There were always a few unpredictable days.
Just after two days of sun, the sky began to scowl again. Dense clouds hung overhead, darkly shrouding both near and far mountains.
Zuiju studied the sky and sighed. “Looks like another snowstorm.”
Pingting leaned against the rock as she ascended the sleeping mountain slope. She was slightly panting as she silently assessed the blurry figures of people drifting far away below her. “Xiaoyang Mountain is just ahead. After that checkpoint, we’ll be in Bei Mo. Worry about the snowstorm later.”
Their initial bags had been stolen by officials while they were guests at an old couple’s cabin. They no longer had any money or clothes. They would doctor the occasional sick person to earn back a little but overall, it was another additional worry on their journey. Their tender hands had been rubbed until they formed a cocoon layer.
Today they saw one of the checkpoints to get to Bei Mo, Xiaoyang Mountain. The two heaved a sigh of relief. When they got to Bei Mo, Yangfeng would surely help them settle in. The two helped support each other down from the top of the mountain. They were much more careful than setting off. After all, they had experienced countless hardships on their journey from the capital of Yun Chang to here. They quietly hid themselves in the forest trail, lurking at the edge of the road as they studied the movement on the Xiaoyang Mountain.
A few people resembling merchants led a cart, ready to pass the checkpoint. As if knowing that a snowstorm would soon come, the leader of the merchants peered at the skies anxiously. He took out a bag of coins from his arms and stuffed it into the captain of the guards. He held his hands as he begged, “Sir, look at this weather. A snowstorm is about to come, even if people can last, our livestock cannot. Please spare us and let us cross without further ado. I exit every month at least three or four times, so how could I possibly not have an approved exit pass? It’s just that this checkpoint never checks for it, so today is a bit sudden…”
“So you’re blaming us, eh?” The captain harrumphed. “It never used to be checked, because our superiors never told us to check. A war is going on now. A war, do ya understand? The documents are hung over there and if you’re literate enough, then read them yourself. It’s clearly written. Without an approved exit pass, you cannot cross this checkpoint.”
In the bushes, the two who overheard their conversation exchanged a worried glance.
“This place is just like Hemeng Mountain, only those with an approved exit pass are allowed to cross.” Zuiju’s face was sad, “What to do? We spent all that bitter effort rushing over from the Hemeng Mountain.”
Pingting’s deep black eyes stared at the narrow gap between the old doors of the Xiaoyang Mountain gate. “It seems that all of the checkpoints from Yun Chang to Bei Mo have been strictly ordered to only allow those with an approved exit pass to cross.”
She should of thought of it earlier. Checkpoint inspections were bound to be strengthened when war dawned.
Yun Chang couldn’t possibly allow surprise attacks from Bei Mo that would significantly injure them while caught up with the battle against Dong Lin.
“What to do?”
“No other choice.” Pingting raised her head, looking at the towering mountains obscured by clouds.
This stretch of mountains separated the two countries, Yun Chang and Bei Mo. Checkpoints had been set on all of the slightly lower mountains. In the winter, the forests in the tall mountains were bitterly freezing and the animals were starving. Only madmen would attempt to cross that way.
“Miss?” Zuiju looked at her uneasily.
Pingting calmly smiled. “Since we can’t get through the checkpoint, then might as well cross the Songsen Mountains.”
“Such risk…” Zuiju began, “Why not stay around at the borders for a while and wait…” Her gaze rested on Pingting’s belly and paused.
Pingting shook her head. “The checkpoint won’t relax, it’ll only get stricter. Princess Yaotian should have already hurried to the frontlines by now. He Xia will quickly realise which direction we have fled in. I know He Xia’s power very well. The moment he comes back from leading the army on the battlefield, he’ll immediately intervene with the border checkpoints to capture us. When that happens, we will never have another opportunity to leave Yun Chang again.”
Zuiju looked at the dark Songsen Mountain forests under the heavy clouds and took a deep breath of cold air. However, she quickly calmed down. “Before we climb the mountains, I would like to pick some medicinal herbs. Mo grass, used to prevent miscarriage, is only found at the foot of mountains.”
