Volume 6, Chapter 21: A Night of Fishes and Dragons Dancing1
The Most Popular Courtesan Pageant on Xuanwu Lake may have flourished, but the majority of those interested were wealthy merchants and the sons of officials. However, tonight’s lantern show was suitable for all ages. Whether dignitary or commoner, all wore embroidered clothes and walked the streets celebrating on this night.
Colorful streamers and dazzling lights abounded in the city of Jianye; gorgeous festive lanterns competed to be the best-looking. The dark night and the lantern glow enhanced each other’s beauty, while the streets were bustling with activity, the traffic heavy. Rich families worked hard to flaunt their craftsmanship, competing on opulence and wealth. Gold and silver, lazurite glass, and gems decorated lanterns, turning them into luxurious lanterns that magically radiated light on all sides. Even more families had built stages near their gates. Every variety of juggling, acrobatics, and music was being performed onstage. It was wonderful and entertaining, attracting crowds of people. Families had also placed decorated tents near their gates. Inside hung lantern riddles. Gold, silver, and damask had been set out as prizes, so countless men and women stood there knitting their brows, thinking hard.
Within the crowds, Lu Yun and Shi Xiu walked the streets holding hands. At court today, the two of them had both received the reward of the position of sixth-ranked colonel. Although the rank was nominal, as the court couldn’t actually have them lead troops, it was still a rare honor. The two of them didn’t know this was just a token reward from the court, though, and was compensation used to offset Lu Can’s deserved reward. So the two of them danced with joy and promised to go out and enjoy the lanterns. Both of them were fearless, and coupled with their excellent martial arts, they didn’t bring any armed servants along, sneaking out of the mansion of the Duke Who Suppresses Distant Lands. This was Shi Xiu’s first time in Jianye, so she wasn’t familiar with the roads. Lu Yun worried she would get lost, as huge numbers of people roamed the streets, so he had been holding her hand the entire trip to prevent her from wandering away.
After walking for a while, the sights a dizzying feast for Shi Xiu’s eyes, they suddenly heard several men groaning and moaning in conversation. The men were talking about a stage placed by a rich family’s gate. Supposedly, the prize—an eight treasure, colored glass lantern—would be gifted to whomever could shoot an arrow through the hole in a cash coin. And if the winner’s age and appearance were suitable, the family would even betroth their daughter to the champion. These men were average with the bow, so they’d tried their luck. Shi Xiu wasn’t interested in the marriage proposal, of course, but when she heard she could win a lantern by shooting an arrow, she pricked up her ears. She said to Lu Yun, “Little brother Yun, we should go try. We can’t solve the riddles anyway.”
Lu Yun was also fairly interested in the contest, so he took Shi Xiu in the direction the men had mentioned. After walking for a little under the amount of time it took for a stick of incense to burn,2 they finally saw the bow and arrow challenge platform.
It was set up by a rich, influential, and powerful family. An open space occupied the area in front of the gate. One hundred paces3 away from the entrance of the family stood a pole. A red lantern hung from the top of the pole, and suspended on the bottom of the lantern was a cash coin. It was blowing in the wind. A decorated tent had been constructed next to the entrance, separated into an exterior and interior half by a muslin curtain. A middle-aged man with a remarkable bearing and dressed in finery acted as host for the exterior half. In the interior of the tent stood a table, upon which were placed exquisite bows and feathered arrows. The eight treasure, colored glass lantern serving as the prize was hanging over the entrance to the family’s home. It was an octagonal palace lantern, composed of sixty-four pieces of porcelain glass. Amid the connective woodwork was gold and silver filigree, as well as pearl and jasper decorations. The red candle in the lantern swayed, making it appear all the more crystal-clear and transparent. The pigeon egg-sized, resplendent pearl at the top of the precious lantern already made it worth a king’s ransom.4 No wonder so many people were itching to have a go. Even though Southern Chu advocated scholarship and scorned the military, archery was one of the Six Arts5 of a scholar. As a result, many people were willing to try their archery skills. However, they first had to pay ten taels, which made many people stop in their tracks.
