I was not surprised when I learned the news that Great Yong had launched attacks upon Sichuan and Xiangyang simultaneously. In my view, in order to invade Southern Chu, a two-pronged assault was absolutely necessary. Although this plan would take some time to implement, as long as they conquered Jianghuai region,2 one would need not fear that Southern Chu would not be pacified. So when I heard the news that the Prince of Yong had led twenty thousand cavalrymen in a direct attack on Jianye, I was dumbfounded. I immediately took out the maps and reviewed for some time. The longer I tried to analyze the situation, the more confused I became. The Prince of Yong had great skill and strategy, so why would he employ such a tactic? Although he would be able to capture Jianye, he would be unable to hold it permanently. Even if Southern Chu’s sovereign and officials were captured, the court would absolutely select a new monarch or even possibly seize the throne for themselves. In addition, with this plan, Southern Chu would almost definitely fragment. Pacify its entirety would require the difficult task of taking all of its cities one by one. If this happened, then without twenty years, Jiangnan would absolutely be unable to be pacified. After thinking hard for quite some time, I still could not understand the reasons behind Li Zhi’s actions.
Considering the situation from a different perspective, I immediately realized that war was only a continuation of diplomacy by other means.3 What benefits would Li Zhi gain? But as much as I tried to think this through, the only benefit I could think of was that the chaos in Southern Chu would make it difficult for Crown Prince Li An to make things difficult for Li Zhi at will. But even if Li Zhi conquered Southern Chu in one go, this had nothing to do with becoming openly hostile against Li An. I didn’t believe that Li Zhi would be unable to beat Li An. No matter how much I pondered the matter, I could not understand. With many doubts, I lowered the intelligence report in my hands on the table. Even if the situation was unexpected, I could still take advantage and execute my own plans. Thinking of this, I casually called out, “Chiji.”
Chiji, who had been organizing the maps for me, raised his head and looked at me.
“Deliver a message to your master,” I ordered. “Have him come see me tonight.”
“As you command,” replied Chiji before turning and leaving.
At night, Xiaoshunzi quickly arrived. I sat behind the desk. Chen Zhen and Han Wuji stood before the desk on the left and the right. After them stood the eight operatives of the Secret Camp on my left and right. Once Xiaoshunzi had entered the room, he immediately walked over to my side. That was his position. Right now, Chen Zhen was the commander of the Secret Camp and Han Wuji was the head manager of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. Although Xiaoshunzi did not have a clear status, everyone knew that he was my stand-in and had the authority to issue orders on my behalf. In addition, Xiaoshunzi was the martial arts master of every operative in the Secret Camp. All of these operatives were extremely respectful towards Xiaoshunzi. This combination provided Xiaoshunzi with a sublime and transcendent status. However, he treated me the same as before, willingly serving as my servant and follower.
Seeing that everyone had arrived, I said, “Everyone, I established the Secret Camp and the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets for the sole purpose of waiting for this day. The time has come. Today, I ask that everyone unite and work together4 to complete the great undertaking of vengeance.”
“Young master need only issue commands,” stated Chen Zhen. “If it weren’t for the fact that young master was willing to wait, we would have killed Liang Wan even if it would have cost us our lives.”
Everyone else only calmly listened. According to my established customs, when it wasn’t their turn to speak, they weren’t allowed to speak. Chen Zhen was the commander of the Secret Camp. Outside of Xiaoshunzi and Han Wuji, everyone else were his subordinates. If it wasn’t necessary, Xiaoshunzi wouldn’t say a word. Han Wuji’s status was below Chen Zhen and he wouldn’t casually interject.
I looked at Han Wuji and asked, “Has the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets made all the preparations?”
Han Wuji bowed and answered, “Young master, be at ease. But because of the news that the Yong army is approaching Jianye, many merchants have begun to flee. The portion that was instructed in advance are within our grasp.”
