My heart really broke for Liu He in this episode.The sense of defeat and desolation was so palpable in that scene and the falling snow really brought that out.
Update: CHAPTER COMPLETE
When the leaves had all fallen, Liu Fu Ling left Wei Yang Palace in Chang An and moved into Wen Quan Palace in Lishan.
He had stopped presiding over most matters, only receiving a few high officials at Wen Quan Palace daily; the rest of the government affairs he left in the hands of Huo Guang, Yang Shang, Zhang An Shi and Jun Bu Yi.
The selection of the high officials caused a huge stir at court. Those loyal to the Emperor, or those with a grudge against the Huo family tried their best to protect the Imperial family’s interest, and fought for General Zhao Cong who was just posted back to the capital to be appointed by Liu Fu Ling; those who sided with the Huo family were completely against General Zhao Cong. After an intense battle, Huo Guang, Yang Shang, Zhang An Shi and Jun Bu Yi were appointed as High Officials of Government Affairs – this made a lot of people shudder.
Chancellor Yang Shang was a fence-sitter picked by Huo Guang; he would lean where the wind blew. Although General of the Right Zhang An Shi wasn’t a grovelling, subservient man as Tian Qian Qiu was, he had never defied Huo Guang either.
As for metropolitan magistrate Jun Bu Yi, the whole court knew that the turning point of his career was the maligned spirit of Crown Prince Ju incident. Jun Bu Yi was well known for his talents in his youth, Bao Sheng Zhi recommended him to the late Emperor Liu Che; although Liu Che conferred a title upon him, he had never held important positions. After Liu Fu Ling ascended the throne, he had praised Jun Bu Yi’s talents, but never promoted him. When the maligned spirit of Crown Prince Ju was discovered at the gates of Chang An, it was Jun Bu Yi’s swift reaction, delicate handling of the situation to minimize chaos that caught Huo Guang’s attention. A few words from Huo Guang to the Emperor saw Jun Bu Yi promoted to metropolitan magistrate, in charge of investigating the maligned spirit of Crown Prince Ju incident. He didn’t let down Huo Guang, handling the matter with decisiveness and severely punishing those involved, beheading those who claimed to be the Crown Prince Ju. It was from then on that Jun Bu Yi truly rose to become an important official of the Han Dynasty.
With these four officials in charge of political affairs, was it yet not clear enough whose words will carry the most weight in future?
Leaving Chang An far behind, it also seemed like they left all the troubles and problems far behind too; at least this was how it was to Yun Ge. In the past, Ling Ge Ge could spare her very little time in the midst of his daily schedule. Often, by the time she woke up, he was long gone; she could only see him in the dead of the night. Now, he gave all his time to her.
Away from the restrictions of court protocol, with no need to worry about the spies that crept along hallways, nor unknown dangers, the both of them led lives like any other married couple.
Yun Ge washed her hands, preparing to make soup while he read, wrote, drew and played the zither. Hand in hand, they strolled along mountain streams, took in the rivers, waterfalls, clouds, sunset, or just nothing at all.
Yun Ge taught him how to set traps to catch birds; in the end, the master only caught three while the disciple caught nine. He taught Yun Ge how to carve seals, Yun Ge always broke the blade of the carving knife; she wasn’t able to carve a word, but later she was in possession of the most exquisite jade seal the world had ever seen.
Once, on a whim, they dressed before the sky was light and went about collecting dew from bamboo leaves to brew tea. After a few busy mornings, they finally collected enough dew water for their tea, but when they took a sip of the tea, they exclaimed in unison “The taste is no more than this! It wasn’t worth the effort” The next day, they only awoke when it was well past noon.
They even soaked in the hot springs together. Liu Fu Ling never understood why his imperial father constructed the hot spring pool in such a strange manner, specially placing a jade pillow, yet in such an odd position, specially constructing a jade pallet – there was only one but the shape was queer. As for the other things, all the more he couldn’t understand their purpose. Of course, he never bothered to figure out their purpose; each time he came to Li Shan he would rest quietly with his head against the jade pillow, although his body was in the hot springs, his heart was with the people.
Yun Ge though, was different. She didn’t just soak in the hot springs, but swam around in it, brimming with curiosity with all the strange objects, trying to understand their purpose. Yun Ge was bright and full of strange ideas, coupled with boldness and passion uncommon in other girls, and a stubborn will to search till she found an answer – with her relentless probing, as she whispered to him, blushing furiously, he too slowly understood the purpose behind each and every design of the hot spring pool.
