Volume 6, Chapter 16: Three Personal Visits

Volume 6, Chapter 16: Three Personal Visits1


In the twelfth month of the seventh year of Longsheng, Great Yong suffered a crushing defeat in Huainan. Military Commissioner of Huainan, Pei Yun, and General Who Pacified the North, Zhangsun Ji, wrote letters of apology. The Yong Emperor sighed and said, “The two generals are not guilty. All the fault lies with Us. We decree the blame is on Us. We will fast and offer sacrifices to the Heavens to tell of the deeds of the bravely departed.”

Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Three

“On the fourth day of the eleventh month, the Jiangxia Barracks moved east downstream, on high alert throughout the journey. As professed, because Huaixi requested emergency help, Jiujiang was empty, so the Jiangxia Barracks traveled to Jiujiang to prevent the Yong army from crossing the river.”

Inside the Cold Courtyard, under the bright glow of lamps, Huo Cong held a scroll and read it aloud. Meanwhile, Jiang Zhe was reclining on a soft couch and playing with a crystalline black jade stone in a carefree manner. Xiaoshunzi was sitting across from the weiqi board in a chair, furrowing his brows as he looked at the board before him. On the board, the white stones formed a dragon that was about to be encircled by the black stones. This was a very rare situation on the board. In terms of weiqi skill, Xiaoshunzi couldn’t be called a national-level player, but he could easily beat Jiang Zhe. As a result, he often stole glances at Huo Cong, who was obviously standing there reading the intelligence report that had come from the Ministry of War.

When Huo Cong reached the point of the Jiangxia Barracks entering the Battle at Guazhou Ferry, I stopped playing with the stone. I lifted my head and said, “Lu Can has made great progress as expected. He’s also quite brave. Wasn’t he the one who emptied Jiujiang? He refused to fight Pei Yun in Huaidong and shifted the Jiujiang Barracks to Jingkou, which created signs of instability in the central section of the Southern Chu defense. Then, with the excuse of Jiujiang being empty, he transferred the Jiangxia Barracks to Jiujiang, as if dismantling the western wall to reinforce the eastern wall, when in fact he was confusing our army’s spies. First of all, he didn’t allow our army to think of the possibility that cavalry would rush to the rescue of Shouchun. Second, he made our army ignore the possibility of the Jiangxia Barracks joining up with the Jiujiang Barracks and fighting a decisive battle in Yangzhou.

“However, Lu Can’s plan was extremely dangerous. If the outcome of the battle in Huaixi was a draw, our army would have patrolled the Jingxiang region. Once Shouchun fell, General Zhangsun might have gone around Jingxiang and straight into the Jingnan area.2 Then the Southern Chu army would have gotten caught in a doomed region. However, Lu Can presumably knew in his gut that our army’s main attack wasn’t on Xiangyang this time. General Zhangsun is also a methodical man and wouldn’t risk an aggressive advance. Lu Can only took a risk with the battle in Huaixi. However, this operation has the stylings of a famous general. If the battle in Huaixi had a thirty percent chance of victory, acting this way was worth it. Hm, Cong’er, read the intelligence report for Huaixi. I want to see how Lu Can carried things out there.”

Huo Cong searched for the Huaixi intelligence report, then read it in exhaustive detail. When he reached the part about Lu Yun and Shi Guan’s son, Shi Yujin, cutting down Dong Shan, my hands trembled. However, the expression on my face did not change. Afterwards, I smiled and said, “Bravo, Lu Can did well. If the eagle doesn’t drive the pheasant out of its nest, it cannot spread its wings and fly. Lu Can placed his son in a dangerous location, so it’s no wonder the Huaixi army was so tenacious. Otherwise, Cui Jue and Dong Shan, valiant generals—which are rare—wouldn’t have been stopped at Shouchun. In reality, the Emperor underestimated his enemy. If he had sent out a cautious senior general, as well as tens of thousands of additional troops, and been on alert for the enemy’s reinforcements, the army would never have gotten exhausted because of a protracted battle and ended up in a landslide rout. In reality, it’s no wonder Lu Can was so secretive about this cavalry division. The Intelligence Management Section knew nothing about it. I would assume that not even the Southern Chu court knew of its existence, as they didn’t know Shouchun had received reinforcements. It’s also no wonder that both Cui Jue and Dong Shan had slacked off. However, Dong Shan being struck down by two youths not yet fifteen is actually rather surprising. I remember him being a valiant general.”

“According to the investigation after the fact done by the Intelligence Management Section, General Dong covered the retreat after a bitter battle,” Huo Cong replied. “By that point, he was likely spent, while Young General Lu and Young General Shi are both rare youth warriors. As a result, they could record this feat of success. I heard the battlefield situation was very dangerous at that time, and the two young generals nearly lost their lives as well.”

I sighed softly and said, “After this battle, the morale of the civilians and soldiers of Huaixi will surge. Lu Yun may be young, but he has already turned into a strength for Southern Chu that cannot be ignored. Lu Can will surely seize this opportunity to build up the military in Huaixi and make further preparations for war, strengthening his control in Huaixi. If he waits until has a powerful military in Huaixi, he can march northeast and attack Suzhou3 and Xuzhou or maybe march northwest to capture Haozhou4 and Suiyang.5 I believe that within several years, Lu Can could repeatedly send out forces, capture Huaibei, and train troops.”

“Sir, Lu Can may already have control of the military power in Jiangnan, but Great Yong has millions of troops. This defeat didn’t break any bones. Lu Can ought to recuperate and build up strength and guard against Great Yong’s Southern Campaign. How can he take the initiative in the war?” Huo Cong said in doubt.

I smiled gently and explained, “Although Lu Can has control of the military power in Jianghuai, he still isn’t ruthless enough. A majority of the Royal Guard is still in Shang Weijun’s palms, and Jianye is still the domain of the Shang family. The greater the military might Lu Can wields, the more some civil officials who boast of their loyalty will worry he is relying on military power to plot a rebellion. As a result, Shang Weijun’s supporters will in fact increase. Just wait. After everyone is rewarded based on their contribution, some individuals will go out of their way to lessen Lu Can’s authority. So if he wants to protect himself, he must take the initiative to send troops out and continue the border war to preserve his and his family’s lives.”

