Update: CHAPTER COMPLETE. I didn't want to prolong the pain, so I did it all in one shot. It's like ripping a bandaid from a fresh, gaping wound - it hurts but it is over.
The night was dark.
Huo Yu was already asleep but was awoken by someone saying Huo Guang wanted to see him.
Huo Yu knew that something special was about to happen and didn’t dare to tarry. He hurried to see Huo Guang. Huo Guang ordered him to drag Liu He to Lin Yuan to play tomorrow first thing in the morning. He was not to let Liu He leave the place no matter what happens. He quickly acquiesced and turned to leave but Huo Guang stopped him. Huo Guang stared hard at him “Dad has always been stricter on with compared to the others because the Huo name will rest on your shoulders in future; I hope you understand that I mean well.”
Huo Yu saw his father’s face, weary with lines, his greying hair and his heart twisted, all his previous resentment against him forgotten, “It’s because I wasn’t good enough.”
Huo Guang smiled “You must not tell a soul about what is to happen tomorrow. You have to do it well.” Huo Yu knelt down and said resolutely, “Rest assured, dad. Although I might seem useless at times, I wouldn’t dare to leave any room for error when important tasks are thrust upon me. Tomorrow, I will be sure to leave Liu He at Lin Yuan.”
Huo Guang also ordered someone to send for Huo Yun, Huo San, Fan Ming You, carefully instructing them on tomorrow’s plans. When all preparations were made, the first rays of dawn had appeared.
Tian Yan Nian, Chamberlain of National Treasury presented a report at court, detailing Liu He’s frivolous activities, when he got to the part about how Liu He actually drank wine and ate meat in front of Liu Fu Ling’s coffin, he was so upset he wept. Many officials remembered what it was like under Liu Fu Ling, compared it to the chaos of today’s court, and started to sob along with him. In a short time, the whole hall was filled with wails.
Tian Yan Nian sobbed as he turned to Huo Guang, “When Yi Yin was the Chancellor of the Shang Dynasty, in order to preserve King Tang of Shang’s dynasty, he disregarded all personal gain, and dethroned Tai Jia. Later, people not only didn’t blame him, but he was also regarded as a loyal official. If General is willing to do so, you would be the Yi Yin of Han!”
Huo Guang hesitated “Dethroning the current Emperor would be violating the rules of the official conduct!”
Tian Yan Nian continued to sob “If General doesn’t dare to make a decision, shall we ask her majesty, Empress Dowager to do so?”
Everyone agreed. Juan Bu Yi even added “What the Chancellor of National Treasury said makes sense. Why don’t we ask her majesty Empress Dowager to pick a wise man?”
Huo Guang could only agree.
The Empress Dowagers of the Han Dynasty stayed in Chang Le Palace, but because Liu Fu Ling had only passed away recently and Liu He was not yet officially crowned, Shang Guan Xiao Mei continued to reside in Jiao Fang Hall.
When she heard everyone’s intentions, she was alarmed and uneasy. She looked at Huo Guang, refusing to say anything for a while until Huo Guang said sincerely “Please let your loyal subjects know of any opinions you might have.”
Faltering, Xiao Mei asked “I’m not sure who our Great General would deem a wise man, worthy of carrying our empire?”
Huo Guang glanced at Tian Yan Nian, and he reported “Crown Prince Ju’s eldest grandson, Liu Xun. The late Emperor praised him on numerous occasions, saying that he was ‘worthy to be raised high’.”
Huo Guang nodded “Your subject remembers the late Emperor saying such words.”
Tears sprung forth from Xiao Mei’s eyes. “I heard it once too, wasn’t it last year during the night of New Year ’s Eve when it was said in front of ambassadors of numerous countries?”
All present started to nod as the memory came back to them.
Huo Guang asked “So your majesty means to say…..”
Xiao Mei said “Each of you present is a pillar of our dynasty; if everyone agrees that Liu Xun is wise, I will issue an edict to dethrone Liu He, accepting Liu Xun on the throne.”
Zhao Cong Guo knelt immediately, kowtowing and loudly proclaiming “Her majesty Empress Dowager is wise!”
Huo Guang, Tian Yan Nian, Juan Bu Yi all knelt in unison too, joining in the cry of “Her majesty Empress Dowager is wise!”
Yang Shang saw that both sides were now in agreement and so hurried down on his knees too ““Her majesty Empress Dowager is wise!”
All the other officials knelt too. Xiao Mei allowed them to continue kowtowing, her eyes fixed firmly in front. No tears fell, only a cloud of them misted her vision. Through the mist of tears, she saw him smiling slightly. She had held his hand. He said “I trust you.”
Henceforth, all sides were finally in accordance with regards to the new Emperor.........................................
Liu Shun noticed that Huo Yu, Fan Ming You, Deng Guang Han weren’t amongst the officials Huo Guang led to see Shang Guan Xiao Mei in the morning. He thought of what had happened at the Princess’ banquet and his heart dropped. Thinking fast, he ordered a eunuch to try to find a way to pass the news.
