Watching my receding image, Li Zhi crushed the cup in his hand, cutting and causing fresh blood to cover his hand. From youth, he was the center of everyone’s attention. Even during these years of marching and fighting with the army as a leader, he was always the aloof and remote1 prince of the state—loyally served by the soldiers, beloved and respected by the common people, revered by the ministers, and admired by the imperial clan. On numerous occasions, he only needed to show respectful etiquette towards a talented person, and would receive that person’s tearful gratitude. On numerous occasions, he had done as he had pleased in handling these small matters, thus creating this modest and unassuming persona of his. Gradually, he became accustomed to using his glamor to pacify others, and his modesty and moderation to obtain their loyalty. Today, he had truly experienced a bitter and painful setback. Regardless of his conduct, that person would only smile and remain at a distance. It was true that he could forcibly keep this person beside him as an official. But what use was that? He had not been able to pacify this person. He had not been able to gain this person’s loyalty. At this moment, Li Zhi tasted the painful consequences of failure. He had suffered many defeats on the battlefield and he had been deeply embarrassed in court, but he had never experienced such disappointment and pain.
Just as Li Zhi was finding it extremely difficult to extricate himself from this dilemma that he faced, the sound of graceful happiness reached his ears. He could faintly discern that the sound was noble and lofty, gentle and honest. Li Zhi’s heart could not help but be moved. His mood gradually calmed down. He glanced at the worried expressions on the faces of his advisers. He glanced at frightened look on Li Jun’s face. He spoke in a helpless tone, “This Prince is tired and will go rest.” So saying, he stood and departed.
Shi Yu and company watched the Prince of Yong’s receding figure, keenly feeling his loneliness and sorrow. Their own moods could not but be heavy as well. Although they could not understand Li Zhi’s frame of mind, they were well aware of the psychological shock that Li Zhi had just received. Seeing that the gathering had ended, Dong Zhi declared in an enraged tone, “Jiang Suiyun went too overboard. His Imperial Highness treats him so well, and yet he unexpectedly is still so heartless.”
“Regardless of how overboard he goes, we cannot blame him,” replied Guan Xiu with a smile. “It is said that ‘a loyal official does not serve a second master.’ There is nothing strange about his unwillingness to loyally serve His Imperial Highness.”
“It would be fine if he were really a so-called loyal official, and would rather die than submit,” declared Dong Zhi angrily, “But he clearly isn’t that kind of person. And yet, he continues to refuse to serve His Imperial Highness. If he is unwilling to serve this kind of wise liege, then does he want to serve someone like Li An?”
Shi Yu thoughtfully replied, “I am actually worried that His Imperial Highness’s killing intent has been stirred. If this person is killed, then not only would the world lose a gifted scholar, but His Imperial Highness’s reputation would also be harmed. But His Imperial Highness is correct to be worried … How can this kind of talent be allowed to be used by someone else? These last few days, he has learned so much about His Imperial Highness’s affairs. Even if His Imperial Highness isn’t worried, we should be worried.”
Gou Lian seemed to refute these words. “I feel like this person actually has thoughts about serving His Imperial Highness. It is only that he has a difficulty that we cannot understand.”
Three pairs of eyes immediately turned to look at Gou Lian. For Gou Lian to be able to serve as an envoy, he not only relied upon his formidable mouth, he also relied heavily upon his ability to discern how someone thought from their body language.2 For him to speak thus, he definitely had some certainty. Gou Lian suddenly smiled, as he saw a servant walk over. In front of the four advisers, the servant respectfully reported in, “Sir Gou, this lowly one asked the servant who escorted Sir Jiang to his room. En route, Sir Jiang suddenly stopped to pick a bamboo leaf and played a tune.”
Gou Lian waved his hand to dismiss the servant before turning to look at the other three. Dong Zhi thoughtfully inquired, “Are you saying that the music just now was played by Jiang Zhe?”
Gou Lian faintly replied, “I listened to that tune a moment ago and realized that the skill wasn’t particularly brilliant. However, the tune was gentle and honest, seemingly from the heart. In addition, it did not seem to be the sound of traditional instruments. Therefore, I dispatched someone to take a look. It was indeed Jiang Zhe. That this person was able to discern His Imperial Highness’s violent indignation only speaks to his talent and wisdom. But he played that tune to calm His Imperial Highness’s mood. This shows that he was not completely indifferent to His Imperial Highness. That is why I stated that he definitely is facing an enormous difficulty that prevents him from serving His Imperial Highness.”
