriedly smiled as he said, "This subject dare not. This subject only remembered that someone had once said this word."
Li Xiao, "Who?"
Xu Lingyun, "Chengzu."
Li Xiao looked at Xu Lingyun, wondering whether he should just drag him out and beat him up. But then, Xu Lingyun just continued, "But Chengzu also said that the castrates didn't even want their own offspring, how could they even be expected to be loyal to anyone?"
Making a "pfft" sound, Li Xiao smiled and just shook his head. He then raised his feet and walked towards the leisure hall.
Xu Lingyun waited outside the hall. Li Xiao took the towel and wiped his face, changed his robe into a yellow dragon garment, then sat on the couch. Afterwards, he said, "Come in. Did you bring the book with you today?"
Xu Lingyun said, "Yes."
Li Xiao said, "Read it."
Xu Lingyun looked around the place; Qinghe Hall was the residence of Yu Country's emperors before they got married. Inside there was only one guest seat, reserved for the grand secretariat who would come to give reports for the emperor late at night.
Saying nothing, Xu Lingyun just headed towards the seat and sat down. Then, he took the history book out of his sleeve and placed it on the table. When he took a glance at the screen, he saw that Li Xiao was lying on one side on the couch, squinting his eyes.
"It is said that Zhang Mu followed Chengzu and General Tang Hong all the way, and when he found Fang Qingyu, he couldn't restrain himself…"
It was said that on that night, Zhang Mu suddenly showed up and took out his sabre, striking head-on, and Fang Qingyu used the palm of his hand to welcome the enemy. A sharp blade-edge art was met with an empty-handed move —— Zhang Mu was mid-air, twisting his wrist, and Fang Qingyu once again swatted the spine of the sabre, using the momentum to leap away.
"Nice!" Since it was the first time Tang Hong had seen such an awesome move, he couldn't help but cheer loudly, only for Li Qingcheng to knock him on the back of his head.
"Which side are you on!" Li Qingcheng angrily said. "Ying-ge, please wait a minute, listen to me!"
Tang Hong made an embarrassed sound. Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu were chasing each other vigorously in the courtyard; the one fleeing swept away with a diagonal kick, crushing the snow into vapor; the one who chasing made a slash, scattering the ice into pieces —— just like how shadow followed the body, he relentlessly pursued close behind.
Fang Qingyu, "That night of Mid-Autumn Festival, it was my paternal aunt who ordered me to take him out…"
Zhang Mu's sabre struck and hit Fang Qingyu's wrist, immediately breaking it. He muffled a groan and dodged left and right with dangling hands, but didn't counter the move anymore. He shouted, "I didn't know there had been a change in the court… I only knew that the Sun family and General Tang's group had set up a trap later on. My uncle entered the palace, had a private discussion with my aunt, and decided on this beforehand!"
Fang Qingyu fled to the rockery, and only an explosion was heard afterward —— the rockery collapsed, random rubbles and fluttering snow flying all over.
"His Majesty was the mastermind. Nobody did anything on the night of the Emperor's death. The fire broke out all of the sudden, it was really unexpected for everyone…"
"Imperial Concubine Tang conspired to take the throne. General Tang Siyuan supported Her Highness and planned to use the troops from the border. The Sun family had long been determined to have a crown princess from their family…"
"Zhang Mu!" Fang Qingyu roared, "You and I have worked together for many years. Although I, Fang Qingyu, don't care about trivial matters, am I that kind of person?"
Zhang Mu didn't reply and just tilted the sharp edge of his sabre. Fang Qingyu shouted, "I don't want to risk my life for a better future, I just want to find him! Don't you understand?!"
Narrowing his eyes, Zhang Mu put the blunt spine against Fang Qingyu's neck. Fang Qingyu said, "That night I still wasn't sure what to do. Yanhe Hall caught fire, and the Empress was in Yangxin Hall!"
"If I really wanted to catch him and ask for a reward, I would've gone to Yanhe Hall. If I wanted to be loyal to my family and protect myself, I would've gone to Yangxin Hall. If I handed him over to the Empress, she already had her own plans: either put him under house arrest, or maybe set up a double, so she alone would have full control of the government."
"But do you know where we were headed at that time?!"
Zhang Mu stopped his sabre. Fang Qingyu coldly said, "Minghuang Hall! That hall is dedicated to the worship of my Yu's ancestors since before the founding of the nation, the hall where the ancestors' portraits were arranged. The first of the seven imperial rules: At the death of the emperor, the crown prince must wait in the Minghuang Hall. The posthumous edict of the former emperor will be inspected by the Grand Secretariat in the presence of the Chief Protector General, and they are responsible for the enthronement of the crown prince in the Minghuang Hall, bestowing him the throne and duty to govern the country!"
Zhang Mu coldly said, "I didn't hear it at that time."
Fang Qingyu said, "Go back and ask him. Once you do, Zhang Mu, I still have something to ask you."
"On that night of Mid-Autumn Festival, when the imperial palace caught fire." There was a hint of ridicule in Fang Qingyu's eyes. "Where were you? Why did you carry a sabre covered in blood while coming from the direction of Minghuang Hall? It was Yanhe Hall that caught fire that night, and the Yulin Army were all trying to put out the fire. No matter who committed the rebellion, the Yulin Army would never rebel against the monarch. Why did you kill the Yulin Army and the eunuchs? Maybe, the blood on your sabre was actually the blood of some big officials? Or Concubine Tang's? Or perhaps… the commander of the palace guards, Fu Yin's blood?! The fire that day wasn't started by the Empress. Zhang Mu, deep in your heart, you know very well who started the fire. Am I right?"
Although Fang Qingyu's voice was low, it didn't conceal his momentum in the slightest. One question after another, he pressed the issue step by step, as if he was above the mute guard whose hostility was all out in the open.
Zhang Mu's killing intent rose in an instant.
Fang Qingyu narrowed his eyes. "Qingcheng has never doubted it either. Could it be you've already forgotten about all that had happened in the past?"
Zhang Mu roared, "Impudent!" Then, he hit Fang Qingyu so hard with the sabre; it knocked him flat on his back.
Li Qingcheng and Tang Hong had been watching from a distance for a while. They saw Zhang Mu advancing step by step and Fang Qingyu repeatedly running until Zhang Mu raised his sabre. Fang Qingyu frowned, but replied in a steady manner. Then all of the sudden there was another slash, and the two people couldn't clearly hear what they were talking about again.
And then, it was quiet all around. Fang Qingyu supported himself on his elbow and spitted out a blood-stained molar.
Zhang Mu said in a cold tone, "I'll keep your head attached to your neck for the time being." At that, he put away his sabre, turned around, and left.
"Ying-ge!" Li Qingcheng said.
Zhang Mu left the courtyard. Fang Qingyu staggered up, took a deep breath, leaned against a corner, and connected his broken wrist.
Qing-ge came back but at what cost…
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.