Standing some distance away, Chen Zhen saw my grief. He stepped forward and said, “Daren, please restrain your grief and accept fate.1 If Master Li2 were to find out that daren was so grief-stricken, he would think that this subordinate has not been taking care of daren.”
I glanced at Chen Zhen, seeing the clear worry in his eyes, I faintly wondered, “Do you still hate Xiaoshunzi and this official?”
Chen Zhen calmly replied, “This lowly one has never blamed daren. At the time, this lowly one was imprisoned and tightly bound with my life about to end. If it weren’t for daren’s rescue, this lowly one would have died long ago. Since this lowly one is from Shu and daren is an official of Southern Chu, worrying about my loyalty was justifiable. This lowly one was uneasy at first, especially with my life and death in another’s hands. But over these days, this lowly one has gotten the antidote without fail. There have been no additional demands or difficulties. As long as this lowly one is loyal and dutiful, I will certainly not be harmed. Therefore, this lowly one has no complaints.”
I looked at him. He was actually quite astute. I continued to ask, “The strategies I proposed captured both Ba Prefecture and Luocheng. I also forced the King of Shu to commit suicide. Do you not hate me?”
Chen Zhen hurriedly kneeled, answering, “This lowly one was only a mere spy in Shu. My entire life was dedicated to those with power and influence, riches and honor. But until the day that Shu fell, I was still a mere spy without power over my own life. When Shu existed, this lowly one did not betray it. After Shu fell, nonentities like myself still needed to live. For daren, as a subject of Southern Chu, to present strategies to defeat Shu is a matter of course. Although this lowly one is a citizen of Shu, I do not carry have the responsibility of taking revenge for Shu. Although this lowly one is by nature, merciless, I believe that if a country cannot even protect its own citizens, then there is no need for that country to continue to exist.”
I smiled faintly and observed, “Your temper matches well with mine. In reality, Southern Chu will also be destroyed, though only at a later time. When that happens, what will you do?”
Chen Zhen responded, “Although I do not know what relationship daren has with Great Yong, I believe that when that time comes, daren will be able to protect yourself. Although Chen Zhen is untalented and has experienced the sorrow of seeing my country be subjugated, when that time comes, I only wish to be able to safely pass my days. Chen Zhen is confident that I will not sell my master to seek honor.”
I shook my head. This fellow was intelligent, not saying even one tactful word. He must have understood my temperament. If he said these words while we were in Shu, he would have likely lost his life long ago. In passing, I took out a pill from within my robes and said, “This is the antidote. If you take it, it will completely remove the poison within your body. You will no longer have to take medication on a monthly basis.”
Without any hesitation, Chen Zhen took the pill before declaring, “This subordinate is willing to vow my loyalty and devotion to daren.”
Seeing how frank and straightforward he was, as if he was forewarned, I asked, “Did you know long ago that I was the one who poisoned you?”
Smiling, Chen Zhen stated, “This lowly one knew long ago that daren poisoned me. Typically, those who use poison are all extremely self-confident. If it was Master Li who poisoned me, he would not have left the restrictions on my body.”
This man was quite astute, I thought. I realized that I needed to be candid with him and so said, “Since that is the case, I might as well be frank. If I only wanted a personal guard, I would only need you to spare no effort to protect my life and not require your loyalty, as you are only a temporary replacement for Xiaoshunzi. But if I want you to perform tasks for me, you must be trustworthy and loyal. From now on, this official will be surrounded and watched by a pack of wolves. I face many multiple layers of danger and if I am not careful even in the slightest, I could very well lose my life. If a subordinate of mine is neither trustworthy nor loyal, there is no point having him stay. If you are unwilling, I will have Xiaoshunzi remove the restrictions on your body, allowing you to leave. If you are wholeheartedly willing to serve me, I will treat you as a trusted aide. After I have achieved success, I will also arrange something suitable for you and will not treat you unfairly. However, I may not be able to provide you with meteoric success. What are your thoughts?”
Chen Zhen kneeled again and replied, “This lowly one is homeless and has no dependents. If I were to leave daren, I can only be a mere bandit.3 I will be captured again, sooner rather than later. I have observed that daren is capable of handling difficult tasks with ease,4 someone who will make great contributions.5 If daren does not dislike me, this lowly one is willing serve daren.”
