Volume 1, Chapter 29: A Matter of Life and Death1
I watched Xiaoshunzi gather our belongings. My mind was blank. I would regain my freedom tomorrow. But there was nothing that could be done to make me happy. It was a long time before I could steel my heart. There was no reason for me to spend my time worrying about someone who had decided to kill me with the poison of a Soul Enrapturing Pill. At this moment, a servant came to report that Guan Xiu, Dong Zhi, and Gou Lian had come to see me. Their arrival denoted the final, last effort. I grew warm. Regardless of what was going to happen, they were all good men. Since after today, there wouldn’t ever be an opportunity to sit and drink with them, there was no harm in drinking through the night. I smiled and ordered the servant to invite them to come in.
Guan Xiu and company were all intelligent. After chatting for a few moments, they realized that I had made my decision and ceased efforts to change my mind. We talked to our hearts’ content through the night. As the morning arrived, I looked at the approaching dawn outside the window. With a smile, I stated, “All good things must come to an end.2 After we part today, when we meet again, I’m afraid that we will have become strangers.”
Distressed, Gou Lian replied, “Since Suiyun knows this, why are you entering service with the Prince of Qi?”
I smiled slightly before responding, “His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, is reckless, impulsive, and candid. I am only planning on idling in his service. After a period of time, I plan on leaving Chang’an. When that time comes, we will be friends and not enemies. There is no need for you gentlemen to be overly anxious.”
In a low voice, Dong Zhi said, “The only fear is that His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, is unwilling to allow Sir to leave.”
I only tranquilly remarked, “Gentlemen, please go back. I will leave the Prince of Yong’s residence today. His Imperial Highness has already stated that he plans to see me off. Suiyun cannot possibly go meet His Imperial Highness like this. I must bathe and change my clothes, before I can go bid farewell to His Imperial Highness.”
Rising to his feet, Guan Xiu said, “Since that is the case, we won’t disturb Suiyun any further. We won’t participate when the Prince throws your send-off banquet so that we can avoid the grief and sorrow of parting. Those feeling overwhelming sadness forget that it’s nothing more than bidding farewell.”
After seeing these three advisers off, I walked into a rear room. This room was the designated room for bathing. Within the room was a pool five zhang wide. The entire floor of the pool was covered with limestone. The water intake valve was at the center of the bath. Above it was the water outtake valve in the shape of a lotus. Underneath the limestone floor were copper pipes, drawing and heating the clear spring water from the gardens. After pressing the mechanism to allow the water to enter, the clear spring water would spray forth in all directions from the lotus. After I entered, Xiaoshunzi was letting water into the pool. The entire room grew foggy, the splashing water like pearls and jade. I smiled slightly. Every single time I entered the room, I thought that the imperial clan certainly knew how to enjoy themselves.
After undressing, I stepped into the pool, openly and unrestrainedly enjoying the hot water bath. With a smile, I called, “Xiaoshunzi, tell me, can I build a similar pool in the future?”
Xiaoshunzi did not answer me. Feeling odd, I turned my head and took a look, seeing that his mind was wandering. Feeling strange, I shook my head. However, I did not rouse him from his reverie. He would never hide his feelings or worries from me. I believed that he would soon have something to say to me.
After I had finished bathing, I put on the clothes that Xiaoshunzi had prepared for me. I had given special instructions that the interior undergarments and the exterior scholarly garb had to be snow white. Just as I was dressing conscientiously, Xiaoshunzi suddenly appeared and kneeled on the ground before me. In a voice filled with sorrow, he stated, “Young master, please stop making things so difficult for yourself.”
I stared blankly at him for a moment, my hands that were just about to take the proffered robes stopping in midair. Unsure, I asked, “Xiaoshunzi, what are you saying?”
Xiaoshunzi replied, “Xiaoshunzi knows that young master is wholeheartedly determined to avenge your wife. May I ask young master if we were to take vengeance for the lady, what stratagems could be employed?”
I looked at him and softly said, “We are in the same boat.3 I won’t conceal anything from you. As soon as I learned the identity of main culprit, I had devised three plans—upper, middle, and low.”
Xiaoshunzi asked, “May I ask young master’s low plan?”