One afternoon, after he slept off the wine from the night before, he painted with confidence. A pair of mandarin ducks playing in a deep blue pond with gentle ripples. One was bobbing along the pond, the other was swimming down deep. To the side, he wrote “Remembering that which raptures the soul”
When Yun Ge saw it, she was overcome with embarrassment and grabbed the painting, wanting to rip it. Liu Fu Ling smiled at her, making no more to stop her. Contrary to his expectations, as Yun Ge held the painting up for closer inspection, her cheeks grew pink and her lips curved into a slight smile, “Since my dear husband ‘likes’ it this much, draw a painting after each time!”
Liu Fu Ling’s smile froze on his face while Yun Ge burst out laughing.
The days on the mountain passed in a flash, Liu Fu Ling felt like the time they had each day was extremely short. He had never wished so fervently for time to pass slower in his life, but time only seemed to speed up.
His chest pains became more and more frequent, the pain more intense. He could no longer hide his pain from Yun Ge. The pain was like ten thousand arrows piercing through his heart, his body was no longer under his control. When it was mild, his limbs would cramp; when it was severe, his whole body would convulse. At first, he was still very worried for Yun Ge, then he found out each time it happened, Yun Ge never showed signs of fluster; she would always just embrace him quietly, whispering softly into his ear – a story, a joke, a poem, or nothing at all, only calling out his name repeatedly.
“Ling Ge Ge, Ling Ge Ge……….”
In the haze of pain, he was falling towards the dark abyss, yet each time, because of her voice, he managed to pull through again and again through sheer longing and reluctance to part with her.
He once promised her, when the snow fell, he would make snowmen with her. By the first flakes of snow though, he was already having trouble moving and could no longer accompany her on walks outside, and making snowmen became a promise he could never fulfill.
He stared at the snow with a sinking heart, but Yun Ge smiled as she curled up against him "On such a chilly day, it's best to admire the snow warming our hands by the fire." His heart lifted with her smile, but at the same time, bitterness welled up.
He summoned Liu He, and they spoke privately for more than four hours. Liu He emerged, pale and shaken, confusion, bewilderment and indignation were all reflected in his eyes.
A servant piped up "My lord, the snow fall is getting heavier, why not take the carriage back to Chang An?" Simple words, but that made him halt and stand dumbly at the gates of the hall, looking at the path in the distance, as if he had no clue what his next move should be. His servant didn't dare to rush him, so he could only stand quietly by his master's side.
Yun Ge walked briskly with her box of food. She was afraid that it would cool, so she specially tucked it into her cape, hugging her box tightly. To the distance, she spotted a man cloaked in snow, with a whole retinue of 'snowmen' bowing respectfully behind him. Yun Ge changed her course, and walked towards them.
"My lord, 'taking in the wind and admiring the snow' is thought to be a romantic and refined activity, but why must you force others to take part in your romance?"
This was when Liu He was finally aware of the retinue behind him; with one wave, they were dismissed to wait along the hallway. He gave Yun Ge a once over and his lips curved into a deep, meaningful smile. Yun Ge was bewildered at his strange smile.
"Why are you smiling like that? What's wrong with me?"
"I'm smiling because you seem to have combed your hair the wrong way. You've already married into the Liu house, why do you still dress like an unmarried maiden?"
Yun Ge's cheeks were flared red. She might have been embarrassed but that didn't mean she lost any of her fiery spirit. She glared hard at Liu He "Look at those lecherous eyes, only knowing how to leer at women! Humph, if you dare to show any further disrespect to your elder or impudence, I'll ask him to use the rod on you!"
Liu He laughed loudly, yet there was no trace of joy in his laughter.
"What's wrong? Is there something troubling you?"
Liu He grinned mischievously at her "What could be troubling me? Me? I am as happy as a lark. What is that lump in your embrace?"
Liu He perked up "Since the 'refined chef' disappeared, I haven't had a decent meal in a long while. What nice delicacies have you whipped up?"
Yun Ge passed him the bundle "Where is Hong Yi Jie Jie?" "At the foot of the mountain." "Then bring this to her and enjoy a meal with her. Please pass my regards to her."
The box wasn't big but it was cleverly split into two layers. There were two dishes on the first layer – minced pigeon breast with egg, scallop and vegetable soup. The minced pigeon meat was fresh and succulent; and light danced merrily over the soup. One look at it and the person’s stomach would start rumbling in anticipation. There were three dishes in the second layer – a plate of five-coloured glutinous rice, a place with two round balls, emitting a faint scent, but he couldn’t tell what it was made of, and something that looked like ham and tofu soup; that should be watery but this dish resembled clear jelly. “Is this or is this not ham and tofu soup?”
“It could be, or it could not be. Their ingredients are the same; I first picked preserved meat of the highest quality and together with tofu, turned it into soup. However, I only added something strange in the soup.” “What was that?” “Often, the branches of peach trees will ooze liquid. When dry, this liquid will harden into a translucent gel. When first secreted, ‘peach gel’ is fragrant, even more so than peach blossoms. The gel may be collected and sealed in clay jars to be used in food or soup.” Liu He was amazed by it – this was the first time he had heard of it; trust Yun Ge to come up with this idea.
