Volume 6, Chapter 29: Wugou Glints Like Snow

Volume 6, Chapter 29: Wugou Glints Like Snow 


The twenty-sixth day of the second month of the eighth year of Longsheng was a warm and sunny day. Pei Yun was standing in the Zhenhuai Tower before a window, overlooking the scenery of the city, his calm face belying a tinge of gloom. The Battle of Huaidong had been a failure. Though they occupied Chuzhou and Sizhou, he still couldn’t feel good about himself. He had received an imperial decree to only tie up the Southern Chu military in Huaidong and couldn’t take advantage of Lu Can being trapped in Wuyue to take the initiative and sally forth, which annoyed him. He thought of how smoke and fire permeated Xiangyang and how Zhangsun Ji’s Nanyang Barracks had been reinforced to three hundred thousand strong while he hadn’t gotten any reinforcements yet. Currently, the Xuzhou Barracks didn’t even have a hundred thousand men. Even if he wanted to launch a major military operation, he didn’t have enough reserves to do so. How could he not be annoyed?

The other thing that annoyed him was the newly appointed Governor of Chuzhou, Luo Jing. He had planned to wait until the situation stabilized to dismiss Gu Yuanyong and replace him to avoid an unstable foundation. Back when Luo Louzhen controlled Chuzhou, Gu Yuanyong had heart but no power, making errors with every handling of government affairs, but ever since submitting to Great Yong, he surprisingly became divinely helpful. He organized all of Chuzhou’s administrative work clearly and logically. When Pei Yun was first beaten back from Yangzhou, maintaining a grip on the front line of Chuzhou and Sizhou truly was mostly down to Gu Yuanyong’s assistance. Pei Yun was a man who gave fair rewards and punishments, so when he saw Gu Yuanyong supremely competent, he intended to allow him to continue holding his post.

However, the court had already dispatched Luo Jing to serve as the Governor of Chuzhou. Although Pei Yun was less than willing, this act could be explained away. After all, the location of Chuzhou was extremely important. But although Luo Jing’s skill was outstanding, his temper was terrible and cruel. His method of ruling Chuzhou was heavy-handed and provoked the commoners of Chuzhou into open discontent. If he were placed elsewhere, Pei Yun wouldn’t oppose him, but Chuzhou was a key location on the front lines, as well as newly captured. The city needed to be placated, so he hinted at this to Luo Jing. However, the new governor was conceited in his great talent and refused to make the slightest concession. If it were someone else, Pei Yun would probably beat him up with the military rod before sending him scurrying back. After all, Chuzhou was still an occupied city and needed Pei Yun to administrate it.

However, the new governor’s backer was extremely tough, being the beloved son-in-law of the current empress’s elder brother, Gao Rong. And Gao Rong was an important minister to the Yong emperor, having the distinction of assisting the crown prince, Li Jun, in overseeing Youzhou. He had an extremely high status in the emperor’s mind. Although Pei Yun didn’t fear Gao Rong, he was a defeated general right now, so he didn’t want to rashly offend Gao Rong. However, this caused the civil and military sides to be at odd. How could they press on Huaidong with full force? Pei Yun couldn’t not be annoyed by such a frustrating matter.

Pei Yun stood at the window, silent. Standing behind him, Gu Yuanyong was calm and collected. As an official who’d submitted, he’d made ample preparations beforehand. As for the safety of his family, he wasn’t worried. The Gu family of Hengyang had continued for many generations. It would never be wiped out because of one unworthy son. Right now, he only needed to worry about his own family and life.

He was a person who knew which way the wind blew. He had always been a son of Southern Chu nobility and had devoted himself to his studies, passing the imperial examination with honors. To gain glory for his family and clan, he became an official in Chuzhou and adopted a beastly strategy: He would put his own safety before matters of principle. Even though he argued with Luo Louzhen for the sake of Chuzhou’s citizenry and soldiery, he controlled it to be within Luo Louzhen’s tolerable range. He also took pains to bond with the officers of the Chuzhou Barracks, giving him an escape route, if needed, by pleading for their help and favor.

When the Yong army captured Chuzhou, he gloomily submitted, but Pei Yun entrusted him with an important duty. So he did his utmost to accomplish it. Now that he was removed from office, he didn’t have any more concerns, simply considering whether he should look for an opportunity to return home or to continue waiting for an appointment from the Yong court. Gu Yuanyong believed himself to just be an average person, powerless to contend for power. As long as it didn’t overly violate his interests, there was no big difference between being a Yong subject or a Southern Chu subject. Of course, if Southern Chu counterattacked and retook the region, he wouldn’t immediately submit back. After all, one shouldn’t go back to past experiences.2 But if a person from Great Yong tried to get him to do something ludicrous like persuading his relatives to submit to Great Yong and work from without and within to attack Southern Chu, he would never be willing to do so. Gu Yuanyong had always been like this, so Pei Yun intended to leave him in Chuzhou, and he stayed as a matter of course, proudly walking alongside Pei Yun. Meanwhile, the new governor didn’t know that many of his edicts unpopular with the Chuzhou people hadn’t incited riots because of Gu Yuanyong’s orders to the Chuzhou officials to only pay lip service to the laws and to hide the truth.

Pei Yun stood there for a long time before finally shaking his head in helplessness. “Forget it, I won’t keep thinking about these concerns. Gu daren, let’s change clothes and go out for a bit. A distraction would be nice.”

Gu Yuanyong smiled and replied, “General is normally busy with military affairs, so you have only a cursory understanding of the city of Chuzhou. If you wish to relax today, let Yuanyong accompany you to admire the scenery of Huai’an.”

Pei Yun smiled and nodded, then glanced back at Du Lingfeng. “Today’s outing is just for leisure. You’re not allowed to cause trouble.”

