Translated by seal.
Warnings: Extreme violence, mentions of mob character death.
In the blink of an eye, the Northern Frontier Army had guarded the border for two whole years.
The hundred thousand-strong army set up camp by the waterside to spend the night, and after another day’s journey, they can finally proudly return to their hometowns. The cultivators cooked their rice in pit ovens1[埋锅造飯 (mái guō zào fàn) refers to an ancient cooking method of using digging holes in the ground and burying the pots in it to cook like an oven/steamer.], fed their horses, and washed their clothes. The water of the large river glittered in the glow of the setting sun, illuminating the spirit beasts lying by the banks, as well as the men bathing in the shallow, clear waters.
“Hey, scrub my back for me will ya? We’re goin’ home tomorrow and I look like a monkey covered in mud, my mother will scold me to death.”
“Brother, help me shave in a bit, I’m not good at doin’ it myself.”
A group of them were laughing heartily by the shallow bay, making fun of each other, helping each other clean up, and the looks on their faces could not hold back the happiness they were feeling.
Needle and thread in a doting mother’s hand2[This is a reference to a poem called 游子吟 (A Traveler’s Song) and there are several translations of it online that can be found here. It’s a poem/song about a mother waiting for her traveling son to return.], a dream lover in the spring boudoir3[The title of a popular het romance webnovel, 春闺梦里人 (The Dreamer in the Spring Boudoir). NU page is here. I’m assuming the intended reference here is to the love of their life that they see in dreams. For the record, spring dream in Chinese means erotic dreams.], and the travelling son returns home. Those who should perform their filial duty will perform it, those who should get married will get married; each and every one of them with their own hopes and dreams.
In the entire army, probably only Mo Xi had nothing to look forward to.
His parents had passed, and he had no wives or concubines. The whole of the Chonghua Imperial Capital was awaiting his return, but throughout the city of vibrant lights4[万家灯火 (wàn jiā dēng huǒ) is an idiom which translates to “lamp lights of ten thousand houses/families” and refers to a city full of lights], there was not even a single candle lit for him alone.
Within his eyes there wasn’t much warmth, only the silent embers of war of the past few years.
“Xihe-Jun, we’ll be returning to the city tomorrow, and you can meet with Princess Mengze again.” Yue Chenqing had just finished bathing, and as he walked back from the river bank, he spotted Mo Xi. With his face beaming, he said, “I wish that your reunion will5[Mo Xi doesn’t let him finish, but the intended phrase I believe is 小别胜新婚, which is the concept that being reunited after spending time apart will bring newly weds closer…he was being a lil’ shit as usual haha]—“
“If you’d like for me to kick you back into the river, then go on.”
Yue Chenqing shut up immediately, sincerely bowing towards Mo Xi: “….General Mo, I believe that in this life you will probably attain enlightenment6[Refers to the final stage of reincarnation in Buddhism, where a Buddhist finds the truth about life, reaching Nirvana, and will not be reborn again. The reference YCQ is making here is that he thinks Mo Xi is so pure he might just reach enlightenment after this life.].”
Mo Xi ignored him and stood by the river, gazing towards the cold, black mountains in the distance.
After two years in the garrison, he had not returned home for an estimated thousand days and nights, and indeed, did not know how Princess Mengze was doing recently.
As for Gu Mang…
Mo Xi’s eyes dimmed slightly.
Two years ago, Gu Mang was sent back to the Imperial Capital by the Liao Country as a peace offering, and the moment he arrived, it caused a riot–
“Hahaha, when the city gates opened and the escorts came in, we saw what that infamous General Gu looked like and were all totally shocked.”
“It was amazing! I’ll never forget that scene for the rest of my life!”
As for what kind of scene it was, Mo Xi was still left in the dark. All he knew was that it seemed that there was something wrong with Gu Mang’s appearance.
But what did “something wrong” refer to?
Was he lacking an arm or missing a leg? Did his eyes go blind or his mouth turn mute?
He didn’t have a clue.
With his current status, it was beneath him to inquire about such matters. Besides, he was usually extremely aloof, and the soldiers all deeply respected him. The moment he showed up, the cultivators who were still chattering would immediately shut up and silence their voices, saluting him politely: “General Mo.”
