The inside of the tent was dimly lit by candle.
Chu Beijie led Pingting through the tent flap, immediately seeing the Queen lying on the bed. Her once silky black hair had almost gone completely white.
This graceful queen of a country’s face was gray and defeated. Fine wrinkles had formed due to worry, covering her once exquisite and beautiful face.
She had accompanied the King through his final years and suffered more than enough torment as Dong Lin fell.
“Sister-in-Law.” Chu Beijie tiptoed towards the bedside, whispering softly.
The Queen’s long lashes began to flutter as she opened her eyes that had its former glory. It took a while before the face she saw came into focus.
“You’ve returned.” The Queen weakly breathed in, not having strength to articulate her words. “I heard you drove away the Yun Chang soldiers surrounding us.”
“Sister-In-Law, you’ve been suffering.”
The Queen shook her head, squeezing a wry smile onto her face. Her gaze shifted beyond Chu Beijie and was suddenly surprised.
Chu Beijie seemed to notice. He took a step back and held onto Pingting’s limp hand to calm her down.
The atmosphere in the tent began to feel unusually stiff.
The Queen’s gaze stopped on Pingting for a very long time.
“Bai Pingting?” Her voice was very low as she slowly spat out the three syllables between her teeth, a past that had chewed at her for so long.
Pingting bent down, bowing deeply. “Queen.”
“Bai Pingting, Miss Bai…” The Queen said, “Please come here, let me look at you.”
Pingting answered, stepping forward and stopping in front of the Queen’s bed.
In the dim candlelight, two complicated expressions met.
This was the first time they had clearly seen the other’s face.
While the past disappeared with the wind, memories didn’t easily fade.
There was so much pain, love and hate. From being forced to leave the secluded residence, the queen losing her son, Chu Beijie losing Pingting and Dong Lin losing Chu Beijie.
And under the hooves of Yun Chang’s invasion, Dong Lin too had lost Dong Lin.
They had been tangled by fate, hurting others and hurting themselves, but only today did they finally know the other’s face.
The Queen quietly looked at Pingting, asking, “Do you hate me?”
Pingting answered with another question, “Does Queen hate me?”
All of the past in their mind was like a rock in lightning, disappearing in a single moment, leaving the witness to sigh at the remnants. It was no more than a handful of smoke.
The Queen’s gaze shifted away from Pingting’s face, stopping on Chu Beijie beside her. She faintly sighed.
“When the King died, he asked me a question.” The Queen’s lonely expression contained her memories, “The King asked that if we too, were born between enemy countries and directly opposing positions, would we still be willing to stay by each other?”
She didn’t go on and her face revealed that she was deeply in recollection.
“What did Sister-In-Law reply?” After what seemed a long time, Chu Beijie finally opened his mouth to ask.
The Queen looked at Chu Beijie, a faint smile appearing at the corners of his lips. She didn’t answer Chu Beijie’s question, whispering, “The King had always been hoping that the Duke of Zhen-Bei would return to succeed Dong Lin’s throne. I can finally be reassured and go now.”
“Sister-In-Law.” Chu Beijie half-knelt by the bed. He gently held onto her hand, carefully looking at this lady of the Royal Residence who had painstakingly protected Dong Lin for all these years. They were family. A long time ago, because he was very close to his brother, he knew his sister-in-law very well. They had banquets together, sat on the same platforms while watching dance, and laughed together while her sons played. “You will get better.”
“It doesn’t matter whether I get better or not.” The Queen faintly smiled, “Duke of Zhen-Bei, we’ve all done a lot of wrong.”
Thinking of his brother that had always pampered him, Chu Beijie painfully closed his eyes. He lowered his voice, “Chu Beijie is at fault for disappointing Brother and making Sister-in-Law suffer.”
The Queen glanced at his two eyes, tiredly closing her own. The scene of her husband’s death slowly floated in her thoughts. The scene of the Royal Residence of Dong Lin in flames followed.
