Chapter 2 : Life Hanging by a Thread

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In the late autumn, the landscape in Da Liang’s Ganzhou was vast and grey.

The rays of the setting sun slanted down on the city walls, bathing them in a dim light.

Xiao Pingzhang’s blood-stained and dusty cloak brushed across the tower steps, across its limestone surface, advancing until he arrived at the battlements.

Soldiers were either standing or sitting by the stone stairway and the parapets, all looking exhausted, most of them injured in some way or another.
They were taking advantage of the break from the fierce battle to refuel on rations and rest.

Like the soldiers around him, Xiao Pingzhang’s body also bore the marks of many days of hard battle.
Blood stained bandages around his right shoulder were faintly visible under his armor.
He raised his hand and pressed it against the rough surface of the battlement wall and grimly perused the area below the city wall.

Outside the city walls lay a tragic scene of the remains of fierce battle.
Apart from broken catapults and scaling ladders which were still burning, the rest were corpses scattered all across the battlefield.

Heavy but rapid footsteps sounded from behind him.
Xiao Pingzhang turned around and seeing that it was his deputy, Dong Qing, he asked him hopefully, “Has our scout returned?”

Dong Qing’s left arm was evidently injured too, and was secured to his chest using a piece of cloth.
He bowed, his head lowered sadly, and said, “The scout has returned.
There are no signs of reinforcement anywhere in sight….”

Xiao Pingzhang was greatly disappointed, but his grim expression remained largely unchanged.
He merely grunted in acknowledgement and turned his gaze back into the distance.

In the distant horizon, a dense, endless black line could be seen.
That was the enemy’s battle formation.

An old general standing nearby hesitated a moment before taking two steps forward.
“Shi zi, it’s been 20 days and our supplies have not arrived.
It hasn’t been easy for you to hold on till now.
It might be difficult to hold off the enemy’s next offensive…..Shi zi, there’s still an opportunity for you to leave through the southern gate……”

Xiao Pingzhang turned his head and glanced at him.
Though his voice was low, it was filled with anger.
“Under the Chang Lin banner, how can one possibly run away from battle?”

Several nearby generals knelt down simultaneously.
The old general’s eyes filled with tears as he whispered, “The Ganzhou line of defense is important, but you are, after all, the heir to Chang Lin.
If any mishap should happen, His Highness…..”

“Since I’m on the battlefield, I’m no different from anyone else.” Xiao Pingzhang lowered his head and groaned silently as his shoulder wound throbbed with pain.
Then, retracting the hand that was supporting him against the battlement wall, he firmly grasped the hilt of the sword at his waist as he said, “If things get to that point, it’s fortunate that Father still has my younger brother, Pingjing.”

The battle flag on the tower hung low at an angle, pierced in several places by sharp arrows.
A strong wind blew past, unfurling the flag, and the three characters, “Chang Lin Army” danced in the wind, dazzling and brilliant.

As the deputy commander of the Chang Lin Army, and having been on the battlefield since he was 16, Xiao Pingzhang understood better than anyone else the importance of making a last stand for Ganzhou, understood the perilous situation facing the flat and vast terrain beyond Gannan.

The edge of the enemy’s blade was already at their necks.
At that moment, retreat was not an option.

In the last ten-day period of the 10th month, the Da Yu imperial army continued attacking Ganzhou with their main force, constantly replenishing their troops.
There were close to a hundred offensives, both large and small, with the longest and fiercest one lasting unceasingly for three days and three nights.

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Relying only on its 20,000 strong army, led by Xiao Pingzhang, the heir of Chang Lin, Ganzhou stood fast against the enemy.
Though their supplies had been cut off, they did not retreat, not one step, and fought fiercely until the end of October when reinforcements arrived from Ningzhou.

This battle to defend the city was later known to the future generations as “The Battle of Gannan”.

When Xiao Pingjing arrived at the outskirts of Ganzhou after travelling day and night, the battle had ceased, though the battlefield was still uncleared, the burnt and broken scaling ladders still glowed red against the city walls, and coils of black smoke still lingered in the sky.
On the tower and below the city walls, dead bodies belonging to both warring parties still lay scattered everywhere.
In the city, the situation wasn’t much better.
A rank odour permeated the air all around, and one after another, the wounded were being helped down the tower.