Du Lingfeng hastily agreed, blushing. He was pugnacious by nature and always liked to make trouble. If not for this reason, he would’ve officially joined the army already.

Although Pei Yun wanted to go out to relax, the three of them were too conspicuous. Pei Yun was thirty-four this year, but he’d practiced Buddhist cultivation techniques since childhood. His internal energy was so refined he looked younger than thirty years old. Coupled with his exceptional looks and bearing, everyone would pay him attention even if he were wearing everyday garb, not to mention the patrolling soldiers who would have to salute him when they encountered him. And Gu Yuanyong was the former Governor of Chuzhou, who everyone knew. When Du Lingfeng had nothing to do, he loitered around the city, and a huge number of people recognized him too. In full view of people, they would have no way of enjoying their stroll. Pei Yun laughed at himself, a light shining in his eyes. Spotting a small yet elegant restaurant on the side of the road, he strode inside.

The restaurant’s waiter stumbled over himself to welcome them in. The proprietor ran over in a few steps, then lowered his head and bowed, guiding the three men upstairs. There were only around seven tables upstairs, with the three tables facing the windows fenced off by screens, bamboo shades of flaxen hanging on them. It all looked elegant and unique.

Gu Yuanyong may have lived in Chuzhou for many years, but he had never come to this small restaurant before. Seeing it today, he felt a deep sense of regret for not noticing it earlier. The three men sat down before a window, ordered some dishes and wine, then drank and chatted. Pei Yun pushed open the window and looked down. People were coming and going on the street. It looked much more interesting than the unfrequented roads people kept away from around the Zhenhuai Tower. He increasingly felt that wearing plain clothes to go out incognito was the right choice.

The proprietor guided another several customers upstairs at this time. The proprietor hadn’t wanted to entertain any other guests upstairs today, but Du Lingfeng was quite smart and knew Pei Yun had come out today to relax. More people would only make him happy, so Du Lingfeng warned the proprietor not to disclose that there were distinguished guests upstairs and had him treat things as usual. Although the proprietor dared not refuse, he still stayed cautious and judged whether the customers were problematic before taking them upstairs.

This party had a total of six customers and had clearly traveled a long way and were people of considerable status, so he could rest easy in inviting them upstairs. Two among them walked off by themselves and sat at the table on Pei Yun’s left side. The other four people picked seats by the stairs, away from the partitioned area. The distinction between master and servant was apparent.

The proprietor was just about to turn around and head downstairs when he caught sight of two handsome scholars heading upstairs. The two men looked similar, though one was taller than the other and older by one or two years. The proprietor was astonished at the sight. The two men were brothers. The elder brother was Zhou Ming, the younger, Zhou Hui.3 They had always come to the upstairs section of his restaurant to drink. Zhou Ming had the most unruly and wild behavior and always had a few rebellious words to say. It was normally no issue as no one would report him, but distinguished guests were upstairs today. Thinking of this, the proprietor was about to go over to discourage him, but Zhou Ming was surprisingly laughing, “Old Du, you said last time a jug of green plum wine could be opened today. We brothers specifically came today to drain a few cups.”

The proprietor gave a mental sigh, knowing it was too late to stop him. He could only vaguely say, “That green plum wine is both sour and tart. Only you brothers like it.”

Zhou Ming laughed again, while Zhou Hui just smiled. Zhou Ming said, “Old Du, you fermented the green plum wine using wild plums picked during the summer that were seventy percent ripe and mixing in winter ice and snow. Although it tastes sour and tart, it has a different flavor too. How could a layman understand? And it’s not only us brothers who like it. Qingpu’s favorite is also this wine. It’s just that he can’t come today.” Towards the end, his tone grew a little heavy.

The proprietor was surprised again. He quickly changed the topic. “Aren’t there two other gentlemen who’re coming to drink? This humble one will be going to get the wine. Both of you gentlemen, please sit.” Then he approached the two men and was about to whisper, but he heard a snort. He trembled, feeling a piercing gaze coming from behind the bamboo shades. He was forced to head downstairs. Just before heading down, he quietly looked back to see the Zhou brothers sensing nothing amiss, like they hadn’t heard that snort. He felt it strange, but he could only be sad.

Pei Yun was smiling thinly behind the screen. He had made the noise to warn off the proprietor, but he still felt worry creep in. When he thought of the ever-growing antagonism the Chuzhou populace had for Great Yong, he couldn’t prevent himself from sighing gently.

The Zhou brothers abruptly walked to the rightmost table facing the windows like they owned the place. Zhou Ming walked while saying to his little brother, “Last year, when you and I saw off brother Qingpu to distant places, we promised we’d reunite here today and drink Old Du’s newly fermented green plum wine together. Unfortunately, Chuzhou now belongs to Great Yong, and the roads have been cut off. Brother Qingpu will fail to be here today.”

“This comes as no surprise. Chuzhou no longer belongs to Southern Chu. Brother Qingpu’s word may be worth its weight in gold, but he can only gaze at the unripe plums and sigh. His home he cannot return to; his country he cannot head for,” said Zhou Hui.

“This may not be the case, in truth,” said Zhou Ming with a smile. “Brother Qingpu is a master of both brush and sword, always determined to save the country. Just, he hates to see the fatuity of the court, so floated about as free as duckweed, uninterested in pursuing a career in government. However, with Grand General Lu now in charge of Huaidong, brother Qingpu might just be in Yangzhou or Guangling. Although the two armies are in a deadlock, if he tries to come back, he might be able to, considering his skill. And brother Qingpu has never failed to keep a promise, which is why I wanted to wait here for him today. Otherwise, if he risks his life to return yet we brothers are hiding at home too scared to go out, we’d be ashamed to face our good friend.”