“What is that? It smells like blossoms.” “It’s called ‘Drunk plum petals in the snow’. I crushed the grains the South sent as tribute and used fine plum wine to bring out the flavour. It is glutinous and thus isn’t easily digested, you can’t have too much of that. When you eat it, use a silver time to split it open from the middle, then you may see two small plum blossoms blooming simultaneously. Coupled together with the whiteness outside, it resembles plum flowers blooming in the snow.” As Yun Ge spoke, she placed the lid back on the box. “The food will get cold soon; do eat them soon if you really want to eat.” Yun Ge obviously spent an inordinate amount of effort making those dishes, then carefully wrapped them up to keep the cold away, and now she was giving it away just like that without any hesitation. Liu He smiled “If Hong Yi and I eat this, what will the two of you eat?” Yun Ge smiled widely, her eyes crinkling into crescent moons “There is still a huge kitchen in the palace, we’ll just eat from there! I only wish that by eating this, you will smile sincerely and stop smiling in that forced manner, giving me…..” Yun Ge gave an exaggerated shudder.
The memory of a drunk Yue Sheng flashed across Liu He’s mind. “The girl…when she smiles, her eyes form curved crescent moons; when she speaks, it sounds as wonderful as a camel bell; when she stood there, she was as pretty as a tree….” Liu He had scoffed at Yue Sheng’s description “Do you know what a camel bell is? It is a just a bell made from bronze; can it make a beautiful sound? A woman should sound like silver bells. How can a woman who looks like a tree be pretty? They should look like flowers to be considered pretty.” It wasn’t till much later did he understand, to someone who had struggled through the desert, the most wonderful sound to their ears would be the tinkling of camel bells, and lush green trees were the most moving scenery to them. “My dear brother Yue, could it be that you have taken to this maiden? No wonder you have rejected all the women I have sent. Don’t worry, as long as you like her, even if she is a fairy in heaven, I will bring her to you….” A passing joke, but Yue Sheng was furious, so furious that he awoke from his drunken stupor. “What nonsense are you spouting? Do you think everyone is like you? I was still young then, and because I had experienced much hardship, I was combative. They saved me, but I refused to say a word of thanks. As the years passed and I matured, the worse I feel; I am truly grateful to them.” When he looked at Yue Sheng’s pale face, he knew he had said the wrong thing for Yue Sheng was someone who wouldn’t say a word if he truly liked someone. He hurriedly rushed to bow and salute in apology. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I went out of line”…….
“Eh! Where has your mind drifted off to again?” Yun Ge waved her hands in front of his face. “What is wrong with you today?”
“I suddenly thought of an old friend.” Liu He shook his head and laughed brightly. “Alright! I shall accept your food, but I will never accept something without offering something else in return, so I shan’t thank you for this. I shall take my leave here; we will meet again by fate.” He laughed and started to make his way down the mountain with those words and his retinue quickly rushed to follow him down.
He was soon swallowed up by the flurry of snow; if she listened hard enough, she could still hear his laughter. Yet that laughter, after traveling through the wind and snow, seemed sorrowful and helpless, like a soldier with a severed arm, or a hero with nowhere to go. Yun Ge stared at Liu He’s shadow in confusion, but she didn’t have time to think too much, for her heart was already filled with someone else. She didn’t wait for Liu He to go far before she turned and rushed into the hall.
With that, Liu He didn’t return to Chang An, but headed straight for his Chang Yi kingdom.
Liu Fu Ling also sent for Liu Xun.
Snow had been steadily falling for the past two days and still showed no sign of stopping. It made mountain path difficult to travel on, Liu Xun chose to walk instead of riding. Halfway up the mountain, an eunuch appeared and commanded all of Liu Xun’s men to halt, only permitting Liu Xun to continue up the mountain. He Xiao Qi opened his mouth to argue but hastily retreated with one look from Liu Xun.
All that was left on the winding path was Liu Xun. Looking up, both the sky and ground were cloaked in white, in a white sea of nothingness ahead. The streams had stopped flowing, and all animals were in hiding because of the heavy snow. The only sound that could be heard was the snow whirling around him.
Liu Xun walked for more than two hours in the snow before finally reaching the peak. Wen Quan Palace, which was normally so full of colour and life, looked like a different place in the snow. A palace hall stood tall on the pure white earth, plain and muted.
The eunuch who received him was sober and taciturn, and he in turn acted with caution and spoke with care.
