What to do when your hubby isn’t around, you’re pregnant, and and the Emperor may want to take your newborn baby hostage? Why, ask your still besotted first love for his help, of course. I stopped feeling sorry for Jiu Ye a long time ago, because if Yu Er is his true love and no one else will do, then at least he got to meet her and spend time with her as opposed to being all alone for the rest of his life without ever having loved before. I’m glad he’s around to help Yu Er in her time of need, and that both of them trust each other and know that thank yous aren’t even necessary. Yu Er continues to take risks that she believes are necessary to protect the people she loves, but she doesn’t always factor in herself in the equation. Her impetuousness and boldness are part of what I love about her, even if sometimes it lands her in heaps of trouble she needs help getting out of.
Chapter 34: Dangerous Plot
The Northern desert battle has the Great General Wei commanding fifty thousand troops and departing from Ding Xiang, while Huo Qu Bing commands fifty thousand troops and departs from Dai Jun, along with fourteen thousand horses and one hundred thousand foot soldiers.
Huo Qu Bing disregards personal conflicts and greatly uses Li Gan as his second-in-command, and he also heavily uses the surrendered Xiong Nu elite talent rom the previous battles. Under his command is a group of seasoned and brave warriors. This leader of the pack roams through the desert over thousands of miles and finally meets up with the Left Sage King of the Xiong Nu army.
Even though he is attacking deep within Xiong Nu territory, but Huo Qu Bing knows this area well. His riders are more fleet and courageous than the Xiong Nu riders, and he defeats the Left Sage King. He also captures important officials to the Shan Yu, kills some tribal leaders and officials, and captures the Left Sage King’s banner and drum. The Xiong Nu forces are in disarray. Huo Qu Bing’s forces quickly cross over the Hou Mountains and he captures more tribal leaders, generals, and ministers numbering a total of eighty-three. He manages to kill over seventy thousand Xiong Nu, completely destroying the Left Sage King’s forces.
Wei Qing’s forces travel over the desert and meet up with the forces of the Shan Yu himself. He faces them with a new formation and also burns their supplies which greatly weakens the Shan Yu’s forces. During the confusion the Han army manages to kill over twenty thousand Xiong Nu soldiers.
Under Liu Che’s orders, because of what happened in the past and Liu Che is superstitious that Li Guang has bad luck at war, plus wanting to give Gong Xun Aou a chance to succeed, Wei Qing refuses Li Guang’s plea to take the first attack and instead gives it to Gong Xun Aou and places Li Guang on backup. Li Guang once again gets lost in the desert and does not have a chance to face the Xiong Nu, and loses another chance to be made a duke. This white-haired general, under extreme rage and despair, commits suicide in front of Wei Qing.
Despite the suicide of Li Guang casting a cloud over the Han army, this remains the most significant victory of the Han army over the Xiong Nu in history of the dynasty. So when Wei Qing defeats the Right Sage King the following year, after five years of war with the Xiong Nu, the Xiong Nu have been completely defeated. Henceforth the Desert South region no longer has the kingdom of the Xiong Nu.
The two generals Huo and Wei will soon return victorious. To celebrate, Huo Q Bing decides to build a temple on the top of Lang Ju Mountains to hold an open air prayer ceremony to the Heavens. The messenger returns to Chang An with this news. Even though I can’t go see Qu Bing, I can imagine his cold and composed exterior hiding his excitement and glee on the inside. Right now he must be proudly on a horse surveying the Xiong Nu lands he conquered.
Since he was small he listened to stories from his uncle about fighting the Xiong Nu. He learned to ride a horse and pull a bow and arrow from his uncle. Since he was small he had a dream to stand on Xiong Nu land and conquer the entire vast expanse. Now his dream has finally come true.
Huo Qu Bing has not returned to Chang An but the poetic song he composed for his ceremony to the Heavens arrive first. It is sung all through the streets and in every house and hovel in Chang An. The song has some hidden meanings that I don’t understand immediately, with Qu Bing seemingly misusing some phrases. Tian Cao compliments that a warrior can do so well already in writing a song about the end of war and hoping for peace to the nation.