Mo Xi did not have anything to say, so he just nodded in acknowledgement, stood for a while, then quietly and coldly walked away.
Yue Chenqing had in fact muttered into his ears a few times about this, but this Yue Chenqing guy could never keep his facts straight – if he mentioned a topic ten times, then all ten times would be a different story. Mo Xi was also a reserved person and would never take the initiative to inquire, so to this day he still had no idea on what Gu Mang’s situation was like.
All he knew was that Gu Mang was not dead yet.
And that was enough.
In the evening, alone inside the tent, Mo Xi listening to the sounds of the winds whistling outside and the water birds feeding, and he tossed and turned, unable to fall asleep.
In his past campaigns, he was mostly together with Gu Mang. Even if they weren’t together, as long as he returned, Gu Mang would always be waiting for him outside of the city.
He was unable to stop thinking about the past. How did things end up the way they were today?
Though now that he was thinking about it, everything had already been foretold since long before.
When he had first met Gu Mang, he was still a slave, but in the heart of this slave was the spirit and ambitions of a soldier.
Gu Mang had always wanted to do something grand.
Unfortunately, rulerships in the Nine Provinces7[Refers to the territorial division of China during the Xia and Shang dynasties, and figuratively, the whole of ancient China] were passed through blood lineage. Though the previous Emperor had a soft spot for his talents and made an exception to award him the position of a general, after he had passed on, the new Emperor did not place this Gu Mang of “mixed bred” origins in his eyes.
He was envious of him, doubted him, and cut off his authority.
He even did something that Gu Mang was unable to endure anymore.
With his own two eyes, Mo Xi watched him fall into the abyss.
He had once consoled Gu Mang as a close friend, and argued with him as a comrade. At that time, they were both assigned to the Bureau of Military Affairs, and Gu Mang’s spirits were low, constantly failing to show up to work. When Mo Xi found him, he was at a brothel indulging in music and drinking wine, head pillowed on the soft and supple lap of a courtesan, and upon seeing Mo Xi enter, he closed his pair of dizzy eyes, and with a smile that didn’t meet his eyes8[The idiom used here was 似笑非笑 (sì xiào fēi xiào) that translates to “like a smile but not a smile”.], he said: “Xihe-Jun, you came.”
Mo Xi was practically seething, and he slammed the door to the side, striding into the room with large steps. To the surprise of everyone in the room, he gave Gu Mang a tight slap, then said, “Are you fucking planning on wasting the rest of your life away like this?”
Gu Mang drunkenly grinned, hooking his arms around his neck and asked him intimately: “Yes that’s right, Great Master Mo. Do you want to fester together with me?”
Gu Mang burst into laughter.
He had said, it doesn’t matter, in the end, you are a noble, and I am a slave.
I know you hate that I’m filthy.
I also know that no matter how hard the troop under me works, no matter how much blood was shed or lives were lost, that it’s not worth mentioning to the current Emperor. Who made it so that we weren’t worthy of practicing cultivation? It was us, that insisted on forcing our way through despite our lowly backgrounds.
After that, Gu Mang was dispatched from the capital, yet never returned to report ever again.
The people had thought he died in an accident, and back then, many of his female admirers had grieved and shed tears for him.
But one day, the front lines suddenly reported back and said that they had witnessed Gu Mang’s silhouette in the middle of Liao Country’s battle formation.
Gu Mang had defected.
The scandal spread like wildfire across Chonghua, igniting the flames of fury in everyone, yet only Mo Xi’s heart seemed to have frozen.
He didn’t believe it.
He had never believed it. Until he witnessed it with his own eyes.
It was at Dongting Lake, covered in thick, hazy blanket of fog, where the warships and water beasts engaged in close combat. The tactics employed by the Liao Country were so familiar that it shattered his mind into pieces — this sort of immoral, cunning and reckless style of fighting was something he had seen countless times before.
Strategised on Gu Mang’s sand table9[I’m assuming this is a term most people wont know, but it refers to military sand tables for military planning and war gaming.] in the past, and on the battlefield of every single one of Wangba Army’s glorious military campaigns.
Mo Xi told the General-in-chief at that time, that they must all immediately retreat and cease battle. Otherwise the entire vanguard will be buried at the bottom of the lake today.