She released a long sigh. “Who has never made a single fault?” She looked at Pingting, her eyes lowered and silent. “Haven’t the King and I made mistakes before? That day when we agreed to He Xia’s private arrangement, we did everything we could think of to separate Miss Bai who the Duke of Zhen-Bei loves as much as his life in exchange to disband the allied army between the Yun Chang and Bei Mo. We knew it was wrong, yet we still made the wrong decision. In comparison, Miss Bai is the one who has never made a single fault on purpose.”
Pingting shook her head, her lowered eyelashes rising to reveal her distinct eyes that glanced at Chu Beijie. She sighed, “Queen is wrong. Pingting knew the world was about to become a mess and pretended to be dead, hiding due to selfish resentment. I refused to explain Duke’s misunderstanding, hesitated to act, resulting in loss of life. Even when I knew it was wrong, I refused to go back.”
Her gaze met with Chu Beijie’s.
Moran and Luoshang were waiting outside the tent. The aftermath of their excitement had not even begun to disperse. Even though their surroundings were pitch black due to being deep in the forest and the sun was far from rising, everyone’s eyes seemed like bright lights. It seemed as if they had already seen the rising sun of the next morning.
“It’s true, it’s true…” Every once in a while, Luoshang would murmur these words, his face full of joy.
Moran vigorously patted him on the shoulder. He turned around to look at the brothers who survived through the tough battles with him. Not long ago, they had sworn to die in battle, not expecting that even one could make it out alive. Unspeakable joy coursed through him.
They waited for a long time when the tent flap moved slightly.
Luoshang leapt to his feet, “They’re coming.”
All of the people stood up, their energy a hundredfold. They eagerly eyed the tent flap.
Chu Beijie and Pingting came out.
“Sister-In-Law has already fully given Dong Lin’s royal authority to me. From now on, all of Dong Lin’s troops must listen to me.”
Chu Beijie’s calm and steady voice entered everyone’s ears.
He had always been the legitimate Dong Lin Royal House heir. There was none who didn’t accept this handover procedure, no matter how simple.
“The war situation is urgent; we have no time to spend reminiscing.” Chu Beijie looked up at the sky, “The Yun Chang army collapsing is only due to their army’s resolve in a mess. They haven’t been weakened all that much in reality and will rapidly regroup. We must immediately evacuate this area before their flag and horns are raised again. Moran.”
“Immediately rectify the army, prepare to depart.”
“You’re in charge of the Queen’s safety. Select a good horse. There are some soft hay in the carriage.” Chu Beijie lowered his voice to instruct, “Be careful, don’t let her be jolted.”
“I shall go do it immediately.”
Chu Beijie was concise with his commands and consecutively made several of them. These people accompanied him through fire & water and long gotten used to his commands. Seeing their Duke’s return, they immediately recovered their backbones with newfound agility. There was a chain of “Yes!”, “Yes!” as the crowd hurried off to complete their own tasks.
The entire camp’s movement was fast. In less than half an hour, everything was prepared. Each person came to report back to Chu Beijie. And so, the camp seemed to disperse on the spot as they hid their traces before heading towards the south of the gorge.
Chu Beijie sent another party out to prepare all sorts of false alarms and tracks on the way. These would confuse the enemy so the army of Yun Chang wouldn’t find their route.
When they stopped to rest for the night, Chu Beijie summoned all of the generals. What seemed like ages, Dong Lin finally had their very first military conference in the open woodlands.
Chu Beijie had been living in seclusion for two years. Once upon coming out, he immediately rushed to save the Dong Lin Royal House from being surrounded and had yet to have a comprehensive understanding of the four countries’ current status.
Moran deliberately described the current situation to begin. He concluded, “He Xia has gotten the rights for a treasury and granary as well as significantly raised the taxes towards the military. The rewards to be in the Yun Chang army has temporarily significantly increase. After being baptised with countless battles, as well as He Xia’s personal honing, the Yun Chang army of today is no longer the dormant, self-protecting army of the past.