I helped me up, believing him for now. I inquired, “If that is the case, I would like to ask you. How should we proceed?”
Chen Zhen showed a look of excitement as he answered, “If daren wishes to take vengeance for the mistress,6 no matter how we proceed, we require a force that we absolutely control. Right now, other than this lowly one, Master Li is not free to do as he pleases. Our strength is far too weak. If we collaborate with others, in the event that our interests conflict, daren will likely be restricted.”
I lightly nodded my head. The spies of Shu indeed lived up to their name. Right now, of utmost importance was the creation of my own force to protect myself and elimination of my enemies. Raising my own military force would require sufficient capital. Where was I going to get the money?
Over the following few days, I hid in the study thinking over how to establish this force and maintain its existence. I flipped through some books and let my imagination run wild. This force could not be too large, as it would draw attention, and would require money and supplies. At the same time, it could not be too small or it would not be of use. Most importantly, I needed my own income.
A few days later, Xiaoshunzi came over. After learning of my plans, he advised that we start small. We emptied our savings of the rewards that we had received for the past campaign against Shu. We secretly purchased an estate near where I lived and brought over several twelve- or thirteen-year-old teenagers to train. Following my requirements and opinions, these teenagers were basically orphans, and were obstinate and tenacious children. These teenagers would first be trained by Chen Zhen in basic martial arts before being trained by Xiaoshunzi using the manuals that I had previously given him. According to Xiaoshunzi, after two years of training, these trainees would be considered as second-rate martial artists. Combined with specialized assassination and espionage training, which was Chen Zhen’s specialty, these individuals could be of use.
I also thought of a plan to earn money. Thinking back to the jewelry that I had designed, not only were the designs exquisite, but they also could be crafted by first-rate artisans, resulting in their approbation. Although I was not particularly adept at these craft designs, I was knowledgeable, and had read books that were wonderful and exquisite. In batches, I made several designs—including mechanisms, jewelry and apparel, and even some elaborate toys. My favorite was a clock that was a modified pendulum clock that I had seen in a book I acquired from Persia. All of these designs were manufactured in partnership with the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets, from which we received ten percent. The person representing the Pavilion was named Han Wuji, one of Chen Zhen’s colleagues. He had luckily escaped Chengdu after the fall of Shu. Because of Great Yong’s strict governance, he had come to make a living in Southern Chu. As he was a skilled assassin, plotter, and schemer, there weren’t many options for him and as a result, he almost died from hunger. When Chen Zhen was searching for orphans, he found Han Wuji and saved him. Seeing that this person had a moral backbone and did not kill or rob for a living, I allowed him to become the manager of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. I had him secretly use my designs to find collaborators. At first, he had to personally meet with others. Afterwards, whenever I came up with a new design, he only had to organize a small auction and invite merchants to bid. The winner would acquire the design and resources. As long as they managed to keep this information strictly confidential, they would have exclusive production rights. The reputation of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets spread in secret. No one made its existence public, especially as the merchants would lose their right to bid in the auctions and a way to make money. The invitations from the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets became a symbol of one’s strength and also a symbol of trust. Without a good reputation, even if one possessed more than sufficient strength, one could not receive an invitation.
At first, this was all for money, but after a while, it became increasingly meaningful. Through the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets, I could learn many secrets. Many people were willing to trade for my designs using all kinds of secrets. Of course, I made sure that Han Wuji was cautious and careful, ensuring that he did not slip up and wasn’t followed. Han Wuji performed very well. As my force began to grow stronger, I dispatched a group of twelve individuals to listen to Han Wuji. Through this, the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets became one of the reputable secret organizations in Southern Chu.
After more than a year, seeing that earnings were sufficient, I began to reduce designs, only producing one per month and only permitting those who had previously collaborated to bid. Later on, these merchants established the Heavenly Secrets Trade Association, which meant they were an association collaborating with the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. To join, the Association required recommendations from three members and the approval of the Pavilion. The Heavenly Secrets Trade Association quickly became the most powerful trade association in Southern Chu. Through a share of the stock, I was able to receive ten percent of the Association’s profits. In the first year alone, I received six hundred thousand taels of silver. The participating companies all had good reputations, ample finances, and influence. Although I wasn’t able to control their operation, to lose my designs and cooperation would be devastating. As a result, I was able to ensure their cooperation as long as it wasn’t anything too overboard like rebellion.
