Oh gosh, sometimes I wish Jiu Ye would leave Chang An. For his own emotional well-being and sanity’s sake, because every time he runs into Yu Er and Huo Qu Bing it’s like he’s dealt another blow. Now that the love triangle is resolved, unless someone dies and then it’s a whole new ballgame, what’s left is figuring out where to go from here. Does Huo Qu Bing stay in Chang An and be a general for the rest of his life, serving an Emperor who wants to tie him down as a son-in-law. Can Yu Er live as a woman without any official title, and always at the risk of someone looking to eliminate her? Without the possibility of Yu Er beside him, does Jiu Ye still want to leave this all behind?
Chapter 31: Deployment
Myabe because it is the Winter and it’s cold outside, but I’ve suddenly turned lazy and always eating. Sometimes I think of a delicious food and I can’t sleep at night wanting to eat it. Huo Qu Bing orders the kitchen to add a talented night shift chef so that I can eat anything I want during the night.
Even though he offered to keep me company if I’m bored eating by myself, but during the day he has to train the army and then attend court, so I don’t want to make him even more tired. I quietly sneak out to eat and then slip back when I’m done. He’s used to me moving next to him when I sleep, so when I leave I try to be fleet and he almost never notices. But when I return, because it’s so cold outside and my body is still chilly when I slip under the warm blankets, he always drowsily pulls me into his warm embrace despite the fact that I try to avoid making him cold with my cold body. His every move is unconsciously done, and that makes me feel a heart full of warmth.
Huo Qu Bing said he would give me time, and he stops doing or saying anything intended to gauge my feelings. Sometimes when I’m zoning off, he would never be like before and get angry or try to test me, but instead he would walk away and gave me privacy and space to work things out by myself.
In the past when I was feeling sad, I would lament the Heavens for never taking care of me. I was abandoned by my parents at birth, which isn’t that bad since I never had them so I can’t say I ever lost them. But then I met Papa, and right when I’m being pampered and cared for, turning into a real person and loving him back, the Heavens take my Papa away in the blink of an eye. My childhood playmate died, and the person I admired and revered caused my Papa to kill himself. It was impossibly cruel.
I endured a lot of wandering in the endless yellow sand of the vast desert but it was not hard. What was hard was coming to Chang An and discovering the first blush of love of a young girl’s heart. If the meeting by the Yue Ya Spring was just a random encounter, then reuniting in Chang An felt like Heaven was deliberately playing a trick on me. I asked myself many times during that period – why did fate let us meet, but then turned all my longing into emptiness? I felt like the Heavens were tormenting me for their own sport.
But now, laying in Huo Qu Bing’s embrace, watching him sleep, I think to myself that the Heavens gave him to me. I know now that Heaven does care about me. Even though there is this and that between us, even though he cannot marry me.
I grab his hand, and even though he is sleeping, he subconsciously grabbed my hand back. I pick up his hand and kiss it. If our hands are tightly holding each other’s, then there is nothing we can’t overcome. Not Xi Yu, not Chang An. Whether it is the battlefield or the Palace, not even if it’s life or death.
Huo Qu Bing already attended court and has returned, but I am still snuggled under the covers. He tapped me on the forehead and sighed “When I was in the army base, I heard the old-timers talk about how a woman changes after she’s married so she’s like two completely different people. I didn’t believe then, but seeing you these days, I’ve come to accept that truth. The sun has already turned towards the West and you still haven’t woken up. Aren’t you hungry?”
I curl under the blankets and don’t move “I ate something earlier but then I felt lazy again and I don’t feel like moving.” He stuck his hand into the blanket and I try to avoid his icy paw. He tried to ice me again so I quickly sit up. He grabs some clothes for me “Get up! Yi Ping Ju has introduced new dishes and Zhao Puo Nu says it’s very tasty. Let’s go try it out.” I swallowed and immediately got my energy up. He looked at me and shook his head “Is there anything else in your brain these days other than eating?”