“But the once more official armies of Dong Lin and Bei Mo, have all been defeated by He Xia’s Yun Chang army.” Recalling the current terrible situation, Luoshang solemnly added, “The only army that can barely resist Yun Chang would be Gui Le’s official army.”
“Gui Le is currently in civil strife. The King He Su and General Le Zhen are opposing each other. They barely have enough to care about themselves, not to mention the army of Yun Chang.”
Ruohan said, “My Bei Mo has a few secret strongholds for possible recruits to enlist at. Ever since Main General Ze Yin’s open challenge to He Xia, the number of young men enlisting increase day by day. The current figure has increased to more than ten thousand, but we don’t have weapons nor horses.
“After the defeat in the Battle of Fuzha River, our Dong Lin has completely lost its former military strength. Several of the people lost hope so they fled, while the rest of the people are here.” Moran turned back, looking at the cold and rather empty looking camp. “Including the wounded, we don’t have more than eight thousand.”
A moment of silence.
In comparison, Yun Chang already had assembled a massive army of more than three hundred thousand. Even assuming by full strength, they only had fifteen hundred.
After a day of travelling, their excitement from their first sight of Chu Beijie had gradually calmed, as the grim reality that lay ahead started to kick in.
They had the Duke of Zhen-Bei who could lead troops, but what about the horses?
Chu Beijie pondered for a while. He held up a hand. “Everyone, go get some rest. We still have to rapidly journey on tomorrow as we mustn’t let the Yun Chang army catch up to us.”
Everyone knew the main advisor needed some time to think so they all parted. Only Moran trailed behind Chu Beijie as he walked like how he always accompanied him before his Master slept.
The two people enjoyed the quiet evening breeze. They watched the flickering fire lights slowly part and diminish.
“You didn’t mention Chen Mu just now.”
“General Chen Mu…he died in battle when the Yun Chang army attacked the capital.” Moran’s voice was grave, “The Senior Official was too frail and was unable to come with us to evacuate. I heard that he didn’t want to suffer the humiliation of capture, so he committed suicide by poison.”
Both of the moods were equally heavy. Chu Beijie heaved a sigh and held his hands behind his back as he silently studied outside.
This was Moran’s first chance to privately talk with Chu Beijie since their reunion. His heart held countless questions and he couldn’t help say, “Duke, Miss Bai she…”
“She’s still alive. She forgave me and returned to my side.”
“That day…wasn’t she said to be already with Duke’s…”
Chu Beijie suddenly stopped walking. His resolute face revealed a hint of pain. Moran had been with him for many years and had very rarely seen the Duke be so unable to control his own emotions. He secretly regretted saying the wrong thing but heard Chu Beijie’s hoarse whisper. “She has experienced far too much. Surviving was already difficult enough, not to mention while protecting her child? I…”
His fist clenched and unclenched, and clenched again.
“…I just can’t ask her.”
That suffering child was most likely gone.
After seeing Pingting, he had been travelling without stop to try solve this chaotic situation, from the dense forest spanning miles to Jiangling Ancient City, then to save Moran and the rest. He hadn’t had much time at all to discuss the past with Pingting.
It wasn’t really that much at all, but he, the dignified Duke of Zhen-Bei who could face thousands of soldiers without batting an eyelid, couldn’t find the slightest hint of courage whenever this problem was mentioned. He knew no matter how sweet his words or how much he thanked to skies, he could never summon enough courage.
He couldn’t dare imagine the Yun Chang soldiers hunting Pingting, falling into all sorts of treacherous circumstances, her devastating loss of the child in her belly.
And perhaps this tragic matter had already become a bloody wound on Pingting’s heart, one she would refuse to talk about even today?
Chu Beijie stood outside his own tent, his mixed feelings made him unable to take a step further.
Moran’s question had directly stepped on the thorn in his heart. He really wanted to pull it out, but if he did, wouldn’t it cause Pingting to be hurt again?
She had painstakingly returned to his side. Chu Beijie would rather give away his life than letting Pingting feel the slightest trace of sadness.