He suddenly caught sight of someone in a red cloak making her way down the mountain carefully carrying few stalks of red plum blossoms in full bloom. Instantly, Liu Xun felt like the sky had brightened and that sense of oppression lifted. As there were too many blooms, they covered her head and face and made it very difficult for her to see the road ahead. She gingerly made her way down the mountain while carefully handling the flowers in her embrace that they wouldn’t be damaged. The snow on several pebbles had already hardened to ice, and as they were already slightly loose, she lost her footing and slid down the icy path.
Liu Xun and the eunuch were shocked. They both rushed forward simultaneously; although the eunuch reacted first, Liu Xun reached her first. Liu Xun half-caught Yun Ge in his embrace and she cried out “Don’t hurt my plum blossoms!” By exerting strength on his arms, Liu Xun avoided the plum blossoms and pulled Yun Ge into his arms. A heady scent filled his nose the moment she entered his arms, and he didn’t know whether it was the flowers, or her that was the source of the scent.
Yun Ge steadied herself, first checking the blooms to see if they were damaged. Once she determined there was no damage done, she smiled brilliantly at Liu Xun “Many thanks, Da Ge.” Liu Xun asked “It isn’t easy walking on a snowy path; why didn’t you order someone to accompany you?” Yun Ge smiled softly “I like doing such things myself.” Liu Xun wanted to press further, but the eunuch by his side said darkly “His majesty is waiting for my lord marquis!”
Yun Ge said “You may be dismissed. I am just making my way there too; I’ll bring Da Ge there.” The moment Yun Ge spoke, the eunuch didn’t dare to argue, quietly leaving with a bow.
Liu Xun wanted to help Yun Ge carry the flowers, and although Yun Ge smiled prettily and said “Thank you”, she didn’t accept his goodwill. When they reached the main hall, Yun Ge asked Liu Shun softly “Is there anyone else inside?” Liu Shun nodded “A few lords remain.” He turned to Liu Xun and bowed “May my lord marquis please wait, your servant will report my lord marquis’ arrival.”
Liu Xun was secretly taken aback, his majesty had summoned others? He hadn’t caught wind of such a matter in Chang An.
Not long later, Liu Shun came back, telling Liu Xun “His majesty commands my lord marquis to enter.” Yun Ge stared expectantly at Liu Shun, and he smiled “The few lords have departed, but his majesty doesn’t know that missy is waiting for an audience too!”
Yun Ge followed Liu Xun into the hall, “Da Ge wouldn’t mind me taking up a bit of his time. Liu Shun, please bring a vase.”
Liu Fu Ling leaned against the couch, his face sunken and tired, but his eyes radiated contentment and happiness that Liu Xun had never before seen. The moment Liu Fu Ling saw Yun Ge, it was as if no one else existed, he helped Yun Ge shake off the snow on her cloak while he laughed “It just took one snowfall for the plum blossoms to burst into bloom.”
Liu Xun quietly kowtowed then retreated to the side.
Yun Ge arranged her flowers as she said “That’s true! Several trees had already bloomed, but I have already picked the best blooms and brought them here. Instead of leaving them for everyone to admire, it is better admired privately by the both of us.”
Yun Ge finished arranging the flowers and placed the vase by the window, in a place where Liu Fu Ling could see the moment he looked up. She pushed up the window, immediately the skies entered through the window: snowflakes swirling lightly around as the red plum blossoms welcomed them with their bright blossoms.
Liu Fu Ling quietly watched the scene, nodding his head with a smile, and Yun Ge shut the windows. Yun Ge pointed at the flowers, then at herself. Liu Fu Ling smiled and shook his head; Yun Ge frowned. Liu Fu Ling mentioned for Yun Ge to come over, then picked up a few fallen blossoms from the table that had dropped as she was arranging the flowers and arranged them on her hair with care. He scrutinised his handiwork, a warm smile playing on his lips as he lightly tapped her forehead. Yun Ge cocked her head and smiled, then glided out of the hall happily.
They hadn’t spoken, but everything was clearly displayed through each and every gesture. One wasn’t despondent, and one wasn’t mourning. They were doing their best to enjoy the world’s treasures with whatever limited time they had.
It wasn’t that Liu Xun hadn’t thought of what his majesty and Yun Ge would be like now, but he just couldn’t fathom the scene that had just played out. One might not suffer in death, but waiting for death would definitely be painful. If he wasn’t so sure of Liu Fu Ling’s current state of illness, he wouldn’t have believed this couple was constantly living under Death’s shadow.
Liu Fu Ling dismissed everyone from the hall. Liu Xun sat respectfully, his eyes cast down, waiting for the Emperor to speak.
Liu Fu Ling looked straight at him, without any anger or happiness, “I still remember the first time I met you, you were reading ‘Records of the Grand Historian’, and said ‘I have recently taken a liking to reading about the late Emperor in his youth’, you also shared what you gleaned from your reading.”