Pingting planned that by the time she had crossed the Songsen mountains, the deciding battle between Yun Chang and Dong Lin had already been dissolved by the letter Yaotian deliver.
He Xia sat on the horse, icily watching the Dong Lin’s army withdraw troop by troop.
The smoke in the air dissipated.
After the tension in the string was released, only infinite loneliness and disappointment remained.
Hundreds of thousands of troops had been sent for this occasion, but suddenly the most supreme flag of Yun Chang had appeared at the battlefield. He was the highest ranking general of Yun Chang. In its history he had not known anything about this at all in advance.
Under the numerous pairs of eyes that watched, Chu Beijie and Yaotian calmly talked without a care from a carriage in the gap between the two armies.
He had watched Chu Beijie ride his horse back and heard the crisp sound of the Dong Lin army’s command.
He understood everything that had happened.
“The Dong Lin army is withdrawing?”
“The Dong Lin army has withdrawn!”
From beside, from behind, every inch of the ground, from every Yun Chang soldier that had been waiting for certain death on the battlefield the rumbling sound of pleasant surprise came.
His vice general turned to him, lowering his voice as he reported, “Prince Consort, the Dong Lin army has withdrawn.”
He Xia’s eyes were suddenly sombre.
At that moment, he had the urge to pull his sword out of its scabbard and order attack. Both armies had approximately the same number of soldiers, but since the Dong Lin army was withdrawing, the sudden rush forwards from the other meant they were certain to gain the upper hand.
As long as they were able to rush forwards, he was sure that he could cut off Chu Beijie’s head.
Hand clutching tightly to the hilt of the sword, He Xia struggled to suppress the desires that surged into his heart.
He couldn’t send out the order.
Even if he pulled out his sword, the army would not listen to his orders.
Yaotian was there, and the most supreme flag of Yun Chang was waving in the sky. He was just the Prince Consort, or even just a general.
“Prince Consort, the army of Dong Lin has retreated.” His vice repeated his report again, in a whisper.
He Xia’s face was ashen and finally let a tiny, cold smile surface onto his face. “I see.”
He smiled as his gaze watched Yaotian’s carriage slowly roll towards the army. In that lonely yet elaborately decorated carriage, his wife, the master of Yun Chang, sat.
The huge army immediately silenced.
The person that had resolved the war was the sole master of Yun Chang and the only person all soldiers were loyal to – Princess Yaotian.
The carriage quietly trotted forwards before stopping quietly before the troops, the withdrawing Dong Lin army behind it. The carriage was now in front of thousands of soldiers, He Xia included.
Yaotian was sitting in the carriage. Her body had been wrapped in layers of heavy clothing, but she still felt chilling waves of unease.
After convincing Chu Beijie, she had another difficult problem to face. It seemed that He Xia’s gaze pierced through the thick cloth of the carriage’s window. She couldn’t summon her courage to open it to face him.
Bai Pingting was no longer in the Prince Consort Residence.
Regardless of the ten million reasons that justified this happening as good, Bai Pingting’s departure remained a fact.
On the way there, she had already thought of many reasons to explain it.
Should there be a reasonable, honourable way for the master of Yun Chang to persuade with force or gentleness? Or use a woman’s honesty to tell He Xia? Perhaps carry all sadness herself…
It was no use. At the last minute, all this was useless.
The carriage stood quietly where it stopped. In Yaotian’s mind, only the huge figure of He Xia on his horse was in front of her.
At this time, she heard the crisp sound of a sword being unsheathed.
So crisp, so sweet, a hint of determination and resolution.
No one else had such a way of unsheathing their sword, apart from the man who had her deepest love.
Prince Consort, Prince Consort, do you hate Yaotian?
Do you want to kill me?
Yaotian closed her eyes.
He Xia stared deeply into the carriage, through the closed curtains, as he unsheathed his sword.
The sword stretched out, quivering without end. He Xia then directed it towards the sky, using all of his effort until exhausted. He roared, “Long live the Princess!”
“Long live the Princess!”
“Long live the Princess!”
“Hooray! Hooray! Long live the Princess!”
