In the second month of the twenty-second year of Xiande, the tenth year of the sixty-year cycle, the Prince of Yong, Li Zhi, again defeats Northern Han. The King of Northern Han is forced to issue an edict recalling the General Who Dominates Distant Lands, Long Tingfei, from mourning.1 Long Tingfei possessed remarkable talent; fighting desperately,2 he blocked Li Zhi at Yanmen Pass.3 Although he did not suffer many casualties, Li Zhi was forced to retreat. In the third month of the same year, Great Yong and Northern Han negotiated peace.
At the start of the fourth month, the Prince of Qi, Li Xian, led an army south, amassing troops before Xiangyang. At this time, the Prince of De commanded the defenses at Xiangyang and heavily defeated Li Xian. Subsequently, rumors spread throughout the Southern Chu royal court that Great Yong was attacking Chu because the Prince of De was training troops in preparation for a northern campaign. The King believed these tales and recalled the Prince of De back to the court. On the fourth day of the fifth month, Li Xian again attacked Xiangyang. Regretful, the King dispatched the Prince of De to rush back to Xiangyang with haste.…
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of the Prince of De, Zhao Jue
With my arms behind my back, I stood before the window, looking up at the cold moon. Xiaoshunzi stood behind me, while Chen Zhen stood beside the door. Xiaoshunzi asked, “Daren, how are you going to reply to the Prince of Yong’s letter? The messenger is still waiting.”
“Write a letter on my behalf,” I apathetically replied. “Simply say that the Prince of Qi won’t be able to win. With the Prince of De present, even if the Prince of Yong himself comes, it won’t be an easy task to break through the defenses established by the Prince of De in the Jingxiang region. I am a subject of Southern Chu, so there is no reason for me to take refuge in Great Yong. It looks like Great Yong will soon attack. Chen Zhen, send operatives to keep a close eye on Liang Wan. They will soon make their move.”
At this point, we heard a knock on the door. After seeing me nod, Chen Zhen opened the door. A teenager of about fourteen or fifteen entered. Kneeling on one knee, he reported, “Young master, an urgent message: the Prince of Qi, Li Xian, has begun to attack Xiangyang.”
I smiled faintly. Li Xian knew the Art of War. If the Jingxiang region was to fall into the hands of Great Yong, then contact between Sichuan and Jiangnan would be cut off. After that, Great Yong could either nibble away or swallow Southern Chu whole. But I believed in the ability of the Prince of De. The defenses of the Jingxiang region were strict and well organized.
Over the subsequent few days, the court discussed the Great Yong invasion heatedly. Those officials were all afraid, and at the same time, livid. Some indignantly demanded condemnation of Great Yong. The vast majority, however, were wondering how Great Yong was offended. Some were even willing to dispatch a memorial to Great Yong, seeking forgiveness and requesting that Great Yong withdraw its army. Ultimately, Prime Minister Shang Weijun was quite determined, requesting an envoy be dispatched to Great Yong to inquire as to the reason for its invasion. Although this idea received the approval of the entire court, all of the civil and military officials of the court were uneasy. In the following days, many secretly visited the Bright Moon Pavilion to acquire a guarantee of safety. I made no effort to stop this. If even the ranking officials of Southern Chu had lost faith, what was I to do?
I had Xiaoshunzi bring out the map detailing the troop dispositions at Xiangyang. I studied it careful. Xiangyang was composed of the two cities of Xiangcheng and Fancheng that were on located on opposite sides of the Han River. There was a pontoon bridge across the river connecting the two cities. Both cities had deep moats and high wall. If the enemy were to attack, they would assuredly suffer casualties and be unable to capture the cities. If the enemy were to attack either city, troops could utilize the bridge to quickly reinforce the attacked city. In addition, with the support of the navy, Xiangyang was difficult to attack and easy to defend.
When the Prince of De first arrived at Xiangyang, he dispatched a messenger with a map laying out Xiangyang’s defenses to gain my opinion. I did not give a clear and direct response. Instead, I replied with a design for a pontoon bridge. The originally wooden bridge had been badly damaged by time and would be difficult to repair. I advised that two rows of stakes be driven into the river. Each stake was a piece of lumber several meters long and wa driven into the riverbed. Each stake was attached with iron chains and was covered with wooden planks, forming a pontoon bridge that could be repaired at any time. I also provided a mockup for fishnets with bells to the Prince of De. These fishnets were placed around the pontoon bridge and cast into the water, protecting it from individuals launching a sneak attack from underwater. I only gave the Prince of De a design schematics and a fishnet. How they were to be utilized was the Prince of De’s own decision and had nothing to do with me. Looking over the defensive information, if the Prince of De was defending Xiangyang, then it would not easily fall. Did the Prince of Qi not know that Xiangyang was easy to defend and difficult to attack?