I nodded and declared, “Before, I’ve always waited for an opportunity. Only when Great Yong and Southern Chu have completely fallen out has the opportunity finally presented itself. This opportunity stems from Princess Changle, the Queen of Southern Chu. From the beginning, I have felt that the Yong Emperor greatly favored and loved this Princess. One only has to consider the court ladies that were part of her dowry and consider the lukewarm relationship between Princess Changle and the King. From this, we can see that it was only necessary for the Princess to come to Southern Chu. To prevent the Princess from being in a difficult situation, I believe that the Yong Emperor never had the intention of allowing Princess Changle to have too much emotional attachment to the King.”
Listening to my words, Xiaoshunzi was puzzled and suspicious at first before his expression gradually became bright and clear. He said, “Young master is correct. Serving in the court, I know that the Queen does not interact with the King except out of necessity. The Queen would always stay at the secondary palace as much as possible. Even if she is in the Royal Palace, she is melancholic, never competing for the King’s favor. Before, I always thought that the Queen was virtuous, but now I believe that she was acting as the young master said—she has no intention of staying in Southern Chu.”
I slapped my hand on the table and added, “Indeed, if it weren’t that the Yong Emperor loved this daughter, he need not care about her moods and would have used her to properly beguile the King. This would have resulted in a better reward. Since he so treasures Princess Changle, then before Great Yong and Southern Chu completely falls out, he will rescue the Princess. Liang Wan will certainly take charge of this rescue. Liang Wan does not fear death, but if something happens to Princess Changle then I fear her fate will be worse than death. As such, we should take advantage of their escape from the palace to trap them. For the sake of the safety of the Princess, Liang Wan will have no alternative but to confess. As long as she confesses, whether she lives or dies is unimportant, and I will be able to attain my vengeance. But Princess Changle will have numerous skilled martial artists protecting her. We must be absolutely certain in our actions and must not allow her to escape. Xiaoshunzi, you are the main strength this time. Are you certain of success?”
Thinking it over, Xiaoshunzi responded, “Young master be at ease. Based upon my current martial arts, it may require some effort to capture them, but it would be a piece of cake to kill them. As long as young master’s plan is meticulous, I can guarantee that they will not be able to escape.”
I happily exclaimed, “Excellent! Hualiu and Lü’er, you two will lead the Hidden Group. Make sure to grasp their movements. Baiyi, Yulun, Shanzi, and Quhuang, you four will lead the Tiger Group and the Covert Group to trap their main forces. Chiji and Daoli, you two will lead the Dragon Group and be responsible for coordination and dealing with the aftermath. The specific arrangements will be made by Chen Zhen and Han Wuji. Depart immediately. Xiaoshunzi, you will first follow the Queen. As long as we hold this thread, Liang Wan will absolutely be unable to escape.”
While I was nervously reading all the intelligence reports to determine the best course of action, the court had fallen into chaos. Emperor Zhao Jia’s eyes were red from lack of sleep. Indignant, he yelled, “What have we heard on a daily basis? That my Southern Chu is well prepared for war. But now Great Yong has penetrated our defensive lines. In less than six hours, the Yong army will arrive before the city. Quickly speak, what’s to be done? What’s to be done?”
Prime Minister Shang Weijun replied, “Your Imperial Majesty need not worry. The Yong army is only composed of light cavalry and they have traveled far. By the time they arrive before Jianye, they will already be a spent force.5 Although Jianye does not have a large garrison, it does possess fifty thousand imperial guardsmen. As long as we are able to defend the city for a period of time, reinforcements will surely arrive.”
At this time, a ranking official stepped forward and said, “Your Imperial Majesty, although Prime Minister Shang’s words are reasonable, the Yong army is composed of elite soldiers. If we are unable to defend Jianye, then it will be a great danger to our country. In this subject’s view, Your Imperial Majesty should temporarily shift the Imperial Presence someplace safe, returning to Jianye to reorganize when the enemy army has retreated. Your Imperial Majesty should not be placed in danger lightly.”