I took the proffered robes from his hands. In an unhurried voice, I responded, “The low plan is the most difficult. After I extricate myself from the Yong capital, I will go into hiding and wait for the opportune moment. It is said that there will always be something neglected by a wise person’s overthinking. As long as we wait carefully, there will eventually be an opportunity to assassinate Li An. Even if we can’t assassinate him, we will be able to cause huge damage from that moment’s negligence.4 I can wander the world, cultivating and training forces that are dissatisfied with Li An. Presently, the Hanzhong region has not yet wholeheartedly submitted and soon, Southern Chu will be reestablished. Borrowing the entire world’s strength and with the Prince of Yong eyeing covetously on the side, I will one day take revenge. It is only that killing a country’s heir apparent is not a small matter. After we have succeeded, I will have to scatter my subordinates and wealth, and from that moment forward, travel the world. In addition, even if we are the slightest bit inattentive, our fate will be of defeat and death.”
In a low voice, Xiaoshunzi continued to ask, “May I ask young master’s middle plan?”
I draped the robes over my shoulders and quietly replied, “The middle plan is somewhat better. Crown Prince Li An’s biggest supporter is the Prince of Qi. Although the Prince of Qi is impulsive and reckless, that is only his outer appearance. In reality, he is an outstanding talent of the present age. If the Prince of Yong did not exist, then the Prince of Qi would be a good choice to inherit the throne. I will pledge my allegiance to the Prince of Qi, strategize for him, inciting discord between brothers. At the right moment, have him instigate internal strife. Whether this benefits the Prince of Yong or the Prince of Qi, I will break Li An and kill him. Even if we were unable to achieve this objective, we would incite a civil war in Great Yong, avenging both state and personal grievances.”
Xiaoshunzi moved forward on his knees and asked, “May I ask young master’s upper plan?”
I fastened my robes. With a smile, I responded, “This upper plan is the fairest and most aboveboard. I pledge allegiance to the Prince of Yong and borrow his strength to attack.5 When the time comes, I will have the Prince of Yong murder his older brother and force his father to yield the throne. Not only will I have taken revenge, the world will also have received a wise and virtuous ruler. With unification, the dawn of a new era will be at hand. Not only will I, Jiang Zhe, be famous in the annals of history, after success, I will be able to either retire and become a recluse, or enjoy riches and honor. This is the upper plan.”
In a grave and serious voice, Xiaoshunzi said, “Young master, over the last several years, Xiaoshunzi has always been attending by your side. How can Xiaoshunzi not understand young master’s thoughts? Young master clearly knows that pledging allegiance to the Prince of Yong is the best course of action. Why have you been so stubborn? Young master’s personal enemy is also the enemy of the Prince of Yong. As long as young master enters into the service of the Prince of Yong, the moment that the Prince of Yong ascends to the throne is the moment that young master’s vengeance is realized. From beginning to end, young master has refused to pledge your allegiances to the Prince of Yong, and even repeatedly and deliberately instigated provocations, forcing the Prince of Yong to come to decision to kill young master. In reality, as long as young master submits to the Prince of Yong and takes revenge, young master will be able to become a recluse and live out your remaining years in peace. There is absolutely no need to take such risks. Although young master’s medical expertise is extraordinary, you may not be able to save yourself from the poisons secretly stored away by Great Yong’s imperial clan. If by chance, young master suffers misfortune, what then? Even if Xiaoshunzi were capable of killing the Prince of Yong, what use is that?”
I distantly replied, “How can I not understand these things? But through the entirety of my life, while I have been willing to use any available tools to confront my enemy, I have never arbitrarily schemed against those I am close with. The Prince of Yong is an unrivaled wise liege of this era. He trusts Suiyun completely. How much thought has he put in to acquire Suiyun’s services? Over a long journey of a thousand li, he has given me his clothes, his food. Suiyun does not have a heart of stone. How can I not be moved? But I have been graced by the favor of the King of Southern Chu formerly, and have incurred grievances with Great Yong latterly. There are already many misunderstandings present.
“Let alone the fact if I were to submit, I must wholeheartedly and sincerely consider His Imperial Highness. Without my planning, His Imperial Highness might not necessarily lose. Although the resulting conflict will be bitter and desperate, his reputation will remain faultless. But if I were to submit, Suiyun is only an ordinary person, and won’t be able to stop myself from resolving my personal grievances. Because of that, I would have harmed the righteousness of the cause. If I were to be completely impartial, how would I be able to face Piaoxiang’s spirit in the underworld? Thinking it over, since I am unwilling to mar His Imperial Highness’s reputation in the annals of history, and am unwilling to forsake my wife, Piaoxiang, because of my conscience, I can only make things difficult for myself. As for the middle plan, although I will not injure my resolution, it will inevitably cause the Prince of Yong to be badly hurt. I already feel guilt and shame in my heart because I cannot serve this kind of wise and virtuous liege. How can I bear to harm him? That is why I have adopted the low plan.”