“Elder brother should watch his words. In little brother’s opinion, brother Qingpu not coming is for the best. He regards Sir Hua as a father,” Zhou Hui rebutted. “If brother Qingpu learns of the sad tidings of his death, he won’t be willing to give up. But that thief, Luo, is the Governor of Chuzhou and holds immense power. If brother Qingpu tries to seek revenge, I fear he’ll lose his life instead.”

Zhou Ming sighed heavily in response.

Pei Yun hadn’t been paying any attention to the other diners upstairs, but the Zhou brothers hadn’t lowered their voices in any deliberate fashion, so he clearly heard their conversation. He looked at Gu Yuanyong, suspicion expressed in his eyes.

Gu Yuanyong also heard the two brothers’ conversation and was worrying for them, then met Pei Yun’s eyes. He hesitated, words difficult for him to form, so it was Du Lingfeng who whispered, “I believe the general has forgotten about these two individuals. Last year, when our army was defeated at Guazhou Ferry, that one, Zhou Ming, wrote a prose poem mocking you, General. He also said publicly that Lu Can would surely recapture Chuzhou. Such arrogance would ordinarily be asking for a beheading, but Martial Uncle didn’t care. You just had Gu daren restrain them.

“After Luo daren assumed his post, he got into many disputes with the officials and poor scholars in the city and assigned people to surveil them. Once they said anything inappropriate, they were imprisoned and denounced. Now, the majority of officials in the city have shut themselves in their homes to avoid ruin. I fear that the only people downstairs are Luo daren’s secret agents. As for the Sir Hua they referred to, I believe it’s Hua Xuan, a famous scholar in the city. As for that brother Qingpu, I believe it’s Zhuang Qingpu, a gifted scholar from Chuzhou who left two years ago after injuring Luo Louzhen’s soldiers. Zhuang Qingpu is the leader of the Chuzhou officials. He is best friends with the Zhou brothers.”

Only now did Pei Yun remember but merely smiled briefly. He had never taken those arrogant literati’s condemnations to heart. As long as Great Yong steadily won battles, those people would naturally stop ranting and raving over time. But dealing with the events surrounding Hua Xuan would be quite the hassle. The man had had extensive knowledge, and six or seven out of ten Confucian scholars in the city called themselves his disciple. Ever since the Yong army had marched into the city, Hua Xuan had shut himself in his home. Luo Jing tried to force him to become an official of Great Yong to win the hearts of the officials, but the offer was harshly rejected. In rage, Luo Jing locked Hua Xuan up in prison.

It was Gu Yuanyong who personally appealed to Pei Yun for mercy. Pei Yun wrote a personal order commanding Luo Jing to release the man, which allowed the old master to escape from the ruin of prison. Yet Hua Xuan was still old and frail and had even suffered abuse in the prison. Not a fortnight after leaving prison, he died of illness. If not for Gu Yuanyong’s intervention and Pei Yun’s timely increase of the garrison size, the Chuzhou scholars paying their respects to the deceased at the Hua family home would’ve caused a riot.

Afterwards, Luo Jing had even written a letter to the court accusing Pei Yun of misconduct, indulging the enemy, and slighting his person. It made Pei Yun so angry he nearly fainted, but he had a staid disposition. Although he was infuriated, he didn’t show it. He simply sent a memorial folded in pleats defending himself. He thought of how forcefully Luo Jing was trying to smother him, but wouldn’t it be much easier to cause trouble? If the people were riled up, how could he keep the peace in Chuzhou? Thinking of this, Pei Yun grew more despondent and thought, If that Zhuang Qingpu really comes, I’ll take him back to the barracks, lest he seek out Luo Jing for revenge. An unfortunate loss of a talented man. Slightly shaking his head, Pei Yun gazed out the window again.

Gu Yuanyong, meanwhile, was furrowing his brows to himself. Zhuang Qingpu was a famous scholar of Jianghuai, fiercely loyal by nature. He had excellent literary skill and was an expert in swordsmanship. He was a rare, younger generational talent from Chuzhou. His parents had already passed away, and he had few relatives in his family. If not for Hua Xuan loving his aptitude and taking him into his own family to care for, Zhuang Qingpu likely wouldn’t have reached adulthood. If he heard news of Hua Xuan’s death, Gu Yuanyong feared he really would seek Luo Jing out for revenge. Zhuang Qingpu had an exceptional reputation among the Chuzhou officials. If he rallied the masses to his call and set off a revolt, that would be tremendous trouble. Gu Yuanyong didn’t know what Pei Yun was thinking, so he was worried Zhuang Qingpu would risk coming here today. He thought hard about how to lead Pei Yun away or how to privately meet with Zhuang Qingpu and persuade him to not foment a riot. However, when he saw Pei Yun sitting there drinking wine and admiring the scenery, he lost all thoughts of getting up. He also didn’t dare to give any indications of what he was up to or signal to the Zhou brothers. Gu Yuanyong became even more anxious.

The proprietor finally arrived back, holding a small wine jug. Breaking open the clay seal at the top of the jug, the fragrance of wine spilled forth, already smelling lonely.

Zhou Ming poured a pale green liquid into a small cup, took a sip, then loudly recited:

“Dawn mist shrouds Qin Tower,
Again adding to the parting sorrow.
Facing the wind, I pour one out for the country.
Singing all of ‘Yang Pass’4makes it hard to stay,
This regret lingering.”

He sang this several times over, his tone melancholic.

Pei Yun slightly furrowed his brows at the singing. Although he didn’t really understand poetry, he did know this was the first half of the poem “Waves Wash Sand.” So why didn’t Zhou Ming, a talented man, not finish the second half of the poem?