On the fourteenth day of the fourth month, Li Xian, the Prince of Qi, gave the order to attack the city. The assault was ferocious as the Yong troops did not worry about casualties, throwing themselves fearlessly at the city walls. The Prince of De ordered the navy to use the Han River to launch volleys of arrows and bolts at the Prince of Qi’s foot soldiers, forcing the Yong troops to withdraw. The Prince of Qi tried twice again to attack, ordering up catapults to force back the navy, and advancing his army upon the city. He attacked the northern gate of Xiangcheng day and night. Seeing the danger, the Prince of De led three thousand cavalrymen out of the southern gate and launched a surprise attack on the flank of the Yong army. The Yong army were not prepared for the Southern Chu garrison to sally forth from the city and were caught by surprise. The entire army was thrown into confusion. Li Xian commanded five thousand cavalrymen to stop the Prince of De. Zhao Jue lured these horsemen into an ambush at the eastern gate where they were met with rocks and tree trunks, and forced to retreat. Furious, Li Xian commanded twenty thousand troops to guard the flanks while he personally led eighty thousand troops in a continuous and alternating attack on the northern gate. The northern gate fell into grave danger. The Prince of De did not rest and personally supervised its defense, waiting for the right moment. When he observed the Yong army exhaust themselves in the attack, he gave a signal for the Fancheng garrison to launch a surprise attack upon the rear of the Yong army. Attacked from two sides, Li Xian’s army suffered grievous casualties and was forced to retreat. Zhao Jue chased the Yong army for thirty li and only withdrew after inflicting heavy losses. After three days of battle, the one hundred and fifty thousand strong Yong army had suffered sixty thousand dead and wounded, while the seventy thousand strong Southern Chu army had lost twenty thousand men. This was a Pyrrhic victory. After the Yong army withdrew, Zhao Jue immediately dispatched an envoy to report the victory to the court and to request reinforcements.
Within the court, upon receiving the report Zhao Jue’s dispatch, the king was both joyous and worried. He opened his mouth and declared, “My honored subjects, although Royal Uncle has won, the strength of the Yong army is ten times ours. What should we do?”
Shang Weijun respectfully replied, “Reporting to Your Majesty, although the alliance was betrayed by Great Yong, but our army is far outmatched by the Yong army. We should take this opportunity to dispatch an envoy to Great Yong and negotiate a peace.”
All the other officials agreed in succession with Shang Weijun. At this time, an attendant reported on the arrival of an envoy who had returned from his mission to Great Yong. King Zhao Jia hurriedly ordered for the envoy to be brought into the audience chambers. This envoy was named Fu Yulun, the tanhua of the royal examinations from the sixteenth year of Xiande and was currently serving in the Ministry of Rites.4 Fu Yulun hurried kneeled and reported, “By royal decree, this subject went to Yong on a diplomatic mission. Before I could pass into Great Yong, I was stopped by the Prince of Qi, Li Xian. He claimed that his campaign against Southern Chu was to cleanse our court of disloyal subjects. I have here a letter from the Prince of Qi to Your Majesty.”
Zhao Jia hurriedly had a eunuch accept the letter and bring it to over. The contents of the letter were as follows:
The Prince of Qi of Great Yong salutes the King of Southern Chu. This campaign was launched was not for any other reason than because of the Prince of De, Zhao Jue, who has rapacious designs. He garrisons Xiangyang and trains his army, always keeping an eye upon the frontiers with Great Yong. Furthermore, he has with designs upon Great Yong. As long as this man is not removed, there will never be peace between Great Yong and Southern Chu. This Prince and Your Majesty have the relationship of a nephew and uncle, and is unwilling to harm Your Majesty. If he is not to be trusted, then he must be recalled to court. He will come up with all kinds of excuses and refuse to return.
I keenly remember the promise that was made on my last trip to Southern Chu. Once Your Majesty restores the empire, that person will raise his army and rise in revolt. When that occurs, Great Yong will not be able to intervene. If Your Majesty takes away his command, our two countries will return to peace. If Your Majesty believes Zhao Jue’s slanderous lies, then this Prince will have no alternative but to come to Jiangnan to hunt with Your Majesty.
