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136 Volume 5: Chinese Chess



[Editor: Ajax_Flameborn, Author]

De Tongran gave a mighty stretch and sat up, scratching his cheek and blinking blearily. All his siblings were morning people, filled with energy and a clear mind almost immediately after waking up. De Tongran was the only one who felt sluggish and spent at least a solid hour wandering around in a daze. Supposedly when he was young, he would fall asleep at the breakfast table if he wasn't engaged in conversation to keep him awake.

He vaguely felt something seemed off, but he couldn't think of what, so his sleepy mind immediately dismissed it. Purely out of habit, he swung his legs off the bed and sat at the edge, unmoving for several minutes. If he stayed laying in the bed, he'd just go back to sleep or simply lay there dazedly with his eyes closed for who knew how long. Even though he hadn't gotten off the bed, he had at least gotten started. This was how he got himself up and moving: one small step at a time.

Standing up, he began shuffling around his room. Movement was also important to waking up, even if it was without any purpose. It was in the middle of shuffling that a voice cried out:

"Young Master!"

The Fairy Nursemaid that had been assigned to him as a baby, Xiao Cao, came barreling into the room towards him, hitting him in his gut at break-neck speeds. Xiao Cao was what could be called "enthusiastic". She was sociable and could spend a great deal of time talking about anything— anything at all— to the exasperation of those around her. If she lacked in an area, it was definitely her inability to hold back.

But that suited De Tongran just fine. He liked to talk too.

She was currently crying big wet tears all over him. After regaining his breath from her unintentional gut-hit, he couldn't help raising his eyebrows in surprise.

"Xiao Cao? Why are you crying?"

"Wuuu wuuuu," The slender fairy sobbed on him, "This fairy is so happy you're awake! Wuuuuu! You were asleep for so long! Young Master!!!!! WUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!"

He was patting her green-haired head, trying to comfort her, forehead wrinkled. What? Had he slept in too long?

It was only then he remembered where he'd been last. Hadn't he been with his brothers under the World Tree, Auntie Shuya, with Uncle Fu? He'd been standing there and…

….huh…

...what happened after that? He couldn't remember at all. It was a total blank. The sense of unease from earlier finally made sense.

"Xiao Cao, how long have I been sleeping?"

"Young Master! Wuuuuu! It's been over a year! Wuuuuuuu wuuu!"

"WHAT?!"

———

Mei Hua hugged her eighth son and sighed in relief. The tenth son had woken up shortly after the plague had started spreading, while the ninth son a few months ago. As each child woke up, she had a rough idea when the next would awake. Currently, it seemed they were going in order of when they were born, youngest to oldest.


De Tongran had immediately come over after his Fairy Nursemaid had explained things.

"Mother, I'm so sorry for leaving you alone all this time."

"Oh, you silly boy, what are you apologizing for?" Even though she spoke lightly, she was still feeling emotional enough to sniffle.

De Tongran released his Mother and looked keenly into her face. Though she was as young as ever, she looked tired.
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"Mother… what happened while I was sleeping? Why do you look exhausted?"

She touched her face, feeling a bit embarrassed. "Goodness, do I look that bad? Heh... I've been busy picking up the slack for all you youngsters. Even though I'm trying, how can I make up for several people, ah? All my sons are so important!"

The eighth son frowned. The only thing he did leadership-wise was dealing with national infrastructure— working closely with the Ministries of State and Public Works. He helped plan and build large scale road projects, build dams or reroute rivers, things of that nature. Otherwise he spent most of his time designing buildings, both for private sale and government use. While he didn't devalue his own talents, his involvement wasn't critical. The Ministries of State and Public Works could function fine without him.

Though she was making light of it, things really must not have been going well for her if even his absence had become inconvenient. He took his Mother's hand and squeezed it, feeling distressed.

"What can I do to help?"

She blinked rapidly, showing she was trying not to cry.

"Aiya, you're such a good boy…" Her eyes watered slightly and then cleared her throat. "Actually, I could use your help with something…"

"Of course, of course, anything."

"Well, while you've been sleeping, an illness has been going around the entire east. With Doctor Zufu's help, it hasn't gotten as bad as it could have, but there are some places who are blatantly ignoring his instructions. I've sent the army but I've only got so many people to send. It's not like I can hold a knife to everyone's throat and get them to take their medicine…" She paused, eyes narrowed in frustration. "You've always been good at talking to people, and being the Emperor's son, people will take your words more seriously so…"

The last few months had been enough to make Mei Hua want to hide in her room and never come out again. It didn't matter that the Fairy Doctor had figured out a good treatment procedure that had a high recovery rate if no one was using it. Rather than listening to what needed to be done to stay safe and recover, people just panicked.