At the far end of the long street connected to the main gate, an old general was supervising men to clear away discarded weaponry, remove the wooden fencing and clear the passageways.
Looking at him, Xiao Pingjing immediately recognized this general who had followed his father for many years, and called out delightedly, “Uncle Yuan! Uncle Yuan!”

Uncle Yuan turned around when he heard the voice, and was surprised, “Second Young Master? Why are you here?”

“Where are Father and da ge? Are they okay?”

The muscles on Uncle Yuan’s cheeks twitched involuntarily, and he lowered his gaze.
“…..they’re in the government office. Ai, it would be good if His Highness had arrived a day earlier…..”

What these words implied sounded very ominous.
Xiao Pingjing’s heart beat wildly, and he dared not ask further.
Instead, he turned the horse around and spurred his horse swiftly towards the government office.

Ganzhou was different from the moderate climate of the southern region.
Though winter had only just arrived, the cold winds in Ganzhou were fierce, and cut like a knife.
The poplar trees planted on both sides of the street had long shed their leaves, their bare branches rustling silently in the wind.

Most of the soldiers standing guard at the entrance to the government office recognized this second young master and let him through, pointing him towards the rear courtyard.

The chill he felt during the nightmare he had in the mountains still coiled around his chest.
He ran forward anxiously, panic building up in his chest.
He burst into the inner courtyard just as a soldier was carrying out a basin of water dyed red with blood.
This young man, who had never been frightened of anything before, was suddenly weak in the knees.
After taking a few deep breaths to steady himself, he walked into the inner room.

At the back of the room, in a space separated from the reception area by a divider, there was a long couch.
Xiao Pingzhang lay on it, face up, half his body covered in blood.
A long arrow protruded from just above his chest on the right.
His face was ashen, and his eyes were closed.
His armour and cloak had been removed and randomly placed on the side of the bed.
Two military doctors gathered around the bed attending to him, neither daring to touch the arrow before them.

Next to the couch, Xiao Tingsheng sat on his knees, his armour half fastened, the palm of his hand placed on the forehead of his eldest son.

The 62-year-old Prince of Chang Lin had been born as a slave in the hidden courtyard of the palace, which he left after being pardoned at the age of 11.
At the age of 14, he was adopted by Xiao Jingyan, the previous emperor, and took to the battlefield shortly after he turned 19.
At the age of 23, he was made Marquis, and when he was 27, he was given a crown of five pearls and conferred the title of Chang Lin, taking on command of the northern army.
When he was 45, the new emperor ascended the throne and promoted him to a seven-pearled prince.

The grace of two generations of emperors raised the Prince of Chang Lin’s position above those in court and the imperial clan, completely not conforming to the limits of his status as an adopted son.

At that moment, however, this old prince, with his illustrious military achievements and decades of sweeping unhindered through the battlefields, appeared to have completely lost his composure.
His shoulders were stiff, and his face was gray, like the sideburns on his face.
Even the unexpected appearance of his younger son did not distract his gaze, which was focused entirely on the wounded body.

Probably because he heard his younger brother approaching, Xiao Pingzhang stirred, his eyes opening slightly.

Xiao Tingsheng hastily leaned forward.
With a gentle voice, he said soothingly, “Everything will be alright.
The old master of Fufeng Hall just happened to be in Ganzhou.
I’ve sent someone for him.
Hold on.
He’ll be here soon.”

Fufeng Hall was originally a medicine shop established by Xun Zhen, a physician who treated cold symptoms.
The shop in Langzhou was the only one, but because its reputation became widespread, many came from far and wide to seek medical treatment, crossing mountains and rivers, and as a result, even minor illnesses became severe.
Physician Xun couldn’t bear it, so looked for a suitable place and set up a branch there.
Year after year, they set up branch after branch, and by the time it came to Li Qianzhi’s generation, there was a Fufeng Hall not just in the capital and every major prefecture, but also in Bei Yan and Da Yu.

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When he heard that the always wandering, unlocatable old master of Fufeng Hall happened to be in Ganzhou, the frightened Xiao Pingjing finally let out a sigh of relief and calmed down a little.
But waiting is difficult when one is worried.
He waited patiently for a while, but seeing that his brother’s breathing was getting weaker and there was still no movement outside the door, he could no longer sit still and hurriedly leapt up, intending to personally expedite the matter.

