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On the first of October, defense of the Great Unity failed.
On the twenty-third of October, Xuancheng City was captured.
At the end of October, Jing Pass was captured.
The area north of the capital, at this point, no longer had treacherous areas that could defend it, nor towering city gates, a field that could be observed in its entirety from one look.
Chief of the Vakurah, Jeshe, had confronted Helian Zhao’s several-hundred-thousand strong army at Gansu. In spite of the latter dying in battle and the Great Qing’s leftover ranks fleeing in terror, the damage to the Vakurah was not small. Jeshe had believed them to be a mob that couldn’t take one hit, yet, to his surprise, they were exceptionally tough when in battle.
He then realized that he had underestimated the Great Qing’s people. In that battle, he was nearly in a situation where he defeated ten thousand foes only to lose eight thousand himself. If it weren’t for Helian Zhao falling off his shot horse at the last second and getting hacked to death by a Vakurah warrior wagering his death to take advantage of the chaos, he probably would have even gotten the idea to retreat.
However, the Heavens had aided him.
After the great battle of Gansu, he rested and reorganized in place for a period of time to prudently formulate a new plan of attack, because he knew that what was waiting for him ahead was overlapping Great Qing obstacles.
Jeshe Urme was thirty-six years old this year, a rarely-seen ambitious character from the savannah. He helped Zhao Zhenshu with privately keeping troops in the Spring Market, bearing with spurring the man on like a dog for over ten years. In those years, he had gone from being a high-spirited young man, to slowly entering wolf-like calculation and perseverance, cultivating a sophistication that was as deep as a trench.
Zhao Zhenshu used his power and money to happily raise a grassland wolfdog. For all these years, he had fostered him, giving him uncountable wealth to support him.
Jeshe didn’t squander it. He still ate the dried flatbreads made by his woman, gnawed on coarse, hard-to-swallow dried meat like everyone else, and wore the clothes of shepherds that stank, yet used that money to secretly bribe high authorities, gift slaves and beauties to his enemies, and then annex them individually.
It took a decade’s time to sweep across the whole prairie, causing the Vakurah, which had been collapsed and in pieces for several hundred years, to unify once more. The northern blue wolf let out a long howl, thus brandishing its sharp claws and heading south.
Jeshe wasn’t only after the riches of the Great Qing. He hadn’t brought these predator-like warriors to steal a bunch of wealth, snatch back a few beauties, and be done with it; he coveted the entire stretch of great landscape in the Central Plains region.
The ancients had a saying: was anyone born a Prince, Marquis, General, or Minister? Since even peasants that farmed in the mountains could say something like that, why should these weak, pretentious Central Plainsmen be allowed to occupy this lush, beautiful, fertile area for a thousand years?
From start to finish, his marching army had only one target — the capital.
After the capital, there came the grand throne room.
And yet, the anticipated resistance was not run into at all. The one battle at Gansu seemed to have broken the Great Qing’s courage, making the journey down south astonishingly smooth-sailing. Many cities nearly collapsed in on themselves with no fight, and the territories that did put up barely any resistance were no more than mediocre, looking extraordinarily flimsy.
He realized something — the folks of the Great Qing had experienced a peaceful and prosperous age for a couple hundred centuries. Even if they managed to rouse their courage once, it was no more than a wrapping of extremely thin skin, where a puff of wind could break it into pieces.
Jeshe was practically excited, and his excited mood turned all the more severe the closer they pressed in towards the capital. He seemed to envision the legendary, heavenly city-like place crawling beneath his feet, and himself stepping into the palace paved full with gold, making everyone in the land come worship him.
On the twentieth of November, finally, the troops were about to come to the city walls.
Meanwhile, in the capital, the dust-coated throne room widely welcomed court officials for the last time. Wang Wu, Yu Kui, Eunuch Xi, and the rest of them all retreated into the corners. Standing beside Helian Yi were two people whose faces had never been shown before; one was the male-dressed Princess Jing’an, and the other was the human-skin-mask-wearing Zhou Zishu, who was dressed like a middle-aged scholar.
Two rows of officials stood uniformly. Helian Yi had someone hang his dragon robes high up in the Great Hall, as if hoisting up a glittering gold totem. He wore heavy armor, and the lines of his cheeks were pointed due to wasting away, sticking straight into his hairline. He held a vigor no one had ever seen prior.