Then a clear and aloof voice came from the stairs, continuing:

“Green plums collected fill my sleeves,
Light snow falling.
Fermenting yearly into Du Family Wine.
Drinking alone on a skiff,
Until dead drunk.”

Zhou Ming and Zhou Hui were both pleasantly surprised. Zhou Ming even burst out from behind the bamboo shades and gazed at the stairs, crying out in question, “Brother Qingpu, have you really returned?”

Pei Yun was shocked. He never expected Zhuang Qingpu to actually arrive. Disregarding for the moment how he got through the city gates, the man’s capacity for keeping his promise was astonishing. Pei Yun gazed through the bamboo shades and saw Zhou Ming clasp a scholar’s arm and look at him. Tears were flooding down Zhou Ming’s face. He was clearly touched and excited. The white-robed scholar was quite excited as well, but his expression also contained a calm determination.

Pei Yun studied them closely, seeing the scholar had bladelike eyebrows and big, bright eyes. He had a charming and graceful bearing, young and talented. He truly looked like a dandy. He had an exceptional comportment, though his whole body emanated an aura of aloof arrogance and superb elegance, losing some of the friendliness. The scholar wore wide robes of snow white and a sash, the large sleeves of the robe billowing. A sharp sword three chi5 long was cinched at his waist, and it was unlike those light, decorative swords whose sole purpose was to look pretty. Instead, it was a simple and unadorned sword with a black hilt resting in a black scabbard. This scholar was clearly a master of both brush and sword.

Pei Yun gave a mental sigh of admiration. His eyes swept by and landed on the face of the scholar. Even though the intensity of his expression hadn’t lessened, a shadow had fallen over his eyes on his wan face. In addition, a faint burgundy spot appeared on both his temples. Pei Yun’s heart fluttered, and he sighed sadly and softly to himself, “A pity, what a pity!”

Surprisingly, an elegant voice came from a table to the left. “What a pity for such talent.”

Pei Yun was taken aback. He gazed left, the voice sounding a little familiar, but he couldn’t see the customer’s looks due to the partition created by the screen. He couldn’t think of who it was in the moment.

Du Lingfeng saw his expression and knew exactly what was going on. “Those four people came with those two,” he whispered into Pei Yun’s ear as he pointed vaguely in their direction.

Pei Yun looked over and saw four young men sitting there, heads down and dining. The four men exuded a grave presence, the light in their eyes indistinct. They sat ramrod straight, their clothes looked normal, and their blades were all wrapped in cloth. They looked like normal bodyguards of a rich merchant, but how could any normal traders still be in the territory of Chuzhou? Besides, Pei Yun knew at first glance that they were extraordinarily skilled. The more he looked, the more he found it strange. He slightly furrowed his bladelike brows. Security measures were at their utmost strictness in Chuzhou right now. Why hadn’t he gotten a report of such figures appearing in Chuzhou?

Meanwhile, the white-robed scholar scanned the entirety of the restaurant customers upstairs and thinly smiled. As he followed the Zhou brothers to their table, he said, “You still remember all the words to the poem I wrote for our farewell meeting. If I hadn’t come time, it seems like you would’ve condemned me. Pour the wine already. I waited for this day for a long time. I drifted through jianghu for all these years. I most looked forward to Old Du’s green plum wine. I finally get to fulfill my long cherished desire today. I’ll have lived a full life even if I die immediately.”

Zhou Ming was bursting with joy. He could only be described as wild. He quickly grabbed a large wine goblet and filled it full of green plum wine, offering it up. The white robed scholar downed it in one swig. His wan face flushed with blood. Zhou Ming happily said, “Brother Qingpu is still just as straightforward. Old Du only brews ten hundred-catty jugs of green plum wine a year. I bought all of them already this time. You and us brothers will drink until we black out and spill all our sad feelings from the parting. We’ll stay till we sober up, and no matter what brother Qingpu instructs afterwards, this younger brother will gladly obey.” He didn’t think it appropriate to ask his friend if he’d heard news of his dear master’s death, so Zhou Ming beat around the bush.

Listening from across the screen, Gu Yuanyong was burning with anxiety, wishing he could shout a warning.

The white-robed scholar smiled and said, “I have nothing to request of my brother. I simply came today to fulfill my old promise and for the green plum wine. That’s all.” With those words, he picked up the wine flagon at his seat and poured himself another cup and downed it. His face flushed with heat, making him appear ever more distinguished and elegant.

Zhou Ming hesitated and went to speak, but he eventually wasn’t willing to ask if his friend had learned the news of Hua Xuan’s death.

Then someone raised the flaxen-colored bamboo shades. Two people in dark robes walked in. The one in front had gray hair and hoary temples. He looked scholarly and graceful, his bearing calm and free. The man behind him seemed to be a servant, following with head lowered.

Zhou Ming was taken aback. The older man was a stranger who looked poised and graceful. If he had seen this type of person in the past, he would’ve taken pains to make friends with him, but he remembered Chuzhou now belonged to Great Yong. Although the man looked to have the grace of a Southern Chu citizen, he was undoubtedly a citizen of Great Yong, so Zhou Ming angrily said, “Why is sire trespassing and interrupting our meal? That is far too rude.”

Something flashed in the man’s eyes, and he replied, “I heard the three of you praise the green plum wine and also wanted to try this wonderfully unique wine. If you gentlemen are willing, this one would like to trade this item for a jug of new wine. What do the three of you think?”

He then opened his right hand, the center of which held a wax pellet the size of a longan. Zhou Ming was about to ask about it, but the man crushed the wax pellet, revealing a pill red as a flame. This side of the upper floor instantly overflowed with an aroma, and the smell cleared Zhou Ming’s mind and raised his spirits with just a whiff. Scholars had a saying: If one cannot be a good minister, be a good doctor. Although Zhou Ming had average medical skill, he still knew this was an excellent life extension pill. However, the three of them didn’t seem to need it.

