Chapter 38 The Desert Kiss Part 3
In the boundless desolate desert, the wind had finally died down. Although it had long been past noon, the sun was still venomous, and the stark white flowers on the saline land looked piercing to one’s eyes.
A long line of thousands of soldiers was marching through the desert. The troops were silent and their steps were heavy. Every soldier looked famished, with cracked lips, and only their round eyes and occasional expansion of their chests proved that they were not the walking dead, but living, breathing people.
They didn’t know how long it had been since they left the city gates. The person in front of the troops rode on a strong black horse. The man in armour finally couldn’t bear the scorching sun and ordered everyone to stop and rest. The man was extremely skinny, his bones were very pronounced. His cheekbones were high and convex. He looked more like an animated skeleton wearing a chapped black and yellow human skin suit. A pair of deeply sunken eyes glowed with a shining green light, akin to a desperate wolf.
This person was the Marshal of Bei Rongdu, Ah Du Lie.
With an order from Ah Du Lie, the eyes of thousands of soldiers suddenly lit up. Their tired and weak bodies came alive in an instant. One after another, the soldiers pushed each other trying to rush over to the half-a-person tall ash-green grass surrounding them. This grass was referred to as “Guanyin grass” by the people of Monan.
The hungry and thirsty soldiers of Beirong picked up their daggers and short knives and starter to dig out the roots of the grass. Dust rose to their chapped faces, but no one seemed to mind. They stared ahead with green eyes, gray heads and faces. They worked quickly with their hands and feet, digging large pits greater than ten feet in depth, exposing the thick and dense roots hidden in the ground.
Countless pairs of chapped and dark hands snatched up the thick roots. Even before the soil on the roots could be wiped off, they disappeared in countless pale and parched mouths.
In the desert Beirong soldiers who were about to run out of food, these roots filled with moisture were the “life-saving grass”. They relied on it to quench their thirst and fill their stomachs.
Ah Du Lie got off of his horse with some difficulty, looked at the soldiers fighting over the grass, and a trace of contempt flashed in his eyes. He took the buckskin water pouch handed to him by one of his subordinates and drank from it. Then he somewhat tremblingly walked over to the caravan of dozens of heavy wooden boxes behind him.
The centurion accompanying him immediately ordered people to quickly open the wooden cargo boxes one by one. Numerous gold and silver coins, precious stones and gold objects were now displayed in front of Ah Du Lie. In the afterglow of the setting sun, the treasure reflected the dazzling golden light.
The centurion bowed and said, “Look, they are all here, there is not a single one missing.”
Satisfaction flashed in his eyes. He reached into the wooden box in front of him and grabbed a handful of small gold ingots. He closed his eyes and sniffed them getting drunk on his greed.
The centurion observed Ah Du Lie’s expression and after hesitating for a moment finally said cautiously: “Master Marshal, this road… For these treasures, twelve mules have already been exhausted to death, and the remaining few are sick and almost immobile. Look…do you think…”
Do you think you can abandon some treasures to hurry the journey?
Before the centurion finished the second half of the sentence, Ah Du Lie reached out and whipped him in the face with a horsewhip. He was so frightened that he stayed kneeling on the ground, clutching his fiery face, trembling, not daring to speak again.
“Huh, since the mules can’t carry it, then replace them with people. Anyway, I have more people than mules.”
Ah Du Lie spoke coldly, then suddenly felt that the whip took too much effort out of him, making him feel a little dizzy. He shakily limped back to his horse.
He can’t delay any longer, he must get out of this desert before it gets dark.
“Give out the order, we are leaving!”
However, when the order was issued, none of the Beirong soldiers responded.
Everyone froze, paralyzed with fear. Their eyes widened, and they looked at the end of the desert with great terror.
The setting sun painted the sky crimson creating a golden-red halo at the edge of the desert. A tall black silhouette suddenly appeared on the horizon. One person, one horse, accompanied by billowing smoke and dust, rushed towards them like an arrow from its string!
Ah Du Lie swallowed anxiously. The figure in the distance seemed oddly familiar.
Getting closer and closer.
Then it hit them why smoke and dust were rising in the air.
The white smoke finally exposed the iron hoofs of countless war horses!
A person leading an army dressed in all black. A hideous silver-white mask which now caught everyone’s eyes.