I cock my head and think, giving him a sultry and pouty look “There is something else.” He smiled and said in a very soft and gentle voice “What is it?” I said in all seriousness “Drinking! The leek soup I had last night was so delicious!” His smile froze and he swatted me on the head, saying in an exasperated tone “Go wash up!”
The moment we step into Yi Ping Ju I see Jiu Ye. He’s wearing a blue robe and is as pure as the first snow on a mountain top. He’s listening to Tian Cao talk and smiling warmly, though it hides a faint melancholy. The moment he sees me, his eyes flash pain, and my footsteps stop of its own accord. I can’t move forward, I can’t move back. I turn to look at Huo Qu Bing with a worried expression, and even though he’s not looking peachy, he turns to smile warmly at me “If you don’t want to eat, we can go home.”
His warm smile sweeps away all my lingering shadows and clears my heart. I can’t keeping using avoidance. I can’t keep running away every time I see Jiu Ye, that is not fair to Qu Bing. I smile at Qu Bing “I want to eat” and his grip on my hand tightens once and his eyes light up.
Tian Cao stood up and bowed to Huo Qu Bing while Jiu Ye smiled and welcomed us to sit down with them. Tian Cao asked “Xiao Yu, what do you want to eat?” I laughed “Qu Bing said he was bringing me here to sample new dishes. What are they called?” and I turned to look at Qu Bing. He furrowed his brows “I forgot their names. No matter! Tell them to bring every one of their new dishes out.”
I pouted “Do you think I’m a pig! How can I possibly eat all that?” Qu Bing make an exaggerated expression of shock “Seeing your eating “performance” lately, what else do you think I can think about you. Of course you can eat it all. How can you not?” I wrinkled my nose and huffed, turning my face away to ignore him.
I bump into Jiu Ye’s dark eyes staring at me with hidden pain. I realize that my usual banter with Qu Bing shows him our intimacy and affection. Unconscious and effortless comfort such as this scene is like a sharp sword that can cut into the heart, and even a flash of this sword’s brilliance is enough to hurt him.
A covered dish is brought out and the waiter explains the dish as made with donkey meat to represent the mythical dragon meat, and is a perfect Winter dish. He took off the cover and instead of smelling alluring, it immediately turns my stomach. I rush over to the window and heave. The waiter hurried to give me a handkerchief and some tea, while Huo Qu Bing rubbed my back and looked worried “Where do you feel ill?”
I sip some tea and it makes me feel better “I don’t know, I just suddenly felt like retching.” Jiu Ye sits to the side and has a look of hidden despair in his eyes. He tells the waiter “Take away all the heavy dishes and bring some fresh tea, adding some dried orange peel in it.”
Huo Qu Bing helped me back to the table “Are you feeling better? Do you want to go back and see a doctor?” Jiu Ye stared at me and suddenly said “I’ll listen to your heartbeat.” I looked at Qu Bing who just smiled “I forgot there was a talented doctor sitting right here.”
Jiu Ye put his fingers on my wrist, but his fingertip is colder than ice. He was trying hard to control it, but I can feel the tips of his fingers shaking. He takes a long time to listen to my heartbeat, leaving Huo Qu Bing anxious and asking worriedly “What is it?’
Jiu Yu withdrew his hand and with a smile, a very pained smile, said “Congratulations are in order to General Huo. You’re going to be a father.” Huo Qu Bing sat there stunned for moments, and then he grabbed Jiu Ye’s arm and was in such joyful disbelief “What did you say?” Jiu Ye turned his head and looked out the window. His lips quivered and he was about to answer Huo Qu Bing but his voice was stuck in his throat and he couldn’t get the words out.
Tian Cao pushed Huo Qu Bing away and coldly said “Jiu Ye said General Huo, you are about to become a father.” And then he turned and softly said to Jiu Ye “Jiu Ye, let’s go home.” Jiu Ye was still looking out the window and he lightly nodded his head. Normally he’s so gracious and polite with proper etiquette, but today he’s so shaken that he doesn’t even say farewell or look back before leaving.