Lu Yun made some calculations. The pole had been specially prepared and was a full ten zhang6 high. The coin was tiny and lightweight and hung only by a red thread from the lantern. It danced high up in the wintry wind. If an arrow were shot on an upward arc from this distance and at this target, it would certainly be tough. Even he couldn’t guarantee he could shoot through the coin. However, the placard on the top of the tent stated that only one arrow out of three attempts had to pass through the hole in the coin. As such, he thought he stood a fair chance.
Shi Xiu’s eyes brightened as she said, “Little brother Yun, did you bring taels?”
Lu Yun was about to advise Shi Xiu to not show off, but when their eyes met, Shi Xiu’s glowing, smiling eyes softened his heart. “You can try first. If you don’t succeed, I’ll try. I’m sure we can win the palace lantern.”
Shi Xiu rolled her eyes at him. “If I can’t do it, you think you can?”
Lu Yun was tongue-tied. Their archery was almost on par, so Shi Xiu wasn’t mistaken in saying this. In the end, he gave a wry smile and shoved a silver sycee into her hands.
Shi Xiu took the sycee and walked to the tent. The eyes of the audience lit up. Shi Xiu was wearing white clothing and looked handsome, her facial features confident. If she didn’t look young, the famous families’ young noblewomen who rarely came out would probably swoon over this dashing youth. She walked up and took an exquisite bow and three feathered arrows. Dropping off the sycee, she walked over to the white line. Squinting her eyes at the coin dancing in the wind, she focused on it and nocked an arrow. Then she pulled back on the bowstring, creating a full moon with the bow and string.
The spectators held their breath as they watched, wanting to see if this handsome youth could shoot through the hole in the cash coin. After a while, Shi Xiu still hadn’t loosed an arrow, and some of the people in the crowd began to crack jokes and relax. They felt this youth was just blustering.
Right at this moment, the bowstring twanged, and the feathered arrow disappeared like lightning. With a low, soft ringing, the feathered arrow passed through the square hole in the coin. Before the crowd could react, a second arrow arced through the sky and severed the red thread. The coin started falling to the ground when a third arrow cut through the air, catching the coin on the shaft. The arrow did not stop and buried itself in the pole behind the coin.
It was all silent. On this Lantern Festival night, this sort of silence felt exceptionally strange. Shi Xiu smiled and put the bow down. The area erupted into raucous cheering and applause, which put a small, proud smile on her ruddy face. She spun in a circle, bowing to the audience, then turned to look at the middle-aged man twirling his beard, lost in thought. “That eight treasure, colored glass lantern should be mine, correct?” she smiled and said.
The middle-aged man found it painful and embarrassing to speak. While he was hesitating, a silvery voice drifted out from the curtain behind him. “Supervisor Gao, since this young master has shot through the coin, you should present him the palace lantern.”
Shi Xiu was a little taken aback. Although she’d already seen several shadowy figures behind the curtain, she didn’t expect a lady to speak. Remembering the gossip she’d overheard, this family was also looking for marriage with the construction of the bow and arrow challenge platform. The woman behind the curtain was most likely the young lady of the family. Shi Xiu couldn’t help but feel rather awkward. Although she dressed well in men’s clothing and didn’t want to be regarded as a lady, she was still a normal young woman. She couldn’t stop herself from looking back at Lu Yun, who was mentally celebrating Shi Xiu’s archery skill.
They’d learned a lot from each other over these days, but he finally saw Shi Xiu’s true skill today. Seeing Shi Xiu’s plea for help, he went over and said with a smile, “Your master has already spoken, so why aren’t you getting the lantern, supervisor?”
When Lu Yun stood beside Shi Xiu, the eyes of the audience lit up again. Lu Yun may not have been as handsome as Shi Xiu, but his life experience plus his father’s nurturing gave him an air of majesty. The white clothing he wore, same as Shi Xiu, contrasted nicely with his outstanding martial bearing. Lu Yun and Shi Xiu set each other off beautifully as they stood side by side. It became more apparent these two people were extraordinary.