Liu He had set off for Lin Yuan on a hunting expedition early in the morning. When Hong Yi, who was staying in an inn, heard the news from Liu Shun’s men, she rushed off in search of Liu He, but the whole area was heavily guarded, and she had no way of entering.
Growing up in the prince’s residence, Hong Yi had seen, and heard of all sorts of happenings at court. When she saw the scene in front of her today, a chill ran through her. She thought of how he was inside, facing the unknown and she resolved to find him no matter what.
But how could she enter?
Lin Yuan was wide; it was marked as imperial grounds ever since Liu Che’s reign. Towards the end of his reign, many lands were lost in war, and natural disasters only served to worsen the situation – the herders had nowhere for their cattle to graze. They noticed that the land near Lin Yuan was fertile, so despite knowing they were imperial grounds, forced into desperate measures, they secretly herded their cattle there. When Liu Che found out, he ordered all frequent trespassers executed. However, if the herders didn’t herd at all they’d starve; if they herded, they could live a few more days, so there were still herders herding there, despite the death sentence. After Liu Fu Ling succeeded the throne, he outlawed the killing of the herders when he heard of this happening. The officials at court objected but he only said “If the empire is stable, they will naturally return home. If it isn’t, civilians are driven to take risks.” The officials were silenced.
Later on, the herders realized that the guards will only occasionally chase them away but not capture them so they grew bolder, so they started bringing more and more cattle to graze there. There were no rare animals on the grounds, but one could always hear the sounds of cows and sheep, which could be also considered a strange sight. As even more time passed, with Liu Fu Ling’s stable reign, less people came to herd their cattle, but there would still be several curious, playful or lazy cowhands that would come to let their cows graze. As long as they weren’t too close to the guards, the guards would pretend that they didn’t see them, allowing them to go on their merry way. Therefore Lin Yuan slowly became a strange place; although they were imperial grounds, but cows and sheep could occasionally be sighted.
Incidentally, Hong Yi was standing on a slope; when she caught sight of the herd of cattle, she hatched a plan. Relying on her hand signs, she bought the whole herd at an expensive price, and requested that the herder tie ropes on their tails, then chase them towards the hill near Lin Yuan.
The herder knew that this was where the troops were stationed, but he couldn’t stand against the lure of money, and when he saw that Hong Yi was only a delicate young maiden, not at all looking like any villain, he did as she asked.
The imperial troops were enough to make a Xiong Nu army to quake in fear, but today she was going to walk into the lion’s den alone. It’s not that she wasn’t afraid, but….
Hong Yi took a deep breath, then set the rope tied to the cows’ tails on fire. More than hundred cows immediately grew wild, storming into Lin Yuan. The ground seemed to shake with the impact. Leopards and tigers might retreat at the sight of a mad cow; a hundred of them would be unthinkable. Unprepared, the guards scattered at the sight of them.
In the chaos, they only saw a woman in red wielding a long sword, gracefully entering the fray behind the cow herd.
The imperial guards lived up to their name; they quickly regrouped after a short time. Some of them charged up with shields, chasing the cows back some of them strung their bows taut, aiming them at the cows’ jugular, while some of them chased after Hong Yi.
The chasing army shouted “This place is heavily guarded, all trespassers will be killed! If you stop now, you might be spared.”
Hong Yi paid them no heed, her movements not getting slower, but faster. She flew across the forest, the river and the houses, searching for Liu He relentlessly. The sound of arrows whizzing past her never stopped, she could only dodge them by ear. She finally spotted him on a field. He was fitting an arrow to his bow, standing tall and handsome, like a painting. Cheers could be heard from the field.
When the guards stationed outside the field saw Hong Yi, they quickly surrounded her. Hong Yi only grew more anxious. If she could speak, all she had to do was to scream, but she couldn’t utter a sound so she could only fend off the sharp blades aimed at her and make her way forward. She carried the cold, hard blade and gracefully faced the rolling waves of men. Blood spilled with each step she took. She didn’t know whether they were hers or others, all she knew was she had to see him no matter how difficult it might be.
As she drew closer to the field, the crowd heard the commotion and their heads turned towards the sound. All they saw was a brilliant flash of red, flying amongst the glittering blades. Each time they felt like the red cloud would be torn apart; she would bend and stand again resiliently like a sturdy blade of grass being blown by the wind.
Liu He was just about to shoot when he noticed the strange expressions on everyone’s faces. He turned back, still smiling when he caught sight of the red skirt, he lost his composure, immediately shouting “Stop!”
Huo Yu didn’t say anything, and so the imperial guards continued to ignore the command of this yet-to-be-crowned emperor. Hong Yi was fighting for a chance to live amidst the cold edges of the knife.
Suddenly Liu He aimed his bow at Huo Yu “Tell them to stop now.”
The field fell silent, like everyone was holding their breaths. The sound of metal scraping against metal still continued to ring across the field, amplifying the silence, causing everyone’s hearts to race.