A cold light flitted past in Huo Cong’s eyes. He said, “Not rewarding his great feats would be an unpardonable sin. If Grand General Lu decides he might as well make himself king, then Jiangnan will become even more monolithic, and there will be no more opportunities to exploit.”

I laughed. “Cong’er, do you think a coup is that simple a matter? You’re right that Lu Can controls a massive force, and if he sends troops to Jianye, they could overthrow the government. They would control the Southern Chu court, and he could even make himself king. However, some things cannot be accomplished with military might alone. In the case that Lu Can rises up in armed rebellion, the soldiers who pledged their lives to him because of the Lu family’s reputation for loyalty will lose heart. Some may even take up arms to defend the throne. Don’t forget that although Rong Yuan of Xiangyang, Shi Guan of Huaixi, and Yu Mian of Jiameng Pass all respect Lu Can as leader, they have all been greatly impeded by the Lu family, and moreso, they are loyal subjects of Southern Chu. But even if they rebel along with Lu Can, I’m afraid it still won’t be enough. Moreover, Shang Weijun has controlled the state of the court for many years and has a deep-rooted and intricate6 relationship with the major aristocratic families of Southern Chu. Almost seven out of ten officials in the current Southern Chu court are part of the Shang family’s faction.

“If Lu Can purges the corrupt ministers, what should he do with these officials? If they’re all executed, the Southern Chu court will be empty, and the government will immediately descend into chaos. If they’re not executed, will they actually revere Lu Can as their monarch? Lu Can’s strength is mainly concentrated in the military. He has no way to control the entirety of the Southern Chu court. I presume at that time the government would be grasped by the aristocratic families in a power grab. If that happens, each major family will start denouncing the other for the sake of power and wealth. I’m afraid that would erode the situation in Southern Chu even more.

“As such, Lu Can cannot use the method of rebellion to resolve the upcoming tension. The only way out is to instigate foreign aggression. As long as the war in Jianghuai is making progress, Shang Weijun and company will be too scared to arbitrarily harm Lu Can and his men. Besides, Great Yong’s desired Southern Campaign will not dissipate. As opposed to sitting and waiting for Great Yong to come attacking, why not take the initiative? He can also use these skirmishes to harden morale and train the troops. He could convert Southern Chu’s border into Mount Tai, steady as a rock. This way, he can kill two birds with one stone. Why would Lu Can not want to do so?”

Huo Cong listened, fascinated. After a long while, he said, “Sir, Shang Weijun fears Lu Can’s military power. He would never act rashly. On the other hand, Lu Can would rather vie for courtly power, but it’s not as good as controlling the military and rallying the multitudes outside the court to his call. Only in this way will the situation in Jiangnan stabilize, and Great Yong will not be able to smoothly conquer Southern Chu. The lands will be difficult to unify, but it’s not like the turmoil of war is endless and difficult to quell.”

“Lu Can, that man, he places great importance on loyalty,” I said, glancing at him. “The reason he vies for military power is simply because he doesn’t wish to watch Great Yong’s cavalry gallop south. For him, he is the commander-in-chief, while Shang Weijun is the head of state—that is for the best. Of course, whether he will have thoughts of disloyalty when he becomes important and powerful in the future remains to be seen. However, in my opinion, there is no possibility this man will commit treason. The Lu family has been a martial family for generations. Loyalty has been ingrained into their bones. Lu Can is no exception. Although he has deadlier stratagems and acts with less fear, he doesn’t have thoughts of independence. However, though he has good intentions, Shang Weijun refuses to recognize them. At present, they are merely compromising for the foreseeable future. This separation of military and political power cannot be sustained, however, unless the King of Southern Chu has enough prestige to regain military and political authority, or Shang Weijun is willing to submit. But these two points are unrealistic.

“The stalemate between the north and south cannot last for long. After all, one side must rise, and one side must fall. One must be turned to ash. With the two countries fighting like this, the two powerful ministers are also fighting each other. Even if Lu Can compromises for the sake of the greater good or uses some wrathful machinations to stifle this hidden peril, once war breaks out, it will be a terrible tragedy. As long as the Southern Chu monarch and ministers are not too stupid, they shouldn’t have a problem maintaining an even balance of power for several years.

“Although, Cong’er, why are you asking about these matters? Do you want to try your luck against Lu Can and see who my best disciple is?”

Huo Cong looked embarrassed. “How could this disciple have that thought? It was the Prince of Jia who asked me to sound out Sir’s viewpoints. He wanted to know if Sir already had a strategy to conquer Southern Chu, or if Sir had obeyed the order of His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi.”

I sneered and said, “What a busybody. As a prince of the second rank, Li Lin can afford to wrack his brains. And you’re just a commoner. Why are you so meddlesome? You just need to study well. By the way, sort the intelligence reports from the Ministry of War and send them back tomorrow. Tell them Jiang Suiyun is a free man and is not interested in these intelligence reports. If these documents are sent in the future, tell them I’m convalescing and have no time to pay attention to external affairs, and that you’re not allowed to accept these intelligence reports without my permission again.”

Huo Cong muttered in his head, You’re the one who wasn’t listening very closely. You analyzed the situation with eloquence. Why have you now changed your mind? But he quickly spoke, “It was all this disciple taking the liberty to make decisions. Please forgive me, Sir.” Then he retreated from the courtyard, bowing out.

As I watched Huo Cong’s receding figure, a hint of a sneer touched the corners of my mouth. Humph, what Prince of Qi’s order? The Prince of Jia had most likely followed the crown prince’s order, who was most likely obeying the emperor’s order. They just wanted to probe my intentions. It looked like this crushing defeat against Southern Chu made the Great Yong monarch and ministers sober up a lot. They naturally thought of my memorial I sent in that day. It looked like the emperor understood I don’t yearn for the old country and that they underestimated their enemy.

Now that the situation had turned out this way, those people decided they wanted to listen to my judgment. However, how can I, Jiang Zhe, be summoned at the drop of a hat? As they had suspected me before, I simply refused to intervene in the Yong-Southern Chu War. This had been my hope all along.

