When horses were fattened, sheep flocks were also doing well. The rainwater this year was decent, and the grass on the plains grew non-stop. The sheep, cattle and horses did not lack food so herding was comfortably done, as any random place would do.
Ze Yin was a man who had led armies to war so he was both strong and unafraid of hardship. He led Weiting grow food and look after the livestock, while Yangfeng weaved some cloth during her free time. They were self-sufficient and life was laid-back.
“Changxiao can walk now.”
“Walk? I reckon he could run the moment his feet hit the ground. He’s always wriggling; you have no idea how hard it is to catch him.”
Pingting had given this child the right name as he indeed liked to laugh.
Yangfeng was delighted at the sight of him every time. “He’s always in a jolly good mood, I wonder what he’s laughing about?”
Pingting scooped tottering Changxiao and pointed at his nose, blaming, “Geez, your walking is unsteady enough; no need to run. How many times do you need to fall to feel pain?”
Ze Qing tugged at the corners of Pingting’s clothing. “Carry.”
Yangfeng hurriedly pulled her son to one side, holding back her laughter. “You’re still young and shouldn’t haul Changxiao at your pace. What if you drop him?” She shook her head before looking at Pingting. “I reckon you ought to let Changxiao and Qing’er become brothers. He truly loves to stick to Changxiao.”
“Why bother? They’re always together and look like actual brothers to anyone.”
“How could they possibly look like actual brothers? Qing’er looks plain silly while Changxiao was born with a hint of dominance. Look at those eyes and that nose; he’s literally a tiny…” The title, the Duke of Zhen-Bei was stuck in Yangfeng’s throat, leaving her sentence suddenly cut by a lack of voice. She knew she had said the wrong thing. Her heart was uneasy as she raised her eyes to look at Pingting.
Pingting had been teasing her son when her face had paled. It was a long time before she smiled bitterly, “Not just his eyes and nose, but his expression too.” She poked at her son’s tender nose, unsatisfied as she whispered, “What’s wrong with looking like Mother? Why must you look like that person?”
My son, do you know of the Duke of Zhen-Bei?
The Duke of Zhen-Bei’s name is Chu Beijie.
He could wield a heavy sword, capture the enemy general’s head from the middle of thousands of soldiers, and held the power and influence to conquer the world. Those will ill intentions would shiver in his presence.
He was intelligent, courageous, and dauntless -an unchallenged famous general on the battlefields.
He should be in the Dong Lin Royal Residence, right? When autumn passed and the days of winter arrived, there would be a grand celebration in honour of his birth.
The sixth, I remember.
His birthday was the sixth.
Yun Chang’s army was threatening Dong Lin’s borders, jolting the Dong Lin Royal House awake from the peaceful dreams, realising how insecure Dong Lin was without Chu Beijie. The Queen of Chu Beijie immediately retrieved the flag of command and commanded Chen Mu to lead the army opposing He Xia.
But the enemy general leading the troops to attack was He Xia. Whether it was the Queen of Dong Lin or Chen Mu in charge, both knew that it was a war with no hope.
When He Xia arrived at Dong Lin’s borders, he immediately summoned all of the major generals and threw out their first task.
“The report of returning spies mention that enemy advisor Chen Mu is now on his way and Dong Lin’s reinforcements will soon arrive here. My army must hold its ground. First conquer Yan Lin City. Which one amongst you will be willing to gain this first victory?” When He Xia finished speaking, he smiled as he scanned the familiar military generals around him.
Military generals fought for reward, so who didn’t want the first victory? Several of the younger officials seemed eager, but Gui Yan opened his mouth the quickest and stood out from the row to speak, “Gui Yan is willing to help Prince Consort capture Yan Lin City.”
He Xia seemed to have long expected that he would be the one. He listened with his head slightly inclined before gently asking, “Does Junior General Gui know who is currently guarding Yan Lin City?”
“Yes, it’s one of Chu Beijie’s ex-subordinates, Luoshang.”