Liu He was still smiling in his usual carefree way, but his eyes were sharp and hard. Someone tried to secretly draw his sword, but Liu He only kicked up a stray arrow on the ground, not even looking, and the arrow went straight through that person’s heart. His skills left Huo Yu gaping.
He asked Huo Yu coldly “I can kill you right this instant, but will you dare to kill an Emperor?”
Fear gripped Huo Yu and he quickly knelt “Your servant didn’t know that this woman was one of your highness’ people.” He turned his head to issue the command “Stop! All of you stop!”
All the guards immediately retreated with their weapons down.
Hong Yi started to walk towards Liu He. She only took two steps before she remembered that he hated women who killed, so she flung her blade aside.
Only when Liu He saw that she was unharmed did his heart slowly start to return to its normal rhythm. When he saw Hong Yi caught within so many blades earlier, he felt like each blade thrust at her was piercing through him instead. He actually seemed to have lost his mind, aiming his arrow at Huo Yu instead, knowing that even if Huo Yu was Huo Guang’s only son, he would have shot at him without a care for the consequences.
Hong Yi walked up to Liu He, smiling gently, gesturing as she smiled. Liu He’s expression grew grave, turning and flying towards Huo Yu like a great bird. Huo Yu wanted to dodge, the guards tried to save him, but it seemed like Liu He became no man’s land, for each person he touched would fall without a sound, one after the other.
Huo Yu only exchanged four or five blows with him before Liu He caught him. Liu He was quick and agile, by the time the guards surrounded him, Huo Yu was already in his hands. No one dared to move. Like an eagle carrying a chick, he threw him towards his servant behind. “Use him to pave the way. Return to Wei Yang Palace immediately, and order everyone not to fight back no matter what. Wait for further instructions from me.”
The servant swiftly left with Huo Yu in his clutches. Liu He’s eyes swept across all the guards surrounding them with their swords drawn and laughed. He didn’t care a whit about them, walking to embrace Hong Yi “Lean against me and rest for a bit. I’d like to see who would dare to touch me?”
Hong Yi looked tenderly at Liu He, her smile as gentle as the spring rain. She gripped his hand but her body collapsed on the ground like a rag doll.
Liu He then realised that Hong Yi’s back was bleeding profusely. It was only because she was wearing red that he didn’t realize she was injured. Liu He scooped her up in his arms, his calm demeanour turning into one of panic. He shouted at the nearest guard “Fetch the physician!”
The guard didn’t move, and Liu He’s voice turned into ice “As long as I carry the Liu name, I have the authority to wipe your entire family!” The guard might not have cared whether he lived or died, but family was always their weakness, he went to fetch a physician.
Hong Yi felt her body heat seeping slowly away, she had so many things she wanted to tell him but she no longer had the strength. It took all her strength to gesture in the air, but she couldn’t form a complete sentence.
Liu He worked hard to staunch the bleeding. “Hong Yi, you were supposed to serve me for life. I forbid you to escape!” She opened her mouth, wanting to tell him all her feelings for him over the years, but the thousands of words because unintelligible sounds when they reached her mouth. There were tears swirling in her eyes, but she still continued to smile, because he said he loved looking at her smile. Already, she’d lost her voice, she couldn’t lose her smile too.
“Hong Yi, Hong Yi. Hang in there, the physician will reach you soon!”
She fumbled for the embroidered knot at her waist, trying to untie it, Liu He untied it and pressed it against her hand “Stop fidgeting!” Her hands were trembling as she reached for his hand, trying to give him that knot.
Liu He thought she wanted the knot and pressed it hard into her hand, shouting angrily “I told you to stop fidgeting!” With each movement, blood flowed afresh.
Hong Yi reached out, trying again to give him the knot. Tears swam in her eyes but she still continued to smile. Her surroundings had already started to dim, it seemed like she was transport back to the Prince of Chang Yi’s residence, where they relied on each other, spending each day with each other.
She was just about four or five when she became a servant at his residence, and started training with an older maid. She wasn’t pretty or sharp, but because she was born with a lovely voice, he wanted her with him, commanding her to sing for him.
That year, when she was eight, the season when pear blossoms started to chase the snow away, she was wearing red, hiding under the tree practicing her songs…..
She smiled brilliantly, closed her eyes and was gone.
The hand that was half stretched suddenly fell, and that knot disappeared into the dust.
Liu He felt like something in his heart was suddenly torn to bits, the shards causing him immense pain, like his whole being was about to be torn apart. He felt panic and fear, even when he was walking on the line between life and death, facing countless dangers, did he not ever feel like this. It was a feeling so foreign to him that he didn’t even know why he was like that.
He held her tightly to him, trying to warm her with his own heat, desperately trying to keep her body heat from seeping away. He pressed his face on her cheek, whispering “I told you once before, you are bonded to me for life, forever to be a servant in my residence, never ever to leave.”
Only then did the tears fall from Hong Yi’s eyes, along the contours of her cheeks, falling silently into the dust, her lips still curved in a smile.