The middle-aged man gave an embarrassed smile and ordered a servant to fetch the palace lantern. Right as he stepped forward to start a conversation, the curtain was raised, and a young woman around sixteen in embroidered clothing walked out. She was wearing a light fur coat and brocade boots, her clothing luxurious. She looked delicate and charming, radiant and enchanting like spring flowers. Her eyes roamed around like tender spring waves. Her appearance made the spectators take a long, deep breath.
She went over and gently saluted Lu Yun and Shi Xiu. “I, Ji Lingxiang, have met the two young masters but don’t know how to address them. Although I’m giving you this palace lantern, I must also gift it to an innocent person. If it fell into the hands of a bad person, wouldn’t it be like casting pearls before swine?” she said at a rapid pace, though every word was crisp. It sounded like pearls bouncing on a jade plate.
Even Shi Xiu, a woman, was moved by the words. Even though she felt the other woman was resorting to sophistry, she wasn’t willing to argue.
Lu Yun, however, still had the same look on his face. “Miss, you didn’t say anything about inquiring into our family backgrounds when the lantern was hanging. Since we’ve shot through the cash coin, the lantern ought to be ours. If Miss wishes to break the promise, I’m afraid our gathered countrymen won’t agree.”
With these words, the spectators began to discuss it, even though they had been enraptured by the young woman’s beauty. Someone even teased, “Young miss, you can’t go back on your word. Aren’t you asking for this man’s identity because you like this little young master?”
The face of the young woman dressed in embroidered clothing changed color. She looked beautiful and had a rather powerful and rich backing, so she was used to getting her way. Nobody had ever disrespected her before. But now that Lu Yun had rebuked here and made rascals poke fun at her, she grew furious. Cold killing intent shone in her eyes.
Lu Yun may have been young and hotheaded, but how could he not feel anything for her beauty? However, he had gotten to know young women like Shi Xiu and the Princess of Zhaohua, Jiang Roulan. As a result, he didn’t feel much for Ji Lingxiang. In terms of appearance, Jiang Roulan and Ji Lingxiang were nearly on par; but when it came to bearing, they were as different as the Heavens and the Earth. Roulan carried herself with a natural tenderness and kindness, as well as the pride and disdain that came from being part of the imperial family. Her pride wasn’t just surface level, rather, it was self-confidence and self-respect ingrained in her bones. Though she was charming and gentle like the surface of water, the surface hid a roaring sea underneath. This was Jiang Roulan. Lu Yun might not truly understand Roulan yet, but their few meetings gave him a mental image of Roulan. Although she was as unattainable as the bright moon, he found it difficult to discard his adoration and respect for her.
Shi Xiu may not have been as pretty as Ji Lingxiang, but she was heroic and brave. She didn’t have any of the frailty and formality of ladies. However, she had a different sort of innate pride and charm, not to mention all the days they spent fighting side by side. At some point, the two of them became flesh and blood.
While Ji Lingxiang was beautiful and enchanting, as well as fairly prideful, she couldn’t compare to Roulan’s temperament or Shi Xiu’s friendship. Perhaps a normal young man would be captivated by her charm, but Lu Yun was a clay statue, devoid of emotion.
The supervisor had carried the palace lantern over by this time. The lantern was very elaborate. After taking out the candlestick, it could be neatly folded up. The supervisor placed it into a red brocade box and proffered it to Shi Xiu with both hands. After Shi Xiu received it, she walked out, overjoyed. Lu Yun followed her, grinning from ear to ear. The two of them didn’t look back at the young woman wearing embroidered clothing as they walked out talking between themselves.