I mull over it and discover that within the song are hidden references to the great historical figure Fang Li, who won many wars but eventually gave up his political career to travel the world. Jiu Ye looked at me with a smile that hid his despair “General Huo admires Fang Li?” I nodded my head, happy inside but also worried “Do you think the Emperor will discern the hidden meaning behind his words?”
“Only one word in the entire text references it, and it has a dual meaning. You know that General Huo once complimented Fang Li so you can guess. How many people in the Han dynasty know General Huo as well as you do? Most people will see General Huo as just a fighting man, and that he used a word incorrectly in this song.”
Tian Cao, who had thought Qu Bing just misused a word, turned red and stuttered “General Huo is not Xi Ma Xiang Ru, why write a song that is now sung all over Chang An?” I reply “Qu Bing is probably using this song to test the Emperor’s intentions. In the song he mentioned Emperor Wu of the Zhou kingdom, a warrior Emperor who nevertheless garnered the love of his people. Qu Bing was complimenting Emperor Wu, but was actually using that to express his own feelings about future warfare.”
Jiu Ye looked at the ground “The current Emperor is enamored of warfare. Now that the Xiong Nu is defeated, he’s worried the Emperor is eyeing Xi Yu next. But General Huo no longer cares about the weakened Xiong Nu kingdom in the Desert North region, much less wants to prey on the weak and defenseless Xi Yu kingdoms. He’s only interested in fighting an opponent like the Xiong Nu when it was at its strongest.”
Tian Cao thought about it and then said “On the surface General Huo appears arrogant and thoughtless, only knowing to barrel full speed ahead. But based on his song, from composing it to sending it back to Chang An, his thoughts are much deeper than realized, and he’s comparable to the Great General Wei in terms of doing things with forethought.”
Qu Bing’s biggest intelligence was letting everything think that he was stupid at everything else other than fighting wars. I felt happy and let out a small smile. But when my eyes met Jiu Ye, my smile froze and inside I felt a twinge of bitterness. Jiu Ye turned his head and wheeled out “We won’t bother you, get some rest!”
In ten days Qu Bing will be back. Since he deployed, my heart finally started to feel at ease. That is, until Wei Shao Er and Wei Jun Ru suddenly came to visit. Those two sisters are usually so chilly towards me, but now they are quite friendly. Liu Che wants to summon me into the Palace to give birth. They are here to congratulate me since my child will be born into the same treatment as the royal children. It is such a honor and privilege.
Honor and privilege! I see their smiles and want to grab a broom to sweep them out. Do they not know what is behind this great honor and privilege? Do they not know, or don’t want to know? Seeking wealth and power in this dangerous place, even Wei Zhi Fu as the Empress has to endure much danger.
It was nearing the end of Summer, and some of the flowers are at the end of their bloom cycle. Isn’t life just like that? When the water is full means its about to overflow. When the moon is full means its about to wane. When power is at its peak means its will soon weaken.
Is this the Emperor’s response to Qu Bing’s song? When Qu Bing returns, I will already be in the Palace, so will he dare to oppose the Emperor and take me back home? When power is at its peak, even one misstep could mean complete destruction. I have made up my mind.
Inside the study, Jiu Ye is flipping through medical books and I barge in and sit right across from him “Jiu Ye, I need to ask you for a favor. You must agree.” Jiu Ye’s grip on the book tightened and he immediately said “I won’t agree.”
I stare at him without blinking “I’ve flipped through all the medical texts these past few days but can’t find any that discusses speeding up the date of delivery. I understand the risks, but I have no choice despite knowing I am gambling with my life and the life of my baby.”
Jiu Ye’s eyes were filled with despair and he softly said “There are other ways. We can leave Chang An immediately, we can leave all this chaos and fighting behind.” I stare at him but didn’t answer what he said “If you don’t agree, then I will find another doctor.”