“Silver-masked King of H*ll!”
A scream cut through the air, and Bei Rong’s army suddenly rioted. A year ago in the battle between Bei Rong and the Yan Kingdom, they were utterly destroyed at the hands of the Silver-masked King of H*ll. It was an unprecedented fiasco. After this battle, the soldiers of Bei Rong were all traumatized by the ghost general of the Yan Kingdom and would become terror-stricken just from hearing his title. This time they took advantage of the earthquake and robbed the Yan Kingdom. Boldly swallowing twelve counties of Monan without any scruples of hesitation. They had heard that the Silver-masked King of H*ll was seriously injured and was kept behind closed doors, leaving Monan and its people truly defenceless.
Why is he coming out into the battlefield again?!
Ahhh! Thousands of people screamed out in grief as the vast desert instantly turned into a h*ll full of blood.
Already on their last leg from all the walking, the vulnerable Bei Rong army was instantly overwhelmed. Their line of defence was fragile and no match for the mighty steeds and iron hoofs. Throwing away their helmets and armour, they scattered running for their lives.
Ah Du Lie cut down a young soldier who was trying to flee, shouting: “Anyone who flees the battle will be killed!”
This statement did not have much of a deterrent force. Travelling from the capital of Monan, the soldiers had already known that this general regarded the lives of his people on par with withered grass and was obsessed with wealth. They had long grown to resent him. Now that the enemy was present, there was no time to care about the general they all fled like birds and beasts in a sorry figure.
A few guards gritted their teeth and took up swords to defend themselves. They have entangled with the well-trained and high-spirited Yan Kingdom army a few times but only became bloody ghosts under their swords.
Seeing the sudden change in the situation, Ah Du Lie desperately hurried over to the ten-odd mule and horse team that was pulling the treasure chest. Panting, with a whip wrapped around his skinny arm, he was ready to flee.
However, the mules and horses carried too much so they couldn’t move fast. Seeing that the Yan army was about to catch up, Ah Du Lie’s eyes were about to pop out of his head in fear. In a panic, he grabbed some gold ingots, placed them in his chest and turned to run away.
Pant! Pant! Pant!
After running just a few steps, he couldn’t hold it back anymore: he began to retch. He had to stop now. With his hands on his knees, back arched, he was covered in a cold sweat, but he couldn’t vomit anything up.
He suddenly felt something cold on his neck and looked over to see a sharp blade standing in front of him.
Ah Du Lie raised his head. He unwillingly looked at the person in front of him still trembling in fear. Under the silver-white mask, a pair of bright black eyes void of any emotion was gleaming with a cold light in the setting sun.
Ah Du Lie’s chapped and pale lips opened and closed but he was no longer capable of uttering a sound.
With a flash of silver, crimson blood spilled on the pale saline desert sand pooling where the two men stood.
The desolate bugle rang through the desert for a long time accompanying Yan Changqing as he retracted his sword and lead tens of thousands of black armoured troops back to their Kingdom.
He didn’t know how much time had passed before the red sun finally sank into the horizon leaving only a few faint purple clouds in the sky. A thin and pale crescent moon looked like it was on the verge of collapse in the pitch-black night.
In the pale gray moonlight, a city slowly appeared in front of the Yan Kingdom troops. The towering gray-brown city walls and solid stone fortresses stood looking as majestic as ever, even after living through a major earthquake.
This city is Qinchuan, the capital of the twelve counties in Monan, Yan Kingdom.
All the Black Armoured Troops breathed a sigh of relief. In the past few days, they have suffered a lot. The Beirong army took advantage of the earthquake and went on to suppress the citizens of Monan. For more than ten days now, the Black Armoured Troops waded through icy water, travelled to and penetrated deep into the interior of the desert to wipe out and capture more than 30,000 Beirong Army soldiers. They adopted a roundabout and interspersed warfare. A tactic that General Yan was best at. They were almost invincible, but also extremely depleted after nearly a fortnight of fighting. A few couldn’t help but murmur their discontent in secret. But when they remembered that their general had just recovered from a serious illness. He was in the same situation as them: with yellow sand in his hair, the sky as their canopy and the breeze as their dining companion. They could no longer vocalize any complaints. Instead, they gritted their teeth in silent anticipation of the great day of victory.