Seeing the palace lantern had been won away, the spectators scattered to the winds, leaving behind the young woman dressed in embroidered clothing who was still grinding her silvery teeth while standing in front of the decorated tent. Her complexion turned livid. The purpose of setting up this bow and arrow challenge platform was to attract Lu Yun. That was the plan, anyway. The moment they found out Lu Yun had come out of his residence, they started acting. They purposefully had people gossip to attract Lu Yun and Shi Yujin over here. Though they had gotten them to come over, the one who won the lantern was actually Shi Yujin. The young woman wearing embroidered clothing didn’t know Shi Xiu was a woman, only that she was as famous as Lu Yun and named Shi Yujin. In her opinion, the poised and elegant Shi Yujin was more in line with her type, in fact. However, her master’s order was to use this bow and arrow challenge platform with a lantern as the prize to get closer to Lu Yun. Fortunately, Lu Yun’s talents and looks weren’t bad either. But she could never have expected Lu Yun to turn a blind eye to her. This kind of humiliation made her hate Lu Yun to the bone, and she secretly worried about whether her master would blame her.
Noticing her gloom, Supervisor Gao whispered, “Third Miss, there’s no need to worry. Even though this plan didn’t succeed, the Head won’t blame you.”
Ji Lingxiang sighed softly. “If it goes more smoothly on eldest apprentice sister’s side, and she becomes zhuangyuan of the courtesans, Master might be so happy he doesn’t blame me. Right now, Master is very irritated. I’m afraid it didn’t go well today.”
The middle-aged man whispered, “Don’t worry, Third Miss. The Head has already ordered the removal of those who spoiled our big plans. Liu Rumeng is just a forlorn and weak woman. Sooner or later, she’ll fall under our control.”
Ji Lingxiang didn’t say anything. She may have been young, but she wasn’t naïve. She hadn’t believed this task would be so easy to accomplish. Moreover, it didn’t matter what relationship she ended up having with him. She only worried about how she could pass the test set before her eyes.
“The Wheel of Dharma spins in the Heavens,Buddhist chanting drones on down from the skies.Endless treelike lantern poles light the night,Fireworks burst into seven petals.The moonlight rushes like running water,The spring breeze contains the scent of night plums.Here, the prime place for a burnt offering;The bell chimes from in the glazed pagoda.”7
A bright moon and tall buildings, ablaze with lights. Below was the bustling and crowded grand avenue. A moving voice drifted out of a half-opened window. Even on such a noisy night, the singing could be heard clearly.
Upstairs in the elegant chambers, a beautiful young woman, wearing a shawl and with her thick hair towering on her head, plucked a zither and crooned, her voice dreamlike. In one corner of the chambers, two men were smiling listening to her. Two gorgeous young women accompanied each of them. Once the song finished, the middle-aged man clapped. “Great song, great lyrics. Brother Song truly has literary talent. No wonder you helped Lady Liu win the title of Most Popular Courtesan. I’m just afraid you’ve offended others.”
The young man, his face steely but his eyes cloudy from drink, replied, “Brother Shang worries too much. If someone truly blames me for this trivial affair, at worst I’ll lay low for a period of time. It’s all water under the bridge. Few people should remember this happened. In fact, Brother Shang seems in a great mood today. Could it be that you wanted to see me make a fool of myself?”
The middle-aged man laughed. He pushed the beautiful woman in his arms out of his embrace and said to the young man, “Brother Song, thank you for your stratagem. The last few days, when my father has convened advisors to discuss official business, he has often given me words of encouragement. As for your recent deeds, I’ll speak nothing of them, don’t worry. And I’m sure I can convince the Moonlight Pavilion to not make things difficult for you.”
Yulun gave a brief smile at the words. “Actually, your esteemed father also hopes you succeed in life, which is why he used to spur you on, Brother Shang. Brother Shang wields the laws and discipline of the court as a ranking minister. If you can heed the advice of your aides and be decisive at pivotal moments, then you’ll be a good minister. I believe your esteemed father thought you, Brother Shang, would accept my humble opinion and apply it at the appropriate moment, so he encouraged you often, brother. And after all, Grand General Lu is Southern Chu’s jade pillar holding up the Heavens. Your esteemed father wants only to constrain him a little, lest he go astray. I’m afraid my humble opinion was never regarded by Prime Minister Shang.”