After Zhao Jia read the entire letter, his entire body grew cold. If he believed the words in the letter, then he feared that it was an attempt by the Prince of Yong to sow discord. But he couldn’t say that he didn’t believe the letter either. Ever since Zhao Jue had returned from the campaign against Shu, he had constantly requested money and grain for the military. He was personally overseeing the defenses at Xiangyang and refused to return to the court. Did he have the intent to revolt? Zhao Jia also realized that Zhao Jue had a far superior reputation and jealousy grew in his heart. Indifferently, he replied, “Royal Uncle has won and should return to the court to receive his just rewards. By our edict, we recall the Prince of De to return to court.”
When Zhao Jue in the distant Jingxiang region received this edict, he refused to return. He wrote to the king that he could not return because of pressing military matters. Originally Zhao Jia was only somewhat suspicious of his uncle, but upon seeing Zhao Jue’s refusal to return, this suspicion grew. In succession, Zhao Jia issued several edicts. In the beginning, Zhao Jue used the excuse that a general on the field could refuse an order. But ultimately, as each successive edict became increasingly incisive, even the court officials began to believe that Zhao Jue had ill intentions. Without any alternatives, Zhao Jue turned over the defenses of the Jingxiang region to Rong Yuan and returned to Jianye with a few of his guards. When they were still dozens of li from Jianye, Zhao Jue and his entourage were stopped by an ordinary looking man who delivered a letter to Zhao Jue. Zhao Jue opened the letter and read its contents:
For my lord to not return in the beginning was a mistake. For my lord to return now is compounding that mistake. Under current circumstances, my lord should return to Jingxiang, taking upon your command to protect yourself.
After reading the letter, Zhao Jue heaved a sigh before burning the letter. To the messenger, he said, “Thank your master on my behalf. Tell him that I, Zhao Jue, am not someone who would rebel.”
The messenger silently backed away and left.
When he arrived in Jianye, Zhao Jue arrived before the gates of the royal palace to seek an audience but was arrested and placed in the dungeons by Zhao Jia’s decree. Although Zhao Jue penned a essay explaining the reasons for refusing to return, it was to no avail. For Zhao Jia, if he was not worried about Li Xian refusing to withdraw, he would have long punished his uncle. When Zhao Jue was imprisoned, suddenly numerous petitions appeared requesting that Zhao Jue be put to death. Fortunately, Zhao Jia was not so muddled as to agree. He released Zhao Jue and placed him under house arrest.
Those petitions were my idea. After I received word from Chen Zhen that Zhao Jue refused to rebel, I came up with this plan. Although Zhao Jue was a loyal subject, he was also far too foolish. If he had immediately returned upon the King’s edict, Zhao Jia would know that he had wrongly blamed him. Zhao Jue would have been able to quickly return to Xiangyang. Since he didn’t return immediately, and yet still returned made it seem like he had a guilty conscience. Even if Zhao Jia was wise, there was no one that wouldn’t become suspicious. Never mind the fact that Zhao Jia was no more intelligent than an idiot. After Zhao Jue was imprisoned in the dungeons, I was placed in a difficult position. According to my plans, in reality, it was better for Zhao Jue to continue to be imprisoned. From this, an opportunity to abandon my post and leave would quickly materialize for me to take advantage of. But thinking of Zhao Jue’s painful support of Southern Chu, I found that I could not explain the pain that I was feeling and I could not steel myself. Even if Southern Chu were to be destroyed, I must allow those who love this country to show their loyalty. Thus, I wrote a letter to Rong Yuan, having him conspire with officials to request that Zhao Jue be put to death. My messenger was swift. Not long after Zhao Jue arrived at Jianye, Rong Yuan’s people arrived. These individuals provoked those officials who feared Great Yong to petition the King. Zhao Jia was not so muddled. He originally did trust his uncle. Seeing all these individuals wish to kill Zhao Jue, Zhao Jia immediately became suspicious. Zhao Jue’s life was preserved. Now, we only had to wait before he would be dispatched back to Xiangyang. His return would rely upon Great Yong’s help.