I knew I was forcing him, but right now I have no choice. I cannot leave Chang An with him, what position would that place Qu Bing in? His expression turned distressed, within his ashen face was pure hopelessness. My heart hurt to the point it felt numb. We really have passed each other by. I have already chosen Huo Qu Bing. No matter what happens, what obstacles and challenges, I will not leave. I will not leave Huo Qu Bing to be alone in Chang An to weather this storm.
I silently get up and walk out, and his weak voice says “I agree.”
I knew he would agree, because he would never place my life in the hands of another person. I don’t react and continue to calmly walk outside. I keep my voice steady as I coolly say “Thank you!” But silent tears are falling, the tears are falling for him. And I cannot let him know, I would rather he saw only my seemingly cold figure.
A late Summer storm passes and the ground is wet. When I walk the Palace physician sent to check on me out, I slip on a step and in the eyes of everyone my stomach hits the ground first. But in truth I’ve used one hand and my knee to temper the impact. To make it more realistic, I let my other arm hit the ground hard and scrape it so that it is bloody. I crush the Cha Mo flower leaves that is hidden in my hand, and the fragrance wafts in through my nose and hits the medicine I drank earlier. It mixes together to induce labor. Soon my entire body is curled into a ball, my sweat and blood seeping through my clothes.
The physician screams for help and Jiu Ye anxiously picks me off the ground. My blood seeps into his white robe, almost like a red flower blooming. His face has not a shred of color, and in his dark eyes I see only fear as deep as the ocean.
Jiu Ye knows this was all orchestrated but he’s reacting like it’s real. No one will suspect. But when I see him sweating, I know he’s not acting. This is his honest reaction. From the moment I drank the labor inducing medicine, my life was on the line.
I force a smile for him to indicate I’m fine, but then I realize I can’t control my body anymore. The pain makes me moan and my teeth clench. I bite my lip until its bleeding. Jiu Ye’s brows are furrowed and he puts his hand in my mouth so that I will bite him instead. He doesn’t want me to hurt myself. I try to turn away so I don’t hurt him but my clenching teeth still bites down on his hand.
His beads of sweat are rolling down his face, almost like his tears are falling. My blood, his blood, my sweat, his sweat, it all mixes together. I taste the sweet acrid blood in my mouth and all my strength dissipates. My consciousness starts to muddle and my bodily pain seems to going away. But my emotional pain appears even more pronounced, so much that my feelings break free of my logical shackles and everything is expressed in my eyes. My tears also cannot be controlled and I just start crying in front of him.
Before I pass out, all I hear is “Yu Er, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry……”
The moment I regain consciousness, the feeling of body-rendering pain causes even the normally tough me to cry out in pain. I don’t know how long I have been passed out, but its already dark outside the room. A curtain is pulled across my chest, with two midwives busy behind the curtain and Jiu Ye sitting beside me outside the curtain. He looked tired but he was calm and tightly gripped my hand “Nothing will happen to you. You will be fine.” But his shaking hand betrayed his real feelings. He was frightened, so I use my energy to smile and weakly nodded my head.
One hour passes, and another, and yet another. Still there is only indescribable pain. The baby still won’t come out. Baby, why don’t you come out? Mom’s energy is almost all used up. With one more scream from me, the midwife suddenly cried out “The baby is out! It’s a boy, and despite being born two months early and is so tiny, it has a lot of energy. You can tell it’s not an average baby.”
Jiu Ye relaxed “Yu Er, you did well.”
One midwife carried the baby out and happily showed him to me. I heard his cries and my heart shook. I felt this immense sorrow that almost knocked me out. Baby, are you crying because you know that from the moment you are born you won’t be able to see your mom?
Jiu Ye pressed on my forehead and woke me up, then he exchanged a look with Tian Cao standing in the doorway. They looked at me and despite all my longing, I nod my head. Tian Cao came inside to take the baby “The nanny has been waiting for quite some time. The Palace has also sent someone to wait for the baby. I will bring the baby to them.”