Liu Xun was slightly stunned; he remembered it was a chilly day, he was still clad in a threadbare winter cloak then, and now he was royalty. Too many events had happened in the middle, it seemed so far away and yet, it had only been a year.
Liu Xun spoke measuredly, choosing his words with care. “Truthfully, it all boils down to two words ‘endurance’ and ‘scheming’. Then, Empress Dowager Dou controlled state affairs; Liu Che indulged daily in hunting and gaming, and gathered a group of youths to fool around with him. When Empress Dou saw him in this state, her murderous intent towards him diminished, not expecting that it was this group of foolhardy youths that become future prestigious palace guards.”
Liu Fu Ling smiled “Your schemes are fairly decent, but your endurance strength is really poor. You are too anxious, too afraid of losing, too vicious, you lack a clear, thorough plan before taking action. Liu He is better and more thoughtful when handling matters, his laws were both logical and considerate.”
Liu Xun’s fist clenched in his sleeve, and said calmly “With regards to Tian Qian Qiu, your subject’s lack of experience led to that mistake. Uncle grew up within the walls of the palace, his knowledge and bearing far surpasses that of your subject; your subject grew up in the streets; there are times when your subject can’t help but to go to the extreme. Your subject will change and will follow Uncle’s way of handling matters.” As he spoke, he kowtowed heavily.
Liu Fu Ling tried to get up, but his body gave way and he fell back. He sighed, “Xun’er, come here.” When Liu Xun heard Liu Fu Ling call him ‘Xun’er’, he felt a ridiculous urge to cry. How many times in his life had he truly had the chance to be a child?
He assisted Liu Fu Ling to sit up, walked to the side of the hall and saw that a map made of lambskin filled up the whole wall, detailing the Han empire. Mountains, rivers, land, cities were all represented by different colours, the population of each region had also be annotated, it seemed like he was unexpectedly looking down on earth from heaven.
Liu Fu Ling asked “Why are there so many bridges across the land?” Liu Xun answered confidently “Because of people. People like looking at the high mountains and rolling hills, the gargling of the Yellow River, yet your subject had always liked looking at the boats bustling back and forth across the river. The songs of boatmen, the lilting tones of fisher girls, and the sounds of hawking from street vendors from both sides of the river have always called out to me. A river with nobody is too quiet, a city without a soul is a ghost town; without people, there would be no great empire.” Liu Fu Ling nodded. “There can only be the empire when because of people. Therefore, a benevolent heart is a must to govern this empire. Treat the people well, give them a peaceful place to live and work, only then will this empire be spectacular.” His heart for the people was nowhere near Liu He’s; Liu Xun didn’t dare to add any more, merely saying “Your subject shall duly remember that.”
Liu Fu Ling’s voice suddenly turned hard, with iciness embedded in it, “Yet, it is not enough to just have benevolence. If the world was at peace, if all we needed to do was to protect our empire and look upon the people benevolently, that would be brilliant! Like Emperor Wen or Emperor Jing, these two emperors gave the people more than three hundred years of peace and wealth. Now though, within court there are ministers trying to wield power, out of court, the tribes are eyeing our land hungrily, so there needs to be ‘viciousness’ too, so as to protect the stability of the kingdom and maintain peace in this empire.”
Liu Xun’s head shot up and looked straight at Liu Fu Ling. Their eyes met; he felt like Liu Fu Ling’s eyes were piercing right through him and fear crept up on him. He quickly lowered his head.
Liu Fu Ling continued “Since ascending the throne at the age of eight, I have toiled hard, and haven’t let down the people.”
Liu Xun said “Your majesty is an exceptionally benevolent Emperor.”
Liu Fu Ling showed no sign of happiness “Yet I am not a good Emperor! I have benevolence, but lack viciousness, I didn’t handle matters with the decisiveness and heartlessness as our former Emperors did.”
Liu Xun was at a loss for words. Had it been the late Emperor, there might have been a different outcome to the three powerful officials jostling for power – the late Emperor would have never cared for civilian deaths; when Crown Prince Ju revolted, the city of Chang An and her rivers were awash with blood, with many innocent lives taken. The late Emperor was even willing to kill his own son and grandson in cold blood. If Liu Fu Ling had been the late Emperor, he would never have spared him, which would not have led to today.
Liu Fu Ling pointed at the magnificent empire, telling Liu Xun gravely “I will pass this empire to you, with the only wish that you will remember the people and wield a sharp knife. Govern well, stabilise the empire and bring happiness to the people.”
Liu Xun was completely dumbfounded; he stared at Liu Fu Ling with disbelieving eyes. It was a while before he spoke, more to himself than anyone else “Wasn’t your…your majesty looking for a decisive and steadfast man?” Liu Fu Ling gave him a small smile “That’s right! If I were to choose a friend, I would have definitely picked He Nu, but this empire will not allow me to make decisions based on my personal preference. Why? Do you not want it?”