Huo Qu Bing just smiles at me with a dumb look of happiness and I also just sit there in a daze. Everything was so sudden, and even though I knew it was bound to happen….in another place, at another time, I would have been so ecstatic that I would be speechless. But today…..I touch my wrist and it still feels cold there. Huo Qu Bing suddenly picked me up and strode to the door. I let out an “ah” and then ask “What are you doing?”
Everyone in Yi Ping Ju falls silent and stares at us. I’m so embarrassed that I bury my face in his chest and wished for hole to open up and swallow me. Huo Qu Bing could care less, or he simply ignores them all. He carries me into the carriage and calls out to the servant “Go to the Palace and summon the best physician.” I grab his arm “No! This is between us and I like it to be discreet. If the physician is summoned, everything will blow up. There are doctors aside from the Palace physicians.”
He stopped the servant and then turned to me “I’m just so happy that I forget to think things through, but…..” He smiled and grabbed my hand “I just want to shout to the world that I’m going to have a son.” His happiness is contagious and I lean on his shoulder and break into a smile. But then I sudden realize what he said and pinched him “What do you mean? If it’s a daughter you won’t be happy then?”
He quickly shook his head “Happy, I’m happy either way. If it’s a boy, I can teach him to ride, to hunt. I’m happy if it’s a girl, too. A little Yu Er, how could I possible not adore her? I want girls and boys. Let’s have a few more, and we can make our own football team. Father and sons on the field, I guarantee we’ll cream any other team so that they’ll lose even their pants in the match.”
I stare in shock “Do you think this is a sow dropping a litter?” He looked pleased “If you are willing.” I want to pinch him again, but this person is made of such thick skin. In and out of battles, he doesn’t blink at arrows or swords coming towards him. My little bit of strength is like tickling him. I decide to save my energy so I make a face and close my eyes. He gets nervous immediately “Yu Er, where are you not feeling well?”
I ignore him while resting on his shoulder, so that makes him even more nervous and he hollers outside “Back to the estate immediately!” and then added “But make sure the carriage doesn’t shake too much.” The driver was silent and then politely asked “Does the General want me to go faster or slower. If it’s faster then the carriage will surely shake.”
I can’t hide it any longer and burst out laughing. Huo Qu Bing realized what I did and lightly tapped me on the hand “Now you’ve resorted to these tricks to torment me.” “What can I do? I can’t beat you on brute strength alone, so all I can do is resort to weird tricks.” I smirked “And now I even have a hostage inside me. Let’s see if you’ll dare be mean to me from now on.”
I don’t know how other women are like when they are pregnant, but other than dislike for smelling very pungent scented foods, everything else is normal with me. In the early months I would get lazy, but now I’m back to normal. I sleep well, I eat well, and if it wasn’t for Qu Bing’s stern eagle eye always trained on me reminding me that I wasn’t just taking care of myself, I probably could say that I was also playing well.
When I walk up to the swing I hear Qu Bing calling behind me “Yu Er.” I can only turn around and walk away. Finally a day dawns with bright sunlight during this Winter season and I ask him if we can go riding outside the city. He immediately answers “Don’t forget your state right now.” My state? All I’ve got is an extra little person inside of me. What’s such a big deal about that? And I’m even showing at all yet.
According to Hong Gu, a woman needs to turn a blind eye to her man, because if she spends her entire time keeping tabs on him, the end result won’t be the man staying by her side forever. She’ll just drive the man to find another place to go where he’s not being kept track of. But what about if a man constantly keeps track of a woman? Hong Gu was silent for a long time after I asked her, and then she said a woman needs to be thrilled about that, because it means he doesn’t want to even look at another woman. I was very upset to hear this. Not fair, so not fair!
At night I told Qu Bing the advice Hong Gu gave me, but I changed the genders around “A man needs to learn to turn a blind eye to a woman and stop keeping track of her all the time. If he keeps staring at her, the end result is……” I tried to indicate what he needed to do so he can re-assess the way he’s been behaving lately. He was reading a Xiong Nu map at his desk, and after he listened to what I said, he calmly replied “No one wants to die, and I will never give you the opportunity.”