While he hesitated, Zhuang Qingpu sternly said, “Many thanks, sire, but a single jug of green plum wine is nowhere near the worth of this pill. If sire is fond of this wine, I can have the proprietor send up a jug.”

Zhou Ming was at a loss, but he instinctively yelled for the proprietor to bring up wine. Not long after, Proprietor Du arrived upstairs with another jug of green plum wine.

The man in dark robes sighed softly. “’Twas I who imposed. There’s not much difference in being a little early or a little late.” He then squeezed hard, and the pill turned to powder. This side of the floor was filled with the aroma, red powder falling to the floor. The dark-robed man took out a silk handkerchief and wiped away the powder in his hand. Then he turned around and left.

Zhou Ming was shocked, thinking it was a huge pity, as the pill had to be a life-saving panacea. But it had turned to ashes and fallen as dust. Glancing over, he caught sight of a jade ring on the right hand of the dark-robed man. Rings were women’s jewelry, and men who wore them looked rather rakish. The dark-robed man had an extraordinary disposition, but he had an effeminate quality as well. Scorn rose within Zhou Ming, and a look of contempt showed in his eyes. The servant in dark robes was just about to go out and unexpectedly glanced over to see the look in Zhou Ming’s eyes. A cold light flashed in the servant’s eyes, and he stared daggers at Zhou Ming for a second, then walked out.

Zhou Ming didn’t notice this action, but Zhou Hui, sitting next to him, did. The dark-robed servant looked to be in his twenties, with fair skin and delicate features. Yet his eyes were as deep and chilling as a cold spring. Zhou Hui was shocked, a feeling of unease welling up inside him.

Meanwhile, Pei Yun was sitting in a daze in his chair, pleasant surprise overflowing inside him, yet he couldn’t believe the sight before his eyes to be reality. He had only seen the faces of the two people through the bamboo shades, and he already was greatly shocked. And as he listened, he trusted his own judgement ever more, itching to run out and meet the two of them. However, he thought of how he would likely alarm everyone upstairs if he went out, so he didn’t dare act recklessly. He just fidgeted, deeply afraid of being irreverent to that man. Then an icy voice reached his ears. “Young master asks the general to not come over and meet him for the time being.” Pei Yun was relieved and could finally calm down. His thoughts surging like the tide, he considered how to use this lucky break to free himself from his difficult predicament.

Zhuang Qingpu noticed the atmosphere in the upper floor of the restaurant had turned, so he stood up and said with a smile, “The wine is gone, the people have met, and so, I’ll be taking my leave.”

“Brother Qingpu, it was difficult for you to return, so why are you leaving now?” Zhou Ming asked in surprise.

Reluctance appeared in Zhuang Qingpu’s eyes, and discomfort showed on his features.

Zhou Hui had already seen several bad omens, so he stood up and saluted. “Brother Qingpu, if you have any difficulties, please talk with us. Even if us lowly brothers are smashed to pieces, we’ll live up to your expectations.”

Zhuang Qingpu knew Zhou Hui had always been careful, so he said with a smile, “How could anything happen? I just hope I haven’t implicated the two of you.” Then he saluted back and started to walk out.

Zhou Ming stood up to try to stop him, but Zhuang Qingpu had already gotten to the stairway and was about to go downstairs. Zhou Ming wanted to shout for him to stop, but Zhou Hui pulled him back and shook his head. Zhou Ming was smart, and realization dawned on him. He blurted, “Could it be that brother Qingpu has already gone to the Hua household?”

Zhou Hui didn’t answer, as he heard shouting and fleeing sounds. Already running towards the windows, he didn’t have time to explain to his elder brother.

Dust was billowing on both sides of the street. The armor of the Chuzhou Yong army glittered in the dust, and the soldiers had already sealed off the entire area. The commoners on the street were scattering in all directions. A big man wearing an embroidered uniform led over a hundred guards wearing gray armor in a charge, pointing at the courtyard houses on either side of the street and saying, “Someone saw that assassin appear here. He’s certainly fled into one of the houses or stores on this street. Search house by house. If anyone resists, kill without mercy.”

Zhou Ming also gazed out the window down at the street. He recognized the man wearing an embroidered uniform as the Colonel of the Chuzhou Guards, Gao Bing. According to the Great Yong military structure, every prefecture had a formation of guards. They were a rather weak fighting force, their source of manpower drawn mainly from discharged soldiers. They normally helped the governor maintain the local peace. The Chuzhou Guards had a full strength of three thousand men, but because Chuzhou was now under the protection of the Military Commissioner of Huainan, Pei Yun, they were understrength, having only twelve hundred men.

Gao Bing was a relative of the crown prince’s maternal uncle, Gao Rong. The implication of him being here in charge as the colonel of the guards was clear. That man had always been the trusted aide and accomplice to the Governor of Chuzhou, Luo Jing. Zhou Ming hated Luo Jing to the bone. He thought, What assassin is he trying to catch? Did someone assassinate Luo Jing? He had always been quick-witted, so he immediately associated this with Zhuang Qingpu’s recent words. Judging from Zhuang Qingpu’s tone, the load on his mind had disappeared and he no longer worried about it. Presumably, Luo Jing had been beheaded, and the one who did it was Zhuang Qingpu. Figuring this out, Zhou Ming felt like he’d fallen into a crevasse, feeling only the slightest joy of an evil person getting their just deserts. He wasn’t in the mood to consider how Zhuang Qingpu had managed to assassinate a dignified governor. He only thought about how Zhuang Qingpu was downstairs and hadn’t gone out the door yet. How was Zhuang Qingpu going to escape from such a tight encirclement?