In any case, that monarch and his ministers were famous, veteran generals who had consolidated at every step. In these circumstances, attacking Southern Chu shouldn’t be a problem with twenty to thirty years of hard work. After all, Southern Chu had layer upon layer of internal anxieties. If Lu Can hadn’t been a driven individual, I expect he would have run into upheaval within five years. Southern Chu’s current king, Zhao Long, should be getting crowned in a few years, and at that time, he ought to take the reins of the government. That would be the best opportunity for Shang Weijun to seize back the military power.

Though these days, Lu Can’s methods were rather sinister and vicious, which was not his style. The way one acted was very difficult to change. They were probably Wei Ying’s schemes. These two men took to working together like a duck to water and were very detrimental to Great Yong’s Southern Campaign. Wait, why am I deliberating on how to conquer Southern Chu again? Didn’t I decide to stay out of this business?

Turning to look at Xiaoshunzi and seeing he was still in contemplation, I snickered. Yesterday, I received a national-level qipu. Inside the manual were several clever positions, and I purposely played them. I had finally put him in a difficult position and allowed myself to regain some dignity. I thought of my pitiable sight in the past, cold sweat dripping off me, as he slaughtered my pieces. I proudly looked at Xiaoshunzi, hoping to see him admit defeat and concede. While I had my nose in the air, Xiaoshunzi’s tensed eyebrows smoothed over, to my surprise. He placed a white quartz stone and the board state reversed. The white stones that had been in a tight spot were suddenly on the attack, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and confronted the black stones. I let out a sigh, knowing I hadn’t stumped Xiaoshunzi yet again. I took the qipu out from under the jade pillow, and after throwing it at him, pushed the board aside out of spite. I laid on my back on the soft couch, gentle and soft bedding under me. The air was tinged with a sweet fragrance, and I was a bit weary. Because I didn’t want Changle to speak for the emperor, I had been preparing for the past several days to lodge at the Cold Courtyard.

Xiaoshunzi grinned. He opened the qipu and flipped through it, stored it in his breast, then put away the stones while saying, “Young master, is it good for you and the Emperor to be quarreling over a grudge? After all, he is the monarch while young master is the subject.”

For a long time, Jiang Zhe did not say anything at all. When Xiaoshunzi finished putting away the stones and believed Jiang Zhe wasn’t going to answer him, Jiang Zhe lightly said, “When a problem crops up, one needs nip it in the bud. This time, the Emperor can distrust me, but what about the future? I can’t leave a hidden danger behind. Besides, based on the Emperor’s wisdom, if I act generously, he will see the misgivings I have of him. As long as I make things difficult for him as is in my nature, he will believe I haven’t changed my opinion of him because of this matter.”

Xiaoshunzi fell silent. He didn’t ask further questions, such as “Is Jiang Zhe truly displeased with the Emperor? Does Jiang Zhe truly still long for Southern Chu, so he isn’t willing to offer a strategy to conquer Southern Chu?” Once Jiang Zhe made a decision, no matter how unreasonable, Xiaoshunzi would never oppose it.

After he put away the weiqi board and stones, he added a few sticks of storax incense to the incense burner. Afterwards, he grabbed a blanket and placed it over top of the sleeping Jiang Zhe. After doing all this, he sat off to the side on a mat and meditated, regulating his breathing. For him, sleep was an unimportant activity.

After a short while, he gently furrowed his brows all of a sudden. He peeked at the still deep asleep Jiang Zhe, turned around, and pushed open the room’s door. Walking out, he saw at a glance a line of people walking his way. One of the people had a cloak draped over him to cover up his face. However, with hints of a bright yellow robe showing as well as the imperial guards next to him, Xiaoshunzi recognized him on sight. The people walked up to him, and the middle-aged man who was hiding his face asked, “Has Suiyun fallen asleep already?”

Xiaoshunzi lowered his head and knitted his brows as he replied, “Young master has fallen asleep. The past few days, the young master has had great difficulties sleeping, so I lit a storax incense stick. I’m afraid that before tomorrow morning, the young master will not be able to wake up. Moreover, the young master has not been feeling well for the past few days. I’m afraid he cannot receive Your Imperial Majesty.”

The man gave a wry smile and lifted his head. His hood slipped off, revealing an aged yet still regal face. Before coming he had the Ministry of War send in documents and used Huo Cong’s probing to express his regret and apology. However, it now seemed that Jiang Zhe did not appreciate the kindness. This man still had the same old personality, unchanged to this day. Thinking of all this, Li Zhi felt guilt-ridden for suspecting Jiang Zhe for the past several days. He looked at Li Shun, who was blocking him. Although his stance was humble, Li Zhi knew this subdued attitude was just a pretense. He was convinced that if he tried to force his way in, Demonic Shadow Li Shun would not have any scruples for his identity. If events transpired to this state, there would be no leeway to go back. With no recourse, Li Zhi could only turn around and depart, reckoning it shouldn’t be harder for him to persuade Jiang Zhe into offering his services this time around compared to the first time.

Following this, while Great Yong’s monarch and ministers were busy coping with the aftermath of the defeat, the reclusive Marquis of Chu of the first rank became the target of the Great Yong courtiers. A rumor quietly circulated through the Yong capital among the officialdom: The emperor had personally visited Princess Changle’s residence several times, yet was turned away from the Cold Courtyard by Jiang Zhe every time. Outside of Shi Yu and company who had experienced Jiang Zhe’s unyielding side when they first met, the other courtiers didn’t believe this event happened and dismissed it as a groundless conjecture. The emperor would never talk of such a disgraceful matter, nor would the imperial guards who came with him. Even in Princess Changle’s residence, most of the staff were meticulously appointed by the emperor and empress, so no one gossiped about this topic. However, even a better kept secret left traces, and all kinds of clues related to the emperor’s three visits to Princess Changle’s residence and low spirits upon his return each time spread by word of mouth through the people of the palace. They sketched the truth out. Then someone with a motive disseminated the rumor, and the gossiping on the street even touched on it. However, even the most upright and outspoken censors’ lips were sealed, and they spoke nothing of this event. To say nothing of how much power and influence the Marquis of Chu had behind the scenes, just by seeing how much the emperor doted on and trusted him, one knew if one didn’t kill him with a single blow it was best not to offend him. Moreover, if nobody knew of this matter, the emperor could preserve some prestige. If this circulated, the emperor would likely turn the shame into anger, and the officials who incited the affair would be in trouble.