I humph at him and look left and right, front and back, walked inside and outside the room, walked outside and inside the room, and there still remains nothing that I can do within his allowance parameters. He sighed and looked at me “Are you that bored?”
I pouted pitifully and nodded my head “All the maids have been lectured by Uncle Chen already and no one will play with me. In the past we could kick a shuttlecock, swing on the swings, play hide-and-seek, duck-duck-goose, tag, or you’ll take me out to hunt in the mountains. But now I can’t do anything. And I can’t even read a book, the midwife said reading during pregnancy harms the body. They also won’t let me embroider. So what am I to do?”
He looked concerned “It does sound like you can’t do anything. How did all the pregnant women survive this ordeal?” I explain “That midwife you hired says that a pregnant woman must only do one thing, which is to eat more and rest more to make the stomach bigger and then have a fat baby.” I hold my hands out in front of my stomach and mimic a large ball.
He laughed out loud and gestured me over. He sat me down on his lap “I didn’t know you were this bored. I’ll spend more time with you in the future. Yes…..” he thought for a moment “What about this! You’ve read a lot of military manuals, whereas I’ve read very few. Why don’t we play war on a sand board? We’ll each take a side and wage war against each other.”
My annoyance dissipated promptly and I clapped my hands “That’s not exciting enough. Let’s bet on it.” His chin was resting on my forehead and he murmured “Whatever you want. How much money do you have after you sold the businesses? You better not cry if you lost it all.”
I smile “Don’t think that just because the Xiong Nu think of you as an undefeatable warrior god that you will surely beat me. The Xiong Nu don’t know you like I do. Plus if we use the Xiong Nu territories as our battlefield, I’m more familiar with the area and the climate, you’ll be totally outclassed. And finally, think of the great generals who are good on paper but can’t actually fight on the battlefield.”
He turned serious and accepted that I had a good point. He put my hands in his hands and whispered in my ear “In this entire world, you are the only person I have never intended to guard against. In fact, I wanted you to walk into my heart. It sounds weird since I’ve grown up in and out of the Palace and I’m actually a very wary person. But I just knew you were someone that was worthy of me using my real heart in exchange for yours. And my instinct wasn’t wrong on this.”
My nose turned achy and I kissed his cheek and leaned on his shoulder for some time before smiling “I think you’re engaging in mind games with me already to gain an advantage. You want to weaken my defenses from the get to so that I will go easy on you.” He laughed “What about you? Aren’t you already plotting your move and setting the stage for failure. If you lose you can say you were just letting me win.”
Us two wily foxes smiled at each other with candor and excitement. I took out a handkerchief and wrote down the bet. Qu Bing took a look and happily doubled down next to my bet.
The central Xiong Nu forces may have retreated to the desert North region, but they have not given up on attacking the Han border territories. At the end of Winter, the Xiong Nu forces attacked the Ding Xiang and Yo Bei regions and killed over a thousand Han citizens. Liu Che deliberated carefully and decided to send out a large armed force to eradicate the Xiong Nu for good.
Huo Qu Bing becomes even busier, but no matter how busy he is, he always tries to find time to keep me company. If it is matters that can be handled at the estate, he will work at home. His subordinates become regular visitors to the estate.
I’m not yet showing, and other than a few trustworthy maids and a midwife, no one knows I’m expecting. It’s nearing New Year again, and because Qu Bing knows he has other things to celebrate such as my pregnancy, he orders the estate to be especially decked out this year. Everyone’s been greatly rewarded and the entire estate hums with a festive air. The servants are hustling to decorate the estate and their coming and goings lend a very busy mood all aorund.
My sand battles with Huo Qu Bing are also lots of fun. I said back then that I knew him quite well, but I forget that he also knew me quite well. I ended up not gaining any advantage on that, losing seven or eight matches to him out of ten. If we really were on the battlefield, coupled with his power, he’d likely win every round.
Later I thought about it and decided to stop thinking like myself, and put myself in Yi Zhi Xie’s shoes. I study every move and consider how Yi Zhi Xie would respond. Plus my familiarity with the region and the climate, I use methods to winnow down Huo Qu Bing’s forces, which ends up earning his praise.