Worse, some scounderals were taking advantage of the situation and raising the prices for medicine ingredients used for reducing fever, retaining water in the system, and settling the stomach and bowels. They also stockpiled ingredients for other untested but common remedies used for treating this illness and sold those at a high price too. It created even more panic.

Mei Hua had never had a negative view of merchants, having been close friends to the Wu family since she was young. But seeing so many of the merchant's unscrupulous behavior was enough to make her blood boil. After this issue had been settled, she was definitely going through the merchant laws and changing some things.

There was also another problem she hadn't foreseen. Whether it was the free countries or those subjugated states ruled over by Lanhua, they all held only a passing respect for her. It seemed the person they really feared and obeyed was the Fairy Emperor and, by proxy, his sons. When it came to the Queen Consort, they spoke flowery words to her face but behind her back didn't listen.

If she'd known this in advance, she'd have forged Jin's signature on everything! But she didn't and so mistakenly signed everything with her own name. How could people not notice the Emperor's conspicuous absence? She started getting inquiries about where he was during this crisis and even some thinly veiled accusations. Right now she was embroiled in several disputes from various high ranking officials about her authority over them.

Even Shu Fu Jing couldn't help. The reputation of the Immortal Emperor in the east was weak. Perhaps more accurately, he was small potatoes compared to Jin, the Fairy Emperor, and the entirety of Jianghu. If anyone heard of the Immortal Emperor, it was simply in passing and held no meaning to people in power or those in the streets.

Thus, Fu Jing couldn't use his reputation as the Immortal Emperor to get people to listen to him, and by proxy, the Queen. It ended up being the other way around for him. To get anyone to listen to him, he needed a strong backing. Currently that backing was Mei Hua, the Queen, who was getting subtly snubbed in some circles and outright viewed with suspicion in others. Because he lacked blue and gold eyes, telltale signs of being related to the Fairy Emperor, he might as well have been a commoner.

This left Mei Hua with using military force to get obedience. She wasn't opposed to doing so to get the subjugated states to listen, especially in a time of crisis, but it didn't help with the free countries. She didn't have a big enough military to force every common man to obey her orders, taking the prescribed medicine and doing the necessary precautions. Then there was also the issue of people even having medicine to buy, with shortages popping up all over the place. There were too many fires all at once and she couldn't deal with them all.

De Tongran lacked the popularity of his other siblings, but he was still the Emperor's son. Though it was extremely annoying to her, she couldn't deny that her sons held more authority and prestige abroad than she did. Though De Tongran didn't do any real governing, just showing up with his glowing blue glowing eyes was enough to get people to listen.

It was a small consolation to her that if anyone dared say to her son's face his Mother was doing something criminal to her own husband or they disrespected his Mother in front of him, he'd give them a good thrashing for it. He might be one of the weakest siblings, but he was still far stronger than the average person. And just like all her other sons, he was a staunch "momma's boy". He absolutely wouldn't tolerate people talking bad about her.

That, in it's own way, would help bolster her power outside the Lanhua borders.

———

A young man sat in front of a map. It wasn't a normal map made of wood or parchment. It was a tiny replica of Dalu and Jianghu. The replica was so accurate small clouds and thunderstorms could be seen slowly rolling over the land and the ocean had waves and creatures leaping out of it. Above this, as if lying on a flat invisible surface, were circular black, white, and red game pieces.

Above a long stretch of mountains that reached from the north to the south in Dalu, several pieces with the titled "King", "Queen", "Prince", "Advisor", and so on, could be seen. These were all red. There were red pieces similarly labeled on other portions of Dalu, but the ones on this stretch of mountains were noticeably larger and seemed to shine.

To the east of these miniature mountains were several different pieces. First were the small but numerous black pieces with the character "plague" written on them. There was a large black piece with a carved "horse" character on it currently resting above the southern peninsula of east Dalu. The large black horse piece was surrounded by the smaller plague pieces. Periodically a new plague piece would pop into existence.

There were three large red game pieces that said "Prince" on it in various places north of the horse piece. Along with them they had red "Soldier" pieces. Wherever the Prince and Soldier pieces were located, the black plague pieces would flip over, turning white with the character "health" written on them.

From the positioning, it was clear that the Prince pieces were winning. If things remained unchanged, the Prince pieces would continue moving south, eventually surrounding the Horse piece and wipe out the remaining black plague pieces. Possibly the Horse piece too.

The man had just finished watching a whole area of black plague pieces flip over and turn into white health pieces. Seeing this spectacle, he gave a light sigh of disappointment and muttered, "It was fun while it lasted."