I make this noise that I can’t even tell what I’m trying to say. Tian Cao stopped and I stared at the bundle in his arms. After a few moments, I forcefully close my eyes. Jiu Ye said to Tian Cao “You can go!”
Jiu Ye’s hand on my wrist, I can feel the heavy emotion and his fingers turning cold. I force a smile “I’m not hurting anymore, just tired and sleepy. My body is strong, you don’t need to worry. After a good rest I’ll recover.”
The midwife cried out “The bleeding won’t stop, won’t stop.” She was afraid to look Jiu Ye in the eye and just lowered her head and shook it. Jiu Ye froze and then in a low voice ordered the midwife to do something and then ordered medicine to be brewed.
Buckets of clean water are brought in one after another, and buckets of bloody water are removed one after another. I wondered if all that blood came from me? There was a sense of bone deep exhaustion coming over me, making me weak and lazy. All I want to do is sleep, but Jiu Ye won’t let me. He keeps whispering in my ear and forcing me to stare at his eyes and won’t let me close my eyes “Yu Er, do you remember when we first met?”
How could I forget? The vast yellow sand, the blue-green spring water, this white-robed young man that was as clear at the moon above the Sky Mountain.
“Do you remember that outfit? It was given to me by a good friend in Luo Lan. He said it was for my wife, and laughed that since I had a wedding dress, my bride will be sure to appear. Then you appeared. Despite the rags on you, it couldn’t hide your spirit, an entire body filled with fearlessness but your eyes showed hidden sadness. But your face had only the most brilliant smile. It was the first time I had heard a girl laugh out loud without reservation like that. It was like the entire universe was under your control. At that moment, I thought only about how beautiful you would look wearing that outfit. But…..but I never got to see you wearing it…..”
My eyes teared up and, drop by drop, the tears fell on the palm of his hand. I try valiantly to listen to him but his face turns blurry. My eyes cloud over with this white fog and everything grows faint “Jiu Ye, am I dying?” Jiu Ye tightly gripped my hand “No, no, you’re not…..” I don’t know if he’s trying to convince me or himself.
I lay in his embrace without any fear, completely calm. Things I would never say I finally tell him “Jiu Ye, I’m sorry. What I owe you, I will owe you for this lifetime. I always wanted you to be happy, and I used to think of many ways just to make you more at ease and to not let anyone hurt you. But in the end the person who hurt you the most was me.”
His face was lightly pressed against mine and I felt the dampness. Who was crying?
“Yu Er, the person who needs to be sorry is me. I was correct about entering the Palace, your grudge with Li Yan likely started because of me, otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten close to her or helped her enter the Palace. You did everything right, and I was the one who always kept you outside. If I had been honest with you, then we wouldn’t have this pain today.”
Xiao Feng brought medicine and Jiu Ye fed it to me. Every sip felt like it took every ounce of my strength. Jiu Ye wiped my sweat “I know it’s hard for you to hold on, but you have to hold on. You cannot give up, otherwise many people will be devastated.”
I thought about Qu Bing, about our new son, and I felt like my body gained a bit more strength. Jiu Ye started to sing the Xiong Nu ballad I once sang for him, his voice swirling in my ears. In tune with the song, he inserted needles into my body. “Yu Er, I now know that all I want is for you to be alive. I don’t care who you are with, I just want you to be alive. I just want to know that you are alive and happy, then I will be happy. Didn’t you say you didn’t want to see me sad. Then you must stay alive so that I won’t be sad.”
My eyes slowly closed and I heard Jiu Ye’s voice “You must stay alive, you must stay alive, you must stay alive……”
His voice, with such conviction and insistence to fight against the Heavens, even though my consciousness was scattered, but it became imprinted with another voice from a long time ago “You must stay alive, promise Papa, you must stay alive.”