“Yes.” He Xia nodded briskly, his expression inscrutable. “Luoshang is a mighty general fully tuned by Chu Beijie. He’s a very fierce defender and has a significant amount of troops himself. Junior General Gui’s Yongxiao Regiment may not be able to capture Yan Lin City. Sending out the Weibei Regiment alongside might be good too…”
“No need.” Gui Yan flatly refused, his voice quite proud. “I have already sent mines to confirm the enemy’s status. The Yongxiao army is twice more than the defending troops at Yan Lin City, enough for a siege. He’s merely just a Luoshang, not a Chu Beijie, so what need is there for my second uncle to attack?”
Gui Changning deliberately agreed with a few grunts before raising his coarse voice to speak. “Such overkill, like killing chicken with a cattle gun. There’s no need for two of my Yun Chang’s regiments to attack a tiny city like that, elsewise the army of Dong Lin will mock Prince Consort.”
He Xia saw the uncle and nephew echoed each other but didn’t appear angry. He only agreed, “Fine then. I’ll just wait to celebrate for Junior General’s good news.”
Gui Yan gained a chance of meritorious service. He remembered his father’s repeated warnings and couldn’t help be a little more suspicious. He submissively gestured and said, “Prince Consort, before I lead the army to attack the city, I have a small request.”
He Xia asked, “What request?”
“In the case that something unexpected happens and reinforcements needs to be sent from the main camp, please let my second uncle lead them, Prince Consort.”
He was young and fit so his request was full of meaning. With this, he was obviously worried that the main advisor He Xia was planning to harm him and did not trust the other generals either.
The rest of the generals had long been impressed by He Xia’s famous demeanour and were not particularly pleased towards the Gui family that opposed He Xia at any chance in the courts. Listening to this, each and every eye narrowed in study at Gui Yan, a person who had shot up to the rank of a Junior General thanks to his family.
He Xia’s broad-mindedness was unexpected by all. He pondered and said, “Such a small request, I’ll promise you that much.”
Gui Yan easily received He Xia’s promise and couldn’t help feel a little bewildered. When the rest of the generals finished discussing military affairs, each scattered. Gui Yan and Gui Changning left together. Gui Changning mused while walking, “I didn’t expect him to be so easy to talk to. No, to such a tiny city like Yan Lin… the Yongxiao regiment is more than enough. What need is there for reinforcements? All he’s done is make us owe him a favour. Yan’er, you better put on a good show for everyone to see and bring glory to our Gui family for once.”
“Of course.” Gui Yan chuckled. After thinking for a moment, his expression changed to stern. “I’m not afraid of ten thousand, just afraid of a single if. Second Uncle, I will lead the troops away, but you must be more careful back here. You mustn’t…”
“Drink alcohol right.” Gui Changning angrily looked at him, “Am I that untrustworthy? I promised your father that I wouldn’t drink alcohol and drag everyone down. Don’t worry!”
The next day, when the sky had yet to lighten, Gui Yan led the army under his jurisdiction, the Yongxiao Regiment, towards Yan Lin City.
Gui Changning was rather worried as they were family after all. He personally sent him out from the main camp. He lowered his voice, “Luoshang is a person who trained under Chu Beijie. In case of an abnormal situation, don’t try to be brave and immediately send a messenger to report to me.”
Gui Yan nodded, a confident smile appearing on his young face. “And when successful, I’ll immediately send a messenger to report to Second Uncle too.”
Gui Changning laughed. “Go, I’ll be waiting for your good news.”
Before dawn, the sky was darker than night. Gui Changning watched Gui Yan and his horse disappear before making back to the camp.
The camp’s several other unrelated regiments were still at rest while a few tiny squads were on patrol.
Gui Changning thought there wasn’t much else important today apart from waiting for the news from Yan Lin City, so he went back to catch up on some sleep. On the way back, he took a path through the barracks of his trusted troops until he stepped into his army tent, casually tossing his heavy armour onto the bed before opening his mouth to yawn.
A hand came from behind, silently and suddenly covering his mouth.