This rumor did not die down, though, and after several days passed, a new rumor spread. Someone said the Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe, refused to offer advice and see the emperor because he still yearned for his former country. Furthermore, Southern Chu’s illustrious Grand General was his direct disciple. The connections between Jiang Zhe and Southern Chu’s Lu family seemed to have been severed, but they still clung together,7 and they had frequent contact. This rumor was well-founded, and many officials and common folk believed it. Even the important ministers of the court were bound to believe some of it.

When Li Zhi heard this rumor, he was incensed. By this point, he wouldn’t still suspect Jiang Zhe had cast aside Great Yong for Southern Chu, but he knew Jiang Zhe had the most pigheaded temper. Currently, Jiang Zhe had a grudge against him, and if he let Jiang Zhe know about this rumor, he might really seal his lips in a fury. That would be disastrous. As a result, he ordered the Bright Inspection Department to trace the source of the rumor and gave a strict order to not allow the news to reach Jiang Zhe’s ears. Unfortunately, all of Chang’an had gossiped about the rumor. Li Zhi had wanted to trace the source but couldn’t find it, so he flew into a rage. The atmosphere in the Yong capital became unusually tense.

Several days passed, and Li Xian arrived at the Cold Courtyard with few attendants. He was fulfilling Li Zhi’s decree in coming to sue for peace. Li Xian hadn’t sent in a petition pleading to join the Southern Campaign. For one, he had looked down on the strength of Southern Chu’s Jianghuai army. Second, Lin Bi would be giving birth soon, so he couldn’t bear to part with his beloved wife and son. As such, Li Zhi had no intention of letting him march south, and Li Xian didn’t bring it up himself, He was just an adviser during the talks to draw up the plan of the Southern Campaign. Back when Jiang Zhe sent in a memorial opposing this Southern Campaign, he thought the same as Li Zhi, that Jiang Zhe still had feelings for his former country. As a result, the two brothers tacitly cooperated to cover up this matter to avoid people seizing this opportunity to denounce Jiang Zhe. To their surprise, the Southern Campaign suffered a crushing defeat, and every phrase Jiang Zhe wrote was filled with wisdom.

Li Zhi and Li Xian were both veteran generals of the battlefield, no ordinary characters, and they soon realized their mistake of underestimating their enemy. Ten years of buildup and recovery, restoring their national power, didn’t apply to Great Yong alone. Southern Chu was no longer short on manpower and resources. But even though they realized this fact, the changes to the situation could not be undone. Lu Can had gained control of the military power in Jiangnan. Because of this, half of the territory of Jiangnan was difficult to topple, and Lu Can became the greatest obstacle of Great Yong’s Southern Campaign in the eyes of Li Zhi and Li Xian.

If they wished to conquer Southern Chu, they needed to eliminate Lu Can, and if they wanted to eliminate Lu Can, one person’s advice was the most important above all. That person was Jiang Zhe.

No matter how excellent Lu Can was, it was impossible to deny that most of his skill had to do with studying under Jiang Zhe. This being the case, who better than Jiang Zhe to draw up a strategy to conquer Southern Chu? Both Li Zhi and Li Xian didn’t desire the two countries to be at a stalemate for decades.

Since Jiang Zhe didn’t respect Li Zhi, Li Xian was duty-bound to go to the Cold Courtyard and persuade Jiang Zhe to help. However, even though Li Xian had to look to others for help, he was still impetuous and barged his way through Princess Changle’s residence. The imperial guards overlooking the residence didn’t dare stop him. Although their lord, the marquis, had said he wasn’t receiving guests, not a single person dared stop Li Xian’s dash straight to the Cold Courtyard.

Right as Li Xian arrived at the entrance to the study, he heard Jiang Zhe thunder with rage as he scolded someone. Li Xian was curious, as he didn’t remember seeing Jiang Zhe criticize someone like this in all their years as friends. He stopped in his tracks and began to eavesdrop.

I looked at Shen’er, who was behaving himself and kneeling in place. Fury boiled inside me. This brat, he knew he was supposed to kneel as punishment, yet his eyes were spinning without stop. It was obvious he was indulging in flights of fancy, so how could he be even the slightest bit repentant? I couldn’t help scolding, “All you do all day is play and practice martial arts. I personally teach you reading, yet you sneak off. You’ve read The Analects for half a year, but you still can’t memorize it. Listen up, today your punishment is to copy The Analects three times. If you can’t hand it in, don’t think about eating dinner.”

Shen’er had turned eight this year. He was born with bright eyes and graceful eyebrows, looking intelligent and cute. Nonetheless, he was an idiot. Trying to make him study was harder than anything else. I didn’t know who he took after. When I was his age, I had already familiarized myself with the classics and histories. His mother was also intelligent, so why was he alone so stupid? However, True Compassion, the old monk, had said he had genius in martial arts. Was there truly no justice?

I had just meted out the punishment method when Shen’er jumped to his feet and said, “Then I’ll go off to copy the book, Daddy. But, Daddy, it’s not my fault I can’t memorize The Analects. It’s all because, Daddy, you can’t teach well. Daddy insists on rambling about a page of text, and it’s all a big pile of nothing. Big sister also said that if I want to learn to read, it’s far better to go to big brother Huo.”

I nearly blacked out in anger from these words. I picked up the ferule and went to smack his palm. To my surprise, Jiang Shen had turned and escaped outside. He was extraordinarily nimble and quick, disappearing out the door like a puff of smoke. I roared, “Xiaoshunzi, catch him and bring him back to me! I want to slap his palm bloody.”

Before I finished speaking, I heard Shen’er cheer, “Father-in-law daren.”

My heart froze. I immediately changed my tone and said, “Shen’er, run slower, don’t fall.” It was definitely a fatherly tone, and Xiaoshunzi, who was standing by my side, flashed an interested smile. Of course, his smile vanished before I strode angrily out the door.

Afterwards, I saw Li Xian, his expression quite nasty, holding Shen’er’s hand as they walked in. I swallowed my anger as I went forward and saluted. “So sixth brother has come. I’ve made you laugh, for Shen’er is too mischievous.”