The two of us use the sand board to travel thousands of miles and fight over the entire Xiong Nu territory. The Han drawn maps aren’t always accurate, and after every battle I will tell Qu Bing where to correct it. He’s a fast learner and always asking for clarification and confirmation. He keeps asking me over and over about the people and the climate until he’s completely familiar.
To outsiders watching Huo Qu Bing’s string of victories, they have no clue how hard he works behind the scenes. From Li Guang to Gong Xun Aou, they constantly get lost in the desert. For a Chang An born Han person to become familiar with the Xi Yu kingdoms and the Xiong Nu territory requires an incredible amount of hard work.
Huo Qu Bing accompanies me to watch the servants hang up the red lanterns. I casually wonder “It appears you’ve lost the entire estate to me. Maybe we ought to change the “Huo” character to a “Jin” character?” He laughingly embraced me tightly and with his chin resting on my shoulder says “Sure! Why don’t we go ahead and change the name plate hanging over the front door as well. Change it to Jin Estate. But you’ve lost most of your money as well, so how can you feed an entire estate full of people?”
All the nearby servants are focused on their tasks with their heads down, each staring intently at one spot. It’s like all they are doing is working and they see nothing else. My thick skin has been well-trained by Qu Bing now, and especially in the estate, I’m used to him hugging and kissing me. Whatever this person wants to do, he will never hesitate because someone is around. I push his hand away and smile “From now on, people will easily recognize if someone is from the Huo Estate.”
He asked why and I turn towards him and cross my eyes “All of them are turning cross-eyed from staring at one spot to avoid looking at us, isn’t that a perfect way to identify them?” He looked around at the servants and then tweaked my nose and kissed me on the eyes “You’d better not turn cross-eyed.”
Chen An Kang and Zhao Puo Nu are laughing as they walk in and happen to see this scene. Chen An Kang knows about Qu Bing and I and his ability to maintain his demeanor is better than Zhao Puo Nu, trying to laugh in an awkward way, whereas Zhao Puo Nu just stares at his feet. I see his discomfort and even my little bit of awkwardness goes away. I mutter “Here comes another cross-eyed person.” and then bow to them before walking away with a laugh. I can hear Qu Bing trying to refrain from busting out laughing as he says to them “They are all waiting in the study, let’s go now.”
It’s early Summer and already quite hot. The entire Han court is angling to confront the Xiong Nu, and all military warriors from young and old alike want to take part in what will be the largest and furthest deployment of armed forces in the history of the Han dynasty. This will be for the glory of the entire Han Empire, and a way to leave their names in the annals of history.
Liu Che decides to deploy three hundred thousand troops to go deep into Xiong Nu territory to confront the Shan Yu and the Left Sage King’s troops directly. He names as the lead Generals Wei Qing and Huo Qu Bing, who are each taking fifty thousand troops and splitting into two routes into Xiong Nu territory. To ensure success, Wei Qing takes his most trusted subordinates, and older group of generals who have battled with him many times. Huo Qu Bing also chooses his own team of younger leaders. Li Gan begged to follow his father and accompany Wei Qing into battle, but Liu Che did not approve so Li Gan will miss this deployment.
After Huo Qu Bing heard about this, he asked Liu Che to make Li Gan his Lieutenant General. If something were to happen to Qu Bing in battle, then Li Gan will take over his forces and finish the battle. Huo Qu Bing’s request was completely unexpected not only to Li Gan’s side, it was completely unexpected to me as well.
“Qu Bing, aren’t you afraid Li Gan won’t listen to your orders, or he’ll have any tricks up his sleeve?” The battlefield is already dangerous, and with Li Gan by his side, I worry even more. “Li Gan is battlefield material, it’s a waste not to use him! Our hidden skirmishes in Chang An are one thing, but once he’s on the battlefield facing the Xiong Nu, it’s another thing. Li Gan is a real warrior and this concerns the safety of a nation. He knows what’s important. Yu Er, don’t worry. When have I ever read someone wrong?”