“You are no match for Gu Mang.”
The General-in-chief refused to listen: “Gu Mang isn’t worth shit. You think that with my pure blood descended from the Gods, that I can’t defeat a naive brat of lowly slave origins?!”
With his haughty face full of a grizzled beard, the old nobleman didn’t think Gu Mang was worth caring about in the slightest.
And so the flames of war burned.
The chief General who had previously come back unscathed after every battle when under Gu Mang’s leadership was, for the first time, utterly defeated by the Liao Country’s warships. The spiritual boats exploded loudly one by one, and the water beasts rose from the bottom of the lake, gnawing at the cultivators and killing them. The fires burned the sky red, and blood reflected onto the waters.
In the midst of the despair of a crushing defeat, Mo Xi approached the main tower ship10[楼船 (lóu chuán) were a type of ancient Chinese naval vessel, and was primarily a floating fortress and meant to be the central vessel of the fleet.] of the Liao Country, with nothing but a sword on him.
The inferno continued to burn, black smoke endlessly rising. The Liao Country was a country that practiced demonic cultivation, and their cultivators’ curses were cruel and vicious. Hundreds of them faced towards Mo Xi, emanating with desire to kill—
“Stop at once.”
A familiar voice echoed. From inside the tower ship, a swaying figure walked out from the shadows of the cabin.
Once again, he saw Gu Mang.
Gu Mang’s facial features were just as delicate and beautiful as before, carrying some innate childishness and sweetness. Just that his skin was tanned an even darker shade, his body was sturdier than before, and yet his pair of eyes remained unchanged, just as bright and black as ever, as if he could see through every trick in the world. His upper body was exposed, his strong and slender waist wrapped in several layers of bandages, and his shoulders covered in a black robe. Tied to his forehead was a blood-stained ribbon — one that was torn off from the head a sacrificed soldier of the Chonghua Empire’s Royal Army.
He casually leaned against the side of the ship, narrowed his eyes and looked ahead, then chuckled: “Xihe-Jun, it’s been a while.”
The foul winds raged violently.
Mo Xi finally saw this traitor with his own eyes. This rebellious scum.
How could this be—?
He had once felt that Liao Country was a nation that only valued the brutality of war to the extreme. Gu Mang was pure and virtuous by nature, so even if he left Chonghua, he shouldn’t defect to the territory of Liao Country.
He closed his eyes and swallowed, and after a long while of silence, he only managed to spit out two words: “Gu Mang…”
Mo Xi’s voice was deep, and he tried to repress its trembling, “…You’ve gotten yourself mixed up to this point.”
Gu Mang laughed in the light of the blazing fires, black hair dangling on the sides of his face blowing in the wind, and with a distinguished air, he spread out his palms: “Is there anything wrong with that?”
“I think it’s not bad, the Liao Country values talent. Even if their cultivation in demonic arts is unjust, the people are fair.”
As Gu Mang said this, he pointed to the gold-trimmed blue ribbon on his forehead.
“This kind of pure-blooded nobleman’s forehead ribbon, no matter how I much I dedicated my life to your country, or how many amazing achievements I had made, because of my origin, I would never be able to receive one….Do you know of what that kind of exhaustion is like?”
Gu Mang laughed.
“I refuse to accept that.”
Mo Xi said angrily: “That is the ribbon belonging only to descendants of the heroic ancestors that sacrificed themselves, take it off!”
Gu Mang touched the silken ribbon mottled with bloodstains, and was amused, “Is that so? This was worn by a fairly young cultivator. My subordinates cut his head off, and I saw that this ribbon was exquisitely crafted. I thought it was a waste for a dead man’s head to wear it, so I took it to play with. What, you want it too?”
His lips curved up into a cruel smile, “You should have one of your own, why’re you fighting over this with me?”
Mo Xi was infuriated, and snapped sternly: “Remove it!”
Gu Mang said sweetly, yet his tone carried danger: “Xihe-Jun, you entered the enemy’s den all alone, why aren’t you showing even the slightest bit of courtesy? Did you really think that I would care to be sentimental, and that I wouldn’t dare to kill you?”
He drew a dark spiritual bayonet that was enshrouded in a black aura.
