"Emperor Father, I have arrived," he announced. Zhong Lei kneeled down in front of the emperor as soon as he passed through the doors of the Jade Court. As he entered, his eyes could never miss the historical banners that many of the previous emperors and their generals have waved throughout the past battles, victorious and defeated. While others observed the boastful gold found in every corner of the room, all the imperial general could sense was the metallic smell of blood and the battle screams of those who helped build the empire.
Even when the emperor spoke, all he could think of was the recent battle he watched from afar with fists tightly clenched.
"As Zhen have previously predicted, General Wei came to take back the Sun Dao Corps."
"It has always been hers."
"Son, that was a first," the emperor noticed. "Rise and lift your head."
"As you command, your majesty." He slowly stood on his feet under the sovereign's watchful eyes. Not a thought of anything good crossed his mind when he heard the emperor but obeyed nonetheless. Not even the beast would kill its own young. . . for now.
Zhong Lei, the fifth prince, his son was as fine as the crown prince. Born from the previous royal noble consort, he had resembled her more than him. Zhong Lei's gaze reminded him of her black eyes and his warm tanned skin was like hers when he first met her working in the fields under the sun too. The young man's eyes' shape, straight nose, ears, and even up to the silky but wavy hair too. If the fifth prince wished to challenge the sit of the crown prince, the emperor himself would have let him so. If not for the empress, Zhong Lei who collected various achievements in every step of his journey would have been the next-in-line. To appease the beloved royal noble consort up above, he had bestowed him the tally to command the imperial army, just second in power from the minister of war and on par with the powerful Wei General.
The emperor, as a father, had given the fifth prince almost everything he wished for. 'But what is Zen looking at right now?' His eyebrows twitched and his lips pulled into a flat line when his eyes met a crushed expression. Zhong Lei who always stood proud avoided the emperor's gaze as he lowered his face by a little. "Fifth prince, are you dissatisfied yet again?"
"Your majesty, I am not. It is the opposite," he confessed. "Learning that your majesty, the emperor has given the Sun Dao Corps back to its rightful owner is just the right thing to do. His majesty is magnanimous and I will follow the command."
"But the prince is not happy?"
"Your majesty may be mistaken, I am simply guilty."
"Ah," the emperor nodded, remembering the deal back in that cold, winter day when the temperature had hit the point when the horses cried and died on the same night. The chills went past his clothes and sipped into his bones at that time as he sat on his throne and listened to Zhong Lei's angsty request. It was hard to forget the fifth prince's words. "Indeed but let bygones be bygones, my son. Since the general has not mentioned any grievances, let us not awaken any animosity in case she is trying to hold back. Instead, tighten the security and watch out for her. Remember that General Wei has lead ten thousand men into battles and returned with ten thousand men, the head of the tyrant and his men and the crown to rule that kingdom."
"If not for that day," Zhong Lei shook his head, "The three thousand men would have returned with Han Ryu and the Northern empire in tow."
"Exactly. It is a mistake that must be buried and will never be written by scholars."
"Yes, your majesty." Zhong Lei's head ached as he left the court. His schemes that finally defeated Wei Xia Ri built a den of iniquity in his heart to the point that just seeing her return exacerbated his nightmares. 'Just after Xuan-er started to help calm it down,' he thought with a sigh.
"Your majesty," he remembered the shadow guard say.
"Ling, is the plan ready?" Ling who usually wore a black uniform from head to toe and a purple sash on his forehead was dressed down into a new recruit of the Sun Dao Corps, having the Wei's crest engraved below the empire's on his armor.
It was just a simple set up that the arrogant general may possibly miss. Erase some details on the map and leak the Sun Dao Corps' reported trajectory and her strategy of winning from a lower ground in order to deceive enemies who are appearing on higher ground. If Han Ryu has learned of it, he can instantly reverse the situation and win on the higher ground as everyone would expect.
"How about for their escape route?" Zhong Lei asked.
"Prince, the blacksmiths have been cooperative into initiating cracks on their armory. Even the stables have been cooperative with poisoning the horses."
Zhong Lei felt his jaws tremble and his chest tightened when he remembered the shameful adrenaline boost pulse through his veins at that time. It was as if the cold was not as deadly as his plan anymore. "Luckily, the three thousand men who have been sent out are the most loyal to the Weis. Let them set their journey with the best drinks and food. Let the Wei general bid farewell to this world with those foolish smiles."
'Bastard, what a bastard,' he scolded himself. Using qigong, Zhong Lei found himself back in his room. His keen senses could tell that he was alone. Knowing so, the man sat in a corner without bothering to light a lamp or two.
"Can't sleep?" the familiar voice of Yu Xuan Xuan echoed. The door creaked open, allowing the dim moonlight to shed a bit of brightness inside. Zhong Lei squinted his eyes until Yu Xuan Xuan's ethereal face blocked it for him.
She sat down by his side and held his hand in hers. "How long are you going to be like this? Where's the arrogant and cold man I first met?"
"Yu Xuan Xuan," he gave her an empty gaze but tightened his hold onto her small hands. They had planned this together anyway but how can she be fine? 'Perhaps, a woman's heart can be colder than the winter chill.'