Shang Chengye looked smug, and he proudly said, “But of course. Father still looks down on the Lu boys. Moreover, that man has often colluded with Great Yong’s important ministers and our Southern Chu’s traitorous minister, Jiang Zhe. If it weren’t for the fact that the man still raised morale, I’m afraid Father would have punished him long ago.”
Yulun got interested and purposely said, “Oh, Brother Shang is talking about the Marquis of Chu who married a princess of Great Yong. Although I think he has no moral integrity, his achievements to this day are almost certainly extraordinary. I heard he helped the Yong Emperor in the succession struggle and also helped the Prince of Qi conquer Northern Han. This ability and skill is rarely seen in the world. The skill and ability Grand General Lu displayed when beating back the three army columns of Yong by himself is also extremely uncommon. No wonder people say the two of them are peas in a pod, master and disciple. However, Grand General Lu is a veteran general of Southern Chu and ought to place righteousness before family.”
Shang Chengye clapped. “Exactly. That Jiang Zhe betrayed the King’s grace. He defected to the enemy for riches and glory and also took a princess of Great Yong as a bride. It was truly the highest of treason. Lu Can may have studied under him, but the Lu family is an aristocratic family in Southern Chu. They ought to place righteousness before family, but not only did Lu Can defend Jiang Zhe in every way, he even let his own son travel to Chang’an, a rather suspicious display of fraternizing with the enemy. If not for the hindrance of his recent meritorious victories, Father absolutely wouldn’t have let this go. There’s also that Jing family in Jiaxing, the mother’s side of Jiang Zhe’s family. Father intends to eliminate the Jing family, but Lu Can has again placed obstacles in the way. This is truly outrageous.”
“This is most likely because the Prime Minister is too impatient,” Yulun said with a smile. “Grand General Lu is world-renowned for always being strict and impartial in doling out rewards and punishments. He’ll never consent to wiping out an entire clan without a reason. But, Brother Shang, even though the Jing family already cut off contact with Jiang Zhe, they’re still the mother’s side of Marquis Jiang’s family. Does the Prime Minister not fear offending him?”
Shang Chengye said in a disdainful voice, “If not for pleasing Grand General Lu, my father would have acted against the Jing family long ago. Jiang Zhe’s reputation may precede him, but the majority of it probably comes from Great Yong’s Imperial Family boasting for the sake of Princess Changle’s image. My father also met him years ago. If he actually had talent, how would my father not see it? Unless that man had schemes and intrigues. It’s quite possible he was a tremendous help during the succession crisis, but if you say he had the ability to help Li Xian eliminate Northern Han, I simply can’t believe you. What can he possibly do as a scholar without the strength to even truss a chicken? I assume he only helps the Yong Emperor keep a watch on Li Xian, the Prince of Qi.”
From these words, Yulun learned the upper class of Southern Chu held Jiang Zhe in contempt, as expected. He guessed this was perhaps Shang Weijun and company downplaying their enemy as a measure to maintain morale. However, he could see that even Shang Chengye did not understand Jiang Zhe’s skill and ability, so he knew Shang Weijun and company also might not think much of Jiang Zhe. Back when he received instruction from Jiang Zhe, he learned how much harm underestimating one’s enemy caused. However, he didn’t want to reverse Shang Chengye’s impression, so he just said with a smile, “Since that’s the case, if the Prime Minister orders people to act slowly, I think it will be effective. The Jing family is also an aristocratic family, so they must have depraved sons. If someone is discovered to have broken the law, punish them. Even if Grand General Lu intends to protect the family, can he really make things difficult for the Prime Minister over one or two people?”
Shang Chengye’s eyes lit up. He pondered the feasibility of this plan for a long time, then revealed a proud smile. He thought that not only would this method satisfy his father’s desires, it would also deal a secret blow to the Lu family. If his father knew, he would definitely be quite happy.
Yulun knew from Shang Chengye’s expression that he’d had Shang Chengye come under his control, so he purposely changed the topic. He had mastered both musical temperament and lyrics, and he could tell thrilling stories in eloquent language. Shang Chengye soon forgot the recent interlude and focused on being entertained.