Now that they have finally returned victorious, they couldn’t help but start to relax. Many Black Armoured Troop soldiers began salivating imagining scarfing down mouthfuls of Monan’s barbecue. Most thought about taking a hot bath and lying down in the softest bedding to get some well-needed rest.
The dark green and gold encrusted Yan Kingdom banner danced in the night breeze. To the quiet fluttering of the flag, Yan Changqing silently stared at the city of Qinchuan not far ahead. Under the hideous silver-white mask his shapely eyebrows slightly frowned.
He raised a hand: “Pass out the military order, all of Black Armoured Troops are to be stationed here. There is to be no entry into the city!”
This command was like pouring cold water on a burning charcoal brazier. Everyone suddenly fell quiet.
The exhausted Black Armoured Troops had just fought a fierce battle, their heavy armour was splattered with blood. The order left them confused and indignant but after all, they were the military elite of elites.
The troops have been brought up and trained by Yan Changqing himself. As much as some of them wanted to, they couldn’t voice their protest against him and his military prestige.
The deputy commander on the other hand was feeling bold. He leaned forward, looking at Yan Changqing’s cold silver mask, and said gruffly, “What is the general’s intent?”
Yan Changqing turned around. The deputy commander before him was named Xiang Yu. He was seven or eight years his senior and had a tall and sturdy stature, with a strange strength. His rugged face was full of sharp angles and his words and deeds were just as rough and bold. Xiang Yu was a very loyal and trustworthy fighter.
“Don’t you think these battles were such an easy win for us?” Yan Changqing asked.
Xiang Yu frowned and touched the thick hair on the back of his head: “Sir, now that you mention it, this does seem a bit too simple! Didn’t they say the Bei Rong barbarians were all tall and strong like mules and horses? But the barbarians we have seen in the desert these days have all been sickly-yellow and thin, and only about half alive. I don’t even need an axe to cut off their dainty necks, just two fingers is enough!”
Yan Changqing nodded slightly. Frowning, he fell silent.
Yes, these few battles were strangely easy to win. Yan Changqing couldn’t understand why the Beirong Army, which had always been greedy, fled in a hurry so shortly after occupying the 12 counties of Monan. Why was every Beirong soldier they hunted and wiped out in the desert: emaciated, sickly and vulnerable?
Even Ah Du Lie, the supreme commander of the Bei Rong Army, was not at all how he remembered him. Yan Changqing recalled the eight-foot fierce man with a face like jujube, moving about loudly like a clap of thunder. Back then Ah Du Lie had a thick chest and a broad body. He was very difficult to deal with. Today, if it were not for carefully taking his time to identify the man, he would have hardly recognized him. The twiggy, frail man he cut down did not match the memory of Ah Du Lie from the past.
In the afterglow of the setting sun, Ah Du Lie, who was about to become but a memory, had a strange light gleaming in his green eyes.
“The earth will crack open and thousands of ghosts will come forth! Monan is cursed. Today my corpse falls here but tomorrow you will not escape!! Hohoho!!”
On his way back Yan Changqing couldn’t help but constantly replay Ah Du Lie’s final words in his mind. They were baffling and also a little creepy.
What exactly did the Bei Rong Army entangle with?
Perhaps the answer lies in the city of Qinchuan.
Under the white moonlight, Qinchuan city walls faintly revealed an eerie aura. This was the capital of the twelve counties in Monan so there must be tens of thousands of people in the city who were struggling. They suffered through a strong earthquake and were ravaged by the Beirong Army. Who knows how high the casualties were and whether the injured ones will be able to survive?
No matter what terrible things were going on in Qinchuan City, as the great general of the Kingdom of Yan, Yan Changqing could never keep away from helping.
The Black Armoured Troops were finally stationed outside the city. Yan Changqing leaned to whisper something to Xiang Yu. Then without any more hesitation and with the Black Armoured Troops carrying court-allocated relief supplies at his back, Yan Changqing kicked open the cold and heavy gates of Qinchuan City.
Three days later. Twenty miles outside of Qinchuan.
Five hundred soldiers along with a mighty caravan carried heavy linen bags through the desert. Their journey was slow, lulled by the ringing of
camel bells. The desert wind kept picking up sand, blowing it into people’s faces. A pair of slender and powerful legs twitched around the lead camel’s belly with great impatience. After deciding they had enough, the rider leaped off the camel’s back landing softly on the sand floor.