Sure enough, not long afterwards, the Prince of Qi once again attacked the Jingxiang region. The Prince of Qi was too impatient. If it was the Prince of Yong, he would likely have waited patiently to see what would happen. Rong Yuan was capable and was able to stabilize Jingxiang’s defenses. When the eight hundred li urgent report arrived from Xiangyang, the king was immediately realized the truth and hurriedly dispatched Zhao Jue back to Xiangyang. Not caring about anything else, Zhao Jue led his personal guards and rushed back. Not long after leaving Jianye, he saw a delicate and scholarly young man sitting in the pavilion positioned ten li from the city.5 A pot of wine and two cups were placed on the stone table within the pavilion. Behind the young man stood an ordinary looking middle-aged man. Outside on each of four corners of the pavilion stood two fifteen- or sixteen-year-old teenage menservants. Smiling faintly, Zhao Jue dismounted from his horse and entered the pavilion. Bowing deeply before the young man, he said, “Zhao Jue is extremely grateful and indebted to Suiyun for this rescue. Today for my lord to see me off, Zhao Jue is ashamed.”
I stood and returned his bow. I replied, “Your Highness possesses great fortune and virtue. Those treacherous persons and vile schemes naturally would not be able to harm Your Highness. Your Highness’s trip to Jingxiang has only remote prospects. As such, Suiyun purposely has come to see Your Highness off.”
One of the menservants stepped forward and poured two cups of wine for us before retreating back to the side. Seeing that the manservant’s movements were lively and had an elegant appearance, Zhao Jue could not but be curious. He said, “Over these last few years, Suiyun has lived like a prince. One look at these menservants and one can see they possess the demeanor of someone from a great family. They even seem to possess a scholarly air.”
I smiled calmly and raised cup, saying, “I advise Your Highness to drink this cup of wine and wish you safe travels on this trip to Jingxiang.”
Zhao Jue raised his cup and drank its contents in one go, replying, “It is a pity that Suiyun refuses to come to Jingxiang with me. If I were to gain Suiyun’s help, then Jingxiang will be absolutely safe.”
I smiled lightly and asked, “Isn’t Your Highness looking too lightly on Sir Rong?”
Zhao Jue rose and stated, “That’s enough. You can see someone off for a thousand li, but ultimately we must part ways. The war in Jingxiang is urgent. I must urgently hasten on. I must bid farewell. When I have defeated the Yong army, we will meet again to drink our fill. If I am to die, then I ask only that Suiyun offer sacrifices at my grave.”
Hearing these words, the cup in my hand almost slipped out and fell. Earlier, I had made a divination for Zhao Jue. After two years, I had gradually become increasingly adept at divination. After bathing and burning incense, I made a divination for Zhao Jue. The divination was ominous and seemed to imply that he would die prematurely on the road. Now hearing the ominous words in Zhao Jue’s speech, my heart grew cold. As Zhao Jue mounted his horse and was readying to leave, I suddenly said, “Your Highness, I have two subordinates. Although they are young, they are skilled martial artists. Please allow them to accompany Your Highness to Xiangyang on my behalf as a form of regret at being unable to accompany Your Highness myself. Daoli, Baiyi, greet His Highness.”
Looking at the two youngsters, Zhao Jue forced a smile and replied, “Suiyun, this is a long and wearisome journey. You mustn’t make things difficult for these children.”
Calmly, I conveyed, “They are skilled in horsemanship and archery, and will not delay Your Highness.”
Zhao Jue originally wished to continue, but seeing that I was persistent and with time pressing, could only raise a farewell and whip his horse into a gallop.
Zhao Jue rushed along his way, switching horses mid-journey. He originally was worried that the two children sent along by Jiang Zhe would be unable to keep up. But whenever he looked back, he saw that the two children were completely vigorous and spirited, and so no longer worried about them. After urgently traveling, there was only three hundred li left. After switching horses again, they would be able to arrive at Xiangyang. While mounted, Zhao Jue stretched his waist and said, “That’s enough. There’s a tea shack up ahead. We will rest there. After eating lunch, we will ride all the way to Xiangyang in one go. How about it?” Everyone was happy. They had madly rushed the last several days and were exhausted. Although they still needed to travel, to be able to rest awhile was still good.
Hearing Zhao Jue’s commands, Daoli was the first to dismount. After a few steps, he entered the tea shack and ordered that a few tables be prepared with hot tea. Although the tea shack was small, there were a few small dishes of salted vegetables and peanuts. Daoli had them served as well. Following his orders, the shopkeeper became frantically busy and quickly prepared a few tables. Baiyi cleaned a bowl and filled it with water, and retrieved a towel from his bag. Once Zhao Jue sat down, Baiyi stepped forward to help the Prince wipe away the grime from the travels. Although Zhao Jue was royalty who had been fighting upon the battlefield for years, he had not lost the opportunity to experience the pleasure of being from a powerful family. Seeing these menservants so capable, Zhao Jue was joyous at heart. After he had sat down, he drank a cup of hot tea and began to eat voraciously. When he stopped, he saw that Daoli and Baiyi had already finished and were organizing feed for the horses. Zhao Jue could not help but say, “What a pair of capable children! Jiang zhuangyuan is indeed tremendous to be able to train his servants to such a level.”