Gu Mang said: “Dongting Lake has buried almost the entire of your vanguard in its waters today. Mo Xi, even if you’re powerful, in the end, you’re just a deputy general and you couldn’t persuade that old nobleman that was so stupid it makes me want to spit blood. So many have died now and he hasn’t come to beg for mercy, yet you’ve walked right into the enemy’s territory, how dangerous.”
Gu Mang grinned: “Did you come wanting to be buried together with the Chonghua soldiers who died in battle?”
Mo Xi did not reply, and after a moment of silence, he walked towards him.
His military boots made mottled footprints across the freshly spilled bloodstains on the deck. Finally, Mo Xi opened his mouth, “Gu Mang. I know that Chonghua owes you, and I that owe you too.”
“You’ve done too much for me, so today, I will not fight you.”
Gu Mang sneered: “I’d like to see you try.”
“You asked if I wanted to be buried together with the soldiers who had sacrificed their lives…If my death can be exchanged for you leaving the Liao Country.” Step by step, he approached, “Then fine. My life is yours.”
Gu Mang stopped laughing, and glared at him with dark eyes: “….I really will kill you.”
Mo Xi did not respond to this, taking a quick glance at the bloodstains on the golden-trimmed blue silken ribbon on Gu Mang’s forehead, before slowly moving his line of sight down to meet Gu Mang’s face, “Then just kill me. And after doing so, remember to turn back.”
This was the last time that Mo Xi had attempted to fish him back.
A white eagle swept over the mast, and the bayonet flashed–
A muffled sneer rang out.
Blood trickled out from the wound.
A cold blade through the heart — tearing ruthlessly in a flash!
“I said I would kill you.”
The bayonet was still embedded in Mo Xi’s flesh. Gu Mang paused for a while, then suddenly twisted his lips into a sneer, scoffing, “Who do you think you are? What right do you have to negotiate with me? Did you think that if you died, I would feel guilty and turn back? Don’t be stupid!”
He raised his neck and looked down disdainfully, then sighed, “As a general or a soldier, or as a human being, you can’t be too sentimental.”
As he said this, he slowly bent to kneel on one knee, placing one elbow comfortably on his knee, the other hand gripping the bayonet that was dripping with blood, sneering as he drew it out.
Blood splattered in all directions!
Using the tip of the blade dripping with blood, Gu Mang tilted Mo Xi’s face upwards.
“Don’t think that I don’t understand what you’re planning. Xihe-Jun, it’s not that you’re truly unwilling to fight me. It’s because you know clearly that you have no chance of winning, which is why you are willing to gamble your life against my conscience.”
A bright red slowly soaked through the front of his robes, but at that moment, Mo Xi did not feel any pain.
He only felt cold.
He closed his eyes.
That’s not it.
If it was possible, I never even thought of fighting you.
In the past, you gave me light, you gave me warmth, and all of the warm blood flowing through my heart, it was all because of you.
Without you, I wouldn’t be here today.
Gu Mang said apathetically, “Sorry, for letting you down.”
“Mo Xi, if I were you and fell into a dire situation today, I would rather stake my life11[鱼死网破 (yú sǐ wǎng pò) is an idiom that translates to “either the fish dies or the net splits” and refers to a life and death struggle] to take them down together with me12[同归于尽 (tóngguīyújìn) means “to end in mutual destruction”], and I wouldn’t be like you, innocently attempting to persuade my opponent to turn back.”
“As an end to our of our brotherly act, this is the last thing that I can teach you.”
The last scene that Mo Xi saw before losing his consciousness was the Liao Country cultivators gliding across the surface of the waters on their swords, impatiently saying: “General Gu, reinforcements are coming from the Northeast, it’s the main forces of Mengze’s medicinal cultivators, look–“
Before hearing the rest of it, Mo Xi could not hold on any longer, suddenly leaning forward and collapsing on the bloodstained deck.
In this bloody battle, Chonghua confirmed that the traitorous General Gu Mang had defected to Liao Country, giving his life to the darkest nation in the whole of the Nine Provinces. From the blunder made by the old General-in-chief’s commandment, the army suffered heavy losses, the survivors of the ten thousand-strong vanguard numbered less than a hundred, and Mo Xi was also unconscious on the sick bed for several days before waking.