I gave a mental sigh. Ever since Li Xian had returned to Chang’an, he had practically seized Shen’er. Every time Shen’er came back from the Floating Clouds Temple, he wouldn’t stay at home for even a few days before Li Xian took him away. If I wanted to refuse, I would have to face his chilling appearance. It was better during the years he was courting Lin Bi. After Li Ning was born, the Prince of Qi became more intense, and he first swindled Shen’er into calling him “father-in-law,” then swept Shen’er away. It made it difficult for me, the father, to discipline and teach my own son. However, I thought as I rubbed my nose, if I hadn’t liked to bully Shen’er from a young age, would this kid have turned fickle so soon?

Li Xian hesitated. He treated Shen’er as if he were his own son. When he heard Jiang Zhe say he was going to slap Shen’er’s palm, Li Xian became unhappier. However, he came on behalf of his elder brother, the emperor, to sue for peace. But it was never easy to be considerate to Jiang Zhe. He hesitated time and again before finally stating, “Suiyun, I still think you should hire an elementary teacher for Shen’er. If you’re unwilling, Huo Cong teaching him is also fine. I’ve heard Roulan say that when you lecture, you like to cite the classics, so it’s no wonder that Shen’er doesn’t understand.”

Shen’er was quite smart and could tell that his father-in-law’s tone was rather weak. He immediately became well-behaved and looked at me with eager eyes. “Daddy, it’s Shen’er who is too stupid and can’t understand when you lecture about books, unlike big brother Huo, who understands everything with a single explanation. You should let someone else teach me.”

In response, I gave a bitter smile in my mind. Who exactly did this child take after?

The Prince of Qi spoke up again. “In reality, Shen’er doesn’t need to study hard for ten years. Isn’t it fine if he becomes a general in the future? I can see this kid has a very solid martial arts foundation, and he’s quite brave. He’s rather like me.” Then he proudly stroked Shen’er’s head.

Shen’er looked like the cat that swallowed the canary, as if Li Xian were his father.

A stab of pain went through my heart. “Xiaoshunzi, send Shen’er to his study to copy The Analects one hundred times and watch him. If he tries to sneak out to the Floating Clouds Temple, catch him and bring him back, and beat him with the rod on my behalf,” I said in an unpleasant tone.

Shen’er acted like he’d been struck by lightning and froze in place. Only after Xiaoshunzi had gone over, picked him up, and walked out the door did he shout, “Uncle Shun, spare me! My neck hurts a lot! Save me, Father-in-law! Save me, Mother! Save me big brother Huo! Save me, big sister!”

A moment later, his strident and raucous cries for help faded into the distance. I blushed with shame. This kid truly made me lose all face. I glared at Li Xian. It was all because he had spoiled Shen’er, so no matter what he came to do, I would not allow him to have his way.

Li Xian was somewhat smart and could see he had stirred up a hornet’s nest. Jiang Zhe was clearly about to use his position to avenge private wrongs. Li Xian gave a hint of a wry smile. There was absolutely no way the goal of his visit had any possibility of being realized today.


***


In the complex of the Imperial Palace of Heaven, inside the Ganbai Tower along the Imperial Way, in the Golden Hall with carved railings and jade inlays, in the Imperial Study, Li Zhi knitted his brows in worry. He was looking at a confidential memorial submitted to the throne, but no matter what he tried, he could not calm himself down to study it. Song Wan walked in, light-footed, and reported, “Your Imperial Majesty, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, is waiting for your decree outside.”

“Why is he awaiting my decree?” Li Zhi replied. “When did he become so rule abiding? Go and announce him.”

Song Wan walked out, and soon after, he led Li Xian into the study. Then, without requiring instruction, he brought the attending ladies-in-waiting in the study outside and retired. He gave the two brothers the space to talk behind closed doors.

Once these people disappeared, Li Xian slipped back into his old habits. He pulled over a chair and sat to the right of Li Zhi, at the same time complaining, “Imperial Brother, I botched the task. Suiyun refuses to listen to my entreaties.”

Li Zhi didn’t consider Li Xian’s arrogant actions as rebellious. He smiled and said, “Didn’t you thump your chest and promise you would be successful right before you left?”

Li Xian was embarrassed. “It was truly unfortunate.” Li Xian then related the day’s happenings to Li Zhi, who couldn’t stop smiling wryly. Li Xian declared, “Imperial Brother, it looks like Suiyun will simply feel this way for a short while. After some time passes, he’ll have a change of heart and come around. You don’t need to worry. Suiyun and we are in the same boat right now, and he won’t see us rock the boat.”

Li Zhi smiled bitterly and said, “Time doesn’t wait for anyone. If another few months pass, I’m afraid the defenses of Jianghuai will be impregnable. We’ll have even fewer chances. If we don’t have Suiyun’s advice while formulating the strategy to conquer Southern Chu, I cannot rest easy. The current Southern Chu isn’t the former Southern Chu. I don’t want to devastate both sides, impoverishing the masses, and gain nothing in the war, so I must convince Suiyun to participate in this war. As a matter of fact, I’m planning to establish the Jiangnan Command Post at the end of the year, with you assuming personal command. You’ll conduct the war in Jingxiang and Jianghuai. I’m also inclined to appoint Suiyun as an adviser to the military. As a result, I need to convince him quickly. But Suiyun is too stubborn.”

Li Xian didn’t make a sound when he heard about the Jiangnan Command Post, barely even raising an eyebrow. However, when he heard the last several words, he smiled and said, “Suiyun is still a minister of state, and only with Your Imperial Majesty’s treatment will he willingly do his best. In all the land, who but Imperial Brother can control him? I think he just got peeved for a bit, that’s all. In fact, I think his anger has disappeared. He just doesn’t have a way out. If I hadn’t been unlucky when I went over today, he might’ve entered the palace with me.”

Li Zhi smiled as well. He had many eyes and ears in Princess Changle’s residence, so he knew Jiang Zhe’s mood had returned to normal. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have let Li Xian visit to smooth things over. However, now that Li Xian had been rejected, who should he have go over to mediate? He deliberated for a long while. Few of the important ministers the court was full of could talk with Jiang Zhe. For the last several years, Jiang Zhe had been reclusive to the court in the Yong capital and had no close friends. It was like the old days when he rarely had contact with the officials in the Prince of Yong’s residence. Furthermore, not too many people could find out about this matter. Li Zhi didn’t want to give people the impression that Jiang Zhe was spoiled and haughty. In just a while, the two brothers were walled in by their personal worries and did not know what to do.