He leaned back and rubbed his chin, eyes closed in contemplation. After a while he opened his eyes again and nodded several times to himself.

He reached out and tapped the black horse piece. His gentle voice could be heard speaking to the horse piece, "Task completed. Go to the west."

The black horse piece did nothing for several seconds and then vibrated. It slowly began to move, all on it's own, to the coast. There it got onto a tiny, detailed replica of a ship that began to move over tiny sparklingly waves, westward

Seeing this, the young man grinned widely in amusement.

———

Shu Fu Jing and Mei Hua were sitting for a relaxing cup of tea out in one of the many gardens in the Palace.

"— De Taihua and De Weishan are really good at terrorizing people." Fu Jing was saying matter-of-factly. "I admit I wasn't sure if it was wise to send them, but you were right. I don't think there's a merchant in the entire east Dalu who would dare scalp medicinal ingredients after what they did in Wei Yi City."

Mei Hua inhaled deeply, relishing the scent of tea, before taking a sip. "For once, I'm extremely thankful they are natural troublemakers. De Tongran just doesn't have that in him. He prefers talking to fighting. He will fight if he has to, as a last resort, but with how things were getting over there..."

Fu Jing nodded in understanding. "Some people only listen to force and won't respect someone who's too chatty."

"Mmm." She spun the cup in her hand. "I appreciate you reigning in my two boys though. If they'd continued like that, would Wei Yi City still be standing?"

Fu Jing coughed lightly, "It was the least I could do. Honestly, I wish I could do more—"

"Nonsense! Every little bit has helped." Waving her hand, she laughed. "I'm just immensely relieved this sickness is finally under contro—"

"Imperial Queen Consort!!"

They both turned in surprise. A man was running over so fast, his bound hair was so loose it was flopping against his head and he was wheezing heavily, his whole body soaked in sweat. He almost tripped over and fell flat on his face from not paying attention to where he was going.

Mei Hua immediately set her cup down and walked over to him, advising anxiously, "Calm down, deep breaths! There you go… alright, now tell me your message."

The young man was sweaty and pale. He looked up at this kind Queen Consort and felt extremely sorry for being the bearer of bad news.

"Senlin Country has openly declared war on Greater Peak Country."

"Eh?"

"They've completely taken over the southernmost tip of Greater Peak Country."

"So fast?!"

"They're now pushing their way north and— and—" His face puckered as if he'd eaten something extremely sour, "— they've already attacked and set fire to several of our towns along the southern border of Greater Peak Country."

"THEY DID WHAT?!" She grabbed the young man by the front of his sweaty wet robe and began shaking him, "How did this happen without the Palace knowing until just now?!"

Even though he was being violently shaken until he thought his head might fly off, the young man persevered.

"As soon as someone was available, they were sent, I swear!" He spoke between shakes, forgetting to be respectful, "The army made their attack look like forest fires! They must have known this year has been too dry and that we've been worrying about the forest catching fire accidently. The Senlin army set the surrounding forest on fire first and then attacked the towns! People on the other side of the fire were trying to keep it from spreading and people within the town were dealing with both the forest fire and a sudden army attack! As to why Greater Peak Country hasn't mentioned anything, I don't know!"

Mei Hua stopped shaking him, dropping him suddenly and stumbling from feeling overwhelmed.

This was her fault! She'd been so focused on what was going on in the east she'd neglected the west! Most of the army had been sent to the east to maintain order. Without Jin or her oldest sons, there was no way to instantly know when a forest fire broke out or, say, an army invaded. And Lanhua wasn't a small country, it was mountainous and it took time for any news to get back to the Palace.

She felt herself begin to physically tremble from regret. Her people, women and children and elderly, young and old lives, had died thanks to her short-sightedness. Whether it was dying by being burned alive or at the end of a soldier's sword, they had died horrifically. This was her fault, her fault—

"Mei Hua, calm down." Fu Jing had run to her side and grabbed her arm to prevent her from falling over. His grip wasn't gentle, but because it wasn't gentle, the pain forced her mind out of it's downward spiral. "It's not too late. Notify Lotus Valley Sect that you need them."

Not thinking clearly, she responded with, "They aren't fighters!"

"They're cultivators, ah," He said in mild exasperation, "even if they aren't trained fighters, would Dalu soldiers and weapons do anything to them? Even just standing there and getting in the enemy's way will be something. Plus, aren't they experts at arrays and medicine? They can set up defenses and help the hurting, at the very least! And you already called the Imperial Army back since things have stabilized in the east, your sons should be home shortly too. This act of unprovoked violence, you will make sure Senlin Country is going to regret it, right?"

As he spoke, her trembling stopped. Her breathing stabilized.

"That's… that's… right."