Gui Changning widened his eyes. He too could be considered a seasoned veteran of the battlefield. He stretched a hand to touch his waist. He had yet to touch his sword’s hilt when the back of his head was thumped once. The culprit had knocked his head hard and he was quite strong, causing Gui Changning to jolt twice before collapsing onto the ground, unconscious.
Once he had fallen, the attacker revealed himself. He was dressed in black, his face covered with black cloth, only revealing a pair of eyes flickering in the dimly lit military tent. He studied the collapsed Gui Changning on the ground, his eyes unmistakeably revealing disdain. He checked Gui Changning’s breathing before pulling out a few bottles of decently aged wine Gui Changning had carefully hidden. After taking out a bag of sedatives from his sleeve, he poured it into the wine bottle and shook it, letting the sedatives mix into the alcohol.
“This cup is dedicated to your brother, Yun Chang’s Sir Senior Official.” The culprit murmured this. His voice was crisp and apparently He Xia, the highest ranked advisor in the camp controlling three regiments.
He Xia helped the unconscious Gui Changqing up, tilted the bottle and forcefully pried his mouth open. He detested the Gui to no end and showed no mercy by filling Gui Changqing with around nine bottles before putting him back on the bed and leaving in a waltz.
Bada, bada, bada bump!
“Please send reinforcements!”
By noon, a fast horse galloped inside from outside the camp . The rider was wearing Yun Chang’s military uniform and drenched in blood. When he reached the camp entrance, he raised his head and howled, “Please send reinforcements! General Gui Yan pleads for reinforcements! Pass…the message on quick…”
The guarding tent all knew that he was one of Gui Yan’s trusted guards and were surprised. They hurriedly opening the entrance to let him through.
When the rest of the generals heard the news, they all hurried to the advisory tent.
“Please send reinforcements! Please send reinforcements!” The manservant entasked with the message hurled inside. He fell with a thud the moment he entered, breathing heavily as he reported.
“Prince Consort, my army was ambushed by the Dong Lin army outside Yan Lin city. The situation is critical; Can Prince Consort send in reinforcements!”
He Xia guessed that much ages ago, yet his face revealed surprise. He took two steps forward, urging the manservant with his question, “How could this be?”
“It’s an ambush! General Gui Yan had only just led us nearby Yan Lin City when two sets of Dong Lin troops charged toward us in unison, causing my army to be attacked from both the front and rear.”
“Ambush? Whose troops?”
“The ambushing troops were led by Chu Mo Rang.”
“What is the current situation of the battle?”
“Dong Lin had set up landmines and has more people than my side. My army wasn’t able to counter fast enough, so casualties are dangerously numerous. General Gui led us and fought a bloody battle to a temporary standstill, retreating with our remaining brothers to Heng Lian Mountain’s valley. Right now they are fiercely defending the valley’s mouth. General ordered me to fight my way through to bring back the message. Prince Consort, the enemy is pressing on and our brothers can’t put up against them for longmso please send in reinforcements!”
Now that the first troops sent against Dong Lin ended in ambush, all of Yun Chang’s generals looked very grim.
“Immediately send reinforcements!” He Xia cut the tension right there and scanned the people in the tent, “Hm? Where is General Gui Changning?”
Quite a few generals already noticed Gui Changning was absent. Now that He Xia asked, they beckoned the soldiers to look for him. A general asked, “Why hasn’t General Gui Changning come yet?”
A soldier who just came from General Gui Changning’s tent replied, “General Gui is dead drunk and won’t wake no matter how much I call.”
Gui Changning was an alcoholic and notoriously famous in the army for that. Listening to the soldier’s words made the crowd frown.
“Let’s go see.”
He Xia led the crowd of generals to General Gui Changning’s tent. When he pushed open the cloth door, a huge whiff of alcohol was caught in their nose.
They saw bottles here and there, all of which were empty. Gui Changning’s body was enveloped in the scent of alcohol. His limbs were sprawled over the bed, his snores like thunder.
The manservants beside him were drenched in cold sweet and constantly used white cloth to wipe his square face. Their voices were anxious, “General, General, wake up! General Gui Yan needs reinforcements!”