At this time, Song Wan entered again and reported, “Your Imperial Majesty, Xiahou Yuanfeng daren is requesting an audience.”

Li Zhi waved a hand without saying anything. Song Wan retreated.

Li Xian knew Xiahou Yuanfeng was a confidant of Li Zhi charged with the important responsibility of monitoring all of officialdom. They were bound to discuss some secretive matters, and it was best if he didn’t know about them, so he rose to bid farewell.

“It’s no bother, sixth brother,” Li Zhi said with a smile. “You don’t have to excuse yourself. I had Xiahou search for who was recently spreading rumors trying to drive a wedge between our ministers and me. I think he has gotten results. There’s no harm in listening.”

Not long after, Xiahou Yuanfeng walked in. He had many years of experience in officialdom along with quite a few hardships, so he no longer looked as perfectly elegant as in the past. But although he was a little over thirty, the passage of time had been kind to him, not leaving many marks on his body. Xiahou Yuanfeng still had a graceful bearing and looked elegant and refined, living up to his reputation as a handsome man.

Once Xiahou Yuanfeng entered the study, he saluted and said, “Your Imperial Majesty, under this subject’s careful scrutiny, the rumormonger likely has connections with Southern Chu.”

Li Zhi was not surprised. With the current north-south stalemate, if someone wanted to drive a wedge between Jiang Zhe and him, a Southern Chu person would be the surest bet. He lightly said, “Publicizing this matter is inappropriate. Submit the list. Keep a careful watch over them tomorrow, and if anything changes, take control.”

Xiahou Yuanfeng presented the finished booklet and turned around to leave. He caught sight of Li Xian’s perturbed expression. Moved, he asked, “Are Your Imperial Majesty and Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, worrying over the Marquis of Chu?”

Li Zhi smiled wryly and replied, “Xiahou, what means do you have to resolve this issue?” He had merely asked in passing, as Xiahou Yuanfeng and Jiang Zhe had always had old scores to settle. Li Zhi didn’t believe in the slightest that Xiahou Yuanfeng had a way to convince Jiang Zhe to offer advice.

To his surprise, Xiahou Yuanfeng walked up and stated with great respect, “It is this subject’s duty to share the burdens of Your Imperial Majesty. This subject is willing to leave to convince the Marquis of Chu.”

Li Zhi was surprised. He sized up Xiahou Yuanfeng for a bit before saying, “There’s nothing wrong with giving it a try.”

Xiahou Yuanfeng grinned as he withdrew, as if persuading Jiang Zhe was a perfectly easy task. Hope rose in Li Zhi and Li Xian as a result.


***


Snow blew through the air while dark clouds blanketed the sky. Sitting still inside the Overlooking Wave Pavilion, I played a zither. The sound of the zither gave voice and form to the blowing snow in the air, blending with the noise outside. A long while later, I pushed away the jade zither and sighed lightly. Trees crave calm but the wind refuses to abate—things never occur as one desires. How could the undercurrent swirling through Chang’an for the last few days get past my eyes and ears? Although the emperor tried to safeguard me, how could I not have any knowledge of these rumors denouncing me?

As I stroked the cracks on the body of the zither, I thought of Qiu Yufei. Ever since the subjugation of Northern Han, the Devil Sect had gone into hiding. However, Duan Lingxiao and company could not easily free themselves. Duan Lingxiao had retired to the imperial palace, Xiao Tong was at Lin Bi’s side, and the other disciples of the Devil Sect had either joined the military or stayed in the imperial palace serving as imperial guardsmen. The disciples of the Devil Sect may have been obstinate and unruly, but their skills and moves were outstanding. The Devil Sect had quietly become evenly matched with Shaolin and the other sects in terms of strength. Among them, only Qiu Yufei had not gotten involved, having taken Ling Duan to live in seclusion in the Tranquil Sea Manor I had gifted Qiu Yufei. They could appreciate the vistas of the Eastern Sea year round, board a skiff and sail alone on the sea, or play the zither in the moonlight. They were free and unfettered, while I was shackled to human society and could not take a step out of the Yong capital.

Taking the warm wine handed over by Xiaoshunzi, I downed it in one gulp. The soft sweetness of the good wine intoxicated me.

An imperial guard trod through the snow toward us. Xiaoshunzi walked out of the pavilion to hear his report, then returned and said, “Young master, Xiahou Yuanfeng seeks an audience.”

I was a little stunned. Why would Xiahou Yuanfeng come to my place? Ever since the events that transpired in the eastern Sichuan region, this man had stayed far away, treating me like an evil spirit. Curious, I said with a smile, “Have Xiahou daren come here.”

Soon after, Xiahou Yuanfeng meandered his way over, following the guard. He wore snow-white, light furs. He cut a handsome and distinguished figure and looked bright as the moon. If judging only his appearance, it would be unthinkable for him to be the head of the Bright Inspection Department with blood on his hands.

I rose to my feet and greeted him inside the pavilion. The falling snow outside the pavilion wove together, so of course I wouldn’t experience the cold to meet someone. I extended a hand to welcome my guest in and urged Xiahou Yuanfeng to sit down. I smiled and said, “I don’t know how Xiahou daren has the time to call upon me. The snow falls thick and fast, and an honored guest visits. Wine is a must. Xiaoshunzi, fetch a jug of imperial wine. This jar of Deep Spring has quite an alluring fragrance. Xiahou daren will not be fond of it.”

“Don’t bother, Your Lordship,” Xiahou Yuanfeng said with a smile. “I’ve long heard that Her Imperial Highness, Princess Changle, brewed Deep Spring by plucking a myriad of flowers and extracting their essence. It’s soft and mellow, and it’s like drinking a top quality wine. This subordinate has long wished to try the taste of the wine but couldn’t find the proper approach. Today, I was fortunate to see it with my own eyes. How could I pass up this fine wine?”