"And… What about Lady Shuya? Isn't it strange that she hasn't contacted you?"

Mei Hua blanked. Yes, where was she in all this?

"Shuya?"

There was a moment of silence.

"Shuya!"

A voice spoke in the air, sounding distinctly distracted, "Sorry, a bit busy right now. Got some fires I'm trying to put out. Get back to you soon."

Both Mei Hua and Fu Jing stood there with their mouths open in surprise.

So apparently Shuya had already known about the fires?!

Furious, Mei Hua almost shouted, "Shuya why didn't you tell me!!!"

There was a long moment of silence.

"SHUYA!"

A rather annoyed voice finally responded, "Hey, hey! Don't get short with me! Do you realize how many trees are yelling at me right now, do I need you to yell at me on top of everything else? Trees don't like fires, ok!? We panic when we're being burnt to a crisp, alright?! I'm up to the top of my leaves dealing with this, you think I've got time to think about anything else?! I— wait, yes, hold on, calm down over there, I hear you—"

Shuya's voice was suddenly cut off.

Mei Hua was frustrated enough she wanted to scream, but she took several deep breaths instead.

She'd been so busy lately she hadn't been doing her Blue Flower Tree cultivation nor her sword practice, only having enough time to do some basic martial arts. She hadn't been connected to the trees and hadn't heard the latest news from them. Truthfully, they didn't usually have anything interesting to say so she hadn't thought she was missing much… and Shuya being absense wasn't unusual...

Somewhat fearfully, she took a breath and let her spirit reach out to the trees. She was instantly blasted with an overwhelming amount of noise and images. Pictures of being surrounded by roaring flames, animals and people being burnt to death, flooded Mei Hua's mind. Voices were yelling at the same time: pain, help, thirsty thirsty thirsty, someone's hurt over here, put it out put it out, wind changed, prepare for—

She closed off the connection, her forehead drenched with sweat and feeling nauseous. It's no wonder Shuya didn't contact her. Unlike Mei Hua, Shuya couldn't turn the connection off. This was the one major flaw of the network system used by the trees. Shuya was likely only staying afloat in this mental chaos thanks to her extraordinary ability to multitask. If Mei Hua had to deal with it continually, she'd have likely lost her mind already.

Fu Jing, who still had Mei Hua's arm, looked at her in alarm. "What? What happened?"

"Just got a glimpse of what Shuya's been dealing with," She managed to explain, trying to calm herself. From the trees, there'd been a picture of a corpse that had looked suspiciously like a child. "The fire is still raging. Considering what they're dealing with, it really is amazing that anyone got out to tell us."

The young man, who was still sitting where he'd been dropped added: "The fires started yesterday afternoon. I'm one of the fastest Hare beasties in the area and I've been running all night to get here. I met up with another beastie, a crow, early this morning who was coming with the message about the attack… he was injured so I took both messages and left him with a doctor… my Village Chief tried to get someone here as fast as possible but the fire…" the Hare beastie drooped slightly, "...it's really strong and fast…"

Hearing this, Mei Hua finally stood up straight, her face now totally calm. Seeing she seemed to regain control of herself, Fu Jing let her go.

"I didn't mean to blame you," Mei Hua spoke kindly to the beastie. "I'm sure your folk did their best given the situation."

Getting praise and sympathy, the Hare beastie sniffled emotionally. Mei Hua pat him on his head and glanced at Fu Jin.

"Alright, I'll contact the Lotus Valley Sect. Fu Jing could you…?"

"I can leave immediately to deal with the invaders," Fu Jing offered.

"Mm— ah, take some Imperial Guard with you."

Fu Jing brow wrinkled.

"They're fast and can gather information on the army for you— saves a lot of running around."

He nodded his approval at the idea.

She hadn't even finished speaking when several Imperial Guardsmen arrived. One of them was

Wei Sheng, her blood-grandson.

"I was just talking about you." Mei Hua looked at them in surprise.

They all saluted politely to Mei Hua while Wei Sheng stepped forward. "Grandmother, we saw the messenger and overheard the conversation—"

Mei Hua raised her eyebrows. So they'd been secretly listening in on the conversation, huh? Well, spying was part of their job...

"—these are our fastest Imperial Guardsmen currently available. We can get down there and scope out the enemy and help Sir Shu Fu Jing as needed."

She waved her hand, saying "Well done." She turned to Fu Jing. "You can leave right now if you like."

"I'll make sure to be in contact with you." Shu Fu Jing bowed to her slightly saying 'I'll take my leave'. He and the Imperial Guards swiftly left.

Mei Hua stood there without moving for several seconds. Though her face showed no alarm, her hands were clenched tightly into fists.