Shi Yu retorted, “But that is exactly the problem. His Imperial Highness is humane and benevolent, with wisdom reaching the heavens. If he were interested in position and wealth, His Imperial Highness need only speak a word. If he really had some difficulties, His Imperial Highness would definitely be able to help him resolve it. Can His Imperial Highness’s behavior towards him be inferior in any way to how he was treated by the Prince of De, Zhao Jue?”
Serenely, Dong Zhi wondered, “If we aren’t able to help deal with His Imperial Highness’s problems, what face do we have to remain here in this manner? His Imperial Highness attaches such importance to this man. Does this mean that we are inferior to him?”
Shi Yu heaved a heavy sigh before responding, “Our specialties are governance and the art of war. Although our talents can assist a liege, His Imperial Highness’s current foe is not someone who we can take care of. To speak clearly, His Imperial Highness’s enemy is Crown Prince Li An. Although this person appears to be loyal and filial, he is in actuality fiercely sinister. Unfortunately, he stands in the position of righteousness. Even if there are vile characters committing outrages under his banner, there are also persons of noble character who strongly support the legitimate succession to the throne. This kind of enemy is extremely difficult to deal with. In addition, the Junior Mentor of the Crown Prince, Lu Jingzhong, is a sly and crafty schemer, a genius at assessing people’s intent. As a result, His Imperial Highness has never been unable to shake the Crown Prince’s position.
“On top of all this is the Prince of Qi … although he appears to be debauched and reckless, he has never gone overboard. We can clearly see that he is talented and capable. He is also a capable commander, serving as the Crown Prince’s courage. With the Prince of Qi’s support, the Crown Prince can concentrate on dealing with His Imperial Highness and not have to worry that Great Yong does not have any capable generals to command its armies in the future.
“As for the Emperor, not that I am slandering the Emperor, but he is jealous of His Imperial Highness’s talent. The mutual suspicion between father and son is not something recent. At critical moments, the Emperor may give His Imperial Highness a helping hand, but under normal circumstances, he is more than happy to see the Crown Prince suppress His Imperial Highness. Although these enemies are powerful, based upon His Imperial Highness’s demeanor and capability, and our support, His Imperial Highness still has a fifty percent chance of success.
“However, the most dangerous opponent is the Fengyi Sect. I once had the chance to meet their sect master. She is adept at astronomy and yin and yang, and is also familiar with geography and the teachings of the Hundred Schools of Thought.3 There is nothing that she does not understand about schemes and plots. Although she is a woman, she has always had the ambition to bring peace and stability to the world. Even more frightening is that she is aware of her limitations. She knows that she cannot overtly seize the world. As a result, she uses any and all methods to try to control the Great Yong court. Noble Consort Ji who is beside the Emperor, the Crown Prince’s second wife, Consort Xiao, and the Prince of Qi’s consort, Qin Zheng, are all disciples of the Fengyi Sect. Beyond that, no one knows how many people they have next to us. They all pretend to wholeheartedly assist the state, causing everyone to respect them and not take precautions against their strength. Now, they have clearly shown their support for the Crown Prince. With their existence, the Emperor, the Crown Prince, and the Prince of Qi form an inseparable entity. How can His Imperial Highness oppose them?”
Hearing Shi Yu’s words, the three advisers all noticeably shivered. They originally did not know how challenging the situation was for the Prince of Yong, only knowing that the prince had rejected the offer of marriage from the Fengyi Sect. They all were against allying with the Fengyi Sect, although all three of them had different reasons for doing so. They did not expect that the current situation was practically irreconcilable. Dong Zhi took a deep breath and asked, “If that is the case, then how does this relate to Jiang Zhe?”
Shi Yu sighed again before replying, “Although the Fengyi Sect Master is a frightening, generational talent, she has one weakness. She is ultimately a woman, and is indecisive in her decision-making. She is sometimes overly cautious. Defeating this person requires someone extraordinary who can operate independently. This is the so-called ‘irregular troops are victorious against standard troops.’ Although Jiang Zhe, that person, has an outward appearance of someone accepting circumstances with good will, he is someone who does not go along with the pack, clearly standing out with his peculiarity. Considering his behavior, he is someone who has no qualms and is unconstrained in style. Considering the stratagems that he employs, all of them have been unusual and crafty in their decision-making, happening outside of everyone’s expectations. Moreover, his arrangements are profound and long-lasting, his thought processes meticulous and careful. His execution is sinister and fierce to the extreme, adept at prevailing over opponents within the most dangerous of circumstances. His Imperial Highness has spoken of the several times he has gone against this man. Every single time, His Imperial Highness has suffered. What is even more alarming is that His Imperial Highness did not have any way of resisting. That year, he offered His Imperial Highness a suggestion. Although it ensured His Imperial Highness’s safety, it also successfully sowed discord between His Imperial Highness and the Emperor. His Imperial Highness could clearly understand the intentions of this advice, but had no way of stopping its effects. Only Jiang Zhe, this person, is capable of attaining victory over the Fengyi Sect Master. If we cannot annihilate the Fengyi Sect, our Great Yong will one day fall into the hands of these women. That is why His Imperial Highness would lose his self-control. Everyone please understand the painstaking efforts of His Imperial Highness and not resent His Imperial Highness’s preferential treatment of Jiang Zhe.”
