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Translator: Henyee Translations Editor: Henyee Translations
For the first day of the contest, the Dragon King was to compete with Prince Duodun over who was more popular among the soldiers.
Shulitu had brought 90,000 or so horsemen with him. This meant that there were 50,000 horsemen of the Court Attendants Army that had been left at the site of the Royal Court to guard the Khan’s tomb until next summer.
Shulitu had spent great effort in choosing the location of the camp, ultimately deciding to settle down about thirty miles to the north of the midpoint between Heaven’s Pass and the capital city of the Xiaowan Kingdom. This meant that it was about a day’s travel on a fast horse for both allying members.
The two competitors demonstrated their different approaches from the very beginning. Gu Shenwei had only brought two hundred guards with him while Duodun had brought three thousand of his best horsemen. When the two sides met outside the camp, the ostentatious and extravagant side was immediately obvious.
Duodun greeted the Dragon King warmly, and then the two expressed their concerns for each other. From the viewpoint of an innocent bystander, they would have believed that the two were best friends and that their alliance was unbreakable.
“Is this the little king, Shulitu?” Duodun curiously pointed at the small figure at the gate of the camp. According to the order of seniority in the family, Shulitu should have been regarded as his grandson, but the two had never met each other.
“Yes.” Gu Shenwei jumped off of his horse and handed the reins to Long Fanyun.
Duodun hesitated briefly. According to the traditions of the Norland, riding into a camp on a horse wasn’t rude. Regardless, he quickly decided to jump off of his horse as well and hastily walked forward to catch up with the Dragon King. Stepping on the withered weeds, he moved forward side by side with the Dragon King toward the camp that was destined to belong to him.
Shulitu was dressed in a full suit of armor which didn’t fit him very well, and the physical awkwardness belied his thoughts. As he looked at the two men who would decide his fate, the only thing he could think of was that they were really tall. Even the Dragon King he was familiar with seemed to be much taller.
As the two grown-ups, one cold and the other passionate, walked closer, Shulitu subconsciously wanted to retreat. However, he tried to control his body, smiled, and tried to repeat what he had gone over many times in his mind. Between the Dragon King and Prince Duodun, it seemed inappropriate no matter which one he greeted first. And should he greet them with “Your Highnesses” or “Your Honorable Kings?”
Things didn’t go as Shulitu thought they would. Before he could even say anything, Duodun had picked him up and exclaimed in a loud voice, “The victor of the dispute among the kings, the new king who rose during the scuffle of the Royal Court. Haha, you are a worthy great-grandson of the Khan.”
A bit flustered, Shulitu struggled, but wasn’t able to break free of Duodun’s grasp. The heavy armor that he could barely put on seemed to be as light as a feather in Duodun’s arms. “Your Highness, please…”
Duodun turned around and faced the three thousand horsemen he had brought with him, and shouted in an even louder voice, “Hail to the new king!”
The whistling of men, neighing of horses, and crack of whips thundered out like a sudden prairie thunderstorm. To the horsemen inside and outside the camp, however, this was a very familiar sound. So they all joined it and the ‘storm’ grew even more violent.
Duodun put him down and then grabbed his left hand as if he were leading a pony, and then walked into the camp together with him, to the cheers of the soldiers and generals.
Shulitu lurched along with his other hand holding onto his helmet. The confidence he had taken great pains to build up had completely disappeared. He seemed to have returned to those old days when his grandpa, the old King Riying, had put him on horseback and forced him to ride it as proof that he was a true descendant of the Khan.
The Dragon King was completely ignored. He walked through the crowd like a ghost. Numerous eyes passed by him in their eager search for the figure of Prince Duodun.
From the first step and through his walk through the camp, Duodun had usurped the host’s role. Gu Shenwei directly walked to his own tent. From time to time, he could still hear the outside cheers sound out.
The counselor was waiting for him in the tent.
Fang Wenshi seemed to be fattening up at an unstoppable rate. Gu Shenwei could barely remember the thin scholar he had seen at their first meeting.
“Listen, Duodun’s really something.” Fang Wenshi went straight to the point without any greetings, even though they hadn’t seen each other for nearly two months.
“He’s good at it.”
“Let me guess. Most of the cheers came from the soldiers of the kings rather than the Court Attendants Army.”
“You should go out and look yourself.”
Fang Wenshi shook his head and said, “There’s no need. I’ve seen enough of it. Liman and Azheba won many supporters over for Duodun. After the two left, the supporters continued their efforts to win over even more people, and a considerable number of soldiers have already accepted Duodun as the new Khan. Only the Court Attendants Army is picky and refuses to decide until they see him.”
“It seems that Duodun has gained the upper hand.”
“Not really.” Fang Wenshi was happy to have a chance to refute the Dragon King as he said, “Liman and Azheba have inadvertently helped the Dragon King a great deal.”
“The two are relatively simple-minded. They are dead set on having the Dragon King and Duodun enter an alliance and thus had also said the same things about you when they courted the supporters — part of the cheers outside are also for the Dragon King.”
“I didn’t recognize any cheers for me.”
“Hehe, the soldiers call you the ‘Faceless Man’ or ‘Ice King’ in private. Who would dare show too much enthusiasm in front of you? So while some of the support can’t be seen on the surface, I’m sure that the cheers would not have been as loud if Duodun had walked into the camp alone.”
“Looks like Duodun and I are going to tie this round.”
“What does the Dragon King think of this man?”
“He will strike first.”