He Xia lowered his voice, “I promised General Gui Yan if he needed reinforcements, only General Gui Changning could lead them. What shall we do?” He commanded Gui Changning’s man servants, “Hurry up, splash him with cold water and use any plan possible to wake him!”
The servants understood the situation was dire too. They hurriedly brought the water and splashed, wetting Gui Changning’s head and face.
But how could Gui Changning possibly wake up, being an old alcoholic forced to drink so much in addition to sedatives? His snoring continued.
The messenger who desperately fought his way out to pass the message had been a close confidant of Gui Yan from childhood. He secretly blamed his generals’ second uncle for being a disappointing man and threw himself at He Xia’s feet. He begged, “Prince Consort, there isn’t time to spare. Please send another general then!”
He Xia’s handsome face also revealed a trace of anxiety but continued to shake his head. “A gentlemen’s promise should always be kept, not to mention a main advisor? General Gui Yan was intelligent enough to think in case of trouble and requested only General Gui Changning could lead reinforcements. He must have his own reasons for doing so. Since I’ve agreed, I can’t take it back.”
The anxious servant was almost in tears. He turned to the bed and forgot all social conventions associated with hierarchy, slapping Gui Changning’s left and right cheeks several times. He howled, “Wake up! Wake up! My god, do you really want my Junior General’s life?”
Gui Changning received several blows but he remained asleep although the snoring stopped.
None of the generals ever had a good opinion of Gui Changning. Everyone suspected his high rank as a general was only thanks to his prolific family. Seeing him like this made them disapprove of him even more.
That servant could no longer do anything about Gui Changqing and was in full despair. He knelt before He Xia’s feet once more, each kowtow booming, booming, against the floor. “Prince Consort, Prince Consort, my general’s life lies in your hands. Prince Consort, I beg you, please send reinforcements!” He then turned towards the other generals, “All generals, I beg you. At the valley’s mouth, Dong Lin’s arrows are coming down like rain. All of them are Yun Chang’s brothers. Generals, I beg you to take pity and convince Prince Consort to…”
This man forced his way out. His body was covered by blood-stained dust. With such a hard kowtow,blood flowed to every corner of his face, causing him to look very frightening indeed.
All the generals had been toughened up by war. Although they were rather contempt towards Gui Changning, they couldn’t help feel respect for this mere servant.
He Xia saw all of the general’s gazes on him and knew the battles in the future were to be done with them. He couldn’t afford to refuse too bluntly. He considered the group’s opinions once more and didn’t wait for someone else to start talking when he whispered his question, “Which general is willing to go out and rescue them?”
Everyone exchanged looks and soon after, General Qing Tian of the Shuitai Regiment, stepped out. “I’m willing.”
“Fine, then General Qi should immediately lead troops out to rescue General Gui Yan.”
Rescuing was as finicky as putting out fires. A lot of time was already wasted from attempting to wake Gui Changning from the alcohol. Qing Tian obeyed orders and immediately left to prepare his troops.
A little under half an hour, Shuitai Regiment departed. A soldier came into the advisory tent to report, “Prince Consort, General Gui Changning has finally woke up.”
He Xia and several worried Yun Chang Juniors were still discussing military affairs. When He Xia heard the report, he replied coldly, “Do tie him up for me.”
A few of his close confidants immediately went into Gui Changning’s tent. They grabbed the general who had just woken up and viciously tied him up. They had been instructed by He Xia beforehand to firmly gag him with coarse cloth, so that he wouldn’t lower the army’s morale with his screams.
Gui Changning’s own confidants all knew what was happening. They knew the Prince Consort was furious and didn’t dare to stop him. They simply weren’t shameful enough to do that, so they just watched their general be tied up in silence.
In the afternoon Qing Tian returned, covered in dust.
He returned with Gui Yan’s tattered body as he reported his status to He Xia. “I went a step too late. By the time we arrived, the Dong Lin army already retreated and the Yongxiao Regiment annihilated. General Gui Yan died on the spot.”
A dozen arrows stood out from Gui Yan’s corpse. It looked so terrible that even the witnesses in the battle couldn’t bear imagine how devastatingly fierce it was.
