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Book 2: The Infinite Heart
Chapter 17 - Something That Must Be Done (Part A)
East wind blew, battle drums thundered. The brave men of the eighteen clans of Southern Rong formed an encirclement.
Long having submitted under the rule of the Infinite Empire, the Southern and Northern Rong, who worshiped the human-head bird-bodied sun god Ge, had been somehow provoked to war this time. After a peaceful twelve years, the two regions allied to rise up in rebellion. The sturdy and valiant soldiers of the two regions of the Rong province rushed out of the mountain villages and valleys like flooding water, quickly taking over the neighboring Ping City and Yellow County. They then threatened to charge into Zhongzhou, wanting to make Zhangsun Wuji come out and welcome them while kneeling before the great Chang'an Gate. The King of Rong dispatched Guo Pingrong's vanguard troops to garrison the city of Jing, while the king's main camp was entrenched at the Sui River thirty li away. The two armies mirrored each other's movements to form a pincer formation to encircle the city of Ping and Yellow County.
Meng Fuyao and Zong Yue, however, left the main army and arrived at the city of Yao that was closest to Ping city. This was because according to sayings, in the vast mountain forests on the outskirts of the city and bordering the Rong clans, there existed the rarest and most diverse types of medicine plants and exotic beasts in the Five Regions Continent. Zong Yue, being a medical practitioner, naturally would not miss out on this chance, while Fuyao also hoped that he would suddenly strike it lucky and be able to discover a cure for herself.
Since Yao city was the city closest to the Rong clans, both Rong and Han lived within the city. The imperial government, as a gesture of peace, had always created two positions of authority in the city - central and vice. The central administrator was called the magistrate in the name lists of the imperial administration departments of the Ministry of Revenue, while according to local Rong customs the position would be called city master. Responsibilities included the household census, taxation, justice, irrigation, agriculture, civil administration and finance, all overseen by a Rong official. The vice administrator oversaw the warehouses, the prison and official documents, and was a Han person from Zhongzhou. From this it could be seen that the Rong held the highest executive position and had great power, yet they also sent out a detachment of defending troops. Under the highest military officer in the local region, three thousand soldiers were garrisoned at White Pavilion Village twenty li away from the city of Yao, not subordinate to the commands of the main camp. The Empire's treatment of the valiant and difficult to control Rong people could be said to be both kind and stern - the dynasty had put much thought into the two different yet effective ways of governing.
Before coming Fuyao had long drawn a mental image of Yao city from the words of the guide that led the way for medicinal saint Zong - it was beautiful and peaceful, with Rong and Han coexisting in harmony while the whole ground was filled with colorful and vibrant flowers.
However, upon walking into Yao city, Fuyao suddenly sucked in a cold breath.
Dilapidated alleyways. Burnt-out buildings that were scorched by smoke and flames everywhere, downtrodden flowers hiding low in the mud everywhere, Rong people bare-chested and wearing gaudy, multicolored pants everywhere, walking around in the winter sun. Snow-bright scimitars swaying while sheathed behind the men's waists, moving with every brash, swaggering step. The Rong looked around with narrowed eyes, their gazes surging with murderous intent, as if even rocks that dared to obstruct their paths would be immediately be chopped into rubble.
In contrast, the domestic citizens had mostly shrunken and timid expressions, their eyes darting to avoid others. Even their paths would avoid those Rong people who were clearly looking for trouble.
The air was charged with brutality, murderous intent, and provocation, like the unsettling tension of a gunpowder barrel about to explode. This atmosphere made anyone who entered it unconsciously smell a scent of danger.
The moment Fuyao's group of "foreigners" entered the city, they immediately felt hostile glares shooting over from the surroundings. Even all the city's open inns were closed to outsider Hans. Meng Fuyao and Zong Yue originally could directly move into the national office due to their token from Prince De, yet the two felt it was too limiting, and wanted to search for a family residence to take them in. Who knew that even after asking several households, there were none that dared to lend them residence; only when it was very late did they finally find a family of elderly who took them in.
That night, they ate a simple but clean meal at the elderly's house. The old man's son was honest but dull, while the son's wife had a large belly and would likely give birth soon. Under the small oil lamp, the old man unceasingly used chopsticks to move food into the two travelers' bowls, his whole face wrinkled into a smile like a chrysanthemum. "This is a small city in the mountain wilds, we don't have much delicious things. Here, eat up, eat up."