When these words were spoken, the court officials stepped forward to agree one by one. Under normal circumstances, if these weren’t painting the town red, they were frequenting brothels. After Zhao Jia succeeded the throne, he had become estranged with all the virtuous subjects, while the number of vile characters grew. Many virtuous subjects had been demoted or dismissed because of the dispute over ascending to the Imperial Throne. As a result, under the current urgent circumstances, one could not find any capable ministers present to discuss these matters of state. Although Shang Weijun was relatively ordinary, this time he was comparatively wise. But he could not face the anger of the multitude. Ultimately, he could only say, “If that is the case, Your Imperial Majesty can temporarily shift your Imperial Presence. Please allow this elderly subject to command the Imperial Guard and defend Jianye. In addition, I ask Your Imperial Majesty to permit the Crown Prince to supervise the governance of this country.”
Zhao Jia agreed again and again, “Good, Jianye will be entrusted to the Prime Minister. But the Crown Prince is only four years old. He would serve no purpose staying behind.”
Shang Weijun believed that, without a prince staying behind, they would be unable to defend Jianye from the Yong army. He could only request this over and over again. Although Zhao Jia did not have a profound affection for this son of his, all of his other sons were from Yong women. He naturally had to be a bit attentive. But seeing that the Yong army would soon arrive, Zhao Jia was ultimately unwilling to delay. He hurriedly led a group of trusted ministers, concubines, and several thousand imperial guardsmen, fleeing an hour before the Yong army arrived.
Before Zhao Jia had even left the city, Shang Weijun gave the order to raid and seize the Bright Moon Pavilion. He further dispatched guardsmen to surround the palace, placing Princess Changle, who had remained behind, under house arrest. Although Zhao Jia was like a monkey with a hat in taking the Imperial Title,6 because the aftermath of the war between Great Yong and Southern Chu had not been resolved, he had not promoted his queen to Empress. From Li Xian’s first campaign against Xiangyang, Zhao Jia had brought the queen back to live in the Palace. It was only because of fear of Great Yong’s strength that he did not place the queen under house arrest. However, Princess Changle grasped the big picture and did not take a single step out of the Palace. In reality, the house arrest ordered by Shang Weijun was only to feign an appearance. Who was to know that the imperial guardsmen would report that the Bright Moon Pavilion was completely empty, while Princess Changle had disappeared, while all of the court ladies were locked in a single room. Shang Weijun turned pale with fright. He knew that he had lost the protective talisman. Not worrying about the city’s defenses, he ordered those fighters that he trusted to have Consort Shang and the Crown Prince changed into commoner garb and led to safety. After that, Shang Weijun mounted the ramparts to personally take charge of the defense.
At this time, within a farmhouse on the northern outskirts of Jianye was the scene of blood-stained swords. Liang Wan wore green-colored commoner garb. A short sword was in her hands. Although the sword was unmarked by blood, Liang Wan’s forehead dripped with sweat. Behind her, seated on a chair, was a woman with a wan and sallow, but clear and attractive, complexion. She was also in commoner garb. Behind her stood a pretty maid with a short sword in her hands. To the left and right stood a dozen or so Great Yong spies dressed as farmers. All of them were injured. The floor was covered with bloodstained arrows and crossbow bolts.
Liang Wan could not believe her current predicament. After she had brought Princess Changle to this hidden farm, her force had been caught off guard and attacked. She could only retreat into the farmhouse, only to discover that the two individuals she had left there earlier had been captured and bound tightly. The legs of the two individuals had suffered grievous cuts before being treated. Liang Wan had led her spies out several times to break the encirclement, but had been blocked by volleys of arrows and crossbow bolts. Once, Liang Wan had relied upon the soft armor that she was wearing to charge out. But just as she had left the courtyard, she was stopped by four masked men wielding sabers. Although the martial arts of these masked men were, in Liang Wan’s eyes, only second-rate, they were bold and powerful with ferocious blade techniques. In addition, they cooperated well and were using a blade formation to entrap Liang Wan for a period of time. Seeing that the arrows and crossbow bolts were flying towards her, Liang Wan could only break through and retreat back into the farmhouse.