Downstairs, Gao Bing also felt like he was freezing, thinking about the events that had taken place two hours ago. He still felt like he was dreaming.

Two hours ago, a scholar had suddenly arrived and requested an audience, stating he could persuade the Chuzhou scholars into becoming officials in the Yong court. Luo Jing was glad, naturally, as due to the events surrounding Hua Xian, he’d gotten caught in an utterly passive position. Although he’d avoided the limelight by accusing Pei Yun of misconduct, once the court learned the truth of the matter, his career was likely ruined. As a result, Luo Jing rapidly summoned him. When the scholar entered the governor’s residence, a sword hung from his waistband, but he didn’t have any hidden weapons. Both Luo Jing and Gao Bing knew this was a bad habit of scholars and didn’t mind. However, for the sake of safety, they still had him lose his sword before entering the audience chamber.

The scholar who requested an audience called himself Zhuang Qingpu, a disciple of Hua Xuan. Luo Jing had heard his name before and knew he was quite famous among the Chuzhou scholars. Although he despised the man for being ungrateful by not caring for his respected teacher’s death and surrendering himself to Great Yong, Luo Jing also knew that if he had the man’s help, he had a high likelihood of completing the important task of winning over the Chuzhou scholars. So he welcomed Zhuang Qingpu with great courtesy.

Zhuang Qingpu spoke eloquently. He knew the distinguished scholar-officials of Chuzhou like the back of his hand, and his argument to win them over was clear and logical. As Luo Jing listened, he became interested and was no longer suspicious. Luo Jing may have been overbearing, but he wasn’t short on intelligence, or else he wouldn’t have become governor. Seeing Zhuang Qingpu’s preeminent talent and education, he wanted to enlist his services and began conversing in detail with him. During the discussion, he found him even more agreeable.

Once they’d talked their fill, Zhuang Qingpu stood to his feet and performed a sword dance, using a willow branch as a sword and substituting weeping with singing of grief and anger. The lyrics included the words:

Why say it was abandoned in the middle of a journey,
Falling to the wayside by an ancient prison?
Although useless buried in mud,
It can still light up the night sky.6

Luo Jing watched him cut loose and was even less suspicious. He smiled and said a sword dance could not do without a sword, so had someone fetch Zhuang Qingpu’s sword.

After Zhuang Qingpu accepted his sword, he performed another sword dance. As expected, his sword was resplendent as a rainbow, the glint shining like frost. After the sword dance finished, Luo Jing went forward to compliment him, but Zhuang Qingpu burst forth in an assassination attempt.

Gao Bing wasn’t in time to save Luo Jing and was forced to attack a weakness instead of meeting the attack head on. He threw a palm strike at the vital point in the middle of Zhuang Qingpu’s back. He watched Zhuang Qingpu dodge it, but this prevented him from murdering Luo Jing in one blow. Even though Zhuang Qingpu’s swordsmanship was magnificent, it wasn’t first-rate. As long as there was a single crack in his defenses, Gao Bing was confident he could rescue Luo Jing.

Surprisingly, Zhuang Qingpu also was aware there wasn’t a free opportunity anymore and actually took a hit. His sword piercing Luo Jing’s heart, he took Luo Jing’s life, then fled for his life.

Gao Bing had believed his palm strike would rupture the assassin’s circulatory system, but Zhuang Qingpu still had enough energy to escape. Coupled with the impact of Luo Jing’s death, Gao Bing was stunned for a moment. When he returned to his senses, Zhuang Qingpu, familiar with the geography of the governor’s residence, had disappeared without a trace.

Gao Bing blew his top. He ordered the guards to pursue and capture Zhuang Qingpu and also ordered someone to ask Pei Yun for reinforcements. He mobilized the army and sealed off all roads to apprehend the assassin. Gao Bing wasn’t mediocre.

Though the Yong troops in the city weren’t under the control of Gao Bing, they still knew that capturing the assassin of the governor was vital. Pulling together, they discovered the whereabouts of Zhuang Qingpu even though the Chuzhou commoners were less than cooperative. They determined he was within the confines of this street. Before the Yong troops had even received orders, they’d already sealed off all paths leading out, allowing Gao Bing to personally lead the guards into the houses to conduct searches.

Meanwhile, Gao Bing thought of how he had no way to explain this to the crown prince’s maternal uncle, Gao Rong. Vicious currents arose inside him. Once he entered, he ordered the guards to ransack the place. In seconds, cries coming from the houses on both sides of the street rent the air, people and horses thrown off their feet. Occasionally, cruel, loud curses coming from guards lashing commoners rang out.

Anxious, Zhou Ming paced round and round again, this way and that. He didn’t want Zhuang Qingpu to be arrested, but he also couldn’t bear to see the commoners get wrapped up in this. Further, the Yong military would definitely search the upstairs. If they learned Zhuang Qingpu had come here, everyone would be found guilty by association for sure. Although he was brave and heroic, when he thought of the severity of the Governor of Chuzhou being assassinated and the bloody massacre Pei Yun had exacted during his attack on Chuzhou, fear gripped his heart. But he was helpless. He didn’t know how to react.

Downstairs, Zhuang Qingpu wore a look of sadness. He knew the severity of the situation. Before returning to Chuzhou, he had learned the sad tidings of his dear master’s death. He had sneaked into the city through his network in Chuzhou, which also allowed him to learn of Luo Jing’s nature before meeting him. He had made an assassination plan, and once he succeeded with one strike, he even had a method to change out of his bloody clothes once he escaped from the governor’s residence and left the dangerous area. However, he knew he would have no chance to sneak out of the city. The examination to leave the city was already extremely strict, and after the assassination, the Yong military would surely lock down the city. Moreover, if he left, the Yong troops would search the entire city with large groups in anger. The innocent would be incriminated, so he originally had no intention to escape. Besides, he still had something too embarrassing to mention. Now it was too late to not go out, but he didn’t want to fall into Gao Bing’s hands, for he didn’t want to be humiliated before dying.