With eighteen-hundred-thousand troops for the Nine Capital Gates, all the generals were finishing being divided up.
“Black Tortoise Gate, Feng Xiaoshu. Morning Sun Gate, He Yunxing…”
Finally, there was Martial Order Gate right in the north, with eighty-one three-zhang-wide, three-zhang-long slabs of bluestone laid the entire way out the city’s gates. It was the most heavily yin-qualitied, blood-reeking spot in the whole capital, the place where fifteen-year-old Wu Xi cut apart twenty-four Black Shaman assassins, and now, the location directly confronting the Vakurah’s wolf fangs.
Zhou Zishu gripped the scroll of an imperial edict in his hand, and read it aloud with a pause between each word. “Martial Order Gate, guarded by the Emperor himself.”
For the majority of those standing in the Great Hall, this was the first time in their lives that they had taken part in a military meeting ahead of the crossing of army swords, and it might also be their last. Here, there were no longer Emperors, Prime Ministers, Princes, or Princesses, there were only people who defended the city, people who wielded blades, and people that were going to risk their lives.
“Half of the country has fallen, with the capital to the south of it. There are no longer any heavy barriers, and now, our unfilial self has caused our nation to be covered in grime, the landscape darkened. It will sincerely be difficult to face the rows of our ancestors down in the Nine Springs.
“Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were destroyed in Gansu, and the elites of the Court suffered losses until there were practically none left. Our Royal Brother died, not even leaving behind a corpse to wrap up in a horseskin. The barbarian army is near, the country has reached a dire strait; with good heads on our shoulders and hot blood in our chests, why do we still not abandon it? Why do we not discard it? At this time, should the capital’s army be defeated, the carved railings and jade bricks will be fine, but the red faces of those around will change; yesterday will be ancient history, and the nation will act according to a changed surname. We will be dead, then, and what face will we have to apologize to the whole realm? Everyone, what face would we have to meet our elders with?!
“We hope to imitate Great General Han by burning our boats and fighting with our backs to the water — if there is no victory, then this is where it ends.
“At the start of this war, the troops will go out, while the Nine Gates will shut. All who wear armor and hold weapons are not to enter the city! Those who disobey are to be beheaded! Those who abandon their post without permission, beheaded! If someone appears to draw back near the front lines, behead them immediately! Those that dare to shield them are to be considered guilty of the same crime! Should the generals seem to want to retreat, the soldiers may crowd up to reject, remove, and replace them, but if that is not so, those who dare to go against military orders, or refuse their allocations — behead them!”
His voice paused for a short time. “We will also go with all you generals,” he said, clearly. “We pledge that we live or die together with this place.”
On the twenty-first of November, the Vakurah and the final Great Qing soldiers formally went into battle.
This city that had gone through a hundred years of wind and frost, then used makeup to pad itself out, began to bear with the baptism of a wave of blood, which originated from the nomadic race of a faraway place.
The first day of the siege, Jeshe tentatively attacked High Grace Gate. The defending general of the Gate was Tie Ru of the Imperial Forest Army’s East Encampment, who He Yunxing had derisively called the Eldest Scion’s slave in private before. Because he had been a guard of the capital, Helian Zhao hadn’t brought him along on the campaign, and that was for the sake of leaving himself an internally-coordinating future escape route that he could kill his way back to.
Now, however, Helian Zhao was gone, and no longer needed an escape route. For that, Tie Ru was going to go for broke.
There was nothing more mystically powerful than hatred, then, for turning a lamb into a predator in the span of one night. Six-thousand energetic Vakurah warriors that had been dispatched by Jeshe to go knock on the gate were proudly walking with gusto that day, but they suddenly met with the devilish Great Qing defenders, who practically knocked them out.
History shocked people when it repeated itself. They were the same exact way the Great Qing soldiers had been in Gansu that night, when their camp was ambushed — panicked, bewildered, collapsing with one bump, and scattering in all different directions. The difference was that they didn’t have a general that could clearly see into the hearts of both the enemy and his own side, daring to hold a broadsabre aloft while he staked his life to lead the troops.