Xiaoshunzi inquired, still filled with questions, “Young master is unwilling to serve the Prince of Yong, and yet considers the Prince’s needs. But is there a need to force the Prince of Yong to kill young master? If you were to fake your agreement, after some time, it wouldn’t be difficult to escape from Chang’an.
I smiled and explained, “I may have been careless in the way I have handled small, unimportant matters, but in matters this important, I am unwilling to lie and deceive. I did not lie or deceive back then, when I refused to serve the Prince of De. As I have the decision to not serve the Prince of Yong, I will not lie and deceive him into thinking otherwise. Moreover, if I did not force the Prince of Yong to kill me, how would I be able to completely serve the Prince of Yong’s inclination to recruit me? Xiaoshunzi, you must remember, faking my death today does have some degree of danger. But if I were to suffer misfortune, you must remember not to take revenge for me and harm the Prince of Yong. The Prince of Yong did not make any mistakes. A hegemon must not be softhearted. I only ask that you remember to one day kill Li An on my behalf. After that, bring my dead body back to Southern Chu to be buried alongside Piaoxiang. Do you promise me?”
Xiaoshunzi lowered his head to the ground. It was some time before he was able to speak, weeping, “How can this servant not listen to young master’s orders? If misfortune befalls young master, after I have killed Li An, I will return to Southern Chu and spend the rest of my life guarding young master’s grave.”
I quietly replied, “Many thanks to you. Actually, my chances of success are quite high. There is no need for you to feel bad. After we have overcome this obstacle, there will be nothing in this world that can fetter me. You can be assured that even for the sake of vengeance, I will not sacrifice myself.”
Xiaoshunzi fell silent and had no more words. I knew that he didn’t believe me. I was speaking the truth, though. I had never become crazy or frantic for the sake of vengeance.
Within his study, Li Zhi silently gazed at the silver pot on his desk. Shi Yu stood in front of the table. Deeply worried and sick at heart, he said, “Why does Your Imperial Highness not use Great Yong’s secretly stored Mandarin Duck Pot and use this Concealed Sharpness Pot instead?”
Li Zhi softly replied, “Although the Mandarin Duck Pot secretly manufactured by the previous dynasty is reliable, Jiang Zhe is knowledgeable of the histories and adept at identification. He may recognize the Mandarin Duck Pot. This Concealed Sharpness Pot was delivered by this Prince’s subordinates in Southern Chu. It has an elaborate mechanism. There will absolutely be no loopholes. It is better to use this pot. The Soul Enrapturing Pill will not change the silver color of the pot.6 Jiang Zhe won’t be able to detect anything.”
Shi Yu had followed Li Zhi for many years. He could clearly detect the sorrow in Li Zhi’s heart. He could not but blurt out, “Your Imperial Highness, just now, Guan Xiu and others came to report that Jiang Suiyun has stated that he will not serve the Prince of Qi for long. If Your Imperial Highness cannot bear to do this, then there is no harm in letting him off.”
Apathetically, Li Zhi inquired, “Is this what you really think?”
Shi Yu wanted to say something, but hesitated. Eventually, he said, “This is all this subordinate’s mistakes, encouraging Your Imperial Highness to seek out talented individuals. But right now, Your Imperial Highness can neither pacify Southern Chu nor obtain a talented individual. This is all this subordinate’s doing. But if we do not kill that person, I’m afraid that this subordinate will never be able to be at peace.”
Li Zhi slightly sneered as he scoffed, “This has nothing to do with you. This Prince was too self-confident, believing that all of the world’s talents would willingly serve us. Let’s be done with it and give Jiang Zhe a farewell dinner in the front reception hall. Pity this exceptional and gifted scholar, from henceforth buried forever in the earth. This is this Prince’s sin and his misfortune.”
Not far from the residence of the Prince of Yong, a luxurious carriage waited peacefully. Within, Li Xian’s face was lit up with delight. Opposite him sat his consort, Qin Zheng. Today, she did not cross-dress, instead wearing a moon-white dress. She was an outstanding beauty. Callously, she griped, “It’s only that Hanlin Academic, Jiang Zhe. Why does Your Imperial Highness regard him so highly?”
