Edited and Proofread by KitKat
This winter, the price of charcoal was high enough to render the people of Yejing speechless. However, Yejing was filled with affluent families. There was never a better time to spend their wealth.
At this point Yejing could be accurately described by the phrase, ‘the meat and wine of Zhumen stinks and the streets have frozen dead bones’.1
The ordinary folk were struggling for scraps to survive the harsh winter while the rich raced to buy hundreds of taels worth of coal. And since charcoal had become such a rare commodity, the families that had managed to sufficiently stock up began to popularize the act of hosting Red Ember Feasts.
Red Ember Feast, just as the name implied, was a feast the rich hosted in their garden around a large kiln filled with burning coal. Thick curtains were put up to cover the wind and snow while the guests stayed near the heat to enjoy their plum wine while watching the snow white scenery. This way these families made a grand display of their financial strength.
An Chang Qing looked at the numbers in the account books and sighed, “There are deaths by droughts and deaths by floods.”2
The coal shop had only been open for ten days and the 15 tonnes of coal in the warehouse was almost sold out. At the same time, the number of people queuing up at the soup kitchen outside the city was also increasing. There were not only the poor but also students who had come to the capital to prepare for the Imperial Exams. They were out of options and had to go to the soup kitchen in groups to get some porridge.
Zhou He Lan was accustomed to this scene and could only comment lightly, “This has always been the case since time immemorial. The wine and meat of the rich turns bad while the poor struggle to find food.”
An Chang Qing heaved another sigh and said, “Let’s hope that spring comes soon.”
He had done everything he could: built a soup kitchen and gave out alms, hoping to provide people a better chance at survival. But one man’s power is limited after all. There were still countless who could not hold on and perished in the cold winter nights. Even so, the death toll in Yejing was not as serious as those of Suzhou, Binzhou, Liangzhou, Yanzhou, and Chenzhou- the provinces further north.
According to Xiao Zhige, the reports from the provincial officers kept coming and were delivered to the Emperor after selection. But Emperor An Qing was disinclined to even take a glance, only concentrating on sending out forces in search of the Taoist Priest. Minister An could always read his master’s mind and since then, had suppressed all reports of similar nature.
Eventually, due to the severity of the situation, even Xiao Zhige, who had rarely dealt with court matters, received several urgent requests from Yanzhou.
Yanzhou was located in the northernmost part of the Da Ye Empire, bordering the Northern Desert. A cold winter to the Yanzhou troops and civilians was not something they were unfamiliar with. More difficult to deal with was the lack of food and clothes, and most of all, the frequent raids from the Beidi people.
The Beidi people were able bodied and excelled at riding and shooting. They lived by the water but once the season changed to winter and food became scarce, they would move southwards to plunder, burn, and kill.
Every passing winter had always been the harshest time for Yanzhou.
As the Empress Dowager’s sixtieth birthday drew near, Xiao Zhige was summoned back to Yejing in advance, leaving his vice commander to take charge of the Yanzhou troops. For the Beidi people who feared and hated Xiao Zhige, this was a chance they could not miss.
When An Chang Qing returned from the shop, the light in the study was still lit. He squinted and looked but could only see a faint silhouette standing by the window. Coming closer, he saw that it was Xiao Zhige with his back facing away. He seemed to be lost deep in thoughts, not even realizing that someone was approaching.
Only when An Chang Qing had pushed the door open did Xiao Zhige turn around. Seeing the snow on his shoulder, he frowned and went over to brush it off.
“Steward Wang said that Wangye hasn’t had dinner yet.” An Chang Qing saw the deep lines between his eyebrows and knew that something was weighing on his mind.
“En,” Xiao Zhige did not want to worry him, “I have no appetite tonight.”
“I haven’t had dinner either. Can Wangye dine with me?” An Chang Qing smiled and asked.
Xiao Zhige was clearly in no mood to eat but he still nodded. An Chang Qing then told Anfu to bring up the dishes. It was freezing out so they ditched the etiquettes and simply ate the food from a small table in the room.