Liu Xun quickly knelt to kowtow, but he still numb with shock. “Your subject humbly thanks your majesty!” Immediately, he realised that the salutation was a slightly incorrect and changed his wording “Xun’er humbly thanks Imperial grandfather for your favour.”
Liu Fu Ling had stood for some time, and was completely drained. He turned back towards the couch, his steps feeble, and Liu Xun rushed to assist him back to the couch.
Liu Fu Ling said “Go tell Yu An to summon the rest back in.”
Liu Xun strode to the doors and relayed the Emperor’s words.
In a few moments, a few people entered in an orderly fashion. Liu Xun scrambled to his feet when he saw those people.
They were General Zhao Cong Guo who controlled the military in the north-east, Jun Bu Yi who governed the capital, and Grand Coachman Xin Yan Nian. Everyone at court knew Zhao Cong Guo was Liu Fu Ling’s man. Xin Yan Nian took him by surprise, while the inclusion of Jun Bu Yi shocked him.
The trio knelt respectfully in front of Liu Fu Ling waiting for his command. Liu Fu Ling pointed at Liu Xun “Henceforth, you shall do as Liu Xun says. If Huo Guang intends to let Liu Xun succeed the throne, all is well! If he doesn’t…” Zhao Cong Guo said resolutely “Then we will make him agree.” Liu Fu Ling turned to Liu Xun “Did you hear that? Have you got the confidence to do this?” Liu Xun knelt and kowtowed “Your subject thanks your majesty for the great favour shown. With these three great men, your subject will definitely not let your majesty down.”
Liu Fu Ling mentioned for him to rise, then commanded Zhao Cong Guo, Jun Bu Yi and Xin Yan Nian to kowtow to Liu Xun. When the trio pledged loyalty to Liu Xun in front of Liu Fu Ling, suddenly, Liu Xun found that he couldn’t meet Liu Fu Ling’s eyes. Liu Fu Ling spoke again after the trio departed “I won’t elaborate on the plans I have for you. The trio, and Yu An will fill you in on the details. Yang Shang was the Chancellor you nominated; you should have an idea of how to handle him. Zhang An Shi controls the military in North Yan, the general of the neighbouring troops in the state of Guang Ling is his trusted follower. I trust that Zhang An Shi is your person?” Liu Xun spoke like he already had a plan “Don’t worry, your majesty. The eldest Zhang brother, Zhang He is my benefactor. With Zhang He around, even if Zhang An Shi refuses to help your subject, he will never be on Huo Guang’s side either.” Liu Fu Ling nodded, “I have done all I can for you. I don’t wish to meddle in future affairs.”
Liu Xun got down on his knees to kowtow “Your subject has only just started handling matters at court. If there are any flaws, your majesty’s help will still be required.”
Liu Fu Ling stated “The way I do things differs from that of yours. From today onwards, do as you deem fit. However, you must remember what I said earlier, your ‘endurance’ skill is still lacking.”
“Your subject understands. Huo Guang still wields far-reaching influence at court; it can’t be settled in a matter of days. If I were to be too rash, even if it costs me my life, it still wouldn’t be settled. Henceforth, your subject will definitely bear the word ‘endurance’ in mind, and will not be rash just to gain power.” Liu Fu Ling mentioned for him to stand and sit by his couch. “Promise me a few things.”
Liu Xun said “I will do as Grandfather wishes.”
“First, no matter what happens, I forbid you to kill Liu He.” Liu Xun immediately answered “Your subject will obey.” “Second, I forbid you to put Xiao Mei in a spot.” “Her majesty is Imperial Grandfather’s wedded wife, and your subject’s elder; your subject will perform my duties as a grandson in future, and will never be disrespectful.” Liu Fu Ling was slightly taken back, then said clearly, emphasising each word “She is only my Empress.”
Liu Xun was confused, I was right! Shang Guan Xiao Mei is the Empress, and is his majesty’s lawful wedded wife, what was wrong with that statement? He didn’t dare to ask though, only respectfully saying “Yes.”
“I will arrange matters accordingly after I’ve sought her opinion. Whether she stays or leaves, you must accede to her wishes.”
“Your subject will obey.”
“Before you succeed the throne, Yu An will be able to give a lot of advice; once you have ascended the throne, I’m afraid you wouldn’t want to see him anymore. To you, he would have known too much. If you use him, you’ll be uneasy; if you don’t, you’ll be even more uneasy…”
Liu Xun rushed to speak, Liu Fu Ling silenced him with a gesture “Let him leave the palace, I forbid you to harm a hair on his head.”