Helian Rongchuan squinted at the endless undulating dunes surrounding them and glancing back over his shoulder asked:
“Hey, old man, how long will it take to get to Qinchuan?”
The old man in reference was indeed an elderly individual with a gray beard and a muslin head covering riding a mule a few paces behind Helian Rongchuan. Around these parts, he was known as the guide or simply “Monan Living Map”. The old man was dim-eyed but had a wonderful sense of direction. He climbed down from the carriage tremblingly and sat down in the sand with his legs crossed. The wind instantaneously blew his gray hair up. The old man was stern and unperturbed on the ground. With his eyes closed, he felt the direction of the wind for a while, then picked up a handful of sand, took some under his fingernail, and placed it in his mouth.
“We’re almost there. It’s still twenty miles away. We can reach it in half a day If we walk faster”
After saying this, the old man got up and bowed to Helian Rongchuan, spreading both palms.
Helian Rongchuan snorted, and a boy in white clothes with a round face and round eyes stepped forward and put a small bag full of heavy gold in the palms of the old man.
The old man’s face was solemn. He bowed to Helian Rongchuan again, climbed up on his mule and rode away without looking back.
The white-clothed boy was named Wei Jin. Wei Jin was lively and very clever. Seeing the old man running away, he got a little worried: “Your Royal Highness… you are letting this old man run away?”
Helian Rongchuan raised his eyebrows: “What is another option?”
Helian Rongchuan climbed up on his camel, looked into the distance, and changed his tone, imitating the old man’s thick Monan accent: “The earth will crack open! A million ghosts! Monan is cursed! I can’t go, I can’t go…”
The camel seemed to have been disgusted by his weird accent and sneezed with some impatience. Helian Rongchuan wrinkled his nose. The smell coming off the camel was too strong and it most definitely was not as nice of a ride as his big black horse. But in the desert, no matter how good his horse was, it was not as secure of a ride as a camel.
“He talked all the way, saying that Monan is cursed and he is unwilling to go, so what can I do? Should I put a knife to his neck and force him to go? One more set of rations would be wasted to feed another… Then my treasure will lose another bite to eat.”
Wei Jin glanced at Helian Rongchuan in silence and touched his neck. A few days ago, he was enjoying tea while thinking up new prescriptions. Yet someone suddenly rushed into the Imperial Medical Bureau, one hand pulling his collar, the other hand grabbing his medicine box. To put it lightly – he was forced into this inexplicable Monan disaster relief team.
Also, who is this sacred treasure? Why has he heard Helian Rongchuan mention him around what felt like over eight hundred times? Casually eating lamb – he misses his treasure. Having a drink – he misses his treasure again. The entire journey, he was reluctant to eat or drink along the way so he could save all he can for his treasure.
How much can your treasure possibly eat?
Of course, these matters can only be speculated about in secret for the sake of his reputation. Wei Jin was still the youngest envoy of the Imperial Medical Bureau. He was clever to keep quiet.
The caravan continued to move forward slowly, a long row of shadows projecting itself on the white sand. The scorching sun pulled at the shadows stretching them longer and longer. Finally, just when the sun was about to set, the Qinchuan city wall appeared towering in front of everyone.
Helian Rongchuan looked at the solid Qinchuan wall. Even after a violent earthquake, there were almost no cracks in the city wall and his heart felt a little more settled. However, when he turned around, he saw that all the caravans were still outside, blocked off by the cold city gate.
“Who is it that wishes to enter the city? Quickly state your names!”
Helian Rongchuan took a step back, placed his hands on his hips, raised his head, squinted, and spotted a serious little sentry on the wall clad in black armour.
This used to be the armour he despised the most, but now, Helian Rongchuan found it extremely delightful to look at.
He knew that it was the same kind of armour that protected Yan Changqing on the battlefield.
The armour favoured by the Black Armoured Troops.
It seems that Yan Changqing was really here.
‘Love the crow that comes along with the house’, Helian Rongchuan thought. Yan Changqing has a cold personality, no wonder the soldiers he requited had such an icy demeanour. His eyes softened, and he decided not to mind the sassy attitude of this little sentry. He smiled and said, “Go let your General know that there are noble guests here!”