Gu Mang stabbed him in the chest, but did not stop and turn his head back13[回头是岸 (huí tóu shì àn) is one part of a Buddhist saying, 苦海无边，回头是岸 which translates to “The sea of bitterness has no bounds, turn your head to see the shore”. The implied usage here is that he didn’t turn back and repent for his sins…I think].
According to what Gu Mang had said a long time ago — at a time when he hadn’t left the the royal city yet—
“Mo Xi, the road up ahead has already blocked me off, I have no where to go, all I can do is touch the bottom of hell.”
After he said this, he asked the waiter for a jar of wine.
Popping off the seal, Gu Mang beamed and poured the wine out, one cup for himself, another cup for Mo Xi.
With a “clink”, the wine cups touched each other, drops of wine splattering, and Gu Mang’s eyes sparkled, “Come, have another drink on me. Your Gu Mang-gege14[哥哥 (gēgē) means older brother, and is a more informal, cute way of saying so.] is going to become a bad guy from now on.”
At that time, Mo Xi had even shaken his head and thought that he was too indecent, talking about such things as if it was a joke.
He had known this brother for so many years, his heart was too soft, to the point that he wasn’t even willing to trample an ant to death. How could someone who was so loyal to the ‘newly born’ Emperor15[赤子 (chì zǐ) can either mean “newborn baby” or “the people (of a country)”, but based on the inferred context for the rest of it, it actually refers to the new Emperor] become a villain?
The result? The subordinates of that ‘newborn’ killed his comrade.
And that ‘newborn’ himself had almost killed him.
—- “Fortunately, Princess Mengze immediately rushed in to save you. That bayonet is a heavenly weapon from the Liao Country, and it was dipped in demonic poison. Had she been any later, I’m afraid you wouldn’t have made it. There will be a scar left on your chest, and you must rest for the next few months….”
Whatever the medicinal cultivator said after that, Mo Xi did not hear a single word, and he lowered his head to looked at his chest covered in bandages. The rotting flesh had been dug out, but along with it, something else was also gouged out from the cavity of his chest, making him feel emptiness, feel pain, feel conflict, feel hatred.
Until Gu Mang’s had received due retribution for his crimes, and he was sent back to the old capital.
Only then did Mo Xi feel that the scar on his chest had finally stopped bleeding.
But it still ached.
Many years later, on the eve of the Northern Frontier Army’s return, Mo Xi was unable to sleep and sat alone in his tent, massaging his temple with his fingers, the underside of his fingers unconsciously rubbing his moistened eyes.
He turned his head, the faint warmth of the candlelight coming from the cotton-covered lamp stand illuminating his sharp, cold and rigid profile, and then closed his eyes.
There was no room for doubt that he was a good official, that he opposed traitors, that he resented him, and that he knew he was guilty.
But between his trembling eyelashes, he seemed to see Gu Mang from their schooling days, that bright, smiling, and mischievous16[亦正亦邪 (yì zhèng yì xié) is an idiom meaning someone who has a friendly side, but also a sinister side] face, the smile that would expose his little canine tooth when he was happy, his eyes brighter than any star he had ever seen before. Back then, the sun shined brilliantly, and the elders lectures were long and tedious. And Gu Mang would lean on his desk, secretly writing his self-scripted, self-insert erotic book, and was immensely pleased with himself that all the girls in the book were in love with him.
At that time, they both did not know what sort of tomorrow would come.
The author has something to say:
Gu Mang Mang: When will I be allowed to stop living only in dialogue/memories/monologues/prologues?!
Mo Xi: When you behave.
Gu Mang Mang: Daddy’s always been fucking good!
Mo Xi: Watch your language.
Gu Mang Mang: Daddy’s an army ruffian! If I don’t call myself daddy, are you expecting me to call someone else that?17[To be honest I’m actually not sure if this is what this sentence says…….SWEATs…]
Mo Xi: If you do not listen, I will lock another chapter18[This is a self-deprecating joke, but jjwxc locks chapters it deems are inappropriate due to censorship rules…and meatbun is well known for getting her chapters locked].
Gu Mang Mang: Big brother, boss, master, husband, your Majesty, darling, ancestor, whatever you want me to call you is fine, let’s discuss this matter….
Mo Xi: Okay. Then go ask for a bed.
Gu Mang: ???