A very long dark corridor, with a faint light at the end. I chase the light and see a wolf pack running ahead, including the wolf that nursed me. I rush to catch up but the wolves disappear and Yu Dan is there. He smiles and waves at me, and I call out wanting to run to him. Suddenly Papa appeared behind Yu Dan, and I happily call out “Papa” and run towards him like I did as a child. But he didn’t open his arms like he used to to embrace me, but he looked very angry like he didn’t want to see me.
I stand in place not moving, thinking of something but not being able to remember. I look back and its all dark, but there is warmth and light ahead, with Yu Dan and Papa. I take another step forward and see Papa’s despairing face staring at me. His sad face triggered something…..my mind flashed two blurry faces. Will they be sad like this?
You must stay alive, you must stay alive….
I don’t know what that means but it stops me from going forward. I take a step back towards the darkness and Papa smiles. My body begins to hurt.
You must stay alive, you must stay alive….
Every step backward takes me further from the light and my body is in more pain. Going forward means happiness, going backward means pain. But Papa is smiling and those two faces in my mind also seem overjoyed, so no matter the pain I keep walking backwards. I don’t know why I’m willing to endure so much pain that I feel crushed, rather than let the two of them feel sad. Step by step I endure the pain and walk backwards……
“Yu Er!” Two voices call out simultaneously in joy. In my eyes I see two different faces, both haggard and exhausted. Both reach out for me, and both stop right before touching my face. Huo Qu Bing turned to look at Jiu Ye, whose initial joy at my awakening gradually turns into sadness. His face still has his usual smile but his hands turns into a fist. The veins on his hand are still faintly twitching but he slowly pulls his hand back. He turned his wheelchair around and headed out “I’ll tell the kitchen to prepare some food.”
Huo Qu Bing silently sat on the pallet and carefully embraced me. His hands are clasped together but his arms aren’t touching me, but remain in a protective stance. It’s clear he’s hiding his worry and uncertainty. I try hard to turn my head towards him but can’t move it so he helps place my head on his shoulder. He finally had a smile and truly embraced me, then he said “Yu Er, let’s not have any more children.”
Mention of children makes my heart ache, so I force a smile “And someone wanted an entire football team! Didn’t you want a father-son team?” His chin was resting on my head “Nothing is as important as you. I don’t even want to see the baby right now. As I stayed beside you, I thought about how giving birth to him caused this to happen to you, and I didn’t want to see him.”
I hesitated and then asked “Did you see the baby?”
He was silent and his voice was somber when he said “No. He was already taken to the Palace when I returned. The Emperor bestowed the name Tan, and he will be raised by the Empress herself. He will be treated like the Crown Prince was treated. Because he was born two months early, he is weak and all the Palace physicians are there. The Palace is all atwitter with this new baby. You were at death’s door so I just bowed to the Emperor and gave him a quick update of the battle before hurrying here.”
I see his blood shot eyes and my heart feels warm and ache for him “You again went days without sleep, right? Sleep first!” He shook his head “I want to keep you company here, I don’t want to leave.” I smell his familiar scent and it gives me an indescribable feeling of comfort “Then sleep here. I really missed you.” I’ve never said such things to him first so he’s stunned so much he props himself up and stares at me “What did you say?”
I pout and refuse to answer him so he stares at me “Repeat what you just said.” I casually say “Good things shouldn’t be said twice.” He looked disappointed and laid back down on the pillow. I whisper in his ears “I really missed you. I really missed you, so don’t even leave me alone in Chang An again.”
He was initially happy but it turned into forlorn sadness. His hands brushed across my lips “I’m sorry.” He must know everything that happened since he’s been away, and I don’t know how he thinks about everything. Perhaps his “I’m sorry” includes his suspicion of Empress Wei now, and the worry about the baby being raised in the Palace.
I was uncertain and hesitated about whether to tell him the truth about the baby, but he suddenly said “The Xiong Nu have been pushed out of the Desert South. They will have no more energy to fight wars anymore, and at most it will be small tussles in the future.”