Aside from this, I began the work of training my “Secret Camp.” The Secret Camp was the name I gave to my personal forces. I taught them how to read and write. Although they weren’t required to be able to compose poems or verses, they had to be familiar with relatively famous literature. As I couldn’t have assassins around me, I had to teach them the proper etiquette and have them master roles that were suitable to be at my side and for my position.
After careful review by Xiaoshunzi, Chen Zhen, and me, I divided the Secret Camp into four groups. The first group was called the Tiger Group. This group was the main strength of the camp, tasked with resolutely attacking and breaking the enemy. All of them were skilled with various jianghu martial arts and were able to kill those who were stronger fighters. At the same time, they could form up into formations to encircle and kill the enemy, as well as serve as defenders and reinforcements. They were able to fill the role of bodyguards and soldiers.
The second group was called the Dragon Group. Although this group had few members, all of them were skilled in special techniques. I had taught them all of my skills, and each was skilled with one or two of these skills. Some were skilled at calculations and arraying formations, some skilled in underwater combat, and some skilled in architecture. All of these individuals were capable of taking charge and operating independently. They would often be dispatched to perform various separate tasks and were members of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets under Han Wuji.
The third group was called the Covert Group, and was skilled in hiding and assassination. This group would never appear in my presence and would only undertake missions I assigned. As this group had no future prospects, I arranged for them to serve me for ten years without being fettered by any relationships. Once ten years had passed, I would provide them with generous rewards and allow them to return to a normal life. Of course, if they wished, they could remain in my service and due to the nature of their work, receive suitable remuneration each time they completed a mission.
The fourth and last group was called the Hidden Group. All of them were well trained spies and undercover agents, capable of using all of kinds of disguises to obtain information. They did not specialize in martial arts. Instead, they were highly trained in subterfuge and disguises.
After training concluded, I carefully chose eight operatives to serve by my side. All of them were capable members of one of the groups and were all disguised as my servants. These individuals were under my direct command, serving as my protection and more easily executing my orders. To more conveniently command them, they were all given the surname, Jiang. Their given names in order were Chiji, Daoli, Baiyi, Yulun, Shanzi, Quhuang, Hualiu, and Lü’er.7 Their names were their ranking. If there were any losses or eliminations, then their replacement would assume their name.
Although these children were still young, under Xiaoshunzi’s tutelage, all of them were skilled martial artists. Although Xiaoshunzi could not teach them his own martial arts, they were provided with the martial arts that Xiaoshunzi had organized. When they were sparring, the children were keen to prove themselves and stubborn. In order to ensure that they were able to receive more moves from Xiaoshunzi, they would train bitterly to meet the standards. Those who did not meet the requirements or wavered under the pressure had their martial arts crippled by Xiaoshunzi and their memories wiped by medicine that I provided. This was done in front of the other children. Xiaoshunzi had been clear with them. If they failed to meet the requirements, then they would be secretly arranged to become shop assistants or waiters, and other kinds of relatively stable occupations. Under the tutelage of Xiaoshunzi and me, these children only knew to be loyal to me, and did not have any sense of belonging to either Southern Chu or Great Yong. I finally had built a force that belonged to me.
The next step after finishing building the force was to make use of it. Seeing that Southern Chu’s situation was still relatively stable, I formulated a plan to be executed by Chen Zhen where the children would take turns completing different missions, transforming them into more mature, merciless, calm, and ruthless persons. Of these missions, there were two of particular importance. The first involved one of the collaborating companies. Blinded by greed, they had attempted to take my shares. As a warning to the others, I had the Secret Camp move out. The Hidden Group was tasked with intelligence; the Covert Group was to eliminate all of the hired martial artists and managers of the company; the Tiger Group to launch a lightning assault and execute all three hundred members of the company; and the Dragon Group to use legal contracts to take back everything we deserved. I personally drew up the plan for this cold-hearted, yet meticulous operation. The results were apparent. No one dared to mess with the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets again. Although many innocents were killed, in my view, their deaths were a form of deterrence. From this, people who dared to offend or betray me would have to consider carefully the consequences.