Unfortunately, she was stuck between a rock and a hard place. She was becoming increasingly confused. Those surrounding her were definitely elite soldiers. At the very least they were comparable to the best soldiers of Great Yong. In addition, those martial artists who had stopped her were not easily found. In the current Southern Chu, how could there be such an elite unit near Jianye? Even if they were Southern Chu spies, why had they only now taken action? They could have acted when she had rescued the Princess from the Palace. From beginning to end, Liang Wan could not understand who was surrounding her. But she knew that they absolutely must hold out. For safety, they had not revealed this location to the Yong army. If they could not hold out until the arrival the Yong army, then not only would she lose her life, but also the Princess would be finished. If something happened to the Princess, even if she were to die, Liang Wan would be unable to quell the Yong Emperor’s anger. When the time came, the Fengyi Sect would have to bear this anger.
As Liang Wan was thinking, one of her subordinates informed her in a low voice, “Lady Liang, they have finally woken.”
Liang Wan was delighted. Although the two that had been left here had suffered numerous injuries, they had not died. They had been in a coma, unable to wake. They must have taken some medicine. She walked over and hurriedly asked, “What happened? Who attacked you?”
One of the men licked his parched lips and replied, “My ladyship, only one person came. He was dressed in black and had his face covered. He didn’t say anything. But his martial arts were extraordinary. Using only one stance, he injured both of us. That person originally wanted to kill us, but was stopped by another. The second person should not know any martial arts, as his footsteps were weak and his breath deficient. He gave the order to leave slashes on our legs. After that, we fainted.”
Liang Wan listened to their words, but found them useless. Just then, an icy voice could be heard from outside. “Those in the farmhouse, listen up! We have run out of patience! If you do not come out within the time it takes for a stick of incense to burn, we will burn the farmhouse down!”
“If you set fire to the farmhouse,” replied Liang Wan in a loud voice, “Aren’t you worried that you’ll attract others’ attention?”
It was silent outside for a moment before the man returned, “Southern Chu is too busy worrying about itself to care about others, while Great Yong is still more than an hour away. We have plenty of time. The longer you take to think, the more severe the punishment will be. If you surrender now, we can guarantee that at the very least, you all will not die painfully.”
Liang Wan could only feel cold sweat flood down her back. For the first time, she regretted that she had not brought more men here. As she was hesitating, several straw bundles were thrown next to the doorway. A lit fire starter was thrown over. Quickly a blaze was started. Without any alternatives, Liang Wan could only yell out, “We’re surrendering!”
The two straw bundles were pulled away. A man of average height in black garb and with his face covered stepped into the doorway. His hands were empty, weaponless. But Liang Wan could feel the faint pressure being exuded from his body. Her left hand was holding the flying daggers at her waist. But at this moment, she did not have the courage to throw the daggers. The black-garbed man commanded in a feminine voice, “Raise your hands and walk out one by one.”
Liang Wan jolted. She had heard this kind of voice before—it was the speech of a eunuch. But they should be from Southern Chu. Summoning her courage, she threw down her short sword. She raised her hands and collected her disordered hair. Lithely, she walked towards that man. She knew that this person could be a eunuch. Even if he wasn’t, he probably trained in a particularly malevolent and feminine internal energy. If that was the case, then his temperament was probably also insidious. As a result, Liang Wan dared not use her beauty to bewilder him. Instead, she would present the image that she was yielding and compliant. She held her two hands behind her back and walked towards that man. Just as she was passing him, her body moved like a viper and slid back, sending the dagger in her right hand piercing towards the man’s throat. This was an impossible-to-defend attack, but the man’s right hand softly swept forward, and Liang Wan lost feeling in her wrist. Afterwards a pale white and frigid palm extended forward and grasped her throat. Liang Wan could only feel that the hand was as nauseous and dreadful as a viper. Afterwards, she lost consciousness.