In the dead stillness of night, as the signs of human habitation on the streets outside gradually dissipated, Shang Chengye, long since hopelessly drunk, helped up the beautiful women and went into the inner chambers to seek pleasure. Yulun, however, placed his wine at the window and gazed at the bright moon setting in the west, his face gloomy. In the quiet of the night, he always had a difficult time easing the loneliness in his heart, so he usually indulged in women and song until dawn. But tonight was different. He knew someone somewhere was spying on him. In addition, they had driven away passersby to prevent him from finding an opportunity to blend in with the crowds and escape, and force him to give them an opportunity. He took out a pill that cured inebriation from his waist pocket and swallowed the medicine. He circulated his internal energy several times and felt his mental fortitude had steadied. He gently pressed against the lattice of the window, and he flew like a goose onto the street. He landed on the ground like a falling petal, lightly and soundlessly.
A soft gasp of surprise came from the darkness. Before long, a female figure in black robes appeared in the thick morning fog. The woman’s face was veiled by light muslin, and though she moved slowly, she gave off a noble and graceful aura. Two maids in robelike tunics followed close behind her. Neither of these two maidens hid their faces, displaying their young and beautiful, delicate and charming facial features. It was obvious at a glance that they were no more than twenty years old. However, their threatening, piercing auras left him in disbelief, surprised the two of them hadn’t reached the young age of twenty.
Yulun gazed at the three women, a flippant grin appearing on his elegant face. “So Moonlight Pavilion had such beautiful swordswomen all along. I truly admire that. But may I learn the names of these girls?” he asked.
The two maidens showed severe killing intent on their faces, while the woman standing between them had ice-cold murder in her eyes shining through the light muslin draped over her still veiled face. She coldly replied, “Song Yu, since you’re fond of smooth talking, if this seat kills you, it won’t count as slaughtering the innocent.”
Song Yu smiled and was about to speak when he saw the lady in black wave her hand. The two maidens drew their swords and charged, the blades gleaming with infinite killing intent. These two young women had outstanding swordsmanship and cooperated with the utmost rapport. In an instant, Song Yu was scrambling to defend himself. The two young women were encouraged by each other, as they were frequent assassins, and forced Song Yu to keep retreating. The lady in black gently nodded, seemingly quite satisfied with the two maids’ swordsmanship.
But then the tables turned. Song Yu staggered and fell backwards, and the two young women slashed downward simultaneously. His life hanging by a thread, Song Yu turned into a wiggling fish and slipped out from under the two women’s swords. At the same time, he lightly pointed the folding fan in his hands, and two dark bolts of lightning buried themselves in the two young women’s throats. Their delicate bodies simultaneously shuddered, and the two maidens collapsed.
Song Yu was already standing to the side like nothing had happened. The lady in black looked shocked as her gaze turned to the two young women. She coldly said, “What a sinister concealed weapon, killing people with a smile. Sire has quite the cruel heart.”
A hint of arrogance appeared on Song Yu’s face. “I’ve killed countless people,” he sneered, “and have never appreciated the beauty of women. Let these two girls serve as a warning.8 So, does Miss still wish to fight me?”
“Sire is quite brash. When this seat made a name for herself, you probably hadn’t finished your apprenticeship yet,” said the lady in black impassively. “Have at you!” A sharp sword was already at Song Yu’s chest before she finished speaking. Song Yu rapidly retreated from the strikes of the sword. The two of them acted in concert like they had done this thousands of times before. There was no gap between person and blade.
When the momentum behind the sword was about to run out, Song Yu threw up his fan, the move the peak of excellence. The lady in black was caught off guard and retracted her sword to block. Song Yu seized this opportunity to go on the offensive, and the two of them fought hard in the fog. The lady in black’s swordsmanship was marvelous. The glint of her sword reflected by the setting moonlight looked like snow, and the dazzling, multicolored streamers surrounded the two of them. Song Yu was light on his feet, dancing without end between the glinting of the sword. He swiftly opened and closed his folding fan, his every movement vivid and fluid, easy and graceful without a bit of killing intent. But whenever the lady in black showed a slight opening, his attacks would turn vicious and ruthless, soundlessly bypassing the lady in black’s attempts to trap him with her sword. He aimed for her vital points, forcing her to pull her sword back in defense.