As Fuyao sat in front of the little table filled with cracks and black dirt, she hugged her bowl in a daze. It had been seventeen years. Seventeen years, since she had sat together with someone in front of a table, to enjoy a family supper; since she had felt a little room's dim yet warm lamp light; since someone had pinched over food for her with chopsticks; since she had accompanied others in a cozy building, eating rough greens and rice that was a little bland.
That dumb old Daoist had only made her train and train and then train some more. Being his disciple, every meal was desperately shoveling down a couple mouthfuls while practicing at the same time. Certain memories of family warmth, belonging to her previous world, had traveled far, far away, a long time ago. They were akin to a wisp of cloud on the distant horizon, and it seemed like with only a gust of wind, they would disappear without a trace.
There was one brief second where she panicked. She seemed to see that pair of white, wizened hands that was offering her vegetables, turn into a pair of slender, sickly hands, so pale the veins shone through the skin - the hands that belonged to her mother. Yet, that vision vanished in but an instant. She was still sitting in that alien and strange world's little city, in a certain room under the lamp light, watching a heart-warming domestic scene that belonged to someone else.
As she sat there, staring at the bowl full of food, tears suddenly started to flow.
She instantly lowered her head and started to shovel food at flying speeds. One of her teardrops suddenly landed on a green vegetable, and Fuyao unhesitantly grabbed it, ready to devour the taste of her own tears.
But at that moment, a pair of chopsticks appeared from the side, quickly taking away that piece of cabbage.
The snow-clothed Sir Zong had previously been eating using his own bowl and chopsticks, taking a couple greens and standing far away by the window while making a token effort to eat. For some reason though, he suddenly walked over. As if he didn't mind that the cabbage had already been touched by her chopsticks, he leisurely took away the piece of vegetable, saying, "There's a bug."
Fuyao was speechless. She watched flabbergasted as he awkwardly picked up another piece of vegetable with unaccustomed movements, then placed it into her bowl.
"You're too fat, eat this to get skinnier."
She looked at the piece of wild vegetable, revealing an odd expression. After a second she let out a scoffing chuckle.
"Can't you not be so poison-tongued all the time? Even clearly good-hearted actions can be described so ugly by you."
In the depths of her eyes still remained some tears that wavered. Those originally dark pearl-like pupils seemed even more resplendently bright as they reflected both the firelight inside the room, and the bitter frost outside of it.
Zong Yue's chopsticks halted in mid-air for a second. He then moved his gaze away, turning towards the moonlight outside the window.
His eyes fluctuated indiscernibly. His side figure in this moment seemed a little lonely, like a stalk of bamboo weathered by the autumn wind, bleak and unyielding.
Fuyao observed this mysterious yet young medicine saint of this generation, and fell into thought. Despite the honor and respect that he enjoyed from the various states due to his important status, in his heart, he was probably still lonely.
It was because of his loneliness, that he could understand her own loneliness.
She bit her lip, then moved a chopstick full of leeks into his bowl, even evilly mixing the vegetables deep into the rice. She then bad-heartedly laughed. "This stuff is good for you, helps build up your yang."
A thick-faced fellow has no match.
The poison-tongued Zong Yue met the completely shameless Meng Fuyao, and could only concede defeat and pretend he heard nothing. He lowered his head to eat, not even fussing about the cleanliness of the food anymore.
Fuyao busied herself with her own food and no longer paid attention to Zong Yue. In her mouth corner, however, floated a faint smile.
After living there for several days, Fuyao had already gotten quite familiar with the family. She had also grown to love the peaceful life of bringing a small knife to gather herbs with Zong Yue during the day, and returning to the house to eat dinner and enjoy a family's warmth at night. She passed these chaotic days of southern rebellion by living a life full of local flavor.
Unfortunately, Meng Fuyao's luck wasn't too good. Her peaceful times were never able to be enjoyed for too long. On this day, as she journeyed out and passed a certain street, she heard a clamoring din. Turning her head to investigate, she saw many household doors that were hung with colored cloth at some unknown time. The residents of those buildings were all packing their things and locking their doors as if trying to escape!