A faint look of ridicule flashed across Li Xian’s face before he replied in a cordial manner, “That year, Zheng’er, your tongue was as sharp as a blade and was still unable to persuade the Prince of De. But this person only had to speak a few words to convince Zhao Jue. Reportedly, this man accompanied Zhao Jue to conquer Shu. I closely studied the plan Zhao Jue used to conquer Shu. He did not employ his usual style. It can be clearly seen that this Jiang Zhe is quite talented. Furthermore, I have loved this man’s elegant manner for quite some time. Even second brother attaches great importance to him. What’s inappropriate about me treating him thus? Not that I’m criticizing you, although Zheng’er, you are a talented woman of this era with family background, appearance, and talent all superior, your sole flaw is your temperament that lacks humility and tolerance. It’s not surprising as you are proud woman of the Heavens. However, this Prince will state this clearly: if you offend Sir Jiang, don’t blame this Prince for being ruthless.”
A scowl appeared on Qin Zheng’s face. Back then, she had received orders to approach the Prince of Qi. This Prince of Qi was an elegant young man, and also had a loose and casual character, quickly gaining Qin Zheng’s love. In Southern Chu, she had fallen into the Prince of Qi’s trap because of jealousy. After a night’s romance, she had become the Prince of Qi’s fiancée. But from then on, the Prince of Qi reverted to his old ways, not only visiting prostitutes, but also engaging in falconry and hunting. Towards her, he seemed be keeping his distance, at times as sweet as honey, other times as cold as ice. Before she had even been wed and entered the prince’s household, there were already three or four children born of concubines. She could only blame herself for being infatuated and head over heels in love,7 and could not extricate herself. It was only until they were wed by imperial decree that she realized the truth. Although Li Xian seemed to respect her greatly, she was confined to the inner courtyard of the prince’s residence, while he lived shamelessly. She had even complained tearfully to her master and her father, but they all explained it away as the prince’s dissolute character, stating that she could only scrupulously abide by the womanly virtues, and apply gentle and tender fetters. Without any other choice, she could only turn a blind eye. But today, the Prince of Qi only intensified the aggravation, unexpectedly bringing her along to bow her head to a Southern Chu captive. Ultimately, after thinking it over, she was unwilling to fall out with the Prince of Qi. She could only endure and reply, “Your servant will do as you bid.”
Li Xian smiled unsympathetically. He understood this intelligent woman very well. She was proud and arrogant, and lacked tenderness. As a result, he did not make any excessive attempts to persuade her. However, he knew that Qin Zheng would not violate his commands. Seeing that it was approaching the stipulated time, Li Xian said, “All right, let’s go to the Prince of Yong’s residence.”
The front reception hall of the prince’s residence stood out, as it was not splendid and majestic like the typical halls in a prince’s residence. Instead, it was expansive and long, solemn and dignified. Today, Li Zhi was also dressed in plain, unadorned clothes. His heart was in mourning. Seeing Jiang Zhe, he froze, staring blankly. Jiang Zhe was also wearing plain, unadorned clothes, taking advantage of his delicate and scholarly demeanor. Combined with a slightly wan and sallow appearance, Jiang Zhe’s clothes only served to manifest his natural and poised bearing.
A burst of regret and pity filling his heart, Li Zhi’s gaze fell upon Shi Yu. Because they were going to poison Jiang Zhe to death today, he had only brought along Shi Yu to see Jiang Zhe off. Shi Yu’s eyes were icy, as he shook his head slightly. No longer hesitating, Li Zhi stated, “Today, we are here to see Sir off. Knowing that Sir possesses a noble and moral character, therefore there is only a cup of fine wine to see you off. Sir must not decline.” So saying, Shi Yu carried over a black wooden tray. On top was placed the Concealed Sharpness Pot and two silver cups.
When my eyes caught sight of the Concealed Sharpness Pot, I could not help but smile in spite of myself. I had personally designed this Concealed Sharpness Pot, selling it through the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. In order to obtain a high price, only three had been manufactured. Every pot cost a thousand taels of gold. Who would have thought that I would run into my design here? The bottom of the pot was double-layered, large enough to hold an entire cup of poison. If one wanted to use this pot to harm someone, they only needed to fill the bottom of the pot with poison. When pouring the wine, one only needed to press the lotus engraving on the handle of the pot, and the poison at the bottom of the pot would flow along a hidden path to reach the spout. No one would be able to realize that poison was being used in this manner, not revealing a single thing even after killing hundreds or thousands of people. Of course, the poison cannot cause the silver pot to change color. This would prevent just any person from using the Concealed Sharpness Pot to harm people and would prevent the drinker from becoming suspicious. Unexpectedly, this Concealed Sharpness Pot was being used on my own self. Could this be considered as reaping what you sow?