After more than a hundred exchanges of blows, the two of them were still evenly matched. The murder in the lady in black’s eyes grew stronger. She’d become world famous over ten years prior and had never expected to be forced into a stalemate by a young man almost eighteen years her younger.
Right at this moment, a soft shout came from the tall building on the other side of the street. “Stop.” Then a purple figure skittered to the ground the second the lady in black and Song Yu were separating. The two of them turned their attention there and saw an old man in purple robes. He appeared dignified and had a stern look on his face. Although he didn’t carry a weapon, his hands were white as jade and very dazzling. A thought popped into Song Yu’s head, and he realized who this old man was. This man was an expert named Ou Yuanning, an iron fist in a velvet glove personally employed by Shang Weijun. Song Yu had heard this man’s martial arts were unfathomable and that he was close to the Xiantian realm. He was a trusted aide of Shang Weijun, so Song Yu was surprised he appeared here. Realizing the man’s status, Song Yu put on a respectful demeanor and dared not speak. The lady in black slightly furrowed her slender eyebrows, seeming to make a somewhat difficult decision.
The old man coolly said, “Thank you, Miss. This man is young master Shang’s best friend, and the Prime Minister has a rather good understanding of him. Everyone is working to serve the Prime Minister, so why must you be at one another’s throats? Report my message back to Head Ji and Head Yan. They’ll understand.”
The lady in black let out a long sigh in the end and sheathed her sword. She curtsied, then turned and left. Before long, several middle-aged women appeared and carried away the corpses of the two young women.
The old man sighed sadly. “You used to be a good person. How did you become a criminal? I never imagined the formerly famous disciple would fall to this level of ruin. It’s truly lamentable. Song Yu, this old man is already aware from observation that you’ve committed countless serious crimes in Southern Chu’s territory under the pseudonym Merciless Gentleman. Some people are calling you the best killer in Jiangnan. When you vanished without a trace all those years ago, I never imagined you’d end up living in seclusion in Jianye. What’s your purpose in getting close to my family’s young master?”
Song Yu did not feel panicked in the least, but he put on an alarmed and murderous expression from being exposed. He said in a guarded tone, “Is Senior Ou trying to uphold virtue and condemn evil? Although I used to be a professional hitman, I’ve washed my hands of it and retired.9 As for becoming friends with young master Shang, there’s nothing behind it.” He could feel the old man staring hard at his face. If he showed any slight tell, he would incur the wrath of the old man. However, he didn’t tell any lies. His friendship with Shang Chengye was truly pure, except he had used Shang Chengye today to complete his mission. As for the revelation of him being a killer, it was done deliberately. It would explain his absence for the past ten or so years.
As expected, the old man said with a smile, “This old man would never poke his nose into others’ business, but he feels it’s a little pitiable. Song Min, you used to be a young talent. It’s sad you’ve fallen to become a killer. Mend your ways today, or realize the errors of your ways and get back on the right path, so to speak. This old man has already inquired, and the friendship between you and the young master is indeed natural. However, even if you had gotten close to the young master with the express purpose of using him as a stepping stone, it still wouldn’t have been wrong. The Prime Minister thinks rather highly of you and already ordered that your criminal record be expunged. From today onward, nobody will find out you’re the Merciless Gentleman. It won’t be difficult for you to earn an official rank by the taking the traditional path if you want to either.”
Song Yu made a strange face, as if a bit embarrassed his youthful activities had been dug up by the old man, but also quite grateful for Shang Weijun’s grace. He bowed low and replied, “I’m ashamed. I failed to live up to my late father’s teachings. It’s just that I’ve wandered the world and long cast aside the thought of official rank. Please, senior, convey my message to the Prime Minister. Although, young master Shang sees me as a brother, so I intend to work hard for him. If the Prime Minister believes it improper, I’ll no longer meet with young master Shang.”