"I asked you before if you were ready to face the consequences of our actions? Even at the slightest possibility of her return was to be expected. I asked you if you were alright? I asked you for your permission before we sacrificed for the greater good." Yu Xuan Xuan sighed, her eyes that were always so fierce turned into the soft gaze that they always should have been. She could understand Zhong Lei's guilt, after all, the tyrant was someone who shared good memories with him. Someone who had his back from when they were training until her 'death'. But the insatiable irritation made the woman restless after seeing him cower because of a past lover. 'Weren't they over already? How long had Zhong Lei courted me after 'ending' it with Wei Xia Ri? He made so many promises and said so many words to charm me. He protected me and swore his devotion to me! Were those empty words? Is he regretting it now? Be realistic Yu Xuan Xuan, just a few months with him really can't defeat those fifteen years.'
A tinge of light-headedness made the woman feel dizzy. 'The day's exhausting duting must have been too much.' Yu Xuan Xuan laid her head on his broad shoulder.
"Xuan-er," Zhong Lei finally lifted a free hand to cup her face. His grieving voice lightened into a hopeful one after shedding some restrained guilt, "I know. But the general is alive, if I could atone for my mistake before the problem escalates-"
Yu Xuan Xuan's eyes widened, "No you must not. Are you considering the results of this? A rebellion! The general will not just lead seven thousand men but the possibility of hundreds of thousands of men. It will be a revolution after the citizens who are family or friends of the dead will find out."
Zhong Lei was a prince, second, and an imperial general first so he already had long thought about that. He still did not approve of Wei Xia Ri's overwhelming power despite her well-known tyranny over the red light district and her strong will to own a private army. It was not right for an imperial official, moreover, a general to even have so much power on par with royalty after all. However, Wei Xia Ri, even after realizing the end of their relationship, volunteered to confront Han Ryu in his stead and unknowingly set her foot into a trap.
He shook his head and placed a light kiss on her forehead. "It will be alright. Don't we have the Northern Empire's cooperation?"
"After the defeat, the Northerners and our empire have realized the pointless battle that took many souls of our men. Thus the beginning of diplomatic negotiations with the Northerners. The ambassador, Han Ryu, and the envoys are currently in talks with the imperial officials. The Sun Dao Corps are praised for their bravery, especially the sole survivor, General Wei Xia Ri."
Zhong Lei nodded and added, "Because of her exemplary skills, the General was able to make it. There are probably others who did too and is recuperating somewhere thus the need to retrieve the corpses of our people and a man hunt for the missing ones."
Yu Xuan Xuan then finalized, "For the men who had perished, we will have an honorable burial. And the survivors,---"
Zhong Lei shook his head. Wei Xia Ri seemed to have no memories or feelings left for him when they first met as if she did not recognize him that night. If it was any other time, she would immediately attack Xuan-er. It was strange as if something was amiss. He feared that she had changed and was unwilling towards him, 'She probably knew something too but still.'
"Their will be no survivors, only Wei Xia Ri is," he changed his mind.
"But I thought you were-"
"Wei Xia Ri was a comrade and a friend who always protected my back and that is all that matters. Her men need not exploit what happened, Xuan-er. I will make an official apology to the general and maintain the peace."
Yu Xuan Xuan instantly wanted to let go of his hand in shock. 'He was guilty and is guilty but the prince, no matter how cold he was outside, how could a general forsake those men? Can't he just send them far away or imprison them? Wei Xia Ri, I met her for more than once already. She could care less about them anyway! Why, Zhong Lei?'
"Are you sure? I don't want to see you like this, once again." The woman gripped onto his hand, harder this time when she felt his loosened. "I can't stand it when you end up like this, regretting after a rash decision. Listen to me, prince, please. Wei Xia Ri is alive, that is fine. She had obediently married a man within two weeks! That is good. Wei Xia Ri even behaved well in front of Han Ry, that's better! And Wei Xia Ri has been focused on her own household and her new husband since her return! That is the best! If the prince apologizes, that would just fix any past mistakes."
'Met Han Ryu and behaved well? Focused on that kid of Agriculture Cabinet Minister Cai Long?' His face darkened, hidden by the shadows and unseen by the exhausted Yu Xuan Xuan.
"But the burden of bearing the deaths of three thousand men cannot be brushed aside like it is nothing, Xuan Er."
"Then why kill more? Don't do it. Stop it!"
"I-" Zhong Lei swallowed his opposition. "This prince will try."
"You should not do it, please. For my sake."
"Xuan-er," he sighed. (JaehaJack) The ghost doctor who made him twist and turn every night because of her missing presence made him submit. If she disappeared, all his nightmares would come back in folds! "Then what should I do?"
"Use the propaganda we just made. Let it travel by ear starting from the officials and the lowly servants and the gossip mongers in the streets. Let the harem know it so they could spread the word. After all, the three thousand men came from all walks of life and many had a high status in society."
"But a coup," he sighed.
"Just this time, please listen to me?"
Little did they know, the Wei Xia Ri who had been busy handling her household had planned to release the same news ahead of time. A piece of news that has already been lurking in inns and among the many conquered kingdoms ever since a few days ago. Unsurprisingly, the power of story-tellers aided by the common people and curious high society members were the most powerful intel spread.
I need someone who loves yaoi and can literally imagine many situations. It's been a year or two since I became un-rotten.
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