An Chang Qing softly blew into the bowl of soup before drinking. After warming his stomach and seeing that Xiao Zhige was still absent-minded, he couldn’t help but ask, “Did something happen in Yanzhou?”
“En,” Xiao Zhige did not want to worry him but he knew that in case he had to leave for Yanzhou, there was no point in hiding. “The Beidi people have been wary of me for a long time. Now that they know that I’m not in Yanzhou and with the rare occurence of this treacherous winter, all the Beidi generals have been gathering. They are preparing for a massive attack on Yanzhou.”
The three Northern states Liangzhou, Yanzhou and Chenzhou formed a defensive line along the border with Yanzhou in the center. The generals of Liangzhou and Chenzhou were present, only Yanzhou had no commander. Although Xiao Zhige’s second-in-command was there with his cavalry, he had his hands full with the Military Supervisor on the Crown Prince’s side. If the Beidi were to launch an attack, they might not be able to deal with both foreign and domestic strife.
And due to the disaster, Liangzhou and Chenzhou were also occupied with their own problems, making it highly likely for them to be unable to lend a hand in time. If the Beidi people managed to break through Yanzhou’s defenses, not only would the people suffer, but Xiao Zhige’s years of hard work would have been for naught. Emperor An Qing would hold him accountable and the Crown Prince and Third Prince would definitely use this chance to add fuel to the fire.
Such an outcome was detrimental to him.
An Chang Qing lowered his eyes. He was fully aware in his heart, “Wangye wants to go to Yanzhou?”
Xiao Zhige responded, “I have to go.”
After saying this, his clenched fists loosened as he looked at An Chang Qing with a little regret.
But An Chang Qing was not displeased as he had expected. He restrained his thoughts and asked, “When will you leave?”
“I’ll have to enter the Palace to seek permission early tomorrow. The latest I’ll have to leave is the day after.”
An Chang Qing looked down. He hesitated before asking, “Can I go with you?”
Xiao Zhige shook his head, “Yanzhou is in a state of emergency. I have to ride on horseback day and night. You can’t come.”
“I understand,” An Chang Qing nodded. He did not persist and said calmly, “Then I’ll help Wangye pack your things.”
That night, the pair laid in each other’s embrace and slept. When An Chang Qing heard that Xiao Zhige had to leave, he did not show any expression. Only when they had tucked in did he grab onto Xiao Zhige’s body, revealing a trace of reluctance.
An Chang Qing closed his eyes but he did not sleep. He tried to recall the events from his last life but found that his memories of that time were too limited. At this time in his last life, Xiao Zhige had also left for Yanzhou but whatever had happened during his battles and the dangers he’d faced, An Chang Qing was completely clueless about. He had cared too little about Xiao Zhige back then. All he had heard were simple lines from the servants’ mouths that it had been a fierce battle but that they had won in the end.
But that battle was just the beginning. The Empire that had been left by the first monarch, in the hands of Emperor An Qing, was now an empty shell, a shadow of its former glory. Domestic and foreign disputes were clouded by a veil of fictitious prosperity which was blown away only by a single snowstorm.
Shortly after the snow disaster, to show his filial piety to the Empress Dowager, Emperor An Qing had increased taxes and sanctioned forced labor to construct a ninety storey pagoda. The common people who were still recovering from the disaster had been drained once again. Subsequently, they could not take it anymore and had revolted. Since then, waves of uprisings had occurred throughout the country.
Having to deal with the constant internal unrest while warding off external aggressors, Xiao Zhige had stayed in Yanzhou for three years since then. It was only when Emperor An Qing had suddenly fallen ill that he had been summoned back to Yejing.
To Xiao Zhige, this might just be a short parting but to An Chang Qing, he was immensly unwilling. They had always fallen asleep together on the same bed and had never been apart from the day of their wedding. Now that he had to say goodbye, An Chang Qing finally realized that the man sleeping by his side had quietly integrated himself into being the biggest part of his life.
Just thinking that this person wouldn’t be around to warm his hands anymore gave him a feeling of emptiness and longing.
With a deep yearning, he huddled closer to Xiao Zhige. Xiao Zhige seemed to be aware of his uneasiness and opened up his arms to take him in while gently stroking his back.