A light glimmered in my eyes and I replied, “Changle personally brewed this Deep Spring wine, and besides the essence of myriad flowers, she added numerous nourishing medicines. Drinking it year after year can give a person sharp eyes and keen ears, as well as a healthy and fit body. But because the wine is soft and mellow, it doesn’t quite suit the tastes of the Yong people. I never imagined Xiahou daren would understand the beauty of it.”

“The deep love of Her Imperial Highness, Princess Changle, is very moving. For Your Lordship’s good health, she brewed this wine. How could outsiders know of Princess Changle’s intentions and appreciate the love of this wine? Moreover, the common people don’t have the standing to taste this magnificent fine wine,” Xiahou Yuanfeng said respectfully.

After I heard this, I knew why Xiahou Yuanfeng had come. He was using Changle’s love to remind me to not forget the unbreakable bonds between Great Yong’s imperial household and me. He was clever enough to use this “Deep Spring” wine Changle had placed her heartfelt love into to express his intentions. It made it impossible for me to get annoyed.

I motioned for him to sit down and personally poured him a cup of wine, saying, “Since Xiahou daren realizes the value of this wine, please drink a cup. Only twenty-four jugs of this wine are brewed each year. None are circulated besides the jugs given to the Empress Dowager, the Empress, and Her Imperial Highness, the Princess of Qi.”

Xiahou Yuanfeng seated himself, composed, and said, “My wife received the favor of the Empress and was awarded with a jar of Deep Spring. Thus I was lucky enough taste this excellent wine that’s hard to come by. If Your Lordship feels generous today, why not let this subordinate drink a few extra cups?”

I already knew why Xiahou Yuanfeng had come, but I was still curious as to why he believed he could convince me. As a result, I purposely did not ask his reason for visiting and instead politely urged him to drink. I faced the vast blowing snow outside the pavilion and quoted the classics as I discussed poetry with Xiahou Yuanfeng. Even having known Xiahou Yuanfeng for this many years, I only knew he was analytical and had a mind for trickery; he excelled at martial arts and was ruthless. However, with today’s conversation, I learned he was a master of both the pen and the sword. He had originally intended to go through the trouble of taking the imperial examination. After talking for a long time, I found conversation with this man very pleasant and began to forget his reason for coming.

Xiahou Yuanfeng saw the happy atmosphere and his heart leaped with joy. He raised his wine cup and said, “This subordinate heard that when Your Lordship was in Northern Han, you composed a poem using the same words another poet used to express your emotions. The poem contains these two lines: ‘While alive seeking not the wild geese returning south, / Bury me on the riverbanks in Chu when I die.’ I wonder if this is the truth.”

I was shocked, realizing he had finally begun his attack. I had composed the lines he referred to when touched by the mournful words of Tan Ji’s requiem. It was not all that surprising Xiahou Yuanfeng knew of this matter. He was the head of the Bright Inspection Department, and at the time, my imperial bodyguards were all experts from the Stalwart Tiger Guard. Someone was bound to submit this poem to the throne. As Xiahou Yuanfeng had obtained Li Zhi’s favor and trust, and this wasn’t a secret, there had always been the possibility he knew of it. However, did he want to point out I still yearned for the old country? A scornful smile touched the corners of my lips, and I calmly replied, “’Tis only human to think of the old country. Is Xiahou daren willing to go on record to impeach me?”

Xiahou Yuanfeng decided to change the subject. “This time, General Pei put himself into danger in Huaidong in a calculated move to take Chuzhou. Although he made great contributions, it was a bit too dangerous.”

“This is General Pei’s personality. He is fond of personally going into battle. But in critical moments, he doesn’t act this way,” I remarked.

“But General Pei has a massive amount of courage. Zhenhuai Tower publicly insulted Your Lordship’s next of kin. It even makes this subordinate admire him,” Xiahou Yuanfeng said with a chuckle.

My heart froze. I lowered my eyes and said, “Although Jing Changqing is Jiang Zhe’s older cousin, he is a loyal subject of Southern Chu. Different paths, different plans. This act by General Pei was not inappropriate.”

Xiahou Yuanfeng shook his head. “General Pei simply wasn’t careful. If he had long since known that person’s identity, he would not have lightly insulted that person. However, Your Lordship deeply loves your relatives. Not even a few days passed before Jing Changqing disappeared from the prison in Chuzhou. I heard he’s already returned to Jiaxing. Although Southern Chu won the battle in Huainan, leading to suspicions that your elder cousin would inevitably abscond, I don’t think anyone will make things difficult for the Jing family. After all, Grand General Lu has full control over the court and public, and with his reputation, no one will act against the Jing family.”

I allowed myself a sneer. Back in the eastern Sichuan region, Xiahou Yuanfeng wanted to seize the power of the Embroidered Union. Though I had let him, I had also taught him a lesson. Now, he wanted to meddle in my influence in Southern Chu? Could it be that he didn’t come to reconcile me with Li Zhi?

I stood up and walked next to the zither stand. I gently plucked the zither strings, making them twang. The sound conveyed my harsh thoughts. “Does Xiahou daren have anything else he wishes to say?” I calmly said.

Xiahou Yuanfeng ignored my tone of dismissal and drank another cup of wine. “The eldest son of Lu Can, Lu Yun, is a young hero. He slew Dong Shan and is famous in Huaixi. According to the Bright Inspection Department’s investigation, this son stayed in Chang’an for several days,” he replied.

A look of ridicule appeared in my eyes. I already knew it would be difficult to conceal Lu Yun from the eyes and ears of the Bright Inspection Department. Why else would I have involved Huo Cong, Li Lin, and Roulan? Besides giving these three children experience, it also served the purpose of preventing harm to innocents.8 But in the twinkling of an eye, the look in my eyes became sorrowful. I had hoped to protect Lu Yun; unfortunately, all his actions in Huaixi made my hard work evaporate. Who could have imagined a thirteen-year-old teenager had the ability to accomplish this?

Xiahou Yuanfeng likely perceived my change of heart and spoke again. “Your Lordship comes from Southern Chu and still cherishes your former country. In addition, you have kith and kin and disciples there. Once war arises, it will be hard to avoid indiscriminate destruction. Your Lordship may have a comprehensive plan, yet if Your Lordship stays out of the conflict, with whatever the Jing family accomplishes in the future, the Lu family may urge reconciliation. This subordinate overheard that Your Lordship once promised the Prince of De you would ensure the continuation of Southern Chu. If Your Lordship is not willing to offer advice to conquer Southern Chu, what will you use to make the Emperor hear you?