As he spoke, he took out a small bag that had been prepared long in advance. It was wrapped in three layers of silk and tied to a stone. Helian Rongchuan whipped it into the air hard passing it to the little sentinel. The little sentry looked down and disappeared from the tower with a serious expression on his face.
Wei Jin carrying a small medicine box on his back, came over asking curiously: “Your Royal Highness, what did you throw?”
Helian Rongchuan smiled trying to feign mysteriousness: “What? This is what I prepared for my treasure.”
Wei Jin: “…”
Hearing Helian Rongchuan say “my treasure” made Wei Jin’s brain hurt. To stop himself from complaining, he remained silent.
Helian Rongchuan continued to smile and said, “Believe it or not, when my Treasure sees the gift I brought him, he will run over to open the door for me with excitement and tears in his eyes.”
Wei Jin nodded, feeling slightly embarrassed. Desperately trying to maintain a polite demeanour he kept smiling.
Before long, a tall and handsome figure appeared at the top of the tower. His Black Armour with its cinched waist and narrow sleeves was simply majestic and beautiful. Long satin-like jet-black hair was tied into a neat ponytail. Its ends fluttering lightly in the wind gently brushed over the man’s cold silver-white mask. Under the mask, a pair of clear and sharp mercury eyes trailed downward.
“Hey——! Here! This way!” Helian Rongchuan stepped back, waving his arms vigorously: “It’s me!”
Yan Changqing’s eyes fixated on Helian Rongchuan, meeting the other’s gaze.
Helian Rongchuan spent most of their time apart reliving the memories they shared, thinking about Yan Changqing every night without fail and daydreaming of what is yet to come. Now, seeing him standing on top of the city wall looking so suave, Helian Rongchuan felt his heart race just like it did that very first time they met.
Helian Rongchuan showcased a brilliant smile and said loudly: “Long time no see! How are you, General Yan?”
He winked at Wei Jin showing off his rare and precious treasure.
Wei Jin felt himself gape in awe, his chin almost falling to the ground in shock. Silver…Silver masked King of H*ll Yan Changqing is the da…treasure of his second Royal Highness???
Yan Changqing watched Helian Rongchuan’s face quietly. The last rays of the setting sun left a soft golden glow on the side of the man standing downstairs, making him look handsome, full of wildness and life.
He really is alive!
Alive and healthy!
A ripple flashed in Yan Changqing’s dark eyes, and he turned and disappeared deeper into the tower.
Helian Rongchuan turned around and glanced with a triumphant look at the little imperial doctor who had not yet recovered from the shock: “Did you see, my treasure is excited to personally open the door for me!”
Wei Jin raised his head. Looking in the direction of the city wall, he pointed at something behind Helian Rongchuan with fear on his face, and exclaimed: “You…you, look behind you!”
Helian Rongchuan turned his head to the high wall. Yan Changqing had reappeared in the same spot but now he was holding a purple longbow in one hand and steadily pulling at a silver arrow with another.
The arrow was unmistakably aimed at Helian Rongchuan.
Helian Rongchuan: ...? ??
Helian Rongchuan, befuddled, was about to come forward a few steps to ask what was going on. However, as soon as he moved his foot, a sharp sound cut through the air and a silver arrow stuck out of the ground where he was standing mere moments ago.
Helian Rongchuan raised his head in astonishment. Before he could utter a word, he heard a few more “swishes”. Less than an inch away a row of sharp silver arrows stood proud shot by Yan Changqing.
The smile on Helian Rongchuan’s face finally slipped, and he looked up in shock once again.
Yan Changqing looked at Helian Rongchuan’s astonished expression and lowered his bow. His fingers trembling slightly.
“You are not welcome here.” He said.
The wind was too strong, and Helian Rongchuan thought he had misheard: “What did you say?!!!”
Yan Changqing closed his eyes in pain. The little sentry on the side trumpeted his mouth with his hands, and said loudly:
“My general told you to get lost!”
This time, everyone at the bottom of the wall heard it clearly.
Helian Rongchuan’s eyes widened in disbelief.
He was about to ask again, but the tall figure on the tower disappeared. All the sentries raised their bows and arrows in unison, aiming at the camel convoy outside the city gate.
“The general has given the order. If you don’t retreat, we will kill you without hesitation!”
Helian Rongchuan stood bewildered and as if rooted to the ground. He felt at a loss like a small child getting scolded for something he had no clue about.