After a long silence, An Chang Qing whispered wilfully, “I also want to go to Yanzhou.”
Xiao Zhige’s heart burned, “Yanzhou has harsh weather; is remote and barren and frequently under siege by the Beidi people. There are only a few peaceful days in a year… it’s not as good as Yejing.”
An Chang Qing pushed his forehead against his chest and said, “But you are not in Yejing.”
“The Empress Dowager’s birthday has yet to come. When the situation in Yanzhou stabilizes, I will come back.” Xiao Zhige could only comfort him so.
An Chang Qing squeezed out from his arms and looked at him, “It’s a promise. You have to come back on the Empress Dowager’s birthday, or else… or else, I’ll go to Yanzhou to find you!”
Xiao Zhige assumed that it was just An Chang Qing’s coquettish outburst and hugged him back into his arms. He pulled up the quilt and said helplessly, “Ok.”
An Chang Qing snuggled into his embrace and after a long pause, he said in a small voice, “I’ll practice according to the guidelines you gave me. When you come back… We can do it.”
Xiao Zhige’s body momentarily froze and it took a long time before he could recover his thoughts.
Early next morning, Xiao Zhige entered the Palace. He stated that Yanzhou was in a dire state and requested for his return.
Emperor An Qing was still unsure but it was the Crown Prince who was the first to voice his objection, “Yanzhou has a Vice Commander and 80,000 soldiers. Are you telling me that that’s not enough to deal with a bunch of barbarians? Besides, the Empress Dowager’s sixtieth birthday is coming, filial piety should take precedence. Second brother shouldn’t have to be so anxious.”
Emperor An Qing did not speak but his expression showed approval. Xiao Zhige’s reign over Yanzhou’s troops for these many years had turned it into an ironclad state. Even though nothing seemed out of place, he was still not reassured. This time, he had called Xiao Zhige back to Yejing for the Empress Dowager’s birthday so he could plant his people in Yanzhou in his absence.
Although Emperor An Qing needed Xiao Zhige to guard the border for him, it was still imperative for him to have countermeasures against him.
Xiao Zhige looked at the Crown Prince with eyes sharp as blades, “It’s fine that I don’t go back but if the gates are breached, will you be willing to resume my responsibility as Commander and take back the city? Will you be responsible for the people of Yanhzou who were trampled over by the Beidi people?”
“Yanzhou is our first line of defense. Once it is broken, should Liangzhou and Chenzhou not be able to hold back the enemies, they can easily march through Suzhou and head straight for Yejing. Putting Yejing in danger, can big brother bear the consequences?”
The Crown Prince was rendered speechless. He was not adept at warfare and could only retort, “Is the situation even as urgent as second brother claims? If Yanzhou were to be breached, there’s still Suzhou. Can’t Shen Tu Xu hold them back? Are the troops of this country so incompetent that they can’t hold back a group of babarians?”
Xiao Zhige laughed coldly, “Why don’t you ask General Shen Tu himself if that’s plausible?”
“That’s enough!” Emperor An Qing interrupted their argument. He weighed the situation and ultimately decided they could not let the Beidi people breach the gates of Yanzhou. The Crown Prince was still young and had not yet set foot on the battlefield but he(Emperor An Qing) had once, a long time ago, gone with his father. Witnessing the strength and ferocity of Beidi people was nerve-wracking.
Three foot soldiers hadn’t been enough to take down one of their cavalry. As such, the Beidi people had become a major threat to the Da Ye Empire since a long time ago. And over the years, only Xiao Zhige had shown the ability to surpass them in terms of strength and fearlessness.
After giving it some thought, Emperor An Qing waved his hand and said, “Fine, you can go but losing is not an option!”
“Yes.” Xiao Zhige knelt down to receive his orders, after which he left the Palace to gather his troops.
1 ↪朱门酒肉臭, 路有冻死骨 – excerpts from a poem depicting the disparity between the rich and poor, indicating that the rich could afford to have food go to waste while the poor are dying on the streets.
2 ↪旱的旱死, 涝的涝死 refers to uneven distributions. One person might have too much of one thing while another desperately lacks it.