Realization flashed in the old man’s eyes, and he softened. “So that’s how it is. As you no longer care about official rank, this old man won’t force it upon you. However, you must know your place and be content. You can no longer act mercilessly like this. They let you go today because they saw my old face. If they knew you weren’t under Prime Minister Shang’s protection anymore, you would have suffered a tragic reprisal. Since you and young master Shang happened to become friends, take full advantage of it. Take good care of yourself,” he said evenly.
Song Yu gave a mental sneer at the words, knowing the old man was coercing him to serve the Shang family. Song Yu feared that if he tried to free himself and leave, he would suffer a disastrous death. However, he had long expected this outcome and purposely revealed a terrified expression. He bowed in respect and declared, “Many thanks for senior’s counsel. Song Yu is truly appreciative.” When he lifted his head again, the purple robed old man had already vanished from sight. Song Yu gave a slight smile, but a surge of melancholy washed over him. He accepted the mission to get close to Shang Chengye to use him to influence Shang Weijun’s decisions. The danger of this mission spoke for itself. However, he was all alone in the world at the beginning and thus fearless. Now, though, he had a concern and only hoped to not involve Liu Rumeng.
Song Yu had no way of knowing a dignified man was watching him through a bead curtain. Once Song Yu disappeared from view, the man sighed softly and said to the middle-aged man behind him, “Why did we not discover someone like him lingering around Jianye?”
The middle-aged man said with great trepidation, “Head Wei, this is something we had no control over. Our Chen Hall’s power in Jianye has been inhibited by the Yihuang Hall, so it’s natural to be ill-informed. If our spy hadn’t discovered that Head Ji had asked Protector Xie to act, would we have known this had taken place?”
The dignified man was Wei Ying. He coldly stated, “This Song Yu looks distinguished and is crafty. Just from watching his skill at helping Liu Rumeng claim the title of Most Popular Courtesan, it’s clear this man has exceptional wisdom. A man like him should be enlisted into service, yet Head Ji wanted to kill him to vent her anger. What a shortsighted shrew.”
The middle-aged man was afraid to respond and stayed silent.
Wei Ying sneered. “Unfortunately, that man fell into Shang Weijun’s hands. I can only treat him as an enemy. Have operatives keep an eye on him and report back every so often.” The middle-aged man made repeated assurances as a cold light gleamed in Wei Ying’s eyes. He somehow felt this young man would bring him a tremendous amount of trouble, but if he killed the youth, he would likely enrage Shang Weijun. And he still didn’t want to betray the Shang family. “The enemy is growing restless, but this place was only a jockey for position. What a disappointment!” he sighed.
- 一夜鱼龙舞, yiye yulongwu – fig. a night of fishlike dances and dragon lanterns; likely a reference to a poem by Southern Song Dynasty poet Xin Qiji (辛弃疾)entitled “Night of the Lantern Festival, to the Tune ‘Sapphire Tray’”(青玉案·元夕) that contrasts the celebration of the Lantern Festival with an aloof woman who represents the poet’s frustration with the government
- A stick of incense took about 10-15 minutes to burn; faster during the winter, slower during the summer.
- 147 meters (around 160 yards)
- 价值连城, jiazhi-liancheng – lit. the price of several cities; fig. priceless, invaluable, worth a fortune
- The Six Arts are: rites or etiquette (礼), music (乐), archery (射), charioteering or equestrianism (御), calligraphy or literacy (书), and mathematics (数). A man who excelled in these was thought of as a perfect gentleman.
- 24.6 meters (around 80 feet)
- This is a poem entitled “Traveling on Lantern Festival Night on the Main Thoroughfare and Climbing South Tower” (元夕于通衢建灯夜升南楼) by Sui Dynasty poet Yang Di (炀帝).
- 前车之鉴, qianchezhijian – lit. warning from the (overturned) cart in front; fig. learn from predecessors’ mistakes, serve as warning
- 金盆洗手, jinpen-xishou – lit. wash one’s hands in a gold basin, fig. abandon the life of an outlaw
Happy holidays and a good new year!