After a long pause, Helian Rongchuan barked out an order and the hungry camel team unloaded the heavy relief supplies that they had carried from the Royal palace. Large and small sacks were piled up in front of the city gate into substantial hills.
Helian Rongchuan looked up unwillingly, but could only see a row of cold bows and arrows lining the wall. He did not see the familiar figure again.
The camel squad finally turned around, and with heavy steps left Qinchuan City.
It was not until the caravan had gone far away enough that Yan Changqing returned to the tower and stood quietly, watching the familiar figure in the distance gradually disappear into the night. The wind whipped up the yellow sand, reflecting like waves in his black, mercury-like eyes.
As the silver moon rose in the night sky the mighty caravan came to a slow stop. Yan Changqing who has been watching the tallest figure on a camel slowly retreat had no idea that the man was also facing in his direction.
The wind and sand gradually ceased, and the man’s amber-like eyes were filled with a fearless kind of brilliance.
Although Qinchuan City was built on top of a desert, it was backed by snowy mountains. In early summer, the glaciers melted and merged into clear river water, gently embracing this oasis in the desert akin to the snow-white arms of a lover.
The people of Monan called this river the White Wolf River.
The terrain of Monan was so high, that the sky appeared to be hanging low. The magnificent deep indigo blue night drooped down, dotting the sky with countless bright silver-white stars.
For some reason, Yan Changqing felt that the stars tonight were extraordinarily low and bright. The gurgling water of the White Wolf River was shimmering as if all the stars had jumped into the clear water, resembling a milky way.
The people in ten thousand tents were drunk, and the stars’ shadow was shaky.
Returning to the dream, separated by the White Wolf River;
Shattered by its sound.
For some reason, Yan Changqing standing by the river bank suddenly came to think of these two lines of a poem from a long time ago. Under the sky full of stars, inside and outside the city of Qinchuan, countless simple felt tents were erected to avoid earthquakes. Was this not exactly the scene described in those poems?
The difference was that under the ten thousand tents, no one had the simple privilege of being leisurely drunk. In front of almost every felt tent, there were one or two boiling medicine jars. In the vast expanse of steaming heat, many people walked out of the felt tents. They folded their hands towards the snow-capped mountains in the distance and bowed their heads religiously conveying respect.
Before death, all beings are equal. Whether poor or rich, noble or lowly, everyone in Qinchuan City looked solemn and sincere when they bowed and prayed.
Yan Changqing had never believed in the so-called ghosts and gods, but now, he genuinely wished that the gods of the heavens would bless that one person.
The night was long, the mountains high and the road difficult. He just hoped that everything was going well for him.
Please, do not come back.
Yan Changqing used the soft starlight to scrutinize the silk pouch in his hands. The small bag was very rugged, and the knot was tied out of order, wholly in Helian Rongchuan’s style. All three layers of fabric were open holding a single thing inside.
A shiny silver three-point arrowhead with a little barb.
Yan Changqing recognized it at a glance. This was the arrow he shot towards Helian Rongchuan on the edge of the cliff in Qixia Village that day.
It must have been excruciating to pull out of his flesh.
A trace of guilt and distress surged in Yan Changqing’s heart.
He picked up the arrowhead with his fingers and inspected it carefully. Strange. Obviously, this arrow hurt him so why did Helian Rongchuan clean and polish it so thoroughly? And it seems like after being rubbed countless times, the sharp edges and corners of the arrowhead had become a little blunt.
Yan Changqing stroked the arrowhead lightly with his fingertips, then suddenly felt a little bump on the side of it.
Facing the bright light outside a tent in the distance, Yan Changqing could now clearly see a crooked character which was scratched onto the side of the arrowhead.
Yan Changqing’s heart throbbed violently. He turned it around hesitantly and there was indeed another character engraved on one of the other sides.
Yan Changqing slapped the offensive object down onto a big rock by the White Wolf River and turned away from it.
It seems that the arrow he shot that day was far from enough. He should have shot a few more, let him suffer a little longer. Then see if Helian Rongchuan still haphazardly felt sentimental enough to engrave any words!
He took a few moments to look into his heart, then Yan Changqing turned around again. He hesitated, picked up the arrowhead, wiped it and carefully wrapped it in silk, tying a strong and elegant knot.