Fang Wenshi understood what he meant. In fact, he had been making all his plans based on this premise. “The Court Attendants Army is an obstacle that Duodun can’t get past. These soldiers’ hands are stained with the blood of the Khan’s family and they have doubts about all the princes and fear retaliation. Duodun’s supporters can’t change the army’s viewpoint, and he has to rely on himself.”
“What about our plan?”
“Duodun likes to strike first, so just wait for him to make a move. If he can pull back before it’s too late, that’d be for the best and the alliance can continue as stated. The Dragon King will receive the Western Regions while Duodun takes the Norland. If he holds onto his present misguided course and crosses the line by accident, then it will be our turn to make a move.”
“Is this line the Court Attendants Army?”
Fang Wenshi revealed a smile. For a long time, the Dragon King had been at the front while he had been the one who followed behind while weaving endless conspiracies, which was quite a blow to him as a counselor. Now, he had finally found a chance to get a head start and, therefore, was quite proud. “It’s not only the Court Attendants Army. There are two more lines we can’t cross. The first line is King Shengri, one of the two old kings of the ten kings, and who is a prisoner at the moment. The Court Attendants Army hates and guards against him, but the soldiers of the kings pity him. The second line is Shulitu, who led the Court Attendants to discover the tomb of the Khan and is therefore widely respected. He’s one of the biggest obstacles to Duodun’s claim to the Khanate.”
Gu Shenwei thought for a long while and finally agreed to the counselor’s strategy. “Duodun will cross one of those lines. He won’t share power with anyone. But we have to be careful in case he lays his hands on me before crossing a line.”
“The Dragon King can rest assured. You also have many loyal supporters who happen to live nearby, and they will keep you safe.”
Outside the tent, Long Fanyun reported that the banquet was about to begin.
Following the tradition of the Norland, the banquet was held on a grand scale. More than two hundred people attended the banquet, making the main tent so crowded that the servants could only walk sideways.
Shulitu sat on the seat of honor with the Dragon King on his left and Duodun on his right.
The little king soon lost control of the banquet’s flow. Duodun, who was older than him and also higher up on the family hierarchy than him, had a majestic bearing and knew all of the table manners of the Norland people at the wine-table. In the beginning, he had helped Shulitu avoid drinking wine by drinking all of it himself. But soon, he became the sole focus of the tent, with all the generals taking turns to toast him and some young officers even kneeling to salute.
Gu Shenwei wasn’t good at drinking, and soon became an audience of the banquet, like Shulitu.
Shulitu leaned to the Dragon King and whispered, “I’m really worried about whether the soldiers would still be willing to fight if one day there’s no more wine.”
“Every place has its own customs. The Western Regions people like money while the Central Plains people fear the officials.”
“Hehe, it seems that I should rest satisfied that no one has asked me for money yet.”
Shulitu had changed a little. He was calmer and more easygoing than before. This twelve-year-old kid would have had a more kingly demeanor had it not been that Duodun’s image was too conspicuous.
After the drinking had reached the third round, Duodun decided to cross the first line, which was sooner than Gu Shenwei and Fang Wenshi had expected.
King Shengri, who was sitting in a corner, was still technically one of the kings, but he had no soldiers under him now. He had been captured by the little king, who was his grandson according to their positions in the family hierarchy, and had completely lost all his face. No one had proposed a toast to him, and he also hadn’t stood up so far; his eyes were even more indifferent than the Dragon King’s.
Duodun went to King Shengri. When the crowd realized his target, they quieted down one by one. Soon, the noisy tent became dead silent.
“Your Highness, I’m here to propose a toast to you.”
King Shengri looked up at his estranged brother in surprise. He didn’t remember anything about Duodun except for those childhood antics. “You are Duodun?”
The irony of King Shengri’s words would have been better had it not been for a slight tremor in his voice.
Duodun nodded with a smile. “I’m also the Khan’s son, your younger brother.”
King Shengri stood up with his wine bowl and said, “The Khan sowed so many seeds. I’ve heard many people called you ‘Your Highness.’ When did you become a king?”
King Shengri showed rare courage, which made many people both admire and worry about this old king.
“The moment the Khan ascended to heaven,” Duodun replied calmly. “When the kings began to scuffle even while the Khan’s remains were not yet cold, I, like many other descendants of the Khan, became a king.”
“Heh, so there are many kings on the prairie. Big and small, old and young, numbering even more than the birds I have.”
“Haha,” Duodun laughed out loud. “This is exactly the advantage of the Khan’s family, and also the tradition of the Norland. The more kings there are, the more outstanding the person who inherits the Khanate in the end.”
“You want to be the Khan?”
“I’d like to be a stepping stone for the new Khan. As long as the Norland can produce a great ruler, I could die a thousand deaths without regret.”
“Humph, it turns out that the kings who died in the Royal Court are all stepping stones too then.”
“Exactly. They made their due contribution to the prairie. No matter which descendant of the Khan inherits the throne, he won’t forget them. That’s why I’m here to propose a toast to you.”
King Shengri blushed, and for a moment, he even wanted to smash his bowl at his unworthy younger brother and denounce him in public.
But after Duodun whispered a few words into his ears, King Shengri’s face changed. He finished the wine in his bowl, sat down again without a word, and remained quite absentminded for the rest of the banquet.
Gu Shenwei and Fang Wenshi, who was sitting not far away, exchanged glances and confirmed that they both had the same idea: Duodun had skilfully and safely crossed the line that was King Shengri.
On that night, King Shengri hung himself in his tent. Gu Shenwei really wanted to know what Duodun had said to him.
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