“If he listened…If the Yongxiao and Weibei Regiments went together, this couldn’t’ve happened…”
He Xia was painfully silent for a few moments before he began to rage, “This first confrontation caused the annihilation of one of my army’s seven regiments. How am I to explain this to Princess? Someone, bring Gui Changning!”
Gui Changning was pushed in, tied up and gagged. He had been tied up the moment he woke up and he had absolutely no clue of what had happened. At first he had planned to seethe his bubbling anger out at He Xia, but he didn’t expect the cloudy, dark atmosphere in the advisory tent. Everyone’s expression were more twisted than ever. The scent of blood hung in the air. A corpse was placed on the floor. It was wearing a blood-soaked uniform of the Yun Chang army.
Upon closer inspection, his head seemed to buzz hard, driving him senseless.
“Gui Changning, as an important general of Yun Chang, in charge of the Weibei Regiment, what do you have to say about ignoring military orders and drinking till drunk in your tent, delaying rescue squads that caused the entire Yongxiao Regiment to be annihilated?”
He Xia gestured. His soldiers took out the gag from Gui Changqing’s mouth. Gui Changqing stared at his nephew who was still alive and kicking just a moment ago. The world in his eyes began to spin. He felt like lightning repeatedly striking his head. He gaped, whispering, “How…how did this…”
He Xia shouted, “Gui Changning, do you admit your crimes?”
Gui Changning’s whole body shook and abruptly raised his head. “No, I didn’t drink, I didn’t drink alcohol! I’m innocent!”
The other generals had personally seen him sleeping on the bed with the strong scent of alcohol. Seeing him deny reality on the spot made them feel deeper contempt. Their eyes couldn’t help show disdain.
“How dare you deny it? With such an incident, I dare not see Princess unless you are killed. Someone! Execute him!”
Gui Changning saw the situation and realised that it was dire. He yelled, “I’m innocent, I didn’t drink! My Gui family has been important officials of Yun Chang generation after generation. The accomplishments for Yun Chang are numerous. He Xia, you can’t kill me! I’ll confront you in front of the Princess!”
“In front of the military flag, as well as the commander of three regiments, isn’t good enough to kill you?” He Xia laughed coldly. He raised his voice once more, “Someone, take him away.”
His soldiers had prepared to do so already. They took out the wrapped up rice parcel-like Gui Changning. Not long later, a rather angry looking Gui Changning head was raised.
There was a general who asked, “The battle of Yan Lin City has ended in defeat, one of Yun Chang’s seven regiments is gone too. How does Prince Consort plan to attack the Dong Lin army from now on?”
“We won’t attack the Dong Lin army.”
“Prince Consort means…”
“We’re going back to the capital.”
The generals were all stunned, but Dongzhuo already knew He Xia had other plans before them all so he simply stood with his hands at his side. His expression was like usual.
“Now that one of the seven regiments has fallen thanks to Yun Chang’s internal conflict rather than the Dong Lin army’s strength, doesn’t this suggest now is not the time to attack foreign soldiers?” He Xia continued, “A mere Dong Lin is nothing to me. Everyone here is full of ambition. I wonder if you are willing to accompany me to tidy up internal conflicts first before sending troops out to conquer the world.”
The people were all intelligent and immediately understood what He Xia was planning. Everyone knew He Xia had been the Prince Consort for a while, yet the Gui family had done everything to oppress him. Now that such a huge incident occurred, cleaning up the Gui family was a given.
The tent was silent.
He Xia smiled, “Don’t worry. If you have anything you wish to discuss, feel free to say it.”
This single plan eradicated the military power of the Gui family. Now he rode on its momentum. His eyes were solemn and humble as he gazed around, sending everyone’s heart thumping.
“Wasting sweat or blood is no matter. We generals are just afraid that we stand around idly. Locking us up in a town with nothing to do is fine. Prince Consort can decide everything else.” Qing Tian pondered for a moment before summoning up his courage to speak first.
His thoughts coincided with the other generals’.