“Many thanks to Ziyou for your instruction,” recognized Dong Zhi ashamedly, “Zhi cannot help resolve problems for His Imperial Highness and yet is jealous. I am extremely ashamed.”
Shi Yu rose from his seat and said, “Brother Dong is too serious. We are close advisers to His Imperial Highness. We naturally should be wholeheartedly showing our devotion and loyalty to His Imperial Highness.”
At the same time that Shi Yu was eliminating the disturbance, I was half sitting in bed, half drinking a fragrant tea that could dissipate the effects of alcohol. I was completely absorbed in recalling today’s events. Ever since Piaoxiang had died, my heart was frequently filled with melancholy and gloom. Today’s gathering had immediately turned my mood clear and bright. If I had then made my decision, I fear that I would have already acquiesced. I remembered the fear in my mind during our meeting in Sichuan in his encampments. Now, I did not have any restraints upon my decision-making thus reducing any fear I had of the Prince of Yong. However, I could not but admit that the Prince of Yong was unusually tolerant. If it was me, I probably would have killed such a discourteous fellow.
Ah, it was unfortunate that I could not change my mind no matter the circumstances. I, Jiang Suiyun, could randomly participate in the examinations and offer my advice once up a time, but right now, I cherished my freedom. Under the prerequisite of ensuring my survival, I will never again be loyal to anyone. I smiled faintly. I had come to this decision even though I had never before been genuinely loyal and devoted to anyone.
Before I went to bed, I once again thought of the heir to the Prince of Yong, Li Jun. What a cute and innocent child. It was a pity … from what I could see from this child’s appearance, he was intelligent but would likely die prematurely. This child would not have the fortune of ascending to the throne. Thinking it over, I smiled again. Although this child’s physiognomy was somewhat poor, he had a good-natured temperament. Combined with the Prince of Yong’s fortune providing shade for him, he should not live a short life. To say nothing of the fact that he was a precious imperial grandson. What regrets could he have? There was no reason for me to worry for him.
Though already half asleep, I had suspicions. In my view, the Prince of Yong wasn’t someone who would unceasingly harass someone. Why would he respond so abnormally? It was almost as if he absolutely must acquire my service. This was not in keeping with conventional wisdom.
Li Zhi, immediately after he had calmed down, received word that the Prince of Qi had come calling. He was not happy. Before him, Li Xian flattered and threatened, “Second brother, just let me meet Jiang daren. At that time, I became acquainted with him while in Southern Chu. Imperial Father has even said that he will appoint him to an official position. Did you place him under house arrest?” Without any other options, Li Zhi could only agree to allow Li Xian to meet with Jiang Zhe.
When he entered the courtyard I lived in, Li Xian shouted out, “Suiyun! Suiyun! It looks like second brother treats you quite well. This Perched Phoenix Courtyard is much loved by second brother, and yet unexpectedly he is willing to allow you to live here.”
At that moment, I was playing weiqi with Xiaoshunzi. My skill was mediocre, while Xiaoshunzi was quite good. According to him, playing weiqi helped him with his cultivation. If it weren’t for my pretty good strategic and macro sense, and occasionally making strange moves, I fear that I would lose badly. When Li Xian was shouting out and walking in, I was thinking about my next move with my brow furrowed. Seeing Li Xian enter, Xiaoshunzi stood. Bowing respectfully, he greeted Li Xian, “This servant greets Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi.” Afterwards, he nudged me lightly.
Li Xian took Xiaoshunzi’s seat. Seeing that I was still racking my brains, he stated, “Stop thinking. I’ve the opportunity to experience your skill at weiqi, and it’s notoriously bad.”
Roused from my thoughts, I looked at Li Xian seated opposite me. Staring blankly, I inquired, “Why did Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, come here?”
Deliberately revealing a look of deep hurt and disappointment, Li Zhi replied, “Heavens! Don’t tell me that Jiang daren only just now saw my seven chi4 tall body?”
I smiled slightly, pushing away the board and ordered, “Xiaoshunzi, prepare a cup of tea for His Imperial Highness.”
Xiaoshunzi brought over a cup of hot tea which Li Xian accepted. He sized up Xiaoshunzi for a while before asking in quick succession, “Are you a eunuch in service here in the prince’s household? How come I’ve never seen you before? Are you new? Why are you wearing those clothes?”