“How long does Duke want to stand outside?” asked a gentle voice. The tent entrance was lifted as Pingting appeared from the inside the door.
She walked out, taking Chu Beijie’s hand in hers, leading him into the tent. She smiled, “Pingting has always acknowledged Duke’s ability to lead troops. No matter how grim the situation is, there isn’t a need for Duke to feel so distressed. What on earth have Moran and Duke been talking about to make Duke reveal such a depressed expression?”
Chu Beijie held onto Pingting’s soft hand, warm and gentle. He tightened his grip and felt that heaven would be like this, delightfully beautiful. He thought of how his one question he wanted to ask would destroy it all and gritted his teeth, finally making his choice.
“Pingting, that day in the secluded residence…”
“Duke, the spies we sent out have returned.” At the most inappropriate time ever, the report was made outside the tent.
For some reason however, Chu Beijie secretly sighed in relief. He hurriedly went outside, “Speak!”
In the capital of Yun Chang, all faces were without colour.
“What?” He Xia, dressed in white, slapped the table before standing. He was astonished. “Chu Beijie suddenly appeared?”
“Correct.” The messenger was kneeling, not daring to raise his head. “Several soldiers personally witnessed the Duke of Zhen-Bei on the hillside. Just a single arrow was enough to shoot General Chengjing to death.”
“How many people did he have?”
“I have asked the soldiers, but they all said they didn’t know.”
He Xia fumed, “When two armies are clashing, how can you not know how many men appeared in the ambush from behind?”
“Report to Prince Consort. Back then…when they saw the Duke of Zhen-Bei, they were all scared and confused. The army was defeated and dispersed before the armies even clashed…”
“Bastards!” He Xia yelled.
The messenger soldier was like a cicada in winter, not daring to make a single sound.
“Tens of thousands of soldiers ran away at the sight of a single silhouette on the hillside before the armies even clashed.” He Xia started pacing back and forth in the room, seething, “What the heck was Chengjing doing? Even if he was still alive, I’d punish him for not being strict enough when training his soldiers.”
Ever since the death of Princess Yaotian, the Prince Consort completely grasped the royal authority of Yun Chang. A vicious evil seemed to be unconsciously present in his eyes, chilling his audiences.
The messenger knelt right against the ground. Listening to He Xia’s thuds overhead, each sound seemed to drum at his own heart until it banged and rattled. He suddenly heard a voice outside, reporting, “Prince Consort, the messenger stationed at the Royal Residence of Dong Lin has arrived.”
“Let him come in.”
The door was pushed open, and another dusty-looking messenger came in to kneel. He panted as he reported, “Report to Prince Consort, the Duke of Zhen-Bei suddenly appeared in Dong Lin’s capital, killing several Yun Chang soldiers.”
“What’s that?” He Xia stopped, “Elaborate.”
“Six days ago, the Duke of Zhen-Bei appeared outside the Dong Lin capital, using a bow and arrow to kill several soldiers stationed on the city walls.”
“Why didn’t you send pursuers?
“The General immediately sent troops out from the city, but once the Duke of Zhen-Bei finished provoking, he immediately led the other riders beside him away. By the time we hurried to outside the city, they disappeared into the distance. The night was late too, so their traces were difficult to find.”
“Late at night?” He Xia narrowed his eyes, “He was at the capital six nights ago?”
He Xia looked at the messenger who arrived first. “Just then, you said Chu Beijie appeared on the hillside six days ago, before the trapped Dong Lin Royal House in the dense forest?”
“Yes, Prince Consort.”
“These two places are too far apart, how could Chu Beijie possibly be in two places at once?”
“Was his face clearly seen?” He Xia asked the messenger sent from Dong Lin’s capital.
“His face wasn’t seen. According to the soldiers at the scene, the people around him were all shouting ‘the Duke of Zhen-Bei’…”
“Imbecile, you determined he was the Duke of Zhen-Bei just because the other party yelled a bit? How could such a ridiculous ploy trick me?” He Xia shouted, “Someone! Take him away!”