The Prince Consort was obviously planning on putting the Gui family back in place, but what had it to do with them? The generals were simply afraid that there wouldn’t be war, the scent of blood. Gui Changqing always nags with his prudent policies that always clashed with the military side. If Prince Consort, an acclaimed general, was completely in charge, it would be a good thing for the army.
The crowd exchanged looks and made their decisions before showing submission to He Xia. In unison, they said, “We will all listen to Prince Consort!”
“Good.” He Xia nodded reservedly, “Then generals, let’s immediately depart and return with me to the capital.”
Yun Chang, Qierou City.
It was the season of willows but the season had nothing to do with the room. Whether it was winter or summer, all that could be seen were four walls and a window.
The lock device began to clang, and the figure walking inside was still Fanlu.
“Why aren’t you eating again?”
“Don’t feel like it.” Dishes had been placed tidily on the table, but it seemed completely untouched. Zuiju was sitting on the bed, her head lowered to tidy the clothes on her lap.
Fanlu hesitated and then whispered, “Never mind then.”
He let the matter go so easily, causing Zuiju to be surprised. This man treated her like a pig- keeping her locked up in a pen and feeding her food without end. If she didn’t finish her food, numerous things would happen until she was forced to eat everything. Why did his personality suddenly change?
Fanlu stopped. “What?”
Zuiju walked over, assessing him with a glare. “What happened?”
“It’s none of your business.” This was what Zuiju always said when angry, but Fanlu countered her with it.
Zuiju was surprised for a moment. Then she harrumphed, “Trying to act cool? I won’t ask then.” She went back to sit on the bed and continued to tidy up her clothing while asking, “Hey, even if you don’t dare release me, at least let me write a letter to my Teacher. You could say I’m begging you here, but don’t forget, I saved your life.” Hearing a sudden clang, Zuiju abruptly raised her head to find that Fanlu had already left. The door was locked once more. Zuiju was furious, “That bastard, there’ll be a day when I’ll applaud at the wolves who eat him.”
Zuiju went back to tidying her clothes, putting them into the cabinet.
The imprisoning room wasn’t entirely unchanged. The bed cover sets were occasionally changed. All of the patterns were chosen by Fanlu. They were fairly good. A few months ago, Fanlu carried in a cabinet for clothes. Following that, a dressing table, jewelry boxes, rouge and other makeup liquids and powders were collected.
With a hanging mantle, wind chimes, bronze mirrors, green screens, and silk quilts, it was a lady’s bedroom except for the metal chains and lock on the door.
That man came and went, leaving behind a little something every time. He never gave them directly to Zuiju, he just mocked her a few times until she was furious. She’d only notice a silver hairpin on the table or a doll by the wash basin when his back view had disappeared out the door.
She’d been locked up for ages now and sick of it. She was dying to see living beings everyday, even if they were an evil person like Fanlu. In the last two days however, Fanlu hurriedly came and went, leaving once food had been served. Zuiju had no idea what was going on and couldn’t help feel uneasy.
The door swung open again. Zuiju raised her head.
Fanlu strode into the room, slumped down in a chair. He didn’t speak, just looked at Zuiju.
Surprised, Zuiju asked, “Why’d you come back?”
- “Changxiao”: Literally means “long laugh”.
- “Dwindling blossoms and off falls foliage, the drizzles of hurt autumn.” (ch50): I believe this is an allusion to “Ba Sheng Gan Zhou”, which is a poem so this sentence doesn’t make much sense in prose. My interpretation of this poem is mainly about homesickness, but the poet stays in his current location because it’s tied to a woman he longs for but can’t have.
- “Green screens” (ch46): Has been implied before by “blinds” but never quite explained. Often important people and women, especially unmarried women, can hide behind a screen or blind to talk with others. It’s for social modesty.
- “Wrapped up rice parcel” (ch46): A more literal translation is “wrapped up zongzi”. Zongzi are a special type of rice dumplings that are traditionally eaten during the Duanwu Festival. Even though this paragraph’s content is quite brutal, it’s quite funny in itself hence it has been translated as “rice parcel” to try and convey this humour.