After this operation, the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets was able to successfully go underground. People were not apprehensive of mystery. For the Pavilion to dare to perform such an operation, one could see that the Pavilion represented blood and cruelty. Those who wished to take from me, would have to worry about my vengeance. As a result, the Pavilion’s position became stable.
The second operation was both private and public. Great Yong’s spy network in Southern Chu had taken notice of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. Liang Wan planned an operation and dispatched people to threaten and make promises to a merchant associated with the Pavilion, using him to gain a spot in the auction and collaborating to control the Pavilion. But she was too greedy. Although this merchant was able to collaborate with the Pavilion, the probing and following from Yong spies were discovered by the Dragon Group. The Hidden and Covert Groups carefully investigated the matter. After receiving their report, I organized a meeting, claiming that the Master of the Pavilion would appear. Receiving this news, Liang Wan dispatched her capable subordinates to attend the meeting. They were surrounded and killed. This time, a masked Xiaoshunzi personally killed two of Liang Wan’s most powerful martial artists. The merchant was disqualified from participation in the Association and was forced to pay a year’s worth of profits as a penalty. Although he was not bankrupted, he had lost his reputation and a significant sum of money, ruining him in one stroke.8
I was not only able to protect the Pavilion’s reputation, once again demonstrating the Pavilion’s supreme stature and a resolution of inviolability, but also I was also able to heavily damage Liang Wan’s arrogance. I was left perfectly satisfied.
When I heard the report about Liang Wan’s losses and received Xiaoshunzi’s personal report about the reprimand and punishment Liang Wan received from Great Yong, I callously said, “This woman forgot her duties. She is responsible for spying on Southern Chu’s military situation and popular sentiment, not developing her own forces without permission. If Southern Chu’s court weren’t so stupid and weak, she would have been captured and killed long ago. If I didn’t want to keep her alive, I only need to send a letter to the Prince of De. Zhao Jue would use the military to completely eliminate her.”
“Daren, when do you intend to move against her?” asked Xiaoshunzi.
I casually looked off into the distance and replied, “Wait. The time is quickly approaching. Great Yong can no longer rest easily. Xiaoshunzi, we lost an operative during this operation. You must improve their martial arts, as I continue to improve their intellect. We can’t afford any losses right now, as we don’t have a year or two more to waste.”
I looked at the intelligence reports in my hand collected from Great Yong:
The Prince of Yong has been victorious in his campaign on the border against Northern Han and will soon return in triumph.
The Prince of Qi has been diligently training troops.
Great Yong’s Ministry of War9 has been raising troops.
The Yong Emperor has once again reinstated the former Fleet Admiral, Ren Haiwang.
Although all of this news seemed trivial on their own, from them, I could see many things. Looking off into the distance at the dark clouds on the horizon, I knew that a storm was coming. Although the coming storm would be violent, and I may even flounder and capsize, I fully intended to take revenge for her. Looking at the ring on my middle finger, I smiled lightly.
节哀顺变, jieaishunbian – lit. restrain your grief and accept fate; is a common condolence phrase used in China
Referring to Xiaoshunzi aka Li Shun
杀人越货, sharenyuehuo – idiom, lit. to kill somebody for his property; to murder for money
举重若轻, juzhongruoqin – idiom, lit. lift heavy as if it was light; means being able to take care of difficult tasks with ease
草木同腐, caomutongfu – idiom, lit. to be rotten like grass and wood; fig. to not have any accomplishments
Mistress as in the wife of the master
These names are the names of the eight horses who pulled the chariot of King Mu of Zhou when he dreamed of traveling to heavenly paradise and tasting the peaches of immortality.
一蹶不振, yijuebuzhen – idiom lit. to stumble, unable to rise; a setback leading to collapse, ruined at a stroke
兵部, bingbu – the Ministry of War was in charge of the appointments, promotions, and demotions of military officers, the maintenance of military installations, equipment, and weapons, as well as the courier system