Fuyao looked on astonished, as she said, "What's happening? They're dressed so garishly like colonists or something." She pointed to the colored drapes on the buildings and asked, "What's that? A bunch of national flags?"
"Little brother please stop kidding around," another passerby said in a low voice, "That's the mark of the Rong seeking revenge. If there is a debt that needs to be settled, they will hang this cloth to warn outsiders from visiting that family, to prevent others getting harmed in their personal disputes."
"So openly?" Fuyao narrowed her eyes. "Wasn't it said that Rong and Han lived together harmoniously in the past couple years? How come now there's so many colored cloths looking for revenge?" "The circumstances are also important for so called 'living together peacefully'." Yao Xun suddenly interrupted. "The Rong are people with battle and arrogance in their blood, their whole lives dedicated to the pursuit of freedom and supremacy. If they meet someone stronger than them, they will submit, but won't be loyal forever. The moment there is an opportunity they will all assuredly rebel and fight! In the history of the Infinite Empire, this demographic has revolted a total of thirteen times, seven of the times almost being wiped out; yet the indomitable nature in their blood still cannot change. Because of this, they are like the southern Qiang who live in the territory already split into the Upper Yuan, and called 'migrating war chariots' by citizens of the Infinite Empire!"
He motioned towards the colored cloth, saying, "In the many years that Rong and Han lived among each other, there seemed to be unbroken peace. However, to the Rong people who are prideful to the point of perversion, even a small slight can become a reason for shedding blood. Being the overlord race, the Han would have an innate sense of superiority, and sometimes would be hard-pressed to stop lapses from occurring in their actions or words. These Rong remember their grudges but only store it away in their hearts due to the control of the Empire. Now that the eighteen clans have joined together to revolt, they would definitely think that the time to repay debts has come."
Fuyao shook her head and bemoaned, "What kind of indomitable pride is this, this is clearly just bullying the weak and fearing the strong." But she didn't pay any more attention after that, only continuing with Zong Yue up the mountain. In the evening, they descended from the mountain. At a place not far from the old Han's home, Zong Yue suddenly stopped walking.
In the distance, the sounds of crying and yelling could be heard from the old man's residence, piercing yet forlorn. Then the crashing of upturned drawers, the dull thuds of bodies colliding with furniture, a crazed laughter and cursing, a woman's shrill scream and a child's shocked cry sounded out in succession, mixing together in a cacophony of noise. Neighboring residents listened raptly, revealing sympathetic and furious expressions; however, after the anger passed, they all hurriedly shut their own doors.
The Rong people filling the street laughed uproariously. Someone even grabbed a jug of wine from an alcohol shop, fiercely chugged it with glugging sounds, then shattered the half-empty jug on the building roof while whooping "Burn! Burn!"
Even more people seemed to have been awoken by the sound. They rolled up their sleeves and came over in a circle, excitedly flourishing their hands and dancing their feet while their howls surged like the tide.
As Fuyao stood in the middle of the street, her pupils shrank. With a look she saw that a colorful drape had suddenly appeared on the old man's house door.
The old man's family was so honest, so how could they have also wronged the Rong people? With a grab Fuyao stopped a neighbor who was surreptitiously dumping out some water, asking, "What's happening?"
"A Rong man walked into that family's young hooligan at the market three years ago, and the young son called the other a 'moron'! Now look at the result, they've come for revenge." After the neighbor furtively spoke her words, she quickly shook Fuyao off and ran, leaving Fuyao behind who could only curse. "Shit, even this can be a reason to burn down someone's house in revenge?"
"Looks like the Rong people in the city can no longer hold themselves back and want to make trouble." Zong Yue walked over and stood beside her saying, "Your injuries haven't recovered fully yet so don't interfere. If his house is burned, we can gift some silver and find residence elsewhere. Right now, the Rong have much power in the city and are just looking for a reason to raise trouble, so you better not provoke them."
Fuyao deeply inhaled and clenched her fists, forcefully suppressing her urge to act. The deep enmity built up from centuries of race wars was an exceedingly hard to solve problem that every dynasty and every new government had to face. She was well-versed in history, so how could she not know. In the larger picture of conflicts and war, sometimes an individual's beliefs truly could not be acted upon. Just the impulsive act of saving others wasn't the problem – rather, if those actions managed to enrage the entire city of Rong and escalated the situation, the death toll would only get higher.