Li Zhi picked up the pot and first poured a cup of poisoned wine before moving his thumb and pouring a cup of clean wine for himself. Replacing the pot on the tray, he picked up his own cup. With a forced smile, he stated, “Sir, please drink the entirety of this cup. From now on, I hope that Sir achieves meteoric success in your career.”
I picked up my cup of poisoned wine. I thought to myself, If I were to shed my blood, sweat, and tears for this man then I’m afraid that at the end, I probably would only receive this cup of poisoned wine. I gazed in the Prince of Yong’s direction, seeing his forced smile. I smiled unenthusiastically. Thinking of this person’s previous favor and generosity, I could not help but say, “With Your Imperial Highness’s renown, you should not be bothered by these trivial matters. From today onward, Your Imperial Highness need only train your troops externally and cultivate benevolent governance internally. Even though the Crown Prince will be afraid of you, he will not dare to lightly provoke Your Imperial Highness. As for other matters, there will be talented individuals who will advise Your Imperial Highness. Today, Zhe takes leave of Your Imperial Highness, and after today, no one knows when we shall meet again. I hope that Your Imperial Highness can soon unify the world, giving the world peace, and the common people happiness and peace. Even though Suiyun will be far away in the jianghu, I will pray that the Heavens bless Your Imperial Highness.”
These words that I had spoken came from the bottom of my heart. I really did not blame him. He wanted to kill me because I had pressed so harshly. Real dragons had scales that could not be touched, lines that could not be crossed. Thinking that I would never meet him again after today, I could not help say a few words that expressed my true feelings. I raised the cup. I could tell that there was poison in the wine. The “Subdue Ten Thousand Poisons Pill” that I had taken was also extremely poisonous, but it was capable of protecting the arteries and veins of my heart, and preserving my life. Tonight was the perfect opportunity to fake my death. I raised the cup and prepared to down the poisoned wine.
From the moment that I had taken the wine cup, Li Zhi’s heart was extremely disturbed and restless. He had never done this kind of thing, murdering a talented individual. Inevitably, he felt shame. Now hearing Jiang Zhe speak from the heart, his right hand, which had the power to determine life or death, unexpectedly began to tremble. Seeing Jiang Zhe preparing to drink the poisoned wine, his mind began to repeatedly roil over. Suddenly, he reached out with his hand and stopped the wine cup from touching Jiang Zhe’s lips.
I looked with confusion at Li Zhi’s hand that covered the wine cup. I looked at his pale white complexion, my heart chaotic. Although in the beginning, Li Zhi was only momentarily impulsive, he quickly calmed down. He took away the wine cup and softly said, “Although Sir is only a scholar, your vision and spirit is comparable to that of a warrior on the field of battle. We should use large cups, not these kinds of small silver cups. Someone come, bring my golden helmet.”
It wasn’t long before a servant waiting on Li Zhi brought the golden helmet from the armor set bestowed by the emperor. This time, Li Zhi did not employ the secret mechanism on the pot. Opening the lid, he poured the entire contents into the golden helmet. Holding it with both hands, he proclaimed, “Jiang Zhe, although you are gifted scholar from the opulence of Southern Chu, you have a will and characteristic that even surpasses that of the warriors guarding Great Yong’s borders. This Prince uses this golden helmet to bestow this wine, hoping that you will have a pleasant journey.”
At this moment, Li Zhi no longer had resentment or animosity in his heart, and was instead calm and gentle. In his mind, he thought, Being unable to gain Jiang Zhe’s service is due to my lack of virtue and talent. If I were to carelessly kill this innocent talented individual, even if I were able to gain the Imperial Throne, what right would I have to sit upon it?
- 千钧一发, qianjunyifa – idiom, lit. a thousand pounds hangs by a thread; imminent peril; a matter of life or death
- 天下没有不散的筵席, tianxiameiyoubusandeyanxi – idiom, lit. all banquets must come to an end; all good things must come to an end
- 休戚相关, xiuqixiangguan – idiom, lit. to share the same interests; to be closely related, to be in the same boat
- 千里之堤，溃于蚁穴, qianlizhidi, kuiyuyixue – idiom, lit. an ant hole causes the collapse of a great dike; fig. huge damage from a moment’s negligence
- 借刀杀人, jiedaosharen – idiom, lit. to borrow another’s knife to kill someone; to attack using another’s strength, to get somebody else to do one’s dirty work
- Silver is said to change color when exposed to poison. In modern science, we know that silver tarnishes upon contact with sulfur, denoting the presence of arsenic sulfides and warning of arsenic poisoning.
- 神魂颠倒, shenhundiandao, idiom, lit. spirit and soul upside down; infatuated and head over heels in love; fascinated, captivated