Having shortlisted his candidates, Pei Mianman inspected them and picked out the best among them.
Both Fei Lian and Elai, a father and son duo, were outstanding. Fei Lian was a quick fighter, while Elai was bold and powerful. They were both unmatched on the battlefield.
Fei Zhong was a man of poor character, but he was an extremely crafty and sharp individual, and a rare talent.
Jiao Ge, a captive eastern barbarian, was good at business and accumulating wealth.
All these names were familiar to Zu An, and left a queasy feeling in his gut. He vaguely recalled that, besides Jiao Ge, they all seemed to be famously corrupt court officials in history. He didn’t expect that he would walk the same path as the actual King Di Xin.
Unfortunately he didn’t have a choice right now, since there was no one else he could rely on. He had to make use of any resources he had, even if he was drinking poisoned water to quench his thirst.
Fortunately, these individuals were competent enough. Under their management, the Shang State gradually strengthened its fragmented national power.
With that settled, Zu An and Pei Mianman turned their attention towards eradicating Western Zhou.
Unfortunately, a new disturbance arose within the court. Fei Zhong’s faction had risen in prestige because of their successes, and began to seize control over the court’s authority, causing Bi Gan and the rest of the old nobility to grow dissatisfied.
The older nobility rounded up many people who had either been abused or received bribes, and used them to accuse Fei Zhong’s faction of misconduct, even implying that the king was relying on scoundrels and riff-raff to govern.
This left Zu An with a huge headache. It was true that Fei Zhong’s faction had very loose morals. They weren’t men of good breeding either, and they were quick to abuse their newly-gained authority.
Of course, this didn’t mean that the noses of Bi Gan and the rest of the old nobility were completely clean either. Relying on their family backgrounds as backing, they had no need to stoop to such measures, and even when they did, they had their own ways of hiding their unsavory actions. The nobility had honed these methods over hundreds of years, and they were not something that Fei Zhong and his cohort could easily pick up.
In the past, Zu An might have chosen to slowly ease the enmity between the two factions, but he had little patience for that right now. His sole objective was to deal with Western Zhou and make it through this trial.
Even though Bi Gan and the rest of the nobles were more upright in terms of character, there was no way Zu An could rely on them. On the contrary, even though Fei Zhong’s faction wasn’t made up of the most morally upstanding bunch of people, they were much more loyal to him. He finally understood why so many incapable rulers like to have treacherous ministers around them…
Thus, he dealt with the old nobility swiftly and decisively, using Fei Zhong’s faction to slander Bi Gan. This was a specialty for those from the lower rungs of society.
Eventually, Bi Gan grew so angry that he resigned. Zu An was afraid that he might also seek asylum in Western Zhou, so he put him under house arrest instead, and ordered men to guard his residence. However, he couldn’t bring himself to kill someone as upright as him.
Because he was under house arrest, however, all sorts of false rumors began to spread. There was even a ridiculous theory that Daji was sick, and she wanted to use Bi Gan’s seven apertures to heal herself, which led to Bi Gan being killed by having his heart extracted.
Zu An was speechless. He sent people to look into the source of the rumors, but his investigations were fruitless. Things only went from bad to worse.
When imperial uncle Ji Zi heard about these vicious methods, he resigned from his post as well, worried that he would be next. He stayed home and played the fool.
Zu An obviously saw through his actions, but now that these people had left the imperial court, it became easier for him to do what he needed to do, which was why he didn’t force them to stay.
Finally, the new leader of Western Zhou, Ji Fa, called for a Great Assembly at Mengjin, purportedly involving eight hundred feudal princes, which was a hostile move against the Shang State.
Over the past century, Western Zhou had forged a terrifying alliance with other states. Many of the other vassal states had good relationships with Western Zhou, and were also dissatisfied with the Shang Dynasty’s rule. Many of these states took part in this assembly.
Of course, Ji Fa wasn’t stupid. He had realized that the Shang Dynasty had grown in strength recently, and was no longer a hundred percent sure that he would emerge victorious. As such, he didn’t declare war immediately. Instead, he bided his time, waiting for a good opportunity to present itself.
Zu An couldn’t care less about those eight hundred-or-whatever feudal princes who took part in the assembly. He knew that, ultimately, his enemy was Western Zhou. As long as he defeated them, the most powerful of the vassal states, the other vassal states would naturally surrender.