Fortunately, just as he had rushed out the gate, several men on horseback arrived posthaste, carrying among them an old man dressed in black, presumably the old master of Fufeng Hall, Li Qianzhi.

Xiao Pingjing’s worry burnt within his heart and he couldn’t be bothered to observe etiquette.
He strode forward, reached up and lifted the old man off the horse.
Then, carrying him in his arms, he ran back through the door.

Right at the back of the group was an unobtrusive gray gelding, on which a young lady a little over 20 years of age sat erect, her face beautiful and elegant.
She was dressed in light pink clothing, her long hair coiled into a bun at the back of her head, and in her hands, she held a medicine box made of bamboo.

Amidst the confusion that was going on in front of her, nobody paid her any attention but that evidently didn’t bother her.
She merely glanced indifferently at Xiao Pingjing, dismounted her horse on her own and followed behind.
Though her movements appeared calm and unhurried, she was in fact not much slower than the rest who were rushing about.

Hearing the sounds of movement from outside, Xiao Tingsheng pulled himself together with great effort and stood up, cupping his fist in greeting.
His voice was a little hoarse as he said, “Li xiong…..” Li Qianzhi hurriedly returned the greeting and directed his gaze towards the couch behind him.
As soon as he saw the arrow protruding from the chest of the wounded man, his eyebrows leapt abruptly and he paused in his steps.
But this hesitation passed in the blink of an eye, and went unnoticed.
Only Lin Xi, the female disciple following behind, raised her head and gave him a quick glance.

The two military doctors by the couch got up to make way.
Li Qianzhi used a soft tower to wipe away the blood.
After carefully observing the wound, he motioned for Lin Xi to take out a pair of long scissors, then while one held the arrow in place, the other cut away the part of the arrow that was sticking out, leaving slightly over an inch behind.
Then, after regulating his breathing, he very carefully examined the wounded man’s pulse.

All this time, Xiao Tingsheng had fixed his eyes on the old master’s movements almost without blinking.
Observing his bleak expression, panic broke out in his heart, and it was only his years of battle experience that enabled him to stabilize himself as he said in a low voice, “I’ve known Li xiong for thirty years.
Whether it’s good or bad, please speak your mind.”

He had asked this question frankly, so Li Qianzhi did not attempt to conceal the truth.
Raising his head, he replied, “Your Highness probably realizes that this is a similar situation.
Whether it’s an injury to the lung or elsewhere, the arrowhead must first be taken out.”

“You mean….” Xiao Tingsheng’s face was as white as paper, and he felt as if the blood had drained from his chest.
“Pingzhang, he…..like Lin Shen back then….are their injuries the same?”

Xiao Pingjing, who had been listening by the side, did not know much other than that Lin Shen, whom his father just mentioned, could not be saved.
His body suddenly felt like it was immersed in iced water, and he fell to the side of the couch as his legs gave way.

There was sadness in Li Qianzhi’s eyes as he nodded and said, “Yes.
There is only a 50-50 chance of the heir’s ability to survive this.”

Xiao Tingsheng remained stunned for a long while, and didn’t say much more after.
“Alright.
Li xiong, please proceed.”

Li Qianzhi shook his head and muttered, “I failed once twenty years ago with the same injury…..why does Your Highness still dare to let me treat your son?”

Xiao Tingsheng’s eyes were red with tears.
“It wasn’t your fault that we couldn’t save Lin Shen back then.
If I can’t even trust your medical skills, who else can I trust?”

As the both of them talked, Lin Xi, who was beside them, had kept herself busy.
First, she instructed a soldier to carry a low table over and place it behind her, over which she spread a white piece of cloth.
Then, one by one, she removed a tongue depressor, a pincushion, a small knife and other similar implements from her medicine box, placing them neatly on the cloth.
Igniting the wick of a porcelain oil lamp, she picked out a small knife with a short and fine blade, dipped it into some medicinal liquid in a jade bow, and held it over the flame.
When the preparations were complete, she called out softly, “Shi fu?”

Li Qianzhi knew that they couldn’t afford to delay any longer.
He composed himself and focused his attention, then took the silver knife from his apprentice’s hand.
Lin Xi used a piece of cloth to wipe away the fresh blood that had oozed from the wound, and then kept two fingers on Xiao Pingzhang’s wrist, monitoring his pulse while intently observing her shi fu‘s movements.