A few guards charged into the restaurant at this moment. One of the guards caught sight of Zhuang Qingpu standing at the doorway and bellowed, “The assassin’s here!”

Zhuang Qingpu sighed lightly. He raised a leg and walked outside. The guards were about to approach and arrest him, but seeing his calm demeanor, they were taken aback and allowed him to walk out onto the street. Startled for a moment, the guards gripped their sabers and followed him out, cutting off Zhuang Qingpu’s way out.

Zhuang Qingpu didn’t care at all. Standing in the middle of the street, he proclaimed, “Zhuang Qingpu is here. Must you all harass the people?”

Gao Bing was overjoyed at the sight. He recognized Zhuang Qingpu at a glance. “Arrest him. This colonel wants to hack him to pieces,” he snapped. Thinking about how his entire future might have been ruined by this man’s hand, he truly hated him with every fiber of his being.

Zhuang Qingpu laughed mirthlessly, unsheathing his sword. It gleamed. Beating back several guards who’d come over to arrest him, he said, “If you want to arrest me, do so personally. These soldiers are just following orders. I’m not interested in killing them yet.”

Gao Bing was infuriated. He took a step forward and was about to personally engage, determined to ruthlessly humiliate Zhuang Qingpu. But then he heard someone roar, “Halt!” Gao Bing looked up and saw the shout came from Wei Ping, of Pei Yun’s White Uniform Camp, who was standing at the street corner. Wei Ping frequently received orders to team up with Gao Bing, so Gao Bing recognized him. Seeing that he was stopping him, Gao Bing’s temper flared. He was about to interrogate him, but he saw Wei Ping wave his hand. Skilled Yong soldiers surged over from all directions and swiftly controlled the surroundings with heavy bows and sharp arrows, blades and spears forming a forest.

Gao Bing angrily declared, “This man assassinated Luo daren. You ought to hand him over to my guards to punish.”

“Right now, the two armies are locked in a stalemate. That man appeared out of nowhere and assassinated the governor. I suspect that man is a secret agent from the Chu military. This needs to be handled by the general.” Wei Ping said loudly, “Listen up, assassin. If you allow yourself to be arrested without resisting and hide nothing, I’ll plead with the general to give you a quick death. Put your weapon down already and surrender.” After Wei Ping learned of this affair, he worried Luo Jing’s death would implicate Pei Yun, so he decided to take control of the assassin and rushed over. But he didn’t know Pei Yun was in a small restaurant on this very road.

Zhuang Qingpu laughed hard in response. Although it was a riotous belly laugh, it didn’t lessen his dignity. A moment later, he stopped laughing and said, “I was just a normal scholar. Though I aspired to dedicating myself to my country, I didn’t have a path to a high official position. Because I offended Luo Louzhen, I was exiled; yesterday, I returned and learned my dear teacher had died to Luo Jing’s hand. Regardless of national enmity, my dear teacher raised me to adulthood. I still haven’t fulfilled my filial duty, yet I saw my dear teacher’s coffin. Today’s assassination was conducted by me alone. Nobody else is involved. I will only die today. I absolutely won’t fall into you people’s hands.”

Wei Ping furrowed his brows. “With me here, it won’t be easy for you to die even if you wish to.” He then waved his hand, and two warriors of the White Uniform Camp walked out of the formation.

One of them carried a spear with a red tassel, while the other wore a sharp, steel saber on his back. The two men approached from both the left and the right. Zhuang Qingpu smiled as he raised his sword. Right as the two men were about to attack, they heard someone on the upper floor of a restaurant next to them declare, “Stand down, formidable White Uniform Camp warriors. When facing a person about to die, there’s no need to intervene. Zhuang Qingpu, I, Pei Yun, think that you avenging your teacher has fulfilled both your filial duty and your duty to the state. I won’t make things difficult for you today, so go. This general promises he won’t find random people guilty by association.”

Zhuang Qingpu was shocked. He raised his head and gazed up to see a young man in black clothes standing at the middle window on the upper floor of the restaurant he’d just come down from. The man had a quiet and calm manner and looked martial and handsome. He felt subdued at the sight.

By the time he left the governor’s residence, his circulation had been cut off. But even though his swordsmanship wasn’t at an elite level, he had a degree of perfection in his cultivation methods. He could still rely on his will and cultivation methods secretly passed down to keep himself alive. However, if he let go of the state of mind, he would immediately die. He never forgot the promise he made that day, so he had to come here and drink a cup of green plum wine before dying. He also worried he would implicate his relatives and old friends, so he refused to lay down his life for justice.

The dark-robed man who’d offered him medicine had seen he would succumb to his grave injury. Although he smelled the aroma of a panacea and felt it stimulate his spirits, Zhuang Qingpu knew no medicine could save him. And he didn’t want to owe someone a favor when things returned to normal, so he declined the offer. But he never expected Pei Yun would also be on the upper floor of the restaurant, nor could he have expected General Pei would see at a glance that he had a grave injury that would lead to his death. He had proved himself to be a direct disciple of Shaolin.

Because of Luo Jing’s actions, Zhuang Qingpu gained a deep-seated hatred for Great Yong. Seeing such a tolerant attitude from Pei Yun, however, he was sincerely convinced and full of admiration. He could easily see the power of the White Uniform Camp warriors. The two men who’d moved out were just there to prevent him from getting a chance to commit suicide. If not for his life hanging by a thread, he would likely have been humiliated before death if they truly attacked.