“Your subject will obey.”
Liu Fu Ling thought a bit more, and said coldly “That is about all. Put it all down in writing.” Liu Xun picked up a brush, carefully wrote everything he promised on a piece of white silk, added his name, pressed his seal and printed his hand on it.
He showed the document to Liu Fu Ling; Liu Fu Ling nodded in approval. Liu Xun rolled up the silk and placed it on the table. He hesitated before asking “What about Yun Ge?” Cracks started to show in Liu Fu Ling’s calm demeanour for the first time, longing flitting through his eyes “She is just a girl who belongs to the wild, she will not have any relation to any of you in future.”
Liu Xun nodded silently, “Something has been troubling your subject; I’d like to seek Imperial Grandfather’s opinion.” “Go ahead!” “Meng Jue – to use him, or not to use him?” Liu Fu Ling threw him a question in return, “Look across the empire. Can you find anyone better to handle Huo Guang?” Liu Xun shook his head “No.” “I haven’t truly used him, because I wanted to leave him for you. In future, you will just be one person, but with hundreds and thousands of subjects. How to contain their ambitions? This will be a hard skill to master; learn slowly! With Huo Guang around, feel free to use him; without Huo Guang….you should know better than I what should be done.”
Liu Xun nodded “Does your majesty have any other advice?” After a moment to think, Liu Fu Ling said “According to Yu An, during the duel with the Qiang warriors, you didn’t reveal any flaws. Till the very end, the audience couldn’t tell whether your skill level was high or low. Meng Jue’s set of skills did have their weakness, but when Ke’er Dada swept in for the kill, only then did he find out that Meng Jue’s ‘weakness’ wasn’t his ‘weakness’ at all.”
Liu Xun thought he performed best that day, he didn’t expect Liu Fu Ling’s remark. He mulled over it for a bit before revelation struck, yet he felt very indignant, thinking that the result was him winning, and Meng Jue losing. Nonetheless, he still kowtowed and said respectfully “Your subject understands.”
Liu Fu Ling said “You are more suited than I am to be Emperor. I have nothing else to teach; you may go!”
Liu Xun kowtowed, three times in a row, but he didn’t rise. He continued kneeling, then with a thump, kowtowed nine times, each heavier than the last. At the final one, he looked like he was about to start bleeding. His actions were a little strange, but Liu Fu Ling didn’t stop him. He merely smiled
“Keep your gratitude for the people. Just watch over this empire, do everything I couldn’t do and I’ll be pleased.” As he spoke, he leaned back against his couch, closed his eyes and dismissed him with a wave.
Liu Xun rose, walked a few steps before pausing. He hesitated for a beat before curiosity overcame him. Clenching his jaw, he turned back and knelt.
“Your majesty, forgive my impudence, but if I don’t ask this time, I’m afraid….it has been gnawing at me for some time. The first time your subject was summoned, your majesty asked ‘ What is the happiest event in your life?’ ‘What do you want to do most?’, your subject would like to know your majesty’s answers.”
Liu Fu Ling didn’t respond. His eyes remained closed, as if he was pondering over the question. Liu Xun’s heart eased a bit; Liu Fu Ling was like him back then, unable to answer these questions. Gradually though, happiness filled Liu Fu Ling’s face.
“There were so many happy events, I can’t pinpoint when was I happiest.” Liu Xun reeled, unable to tell whether it was from envy or shock. Another beat passed before Liu Fu Ling smiled “Marrying a good wife made me the happiest.” Liu Xun waited for Liu Fu Ling’s next answer with bated breath. The smile dancing across his eyes diminished, as he remained quiet for a long while. Liu Xun stood silently. He saw that Liu Fu Ling was exhausted, and seemingly asleep. He rose and was just about to depart when he suddenly heard Liu Fu Ling say softly “What I want to do most is to grow old with her.” Liu Xun’s heart started beating rapidly; he didn’t dare to look straight at Liu Fu Ling.
Liu Fu Ling waved and immediately, Liu Xun turned and rushed out of the hall, as if he was trying to escape from something.
Yun Ge was mounding snow outside, making snowmen. Out of nowhere, two monkeys appeared, loping behind her with familiarity. At times helping her scoop snow, other times hanging on to her cloak as if they were afraid Yun Ge would catch a chill, helping her dust the snow off her cloak. Or they would be more hindrance than help, toppling the pile of snow Yun Ge had mounded.
Yun Ge didn’t seem to mind as she concentrated on whatever she was doing with a smile, allowing the monkeys to play by her side. She had been out for a while and although she was wearing a snow cap and a heavy cloak, many snowflakes had frosted on her hair.
A few eunuchs stood under the shelter of the roof, but not one of them offered to help, merely watching on quietly. When she saw Liu Xun emerging from the hall, she looked up with a smile, flung her rake aside and rushed into the hall, throwing off her cloak and snow cap in the process, leaving the snow behind.