If he was unlucky, the meeting on the tower today will be the last time he saw Helian Rongchuan. Helian Rongchuan’s gradually fading smile, and astonished and hurt eyes, kept appearing in Yan Changqing’s mind.
Every time he thought of this, Yan Changqing felt a sense of melancholy and bitterness in his heart.
But entering Qinchuan City three days ago left him with no other choice.
It didn’t take long for the once prosperous city of Monan to turn into a h*ll on earth. It was not the earthquake itself that destroyed this so-called “Desert Pearl”, but the plague that broke out right after.
In the collapsed city streets piles of human bones seemed to be growing and multiplying. Qinchuan City citizens, pale and skinny, would intermittently stop to lean over and retch. Disaster relief rations that had been longed for have finally arrived, but many people in the city perished before they even had a bite.
It was also this unforeseen plague that gave another advantage to the Beirong Army in taking over the city. But many soldiers of Beirong also ended up infected by this strange disease. Medication was ineffective. They withdrew one after another, fleeing in a hurry. But the claws of the plague didn’t let them go. Tens of thousands of soldiers of Beirong died on their way out and even more were cut down by the Black Armour Troops.
Yan Changqing finally understood why the Bei Rong Marshall Ah Du Lie had spewed those words before his death.
“The earth will crack open and thousands of ghosts will come forth! Monan is cursed.”
Monan was indeed cursed by this menacing plague.
Yan Changqing never regretted entering Qinchuan City. As the general of the Yan Kingdom, he had the responsibility of saving the people from water and fire. Even if this meant to be the end of his own life, he would not hesitate to help.
However, he must not let Helian Rongchuan get involved. He owed too much to him, his heart still full of guilt. He must not let Helian Rongchuan also fall into a dangerous mire just because he made his heart feel soft.
This is the only way I can protect you.
Deep into his thoughts, Yan Changqing walked farther away from the felt tent. The bonfire set up outside the tent now looked like a small swarm of fireflies.
The gentle night wind blew over the lush green grass by the river. It was very quiet here, there was no one; only the White Wolf river gurgling by the feet bringing a refreshing, sweet coolness to the faint white mist.
Still lost in thought Yan Changqing took off his black armour and close-fitting shirt with confidence and undid his hair band. His hair was very long and supple akin to top-grade black satin; now loosely hanging around his waist and neck. Without the persistent pressure of a hair tie around his scalp, Yan Changqing felt his heartstrings relax a little.
Yan Changqing dived into the clear water, swimming quietly like an elegant and free fish.
During the day, he was the admired and uncompromising general. Only when there was no one around, in the dead of the night can Yan Changqing occasionally let go of the heavy responsibilities weighing down on his shoulders. In this solitude, he can shortly indulge in a carefree manner, like a child without responsibilities.
Spending the last few days in the ruins of Qinchuan City made him feel especially depressed and exhausted. But he couldn’t show this to anyone. Today, since forcibly turning away Helian Rongchuan he felt as if he was suffocating, clenching his teeth to hold on to his sanity.
If the tension in his heart continues, Yan Changqing didn’t know how long he can hold out.
Perhaps only the cold and clear river water can temporarily soothe his tired body and mind.
Yan Changqing was an excellent swimmer. After swimming quite a long distance, he popped his head out of the water with a big splash and gasped gently. Wet black hair stuck to his cheeks and collarbone, making his face look as white as the moonlight, and his dark eyes appeared brighter. He floated in the river face up, drifting silently while looking at the bright and vast galaxy above his head.
He didn’t know where that certain someone was now but was there such a beautiful night sky above his head as well?
Yan Changqing stared at the stars for a while, once again realizing that he was thinking of Helian Rongchuan. He couldn’t help being a little bit ashamed and angry at himself.
What kind of an evil curse has he been hit with?
Yan Changqing buried his head in the river again, trying to cleanse his thoughts.
However, the moment he was immersed in the water again, he heard a small sound of water coming from the river not far away.
Huala — huala —
Yan Changqing immediately tensed up, pricked his ears, and stared in the direction of the sound.
There seems to be a person swimming up against the flow of the river. Who…?
Beirong people? No… If there was a sneak attack, it could never be executed by just one person.