My heart shook “How did the Emperor reward you?” “Just the same old wealth and power type of rewards” his voice was filled with exhaustion and distaste. His usual excitement and bright aura around his eyes are all gone.
His battle with the Xiong Nu was because of a childhood dream, but with his success means he gains higher positions and more power in court. The initial excitement about being so powerful will pass and afterwards comes more than just fighting the Xiong Nu, it comes with political intrigue and battles in court. From now on, the burden of power will only grow more heavy.
He never paid attention in the past to these things. He once said to me “It’s not that I don’t understand, it’s that I don’t care.” But now he can’t avoid it, he’s already been dragged into it. “Yu Er, let’s go home tonight, okay?” After months on the battlefield and traveling thousands of miles in the desert, and not being able to rest because of me, he was closing his eyes even as he spoke.
I let down all my burdens and softly reply “Okay, tonight let’s go…..home.” He feel asleep with a smile on his face. I put my head in his chest and snuggle there listening to his steady breathing. I actually am already home! Wherever you are at is home, your embrace is home!
Despite wanting to leave that night, Huo Qu Bing slept until the next morning. When we left the Shi Estate, only Tian Cao came out to send us off. Jiu Ye went to the kitchen and never appeared again, and we all forget that ever happened. Tian Cao gave a long list of medicines to Huo Qu Bing, saying that the Palace physicians can treat me within this month, but don’t use any of their medicines. He must strictly follow the instructions on this list. One month later, a “trusted” doctor can treat me and prescribe medicine. Huo Qu Bing looked it over and then unexpectedly bowed to Tian Cao, who smiled and said “I will let Jiu Ye know.”
Qu Bing didn’t trust anyone else so he insisted on carrying me to the carriage himself. I can’t convince him otherwise so I let him be. As we walk past the lake in the Shi Estate, the Lover’s Vines along the edge of the lake are almost ready to bloom. The white is not yet out, but the golden flowers glitter along the green leaves. Huo Qu Bing took a look and didn’t change his expression as he carried me between the Lover’s Vines. I bury my head in his neck as I cannot bear to look.
Before the carriage has even stopped, a fourteen year old boy comes running out calling “big brother”. His voice showed his happiness. When he saw Qu Bing carrying me down, he quickly helped hold the curtains up. Qu Bing looked at him with a warmth he rarely displayed “Yu Er, this is Huo Guang, my younger brother. I went to see my father on my way back and Guang wanted to come to Chang An so I brought him.”
Being called Qu Bing’s younger brother gave Huo Guang a sense of pride and nervousness, like he wanted to be worthy of it. He bowed to me stiffly and said “Sister-in-law, are you feeling better?” Even though everyone knew my relationship with Qu Bing, but no one dared to openly admit it. His calling me “sister-in-law” left me unsure how to respond. Qu Bing happily smiled and said to Huo Guang “Your sister-in-law is embarrassed. When she’s recovered, you two can talk all you want. What have you been up to these past few days?”
Huo Guang happily told him everything he did, his face full of excitement. From a rural area to the capital of the Empire that is Chang An, even an adult will get excited, much less a child. Plus he entered Chang An as the younger brother of the most acclaimed General Huo Qu Bing. I can see Qu Bing quietly listening and in his eyes I can see his protectiveness towards his younger brother. Huo Guang is smart and can tell I’ve already accepted him. He looked relieved and confident, not calling me sister-in-law anymore, but still being very warm and familiar with me.
When I am fully recovered, the late Summer has turned into early Winter. This is the longest I have ever been sick in my entire life. It was due to my heartiness and Jiu Ye’s medical skills that I was saved. Any other woman would already be six feet under.
When it’s late at night and I think about it, I break into a cold sweat. I can’t believe how audacious I was. If anything went wrong, once Qu Bing found out, would he ever forgive Jiu Ye? But for the sake of the baby, I didn’t even consider these things. All I could think about was how to protect my child so that he would not be taken into the dark Palace where there was no sunlight. I would never allow my baby to become a chess piece for Liu Che to control Qu Bing.