The two monkeys screeched happily and ran towards the shelter too, imitating Yun Ge as best as they could – stomping their feet, shaking off the snow, then swiftly entering the hall. None of the eunuchs standing guard outside looked surprised, allowing the two monkeys to enter.
Qi Xi brought Liu Xun’s snow cap and cloak over, and assisted him in putting them on. When he saw that Liu Xun’s gaze was fixed on Yun Ge, he smiled “Those two monkeys were brought back last year by Missy. After keeping them here for a whole winter, they were released back into the mountains. Ever since his majesty and missy moved back to Wen Quan Palace, these two monkeys somehow caught wind of it, occasionally making their way down here to visit them. Often, they also bring gifts – the giant peaches they brought with them the last time were much tastier than all the peaches delivered as tributes to the palace. Oddly, these two monkeys still remember the past kindness shown to them.” Qi Xi opened up an umbrella and escorted Liu Xun to the palace gates before giving him an apologetic smile “I’ll have to leave my Lord Marquis here, someone else will guide my Lord Marquis down. Judging by the weather, a few more lanterns will need to be lighted.” Liu Xun replied “No need for that, I often take walks at night and am not afraid of the dark. You have been extremely kind to me since my first day in the palace; I will remember your kindness.”
Qi Xi let his gaze sweep around his surrounding, then smiled “This was only my duty. If my Lord Marquis needs any assistance, please give me a command.” Liu Xun nodded and turned to leave. Qi Xi tried to give him the umbrella, but he dismissed it with a wave of his hand.
Snow fell softly, endlessly. Night had already fallen. The clouds that had gathered were tinged grey, layers and layers of them, giving the illusion that the sky was about to fall, and giving the forest a sense of eeriness. The lonely mountain path wound down, endlessly.
Liu Xun slowly walked through the snow, walking leisurely. With his broad stature contrasted against the overhanging clouds and magnificent mountains, it seemed like he was the only person left in the world, making him seem even grander. Qi Xi stood by the palace gates with his umbrella, and watched till Liu Xun disappeared into the snow, nodding approvingly.
When dawn was about to break, Liu Xun arrived back in Chang An. He couldn’t be bothered to rest, commanding Qi Xi to call for Zhang He, arranging to meet at the butchers.
He changed into a casual robe and was just about to leave when Hei Zi rushed towards him, panting “Da Ge, there’s someone……” He wiped his forehead, then continued respectfully “My Lord Marquis, someone seeks an audience with you.” Liu Xun teased “Don’t put on all those false airs, we are brothers, why am I your ‘Lord’?”
Hei Zi felt his heart warm, and smiled broadly “I thought so too. ‘Da Ge, Da Ge’ sounds more familial, it was that idiot Xiao Qi who kept insisting that I call you ‘Lord Marquis’. Da Ge, there is a scholar here to see you.” Liu Xun strode out, while admonishing “Didn’t I say ‘I wouldn’t see anyone’?”
Hei Zi raised the lantern in his head high, so that Liu Xun may see it. “That was what I told him too, but this man spoke so glibly, till we no longer understood what he was talking about and sunk into confusion. He said he was some old acquaintance of yours, and he said he was came to give coal….something snows ” Hei Zi laughed awkwardly; he really couldn’t remember what the scholar had said. Liu Xun looked carefully at the lantern and immediately recognized it as the palace lantern that Yun Ge wanted. He took the lantern and passed it to a servant “Take it and keep it well.” Then turned again to Hei Zi “Tell this scholar who gives coal when it snows to see me, if he can actually be of help, then we’ll let it go, if not…” Hei Zi cracked his knuckles and grinned “We will help him loosen a few bones.”
When the scholar saw Liu Xun, he paid his respects calmly, cordially, but with none of the cautiousness that came with commoners meeting people of royal blood.
Liu Xun smiled “I actually didn’t recognize you the last time.” The scholar smiled “It wasn’t my Lord Marquis who didn’t recognize me, but you were so full of thoughts and schemes that you couldn’t be bothered to look closely.”
Liu Xun mentioned for him to sit “Coming to me in the cover of the night, may I know what you are after?”
The scholar replied “My name is Li Yuan, from the northern desert. Chang An was my father’s hometown, since young I’ve heard of the glory and brilliance of the city so I specially made a trip down to witness it for myself.” Liu Xun’s heart leapt slightly “May I know your father’s name?”
Li Yuan simply answered “Li Ling.”
Liu Xun froze for a moment then smiled graciously “So the Xiongnu prince has come from afar, please pardon my impudence.”
 Giving coal when it snows is a Chinese saying to mean ‘to lend timely help.’