The people behind him continued his chant, their voices like thunder.
“Long live the Princess!”
On the plains, the echoes continued to roar back.
The curtain before them slowly began to lift, and a face appeared before He Xia.
“Prince Consort…” Yaotian whispered back.
“Thank you, Princess.”
Yaotian stared at the handsome face that she could never have enough of and whispered, “Why thank me, Prince Consort? Prince Consort knows that I have released Bai Pingting who Prince Consort has spent so much effort in acquiring to make Dong Lin’s army withdraw.”
He Xia’s expression was the usual. He intently studied Yaotian for a while before leisurely sighing, “After this incident, I know that Princess’ love for me is true.”
“Princess Consort!” Yaotian’s tears could no longer be stopped. They poured out, not caring about the crowd. She pounced into He Xia’s warm chest. In his embrace, Yaotian cried, “Yaotian released Bai Pingting and hence betrayed Prince Consort.”
“Princess is wrong.” He Xia softly stroked his wife in his arms, whispering, “Only the woman who know true love are able to feel jealousy. To let Pingting leave alive, He Xia is…very grateful to Princess.”
Yaotian trembled slightly in He Xia’s arms. Having his broad shoulders beside her gave her unlimited courage.
He Xia’s voice was soft and warm. The flag of the Dong Lin’s army was reflected in his eyes as they moved faraway.
If Pingting went, she would not stay in Yun Chang nor return to Dong Lin.
The only direction she would go was towards Bei Mo.
On the Songsen mountains, a snowstorm was soon to arrive.
Pingting and Zuiju’s footsteps were sometimes deep, other times shallow in the snow. They kept moving upwards breathlessly.
“The snowstorm is coming.”
“Could we get to the rocky area before then?”
Pingting considered it. “I’m afraid no.”
Zuiju’s heart sank and began to feel anxious. “Then what are we to do? We’re in a forest in winter. Leafless trees are everywhere. The snow cannot be stopped anywhere, so we’ll freeze to death.” Her ten thin fingers were tightly clutched to their only bag.
They had managed to earn some money from giving medical help to a few people in the last few days. Apart from buying a regulation set of silver needles for doctors and food, they had spent the rest on warm clothing. However, even though they were wearing the thickest clothing they had, there was no chance of protecting them from lasting a snowstorm outside. Pingting raised her head, staring at the sky that had quickly been covered with heavy clouds. The snow had not begun. There was no trace of wind yet, but the shadows were brewing in the clouds.
“Zuiju, light the fire.”
“Geez, why light the fire at such a time? When the wind and snow comes, fire is no use at all.”
Pingting calmly replied, “Light the fire and boil water.” A leisurely smile surfaced on her delicate face.
Zuiju wanted to say more, but seeing the smile in Pingting’s lips made her helplessly swallow her words back down her throat. “Fine, I’ll light the fire and boil water,” she answered.
She took out the matches, a few dry branches from the forest and quickly set up a fire on the windless, snowy plains.
“Dig a hole in the snow.”
The snow was very loose and the two dug with their hands, their knees touching the ground. In a short while, their hands had already reached the mud beneath the snow. The mud had absorbed much more heat and was much more difficult to dig through than the snow.
Zuiju frowned. “It’s not deep again, let’s dig a little more.”
“No need,” Zuiju replied. “Create a small tent with the twigs.”
There was not much time left and the black clouds were swimming rapidly overhead, as if anxious to find an outlet to vent out of. A little tent had then been set up over the hole with twigs. Pingting had found many leaves and deftly scattered them over the shed.
Zuiju scrambled up to help her, her voice becoming more urgent. “This will fall with just one gust of wind. What’s the point?”
After scattering enough leaves, Pingting opened up the bag and removed the two remaining clean spare clothing. She spread it over the shelter.
“Miss, what are you doing that for?”
“Bring me the water and pour it over this.”
“It’s not boiled yet,” said Zuiju, hesitating.
Pingting was both annoyed and amused. “Melting the ice is enough. What do I need boiled water for?”