“Have mercy! Prince Consort, have mercy on me! I don’t dare speak nonsense, I can’t possibly stage a ploy! All of the people in Dong Lin are saying the Duke of Zhen-Bei has returned, but whether it’s true or not, I will definitely investigate it in detail…” The messenger repeatedly kowtowed.
Dongzhuo hurried through the door with a letter. Seeing He Xia’s ashen expression, he glanced back at the messengers desperately pleading for mercy. He asked, “Master?”
He Xia saw he was holding an army report and knew it was something important. He ordered, “I can’t be bothered, so I’ll let you go for now. You can go.”
The two messengers’ lives were spared. They stumbled out.
“Master, Chu Beijie appeared at the Bei Mo capital.”
“Six days ago.”
He Xia sneered, “Six days ago, Chu Beijie appeared in three places, Dong Lin capital, the forest, and Bei Mo’s capital. Even idiots know what’s going on.”
Dongzhuo suddenly understood, “Someone is using Chu Beijie’s fame and is impersonating him to shake my army’s morale. True though, Chu Beijie has been missing for so long. He should have long appeared when the Dong Lin Royal Residence was being attacked, so there’s no way he’d suddenly appear at such a time!
He Xia closed his eyes for a few moments, listening to Dongzhuo’s words. He opened his eyes again, an excited ray of light jumping in his eyes.
“No, it actually shows that Chu Beijie really has appeared. This plan of appearing in three places is defence by seeing the enemy’s first attack, trying to trick us into believing someone else is impersonating Chu Beijie. It’s a pity it can trick others but can’t trick me.”
Dongzhuo was shocked and took a while before taking a deep breath of cold air. He raised his concerns, “If it really is Chu Beijie himself, will Master gather up the army and immediately go to Dong Lin to defeat him?”
“Chu Beijie specialises in hiding his trail. Do you know how many resources and time he needs to prepare for a battle in the vast Dong Lin?” He Xia’s handsome features hid a sharpness. The corners of his lips lifted slightly, “Send an Order, prepare to depart. I will head for Gui Le.”
Dongzhuo’s expression was puzzled. “Fei Zhaoxing and Shang Lu have already been sent to Gui Le and are enough to finish off Gui Le while it is in civil strife. Why must Master go himself?”
“When fighting a giant, attack its Achilles heel. Dongzhuo, do you know where Chu Beijie’s Achilles heel is?” He Xia’s bright eyes swivelled, giving Dongzhuo a profound look.
“Chu Beijie’s Achilles heel?” Dongzhuo had no answer to the question. His eyebrows furrowed as he pondered.
He Xia saw he didn’t know and chuckled. “Chu Beijie’s Achilles heel lies in the two words, soldier and horse.”
Straight to the point.
Dongzhuo suddenly jolted with realisation.
Dong Lin and Bi Mo’s elite soldiers have already been lost. If Chu Beijie wanted to gain a large amount of soldiers, he would have to try his luck with the Gui Le army.
He Xia need to immediately reach Gui Le. As long as he ruined the Gui Le army, he would break Chu Beijie’s last dream of getting troops.
A housewife cannot cook a meal without rice. Without soldiers and horses, what could Chu Beijie do?
Even if he was a God, there was no way his strength was enough to fight against the massive Yun Chang army.
After everything was decided, the two people stepped out of the office one after the other.
“Even now, I hardly believe Chu Beijie would suddenly appear.” Dongzhuo mumbled as he walked, “Why on earth would he come out of the mountains for no reason at all.”
“Chu Beijie would not have come out for any reason at all.”
“There must be a reason.” He Xia replied in a serious voice. His bright eyes swivelled towards the rear courtyard. In the shadows, he saw the room Pingting once lived in.
The room door remained tightly shut.
In this huge world, who else but her had the power to bring the devastated Chu Beijie out of the mountains?
- “A housewife cannot cook a meal without rice”: You can’t do anything without having the right resources. At first I wanted to translated this as, “You can’t make bricks without straw”, which is a more common English saying, but the literal translation makes sense as well.