The shiny silver knife slowly moved towards the wound, its edge inclined downwards.
Just as it was about to come in contact with the patient’s skin, it suddenly trembled, and was quickly stopped in mid-air.

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This made Xiao Pingjing jump in fright.
He drew in a breath of cold air and exhaled with some difficulty.

Li Qianzhi stared at his fingers, and appeared to have come to a decision.
He turned aside and handed the knife in his hand over to his apprentice.
Looking up at Xiao Tingsheng, he calmly said, “My apprentice’s hand is steadier than mine.
Your Highness, please allow her to remove the arrow from your son.”

“How can this be?” Before Xiao Tingsheng could respond, Xiao Pingjing had already hit the stone ground angrily in refusal.
“My da ge‘s injury is so serious.
You can’t possibly leave it in the hands of a girl……if Old Master dared not do it, is there no other capable military doctor who can?”

Xiao Tingsheng raised his hand to restrain his son as he searched Li Qianzhi’s eyes.
After a while, he nodded with some difficulty and said, “I trust Li xiong‘s judgment.”

“Father! This is da ge! Even if the risk is low, we still shouldn’t be so rash….” Xiao Pingjing’s face was flushed with agitation.
His voice, which had been raised into a shout, suddenly stopped mid-sentence as he stared speechlessly ahead.

As soon as Xiao Tingsheng nodded his head, Lin Xi didn’t hesitate at all.
She immediately raised the knife and made the cut, and with the slightest of movements, she pulled the arrowhead out and threw it onto the tray.
Then, replacing her knife with another silver knife she had kept over a flame, she quickly pressed it against the wound to stanch the flow of blood before covering it with a thick piece of gauze smeared with medicinal paste, holding it in place with the flat of her palm.
From the moment she began till she finished, her movements were smooth and fluid, not leaving Xiao Pingjing time to say anything else beyond those few words.

The room was suddenly quiet.
It wasn’t until Xiao Pingzhang stirred against his pillow that the stillness was broken somewhat.

“Pingzhang, Pingzhang….” Xiao Tingsheng called out softly as he leaned down and squeezed his eldest son’s hand.
Xiao Pingjing leaned over too, reaching out to feel the temperature on his brother’s forehead.
Raising his head, he asked Lin Xi, “How is he?”

Lin Xi was still pressing against the wound with one hand, while the other was on the patient’s wrist.
With her attention focused on examining the pulse, she didn’t seem to have heard him at all.

Xiao Pingjing began to panic again.
“Why are you not replying? Have the lungs been injured? Is it normal for da ge to be breathing so weakly?”

In the face of his continuous questioning, Lin Xi relaxed her fingers a little, looked at Xiao Tingsheng and said tersely, “Your Highness, please ask him to leave.”

Xiao Pingjing was shocked and pointed at himself in disbelief.
“What did you say? As me….are you referring to me? Leave? Me?”

“Why are you arguing?” Xiao Tingsheng glared at his younger son and scolded him sternly, “Go and wait outside.”

Xiao Pingjing gritted his teeth unhappily but dared not disobey.
Standing up, he walked out to the courtyard.

Plants and trees in the courtyards of the north weren’t as luxuriant as those in the south.
There were only two rows of evergreen cypresses planted symmetrically in front of the hall.
Xiao Pingjing leaned back against one of the sturdy tree trunks, but finding it difficult to calm his anxious mind, he would walk around the courtyard from time to time and peek into the room.

After waiting for about half an hour, the half-shut room door stirred, and Lin Xi walked out alone, her expression still as calm as before, though some exhaustion showed between her eyebrows.

The highly adaptable second son of Chang Lin humbled himself and said cautiously, “I was rash just now.
Now….can I ask how things are?”

Lin Xi unrolled her sleeves and replied steadily, “Shi zi appears to be stable.”

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Such a short reply obviously did not satisfy Xiao Pingjing.
He hastily asked again, “Does that mean that he’s alright? The injury didn’t reach his lungs? He’ll get better soon, right? How long will he take to recover?”

“We don’t know yet.”

“What do you mean you don’t know yet?” Xiao Pingjing had travelled day and night for several days, tired and full of worry, so he was easily irritable.
He said with unconsciously raised eyebrows, “You’re a physician.
As long as you’ve done your best, how can you not know?”