Both sides continued to prepare for the decisive battle.
After some time had passed, the Eastern Barbarians suddenly launched a great invasion of the Shang Dynasty.
The Shang Dynasty has always been besieged by enemies from all sides. There was the Qiang Faction to the northwest, the Ghost Faction to the north, the Eastern Barbarians to the east, the people of the River Yi to the southeast, the Ba Faction to the southwest…
Those of later generations might have viewed this period of endless war as the beginning of the unification of China, but for those who lived during these times, it was a brutal and trying time.
The Eastern Barbarians were always one of the Shang Dynasty’s most tenacious enemies. They had been defeated several times throughout the past few centuries, but could never be fully subdued.
Zu An even spent a lot of effort trying to improve the relationships between the two peoples and form an alliance, but it unfortunately fell through.
The entire court, both the civilian and military leaders, all suggested going to war with the Eastern Barbarians. Zu An did not refuse this request, and allowed the general Fei Lian to lead the bulk of the Shang army in an attack on the Eastern Barbarians.
Ji Fa, who had been waiting for an opportunity all this time, was elated. He mobilized all of his state’s forces and marched east to attack the Shang Dynasty’s capital.
The capital was left mostly unguarded, since their main forces were off to the east. Caught unprepared, Zu An had no choice but to put together a slave army, promising them their freedom after the battle.
Taking Elai and Fei Zhong with him under the royal banner, they met the approaching Zhou army at Muye.
Seeing this ragtag slave army, Ji Fa sensed victory within his grasp. He spread his own forces out, preparing to encircle the Shang army and wipe them out.
However, at the crucial moment, the situation suddenly changed. Fei Jian suddenly appeared at the head of the main Shang army and surrounded the Western Zhou forces.
Ji Fa was shocked. After all, his intelligence reports all stated that this army was supposed to be off dealing with the Eastern Barbarians.
Zu An sneered. He knew from the very start that the Eastern Barbarians were never the real threat, and that Western Zhou was his greatest enemy.
That was why he openly sent his great general east, but secretly ordered Fei Lian to double back with the army.
After this initial alarm, Ji Fa calmed himself quickly, and demanded with a cold voice, “What are all of you waiting for?”
As soon as he spoke, chaos erupted within the Shang army. The forces being led by Weizi suddenly turned around and began to attack the army under the command of Zu An.
Yet another armed force rushed out as well. These were the forces led by Shang Rong, who had been hiding in the Taihang Mountains.
These sudden developments tipped the scales slightly in Western Zhou’s favor.
Zu An sighed. “I’ve already predicted all of this.”
Weizi was someone who had barely missed his chance at the throne. It was inevitable that Zu An would set up precautions against him.
With a wave of his banner of command, Pei Mianman charged out, leading her own army.
No one in this world expected the charming Daji to be so ferocious. Of course, there was no way they could know that she was the Shang Dynasty’s war goddess, Fu Hao.
As he saw the battle slowly swinging in his favor, Zu An sensed a bad premonition. Ji Fa seemed far too calm. Does he still have another card hidden up his sleeve?
He had always had a nagging feeling that he had overlooked something. He closed his eyes, completely ignoring the slaughter taking place, and began to go over every single detail in his mind. He suddenly recalled the murals he had seen in the upper tomb, and remembered the things Mi Li had told him.
He turned towards the nearby crown prince. He saw him slowly raise his hand, as though he was about to give a hand signal.
“Wu Geng,” Zu An said, “let’s talk.”
Wu Geng was stunned by this sudden remark, and seemed rather uncertain. However, he still urged his horse over to Zu An and bowed respectfully. “What orders do you have for me, father?”
Zu An waved his hands, gesturing for those around them to leave them alone. Then, he sighed. “I’m sure both of us know that we aren’t really father and son. Why is there a need to put on this facade?”
Wu Geng’s expression flickered. “Respectfully, I do not know what you mean.”
Zu An looked at the intense battlefield around them and said calmly, “Weren’t you about to order your soldiers to rebel just now?”
Wu Geng grew silent, offering no reply.
Zu An looked at him. “Should I call you the traitor of the Shang Dynasty, or the creator of this trial?”Previous Chapter Next Chapter