“During the coup d’état, Your Lordship rendered great service to the Great Yong Imperial Household, after which the Imperial Household married Princess Changle to Your Lordship, and it didn’t even harm you. With Your Lordship’s achievement of conquering Northern Han, Your Lordship obtained your current title of marquis of the first rank, your son was enfeoffed as a duke of the first rank, and your daughter was enfeoffed as a princess of the second rank. Your family is in the best possible graces now that the conquering of Northern Han has been realized. Do you plan to wait until the fall of Southern Chu to exchange these old achievements for the Emperor’s favor? I’m afraid that Your Lordship’s painstaking efforts will have evaporated by then. This subordinate is presumptuous, but every word comes from the bottom of his heart. I hope Your Lordship understands.”

An odd look flashed in my eyes as I looked at Xiahou Yuanfeng. This man truly was not simple. This speech had thoroughly convinced me, and only he could have spoken these words. If Li Zhi and Li Xian had spoken like this, I would have felt they were deliberately threatening me. If Shi Yu and the other ministers had said this, it would undoubtedly have sounded ostentatious and pretentious, turning into a righteous reproach and making me even more recalcitrant. Only Xiahou Yuanfeng, a single-minded utilitarian at heart, could say this and make me feel he was sincere.

Xiahou Yuanfeng smiled and added, “Another thing. I don’t know if Your Lordship knows, but Wei Ying is acting as an honored guest to Lu Can. Even though this matter is a secret, it cannot be hidden from the eyes and ears of the Intelligence Management Section and Bright Inspection Department.”

Little changed on my face. I had learned of this long ago. Before the clever Xiahou Yuanfeng, I couldn’t be bothered to put up a pretense.

Xiahou Yuanfeng was well aware of this. “Wei Ying greatly detests Your Lordship, has superb ability and wisdom, and his methods are insidious and vicious. Meanwhile, Grand General Lu is noted for his strategic brilliance and made friends with Your Lordship at an early age. Master and disciple get along well, and he understands Your Lordship quite well. With these two people partnering up, they must be formidable foes for Your Lordship. You have superb ability and wisdom, so don’t you wish to challenge such opponents when you encounter them? Lu Can controls the military power in Southern Chu, while Your Lordship can influence Great Yong’s strategy to conquer Southern Chu. Why not test yourself and them in the territory of Jiangnan and see if Your Lordship’s ability and wisdom are peerless or if Grand General Lu has surpassed his master. Wouldn’t this be most delightful?”

Listening to this, even I couldn’t help but feel competitive. In spite of myself, I smiled and said, “Xiahou daren has a silver tongue no worse than Su Qin’s and Zhang Yi’s.9 Zhe thanks you for your advice today.”

“Your Lordship goes too far with your praise,” Xiahou Yuanfeng said with an unchanging expression. “This subordinate is undeserving of your respect. It’s just that I offended Your Lordship many times in the past, so I came today to offer advice. This subordinate also hopes Your Lordship will remember his kindness during your days of success. Don’t always bear a grudge against this subordinate, please.”

I could no longer contain myself and roared with laughter. “All right, all right, Xiahou Yuanfeng has proved himself worthy to be called Xiahou Yuanfeng. I presume you’re anxious to report back. I won’t hold you back anymore. Tell His Imperial Majesty that I will seek an audience with him in the palace tomorrow morning.”

Xiahou Yuanfeng smiled and replied, “This subordinate will unequivocally report Your Lordship’s message. However, this subordinate doesn’t know if you can give a jar of Deep Spring to him. This subordinate loves this wine very much.”

I gazed at Xiahou Yuanfeng’s face. I couldn’t see any semblance of insincerity or pretense on his face. The Deep Spring wine was sweet, soft, and mellow, but it didn’t suit the tastes of northern men. As a result, Changle didn’t give this wine to anyone but the empress dowager, the empress, and the Princess of Qi. Although, I surmised that even the Princess of Qi, Lin Bi, was fonder of the strong wine of the northern lands. I couldn’t stop myself from shaking my head a little. I lightly said, “Xiaoshunzi, have someone send a jar of Deep Spring to Xiahou daren’s residence.”

Xiahou Yuanfeng grinned and thanked me, then took his leave. As I gazed into the vast blowing snow at his graceful and elegant figure, admiration welled up inside me. I had to be careful. I used to be able to make this man dance in the palm of my hand, and he was content a majority of the time. If I didn’t take precautions, however, I feared I might suffer in the future.


Footnotes:

  1. 三顾频烦, sangu-pinfan – lit. three repeated visits; likely a reference to a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu entitled “Chancellor of Shu Han” (蜀相), which in turn is a reference to Liu Bei visiting Zhuge Liang three times to request his aid and recruit him
  2. 荆南 – the southern area of Jingzhou
  3. Still 宿州, Anhui Province
  4. 豪州 – modern-day Fengyan County, Anhui Province
  5. 睢阳 – modern-day Suiyang District in Shangqiu, Henan Province
  6. 盘根错节, pangen-cuojie – idiom, lit. twisted [coiled] roots and gnarled branches; fig. intertwined and intricate, deep-rooted and complicated
  7. 藕断丝连, ouduan-silian – idiom, lit. lotus roots may break, but the fiber remains joined; fig. distance makes the heart grow fonder, apparently severed but actually still connected
  8. 投鼠忌器, toushu-jiqi – idiom, lit. throw something at the mouse/rat but fear breaking a vase; fig. those who live in glass houses should not cast the first stone, take caution when acting, to not act against an evil so as to prevent harm to innocents
  9. Su Qin and Zhang Yi were political strategists alive during the Warring States period of China. Zhang Yi helped the Qin break alliances while Su Qin built alliances against the Qin.
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hweirdo's Thoughts

Sorry this chapter too so long. It's almost three times the length of a normal chapter, but I'm almost done with the next chapter, so look out for it soon. Also, a lot of the later chapters get to be nearly twice as long as previous chapters, so they're gonna take longer. There was also some tricky wording and stuff but no one cares to hear about that.