Fuyao retreated a step while gripping Little Dagger's hand. The child kept looking back with her lips pressed tightly, while in her eyes was a burning exhilaration. When Fuyao lowered her head and glanced at the kid's eyes, she frowned, saying, "Little Dagger?"
Little Dagger turned her head. Her pupils shone oddly as she distinctly uttered, "Deserve to die."
Meng Fuyao twitched in shock, and stopped walking. With some disbelief she asked, "Who deserves to die?"
Little Dagger pointed towards the old Han's house. "Kill them all."
Every one of her words was extremely clear, and contained a deep-rooted killing intent that didn't belong to her age. Her voice, filled with bloodthirst and iron, sounded like nails steadily drilling into a murky black coffin.
Yao Xun let out a hiss, saying, "What kind of little girl is she …"
Zong Yue, however, suddenly gave Little Dagger a look, his expression as if in deep thought. Then he said, "Is that right?"
A cold smile floated on the corner of his lips. He stretched out a hand to slowly pat Little Dagger's shoulder.
The child stared at him not understanding. She watched his bright clean bearing, his warm and tranquil expression, as he stretched his hand out.
That slender, pure hand was suddenly grabbed by another pair of swift hands. Fuyao moved the hand up, raising her eyebrows, as she looked directly at Zong Yue.
"Only an error of speech, her crime does not deserve death."
"Spoken words come from the heart," Zong Yue refused to back down. "This child is too dangerous."
He spoke simply, yet it was obvious his gaze had more to say. Fuyao raised her eyes, and felt her chest suddenly tighten. In those eyes she could clearly read the words, "Too dangerous to leave by your side."
The poison-tongued man actually cared this much. Fuyao was touched for a second, but her hands didn't retreat even a sliver. She only raised her chin, obstinately looking at him.
A snow-colored robe sleeve lowered bit by bit. Her hands were halted in mid-air. Sweat slightly gathered on her forehead, yet she didn't move and said word by word, "At the very least her hands don't even have the strength to kill a chicken. She is still a child, I can't do it."
"You only need to let me do it." Zong Yue examined her, his expression seeming both hot and cold. "You are tenacious and intelligent, resolute and kill decisively. Your only weakness is that your character is too compassionate. Just like last time, if it wasn't because you didn't want Qiao Ling to be trapped in the Guo residence because of you, why would you have needed to knowingly risk danger to save her? In the Five Regions Continent where strong prey on the weak, if your heart is this soft, how will you survive?"
Fuyao was silent. After a while she said, "Some things cannot be done. Some things must be done. But for this reason, even if I die I will have no regrets."
On the long silent road, the young girl's body stood pencil straight. Gusting wind swept past in between her hair, bringing her harsh words into the distance. Those unyielding syllables born from passion, born from persistence, and born from belief pierced through the cold barriers of the world time and time again like needles, revealing the bright light of day.
Zong Yue's white robes seemed to tremble a bit. He fixedly gazed at Fuyao as if in a trance, the flowing light in his eyes like glaze. Afterwards he gave a small chuckle and retracted his hand, saying, "I hope you will not regret it someday."
Fuyao released her hands and wiped her temples. Looking back at the Little Dagger who had been silently staring at their confrontation, she smiled and said, "I believe human nature is innately good. I believe that originally good human character always goes down the wrong path due to the meddling of fate, but in the end, will always have the chance to return to the domain of brightness. If we refuse to give even the smallest opportunity to them, with massacre as our only means of fixing problems, then the ones who will become demons in the end will be us."
She heroically reached out to pat Zong Yue, laughing, "Don't worry. I am not someone who cannot bear to kill. Those who deserve to die, I will not spare even a single one."
"Not even one!"Footnotes 汉 "Han" is often used to mean Chinese nationality, but now it is being used to refer to people of the Infinite Empire. "Rong", of course, is referring to the people of Rong Leeks supposedly can treat erectile dysfunction
3. Sounds like a funny pun in English but actually 戎 "Rong" is pronounced like ronin.