If he did not still have concerns, as he was still worried about his relatives and old friends, he would not have put himself in a standoff before dying. Now that he heard Pei Yun say he had no intention of finding random people guilty by association, he was relieved. His thoughts and emotions ran wild, and he lost all strength in his limbs, to the point it was difficult for him to keep walking. He raised his head and declared, “Many thanks to General Pei for his magnanimity vast as the sea in not punishing the innocent.” With that, he slightly closed his eyes but stood standing without moving.

Wei Ping went over to take a look. He looked up and said, “General, he’s dead.”

The Yong soldiers and Chuzhou commoners on the street were all moved, especially the commoners. They’d always known of Zhuang Qingpu’s reputation, and some people even kowtowed and whispered prayers.

Pei Yun sighed and leaped to the center of the street from the upper floor. Folding his hands behind his back, he looked at Zhuang Qingpu’s body for a moment, then bowed. “I’ve never lied. I absolutely won’t make things difficult for Chuzhou’s elders due to a single person’s actions.” As he finished speaking, Zhuang Qingpu’s body dropped into the dust.

Pei Yun sighed gently. Without so much as a glance at Gao Bing, he said to Wei Ping, “Immediately pass my orders around. Seal the gates, put the entire city under martial law, and punish any pedestrians walking about unauthorized with the crime of spying. Governor Luo was assassinated, so Gu Yuanyong will take over in the interim. Gao Bing’s protection of the governor was bad, so strip him of his commission for now. You will take command of the guards.”

Gao Bing was already infuriated, so when he heard this, he shouted, “Pei Yun, how can you commit such outrages? This colonel was appointed by the Emperor himself. How can you dismiss me as you please? That assassin assassinated the governor, yet you allowed him an easy suicide. And you order a Southern Chu official who submitted to take over. Could it be that you instigated this assassin?”

Pei Yun’s expression became grave. He said in a grim voice, “Gao Bing, you’re just a colonel of the guards. But this general is the Military Commissioner of Huainan. Chuzhou is occupied territory and is being administrated by this general. Even if I switched you with a deputy general or my second-in-command, if they acted like you and bungled the battle plan, I would act first and report later, to say nothing of you being a minor colonel. Men, take him away.”

Gao Bing tried to resist, but when he saw even his own subordinate guards not planning to follow any of his orders, he was forced to surrender himself to capture and was taken away by a few soldiers.

He always relied on power to run amuck, so seeing him restrained, the street erupted with cheering. Pei Yun smiled and walked back toward the restaurant.

Wei Ping hurried up to him and said, “General, someone went to the Zhenhuai Tower to request an audience. They held a golden badge bestowed by the Emperor. This subordinate came here to ask General to return.”

“I already know,” Pei Yun said. Smiling, he thought, If I hadn’t known that person was present in Chuzhou, I wouldn’t have acted so recklessly. He started walking toward the tower, doubts filling his mind. He wanted to question that person.

Upstairs in the restaurant, Zhou Ming had covered his face and wasn’t speaking. Tears were streaming down his face, as he had watched his good friend die yet couldn’t do anything to help him. He felt like his friend’s voice and smiling face were still in front of him. But the man had passed away, and the regret was interminable.

Zhou Hui was also sad and didn’t say anything, but he thought more about things. He remembered that Pei Yun was beside them just now, which meant he had seen everything. But would he make things difficult for his brother and him?

At this moment, Gu Yuanyong raised the shades and entered. The two men saw him and both stood up and saluted. Zhou Ming was choked with sobs and couldn’t speak, so Zhou Hui respectfully said, “We’ve yet to invite daren to socialize. Please allow us brothers to bury brother Zhuang.”

Gu Yuanyong sighed at the words. “Although one of you is temperamental and the other is placid, you brothers are both loyal men. Don’t worry, General Pei’s word is as sturdy as a mountain. He definitely won’t change his mind. Right before he went downstairs, he told me to tell you brothers he orders you two to give Qingpu an elaborate funeral. It’s inappropriate for him to arrange it. Whatever else happens, Qingpu assassinated a governor of Great Yong, which is a capital offense. Not implicating bystanders is already an extrajudicial mercy from General Pei. So don’t you two grow resentful due to this. Don’t think of avenging him either. Qingpu sought justice and gained justice. He likely died without regrets too.”

Zhou Ming and Zhou Hui prostrated and gave thanks. Zhou Ming said, “Worry not, daren. Us brothers aren’t the type to be ignorant of propriety. We won’t blame the death of Qingpu on General Pei. With today’s events, if General Pei were to immediately kill us two brothers, it wouldn’t be unjustified. Moreover, General Pei has allowed us two to bury our dead friend.”

Gu Yuanyong helped the two men up. “You two should go now. There’s still a noble in the building. You two aren’t allowed to speak about what he did. If you disobey, not even General Pei will be able to save you.”

The two men were aghast but had to solemnly comply.


Footnotes:

  1. Possibly a reference to a poem entitled “The Swordsman” (侠客行) by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai that exults wandering swordsmen. Wugou is the name of a famous blade.
  2. 好马不吃回头草, haoma buchi huitoucao – idiom, lit. a good horse doesn’t return to the same pasture; fig. a smart person doesn’t dwell on past actions, the ambitious don’t look back, one should not go back to one’s past experiences
  3. Bright (明) and Dark (晦), respectively
  4. This refers to an ancient farewell song that was very popular titled “Three Variations of Yang Pass” (阳关三叠).
  5. Around 74 cm (about 2.4 feet)
  6. This is a poem entitled “Sword” (宝剑篇) by Tang Dynasty general and chancellor Guo Zhen, styled Yuanzhen.
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hweirdo's Thoughts

Merry Christmas! I wanted to get this chapter out much earlier, but life happened. I'll try to finish the next chapter around New Year's.


IO SATURNALIA!