It was like Fullmoon River had been filled in with melted, liquid iron overnight. Jeshe gazed up at the lofty, luxurious city gate, and the cloud-reaching palace that he could vaguely see when he raised his head. He had a bad premonition, as if… this city was impervious.
At this moment, the last two people remaining at Helian Yi of Martial Order Gate’s side were circled around a defensive diagram, one sitting and one standing.
Everyone usable had gone to defend the city. Jing Qi and Zhou Zishu remained by his side for his safety, first of all; the other hand of it was that this most dangerous location of Martial Order Gate was considered the final division of command. The several hundred ‘Heaven Panes’ under Zhou Zishu’s command, which came and went like ghosts, had become a hub of connection between the Nine Gates. They all changed into commoner’s clothes, a sprig of winter plum tattooed on their forearms, and mixed amongst all sorts of crowds, forming the entire capital’s news system at the speediest rate.
Jing Qi had changed into a dark-colored and extremely plain set of clothes. Those non-essential bits and bobs and the ornamentation hanging on him had disappeared entirely the previous night. His arms were crossed over his chest, his brows lightly scrunching.
Helian Yi looked at his back, thinking that the man was somewhat unlike that ever-boneless, lazy Jing Beiyuan. His shoulders were thin, but ramrod-straight. Those wide-sleeved cuffs of the past were all gathered up to his waist. The aura of a dandy that had steeped into his bones disappeared all of a sudden, as if for these many years, it had all been an act.
His cheeks were hollowed in and peach blossom eyes slightly sunken, making him indescribably harsh.
Helian Yi felt a faint ache in his heart, but the pain was swiftly covered up by an even greater numbness; none of them had any means of retreat.
Jing Qi paced in place a few times as Panes were constantly coming in to report the battle progress of High Grace Gate. Helian Yi had them keep this tiny victory a secret, and only let the other generals know that the Gate was in the middle of fighting, strictly guarding it.
Jing Qi suddenly frowned. “Your Majesty, the Nine Gates appear as strategic passes standing high above, but they’re spots that are easy to attack, and not easy to defend. If that Urme bastard snaps out of it and singles out one area, it’ll likely… be difficult to handle.”
Both Helian Yi and Zhou Zishu understood this fact. The eighteen-hundred-thousand defenders weren’t many to start with, and distributing them across the Nine Gates was considerably harrowing.
Back during the capital’s establishment, it had a magnanimity that would welcome in guests from all directions with a smile, packed with the sense of superiority a huge country’s capital would have. Now, however, these uninvited guests that were coming were no good, the capital refused to welcome them with a smile, and now this was a problem. With this many gates, it was like someone had punched it into a nine-holed sieve, each spot being one weak point.
Neither Helian Yi nor Zhou Zishu said anything for a moment, so Jing Qi continued on. “The enemy side has a few aspects that won’t be easy to deal with. For one, Jeshe Urme is a man of restraint, and thus isn’t liable to be enraged or impatient, unflustered on the brink of battle. For two, each and every Vakurah is strong-bodied, and this must not be said aloud. Right now, the soldiers in our capital are impassioned, which is fine. In case this gets drawn-out, and then they weaken to exhaustion, I’m afraid that…”
He shook his head, drawing his brows even tighter together.
“If we were Jeshe, we would test once or twice at each gate,” Helian Yi slowly picked up, “and inevitably come to realize this principle; rather than work hard wandering between the Nine Gates, it would be better to keep watch on one place. We wouldn’t be able to withstand a full attack.”
“In Your Majesty’s opinion, which will he choose as his spot of attack?” Zhou Zishu asked.
Helian Yi paused before he answered. “If we only wanted to break into the capital, we would choose Black Tortoise Gate. Jing’an is Great General Feng’s orphan, but she’s a young woman, in the end. Maybe she has some skill, but hard delaying tactics likely wouldn’t delay these mad bull-esque Vakurah. If… if we wanted to sit atop the realm…”
He turned his head, gazing at the polluted, gloomy horizon in the distance, and mumbled to himself. “If he wanted to sit atop the realm, he would definitely choose Martial Order Gate, and come to measure against us.”
The translator says: Don’t disrespect Mulan like that.