Huo Qu Bing was so confident that after I thought about it, he did make sense. I looked at him and felt an even deeper sense of pride. He complimented Li Gan as a real warrior, but that would make him a warrior among warriors. He is confident and brave to use someone who might be his enemy in politics, and doesn’t worry about Li Gan backstabbing him afterwards once they return to court. If his heart and honor wasn’t even greater than Li Gan’s, how could he understand Li Gan’s point of view, and how could he be willing to endure Li Gan.
After the hustle of preparation, everything is ready and waiting for deployment. This battle has gathered together Wei Qing, Huo Qu Bing, Gong Xun Aou, Li Guang, Zhao Puo Nu, Lu Buo De and such other extraordinary generals. It could be said as the greatest gathering of military talent in Han history. And the most acclaimed Han scholar official Xi Ma Xiang Ru will be accompanying this deployment, using the might of his pen to record how the shiniest military might in the Han dynasty managed to twinkle in the Xiong Nu sky.
“You’re leaving tomorrow so hurry up and get some sleep!” I kept telling Huo Qu Bing. He was laying with his head on my belly “He moved again.” I smiled “He’s getting more and more mischievous. At night he constantly kicks me awake. Doesn’t he need to sleep?”
He murmured in a low voice “Good son, please don’t torment your mommy, otherwise your daddy I won’t be nice to you. After you come out, you can move around as much as you want.” I push him away and blow the light out “Sleep!” He embraced me and didn’t move for the longest time. I thought he had fallen asleep when he spoke “Yu Er, I’m sorry that I have to leave you all alone in Chang An. This deployment we are going far, and the quickest I can return is three or four months.”
I hold his hand “Don’t worry! Don’t you know my personality by now? How could anyone mistreat me? Plus there is Uncle Chen in the estate and the Empress in the Palace. You go fight your Xiong Nu without worrying about me! Yi Zhi Xie is not that easy to defeat.”
His hand stroked my belly “It’s almost four months now, but how come you’re still barely showing?” I laugh “What’s wrong with that? The doctor says I am barely showing, though soon it’ll pop out.” I stick my head in his chest and grumble “Oh noes! When you come back it’ll be when I’m at my most hideous. I will go hide and not see you until after I have the baby.”
He laughed out loud “I notice you don’t spend time on make up and hair and I thought you didn’t care about these things. Don’t worry, the hot sun in the dry desert, when I return I’ll be as black as an eel. If you don’t find me unattractive, then I won’t find you unattractive.”
He sighed and kissed me “Thank god it’s only four months and I have plenty of time to come back and see his birth. Otherwise I’ll be so anxious it’ll kill me.” I say “Even if you’re back you won’t see his birth. Men aren’t allowed in delivery because they think women would dirty their aura so they always wait outside.”
He scoffed “When your beloved woman is giving birth to your child, what dirty aura could there be. There is only an entire house full of happiness. When I come back I will be sure to stay by your side during the entire experience.”
My heart was warm with love but it also ached. How could I bear to see him go? How could I not want him to stay with me? How could I not worry about him? But love is not about tying the other person down. We were both once lone birds flying in the sky. Now that we are together, it’s not to force each other to fly slower or fly lower, it’s to become the legendary twin birds. We will guide each other to fly higher and accompany each other so that our dreams can come true. So I need to let him leave without any worries, let him know that I can take care of myself and our unborn child.
I waited until the tears in my eyes dried and then I quickly said “Do you think I’ll let you get away with this? I hear child birth is extremely painful, and especially with this one being the first, I will make you watch it all. And if it hurts too much I’ll bite you a few times, so you hurt along with me.” He nodded “Yes. We hurt, then we hurt together. If we’re happy, then we’re happy together.”
I know he’s leaving tomorrow so I pretend to be sleepy and yawn. He quickly said “Let’s go to sleep!” I closed my eyes and waited until I could hear his breathing turn calm and steady. I opened my eyes and stared for a long time as his face, the sharp defined angles of his profile. Qu Bing, you must return without a single scratch on you. You must.