Zuiju looked at the little tent and then back at the pot of melted ice. Realisation suddenly dawned her, “Oh! Oh!” Understanding suddenly lighted up in her big eyes. “Yes, yes! I’ll bring it over.”
They poured the melted ice over the shelter, causing the clothes and the leaves that covered the shelter to absorb its moisture. Instantly, a thin layer of ice appeared on the outermost layer of clothing.
“How handy!” Zuiju happily began to laugh.
“Don’t laugh so soon, the water isn’t enough. Hurry up and get some more.”
“Yes, yes, going now.”
Moving back and forth, the fire kept melting the ice blocks.
Pot and pots kept on being poured onto the shelter. The ice on the outside became thicker and stronger.
Zuiju carried the pot, poured it over and finally asked, “Is this enough?” The water had been poured onto the top of the tent and it poured down every corner and had already been frozen into a layer ice before reaching the snowy ground.
“This snowstorm isn’t light.” Pingting studied the surging dark clouds overhead. “Melt a bit more.”
There were a series of muffled thunder deeply embedded in the storm clouds. A long distance seemed to have been crossed before finally reaching the ground.
On the dreary snowy plains, perhaps there was a cold breeze. Perhaps not.
Pingting’s expression suddenly changed. “Not enough time to melt more. Hurry up and hide in here. She grabbed Zuiju and the two through themselves into the little pre-made entrance. The two nested inside as there was very little room, tightly hugging onto each other.
“It’s so warm inside.” Even though they were a bit squashed, Zuiju’s sigh was still comfortable.
The wind had already begun to howl.
Half of the shed was in the snow, while the other half had a brick-like roof made of ice. It should be strong enough to help them resist the snowstorm.
Pingting and Zuiju nervously listened to the scary sounds of movement outside.
Contrarily to the outside world, the inside of the shelter was extraordinarily quiet.
“We should be able to pass through the Songsen mountains right?”
Pingting remained silent. Only after a long time did she reply, “Yes, we should.”
“Are you thinking about something?”
“Thinking about what?”
Pingting moved ever so slightly as slowly answered, “Zuiju, no matter how long the snowstorm goes outside, no matter how warm it is in here, we must never fall asleep. If the snow covers the entrance gap, and we’ve fallen asleep, then we will suffocate to death.”
Zuiju was indeed sleepy from the very warm environment. This news startled her. She was instantly removed of her weariness. She replied, “Understood.” She couldn’t help sigh at this though.
The shelter was very quiet. Not to mention, the two were pressed tightly to each other, so Pingting obviously heard her sigh.
“What are you sighing for?” Pingting asked.
There was silence for a brief while. Pingting softly asked, “Are you thinking that if we do end up suffocating to death here, no one will ever know of our whereabouts forever?”
Zuiju couldn’t help sighing again. “Miss Bai, why are you so clever?”
The corners of Pingting’s mouth twitched. Out of it came a bitterly twisted smile.
Another silence fell on the small tent.
Sometime later, Zuiju couldn’t help asking in a small voice, “If we really were to give our lives up on the Songsen Mountains…”
“It won’t happen.” Pingting interrupted her words, softening her voice “It won’t happen, Zuiju.”
A sour taste rose to the tip of her nose. Zuiju didn’t understand why her eyes suddenly became red. She fumbled and stretched out her hand to touch the tips of Pingting’s fingers. She clutched tightly onto her slender hand.
The two hands full of blisters, yet still dexterous, clenched together in the darkness.
In the quiet world, Zuiju’s breathing suddenly stopped.
The breathing that had abruptly stopped was highly unusual. Pingting waited quietly while Zuiju made no movement on her wrist, as if waiting quietly too.
After a long time had passed, Zuiju released her held breath. The breathing that floated towards Pingting’s ears seemed more anxious than before.
“Miss Bai, your pulse is…very weak.” Zuiju’s voice was also anxious. “I must immediately treat you with acupuncture.”
“No need to hurry, Zuiju.” Pingting lightly replied.
“No, it must be done immediately.” Zuiju habitually reached out her hand to look for the bag which knocked into the hardened wall of the shelter, making it feel sore.
Where was the bag?
Zuiju suddenly stiffened.