The herdsmen around Monan? That was impossible. Snorkelling against the current of this cold water requires excellent swimming ability and endurance, which ordinary herders don’t have.
So whom could it be?
Yan Changqing swam to the shore, leaning against a cold boulder, calmly preparing to draw out the silver sword still under his clothes.
When he turned around again, he could no longer hear that odd sound.
Where’s the person?
Did he mishear?
Yan Changqing vigilantly watched the river for foreign movement. But the white mist rising from the river blocked parts of visibility.
It was that sound again, and Yan Changqing saw something rising amongst the mist and slammed it down with his palm—
But he hit nothing!
Yan Changqing’s eyes widened in astonishment. Before he could react, something in the river suddenly grabbed his left ankle. Yan Changqing was caught off guard, lost his balance and was instantly pulled into the water.
Yan Changqing didn’t have time to breathe. He choked, his narrow waist was suddenly embraced by someone, and he opened his eyes in the water.
In the clear river water reflecting all the stars, a man was gently hugging his waist. He wore a smirk resembling a naughty smile of a rebellious child. He was handsome, with a wild kind of charm.
Yan Changqing was completely stunned for several seconds. He opened his mouth as if wanting to say something, but only spit out a huge air bubble.
Yan Changqing finally remembering how to move, elbowed Helian Rongchuan away.
With a big splash, Yan Changqing emerged from the water looking pale, and desperately swam back to the shore. His mind was so disturbed that he couldn’t bring himself to care about anything else. His movements in the water turned stiff and awkward. At this moment he was flopping around like a young eagle that had accidentally fallen into the river.
However, a few flops later, the rocks beside the river turned slippery, and Yan Changqing slipped and fell backwards.
Helian Rongchuan stepped forward in a hurry to fish him out of the cold water. Yan Changqing fell straight into Helian Rongchuan’s wide and strong embrace. His smooth and naked back touched the wet, chiselled chest behind him.
Yan Changqing was suddenly very aware of the fact that Helian Rongchuan was wearing clothes.
And he wasn’t.
Yan Changqing was immediately embarrassed by this complex situation. He tried to break free, but Helian Rongchuan closed his arms as if embracing a rare treasure. He hugged Yan Changqing closer, leaning closer to his red ears. His voice was low and sexy:
“I didn’t expect Master Yan to miss this prince so much, that he would send himself flying into my arms. Couldn’t wait to see me?”
Yan Changqing didn’t care what Helian Rongchuan said. He made a few strokes and splashes, but he couldn’t get rid of Helian Rongchuan’s embrace. It was as if he was restricted by an iron hoop. Anxious and angry, he shouted: “You have a death wish!”
Helian Rongchuan, unwavering, placed his chin on Yan Changqing’s shoulder. Now the big spoon in this position, he muttered: “I know.”
Yan Changqing froze but finally forced himself to turn around: “You know?”
“Qinchuan is infected with a plague and many have died a terrible death. You were afraid that I would be infected when I entered the city, so you drove me away, right?”
“If you know then why did you dare to sneak back in!”
Yan Changqing glared viciously at Helian Rongchuan’s indifferent smile, raising his voice to almost a roar. Symptoms of the plague show up a few days after the initial infection. In case he was also infected if Helian Rongchuan came into contact with him, wouldn’t he—?
Yan Changqing felt a sudden sharp pain in his heart and started to fight the embrace once again. He tried to break free from Helian Rongchuan as if he was facing a dangerous and nasty enemy. He wished to grow wings and fly away. The farther away he was, the better. But no matter how hard he tried, he still couldn’t overpower the other’s embrace.
Yan Changqing wanted to cry. How didn’t he realize before that the man behind him is so powerful?
With his back pressed against Helian Rongchuan’s warm chest, Yan Changqing could feel his heart beat violently. Yes… Powerful down to his heartbeat.
“Changqing, I missed you so much… This time, I won’t let you go.”
A blunt but warm confession. Yan Changqing couldn’t help being stunned, for a moment feeling a little at a loss. The warm breath hit his ear and Helian Rongchuan leaned over closer. He turned his head and holding Yan Changqing’s red earlobe lightly nipped at it.
“How did you say the plague is spread? Like this?”
Not waiting for Yan Changqing to react, Helian Rongchuan lowered his eyelids and holding the other man’s jaw enthusiastically kissed him.
“Or is it like this?”