Lin Xi swept the stray strands of hair away from her cheeks and said coldly, “The world’s greatest misunderstanding of physicians is that we are gods.
If we can’t save a patient, it’s because we did not do our best.” Her eyes were cold as they looked at Xiao Pingjing.
“It’s rumoured in the capital that the second son of Chang Lin Mansion is being schooled in the great Lang Ya Pavilion.
At first, I thought it was something special, but seeing it today, it’s nothing much.”

With these words, she cut directly across the path to leave by the courtyard gate.

Xiao Pingjing had always had a devil-may-care attitude, so Lin Xi’s mockery didn’t bother him.
It was only when he saw her leaving that he anxiously got up to chase after her.
Grabbing her arm, he said angrily, “You’re a physician.
My brother is still unconscious.
Where are you going? Putting fate aside, don’t doctors have to care for their patients before they can say they’ve done their best?”

At that moment, Dong Qing just happened to leave the room.
Hearing the second half of his words, he hurriedly came forward to explain, “Second Young Master, Miss Lin has gone to prescribe medicine to shi zi….don’t worry, Fufeng Hall’s medical skills are beyond doubt. Shi zi‘s injury has already stabilized.”

Lin Xi snatched her arm back from his grasp, turned around and left without a word.
Xiao Pingjing originally had no intention of offending her.
At that moment, he felt embarrassed and could not chase after her.
All he could do was remain where he was and scratch his head.

Dong Qing had spoken the truth.
After Xiao Pingzhang’s wound was treated, his breathing had become a lot calmer, but for such a severe injury, his condition could relapse anytime.
For the sake of caution, Li Qianzhi decided to stay in the government office for a few more days so he could immediately attend to things if the situation took a turn for the worse.
This gave Xiao Tingsheng partial relief, and he solemnly thanked the physician before instructing Uncle Yuan to send him out and make proper arrangements for his daily board.
It was only after this that the soldiers standing guard dared to go forward and collect the blood-stained armor, cloak and robes scattered on the ground.

A soft satin brocade pouch rolled out from one of the robes, and the soldier carrying them bent down to pick it up.
Not knowing what to do with it, he timidly called out, “Your Highness”, and presented the pouch to him.

The moment his eyes fell on the embroidered satin, Xiao Tingsheng’s grizzled eyebrows trembled.
He had no idea when Pingzhang had gone to Lang Ya Mountain, but in his heart, he already knew the questions this child wanted to ask.
This light satin pouch that he felt in the palm of his hand felt as heavy as a boulder.

Hearing the sound of footsteps outside the door, he knew that it was his younger son quickly running in.
Xiao Tingsheng quickly retied the pouch strings, tightly sealing the open pouch, and after putting it under Xiao Pingzhang’s pillow, he stroked his son’s cool forehead with the palm of his hand.

Approaching the bed, Xiao Pingjing knelt on the ground facing him, greeting him formally.
“This son greets Royal Father*.”
*”Fu wang” as explained earlier = “Father Prince” but in this context it’s too strange, and using “Father” alone is insufficient as a formal term of respect hence the modification.

Xiao Tingsheng responded with an “Ng*”, then lifting his hand, he motioned his younger son to follow him to the window where he asked in a low voice, “You were in Lang Ya Pavilion.
What made you come to Ganzhou?”
*expression of acknowledgment

Xiao Pingjing clenched his jaw grimly and said savagely, “Though Da Yu initiated this war in the north, it was something Father had already predicted. Da ge commanded the line of defense at Ganzhou, so one could conclude that it would be the most difficult place to breach and therefore, unlikely to require reinforcements.
But with the shipwreck at Datong Prefecture, all the military supplies were cut off.
Without military supplies, and reinforcements, Ganzhou was in a perilous situation….”

A faint smile appeared on Xiao Tingsheng’s face, and he sounded pleased as he said, “You’ve always enjoyed learning different things since you were young, and never enjoyed reading books on military strategy.
Fortunately, you were born with a natural talent.
Looks like you’re descended from a line of generals after all.” At the last few words, his voice sank to a whisper, and his gaze moved to the corner.

A tray lay in the middle of the small table by the wall, on which a bloody arrowhead lay quietly.
It was a gruesome sight.

Following his gaze, Xiao Pingzhing looked over, and the faces of both father and son simultaneously displayed a trace of anger.

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