“We came in a rush.” In the darkness, Pingting’s voice was very soft and collected. “Zuiju, the bag is still outside. Remember? It’s left where I took out the spare clothing.”
The snow furiously pounded against the solid roof, producing a terrifying sound.
The deathly silence inside and the raging howl of the wind outside were two very different worlds.
A light flashed in the dark depths of Zuiju’s eyes. She did not hesitate long before she clenched her teeth. “I will get it back, it should be nearby. I’ll grab it the moment I move out.”
“No.” Pingting lightly spat out a word.
Zuiju suddenly realised that Pingting had positioned herself to fully block the entrance. There was no way she could wriggle her way out.
“Miss Bai, I understand your concern, but I must bring the needles back.” Zuiju lowered her voice. “I am a doctor.”
In the darkness, the outline of Pingting’s figure seemed hazy, as if the dull world had blended into her. Yet her fragile body was as dignified and stable as a mountain.
“Zuiju, do you even know where the needles are? No one knows where it has been hurled to by the wind after a snowstorm has started.”
“Perhaps it has been caught in a nearby branch. I can still go to look for it.” She continued forwards and collided into Pingting’s arms. Her fingers slipped around her wrist and finally onto her hand, “Miss Bai, like I said before, that I will do everything to protect you and your child.”
Pingting’s body refused to budge. She stood there like a statue of thousands of years. Her hand returned the tight grasp of Zuiju’s hand.
“I’ve also said before that we won’t die. It won’t happen, Zuiju.”
The two freezing, slender hands tightly held each other, causing the slight warmth from being bonded to slowly rise.
The space in the shed was much too small. Zuiju could only push Pingting away.
“But, your child…” Zuiju’s heard her own voice, carrying a low sob, in the pitch black darkness. She loosened her clenched hand and used her fingertips to explore Pingting’s pulse once more.
After detecting a disordered skin, she lifted her slightly trembling fingers.
A warm liquid dripped onto her skirt.
In the silent darkness, the sound of her teardrops falling was heard very clearly.
Needles, how could she have forgotten the most important needles?
On the journey, she had continuously used medicinal herbs as well as needles to strengthen Pingting’s body and stabilise her pulse. Why had she forgotten them when the snowstorm was about to fall?
Where was the roaring storm outside going to blow the bag with the needles to?
Zuiju could never forget this cruel storm in her life.
“Don’t worry, the child will be fine.”
Had she heard wrong?
In Pingting’s voice, there was a deep sense of gentleness and calmness.
Zuiju felt the messy pulse on her wrist. There calm, faint words were like needles stabbing at Zuiju’s heart.
In the darkness, she heard Pingting stifling a chuckle, her voice as gentle as a sweet dream. “The child in my belly is obediently sleeping. I am his mother and will protect him. The storm is fierce but he is in me, very warm and very safe.”
Hearing Pingting’s voice, Zuiju could almost see the corners of her mouth lifting into a small smile.
Gentle and touching, like the first rain of spring.
Pingting was indeed smiling.
The worst imperfections always came at the most terrible moments.
In the snowstorm, she had remembered the bag and in it, the needles. At the same time, she knew there was no going back. The roaring storm on the snowy plains was not only good at grabbing bags, but also grabbing away the lives of living people.
She knew her pulse was chaotic.
Her head was a little dizzy and her eyes were blurred. She did not know whether it was the darkness or some other reason. Her energy seemed to be pumped away, whisp by whisp.
But even so, she had to smile more.
“Don’t worry about my child and me, Zuiju. We’ll get through this snow.”
Although this child is young, he is not as fragile as you think.
He was conceived in winter.
In his mother’s womb, he could feel the peace of the secluded residence, hear the qin sound that touched the four countries, admired the heartbreakingly bright moon. He had seen the fire that raged in the night sky, the snowy ground died red from fresh blood, as well as boarded the carriage with his mother to leave, full of despair and sorrow.
This child will be stronger than me, more courageous.
His father is the world-famous general, the never to be defeated Duke of Zhen-Bei.
In his veins, the blood of Chu Beijie flows.
The most powerful blood of this world.