When Liang Wan awoke, she found that she was in the dark. She perked her ears and listened, but she could not detect anyone near her. She tried to move her body, but found that her hands were tightly bound behind her. She still had her martial arts and there wasn’t anything strange about the condition of her body. She rejoiced and took a breath. She did not make any more movements, as she did not want to attract any attention. Just then, a frosty voice spoke, “You’ve awoken; young master wants to see you.”
After that, bright lights were revealed. Liang Wan involuntarily closed her eyes. Two men brought her to her feet. From her senses, Liang Wan could tell that the two were still young. Without letting her walk on her own, the two brought Liang Wan into a spacious room without windows. This was a secret chamber. Torches were mounted on the four corners of the room. Seated in the chair in the center of the room was a black-garbed, masked scholar. On the four walls hung all of Liang Wan’s subordinates, held in place with five iron chains. There was no sign of torture on their bodies. Liang Wan also saw another man standing next to the seated black-clothed scholar. From his two hands, Liang Wan was able to recognize him as the person who had captured her. Outside of this, there were six men in black standing in the corners. Liang Wan was brought to the wall facing the scholar. With practiced ease, the two men chained Liang Wan’s wrists, ankles, and waist to the wall. The chains were tightened and Liang Wan was immobilized. Another man in black stepped forward, and using a bucket, splashed Liang Wan with cold water. Liang Wan’s entire body was soaked, revealing the beautiful outline of an exquisitely developed and mature woman. She was equally ashamed and angry. Although she was already twenty-seven, she was still a virgin. How could she take such humiliation? The men in black all looked her without restraint. Even her subordinates could not help but steal glances.
“Who are you, really?” asked Liang Wan indignantly, “Why are you making trouble for my Great Yong?”
The black-robed scholar coolly replied, “This one is not making trouble for Great Yong. Liang Wan, I am here for you. Everyone else was unfortunate to be fish in the same pool of water.”
Liang Wan shivered inside. These past few years, she had been in service to Great Yong. How could there be individuals here to avenge a personal vendetta? Seeing the hesitation in her subordinates’ eyes, she questioned, humiliated and angry, “What did you do with the two other ladies?”
She did not dare reveal Princess Changle’s identity, but the black-garbed scholar said, “You are speaking of Her Imperial Highness, Princess Changle? Her Imperial Highness, Princess Changle, has nothing to do with this matter. This one greatly sympathizes with the Princess’s bitter experiences. As such, she has been arranged to stay in a different room. But her female guard’s martial arts were extremely similar to yours. She tried to seize an opportunity to mount a sneak attack and has been mistakenly killed by my subordinates.”
Trembling on the inside, Liang Wan uttered, “You are really vicious. My junior apprentice sister was only nineteen. Who would have thought that you would be so cruel?”
The black-clothed scholar did not say anything. The man who stood behind him spoke in a dark and gentle voice, “Who cares if we mistakenly kill one person? If you are unwilling to answer our question, I will make you wish you were dead.”
Liang Wan furiously retorted, “Who are you, really? What rancor do you have with me?”
The black garbed scholar coldly replied, “I will only ask you one thing: did you kill Liu Piaoxiang?”
Liang Wan immediately stared back blankly. There was no way she could foresee that she would be asked this question.
趁火打劫, chenhuodajie – idiom, lit. to loot a burning building; to profit from somebody’s misfortune
江淮, Jianghuai – refers to the region between the Yangtze and the Huai Rivers
This is an aphorism by the Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz.
戮力同心, luliltongxin – idiom, concerted efforts in a common cause; united and working together
强弩之末, qiangnuzhimo – idiom, lit. an arrow at the end of its flight; fig. spent force
沐猴而冠, muhou’erguan – idiom, lit. a monkey wearing a hat; fig. worthless person in imposing attire