One of his personal guards laughed. “If Your Highness likes them, then simply inform Jiang daren and have them serve you.”
Although Zhao Jue knew that menservants—let alone maid servants and concubines—were frequently used as gifts by aristocrats, he still shook his head and declared, “A gentleman does not steal another’s love. These two children were not casually trained.”
Everyone laughed lightly. Just as Zhao Jue was ordering everyone to get back on the road, one of his bodyguards suddenly screamed in pain. As everyone looked in his direction, they saw an arrow protruding from the man’s back.
All were trained soldiers and so quickly hid behind cover, only to hear clear laughter. A man clothed in white stepped out from the nearby forest. He was extremely handsome. His large, cultivated body could be seen to tightly cling to his white warrior outfit. A silvery white bow was slung over his left shoulder and a similarly-colored quiver was hung at his waist. Regardless of the attire, or the bow and arrow, all were extremely exquisite. Their owner was clearly someone fastidious. Zhao Jue’s heart grew cold, as he asked, “Is the person approaching the Silver Bow Wastrel, Duanmu Qiu?”
The man in white smiled and replied, “This lowly one is indeed. I heard that Your Highness has arrived here and have purposely come to pay my respects. If Your Highness does not mind, I hope that Your Highness would be willing to rest at my humble abode.”
Although the words seemed to be harmonious, Zhao Jue knew that they were spoken in a haughty manner. He coldly asserted, “This Prince is busy with military matters and dares not delay. Your distinguished self has ambushed us. You must be here to assassinate this Prince.”
Feeling it beneath his dignity, Duanmu Qiu claimed, “This one has never been willing to ambush anyone. If that were not the case, then that arrow would have taken Your Highness’s life. The dead man is only a greeting from this one. I believe that Your Highness will not blame me.”
Zhao Jue coolly observed, “This Prince treats his subordinates as if they were brothers. For your distinguished self to so lightly disparage the common soldier, no wonder you do not serve within the Yong army. No one in this world doesn’t know about the Golden Bow Zhangsun and the Silver Bow Duanmu. General Zhangsun serves under the Prince of Yong and commands soldiers upon the battlefield, never meeting defeat, while you, Silver Bow Duanmu, can only rely upon your bravery to battle in jianghu.”
Zhao Jue’s words stabbed directly into Duanmu Qiu’s heart. His eyes began to exude an icy, murderous aura. He callously retorted, “This one is only here to prevent Your Highness from escaping. It looks like it won’t be acceptable if I do not act. I wonder how many arrows can Your Highness avoid?”
A spoiled sound was heard. “This young lady can guarantee that you will not be shoot him to death.” With those words, a young beautiful woman in red also exited the forest. She was gorgeous, but her eyebrows extended to her temples and she was covered with a baleful aura, as if she were a female rakshasa.6
Zhao Jue could only smile sardonically as he said, “So you have come as well. No wonder … you martial brother and sister were always inseparable.”
Coldly, the woman replied, “The Prince of De knows who I am? I am extremely honored.”
夺情, duoqing – lit. to steal one’s emotion; in ancient China, those observing mourning could not hold court offices unless a sovereign issued an edict recalling them into service. These edicts were typically only issued for high ranking or important officials, and required the approval of the Ministry of Personnel
力挽狂澜, liwankuanglan – idiom, lit. to pull strongly against a crazy tide; fig. to try hard to save a desperate situation
雁门关, Yanmenguan – lit. Wild Goose Pass; a pass located along China’s northern frontier. Originally built by King Wuling of Zhao during the Warring States Period, it is today a part of the Great Wall of China and is located in northern Shaanxi
礼部, libu – the Ministry of Rites was in charge of state ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices; it also oversaw registers for religious priesthoods and the reception of envoys from tributary states and handled foreign diplomacy
十里亭, shiliting – lit. ten li pavilion; these pavilions were positioned ten li away from the city along major roads to serve as points where people could welcome and bid farewell to travelers
罗刹, luocha – demon in Buddhism, rakshasa