In an neutral voice, Xiaoshunzi answered, “This servant is from Southern Chu. I once met Your Imperial Highness within the Southern Chu royal palace. Naturally, your Imperial Highness does not remember me.”
Li Xian froze for a moment before looking at me and asking, “How does Jiang daren have someone from the Southern Chu palace?”
With a smile, I replied, “He is an old friend of mine. He took advantage of the Prince of Yong capturing Jianye to run away from the palace. He decided that he might as well not go back.”
Li Xian suddenly understood. “So that is the case. For Jiang daren to have such a servant by your side, daren is truly blessed. Daren should allow him to take up a formal position. If someone were to submit a memorial to censure daren for employing a eunuch, then daren will be charged.”
I smiled distantly and replied, “I am no more than a commoner. Who out there would submit a memorial to censure me? Furthermore, Xiaoshunzi is someone from Southern Chu. Don’t tell me that Great Yong won’t allow those people from a destroyed country find new livelihoods?”
Seeing my obstinate temperament, Xiaoshunzi hurriedly stated, “Young master, His Imperial Highness is being thoughtful.”
Only then did my complexion become calm. I inquired, “For Your Imperial Highness to come to see me is Suiyun’s honor and privilege. But Your Imperial Highness would not come see me without a reason.5 I wonder if there’s anything that this one can help with?”
Li Xian’s expression grew serious, as he replied, “Jiang daren, when I first saw you, I realized that you were someone that I, Li Xian, require the most. Don’t ask how I know, but if daren is willing to become strategist, I, Li Xian, am willing to treat and respect daren as my teacher, taking your words as holy writ and absolutely never objecting.”
Seeing Li Xian’s earnest gaze, I could not but smile wryly. This year, Li Xian had just reached the age of thirty. His handsome appearance carried with it a dense, awe-inspiring domineering aura. His sincere and yet aggressive aura made one feel dread and at the same time, feel closer to him. If there weren’t the Prince of Yong, Li Zhi, I would have thought that Li Xian was the most suitable individual to succeed to the Imperial Throne. This person was clear about important matters and pretended to be muddled about less important ones. He had selected Li An not because he considered Li An to be outstanding or because he would be highly regarded, but rather because Li Zhi did not require someone else who was a capable commander on the field of battle. In comparison, Li An would not be able to do anything without him. As far as I was concerned, it was impossible for me to select Li Xian. After learning of Liang Wan’s identity, I had the Secret Camp begin to collect intelligence on the Fengyi Sect. Before I had arrived at the Yong capital, I had already received preliminary reports containing information that was widely known. Within included information on Qin Zheng, the Prince of Qi’s consort. Although she was the daughter of an important family, she was a major disciple of the Fengyi Sect. Li Xian was definitely not someone capable of cutting off his ties with the Fengyi Sect. As for me, because of Liang Wan, I had become the enemy of the Fengyi Sect. I dared not say that what had happened would remain secret forever. In the world, there was not a single wall that could completely block the wind. As such, I could not serve Li Xian.
Thinking of this, just as I was about to forcefully decline, I suddenly remembered my plans to fake my death. I immediately changed what I was going to say. “Suiyun is extremely grateful of Your Imperial Highness’s great kindness. Merely, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, does not permit me to leave this place, and so I can only decline Your Imperial Highness’s good intentions.”
In astonishment, Li Xian exclaimed, “What? Second brother dares put you under house arrest? I think that you know that when she returned to Chang’an, Changle brought back a collection of your poems. Imperial Father really enjoyed reading it. If it weren’t for second brother saying that you were sick and in bed, Imperial Father would have granted you an audience long ago. You might as well as return with me. This Prince expects that second brother won’t dare to make things difficult.”
I calmly replied, “Your Imperial Highness is mistaken, Suiyun’s health is poor. I caught a cold en route to Chang’an. I have only started getting better these last several days. His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, stated that Suiyun’s health is poor and should be confined to the official residence. His actions were meant to empathize with Suiyun’s situation. Your Imperial Highness must not misconstrue their intent.”
Li Xian averted his eyes. “If that is the case, when I go back, I shall send someone over to formally invite you to come and recuperate in the Prince of Qi’s household.”
“I’m not accustomed to staying in the official residences of princes,” I replied indifferently. “It’s too inconvenient. If possible, can Your Imperial Highness see if there is a small and quiet residence or manor? Suiyun has some savings and can’t afford to buy something too large.”
Li Xian rubbed his hands together and refused, “How is that acceptable? I want you to be my teacher. How can I allow you to live outside my residence?”
Deliberately, I stated, “If that’s the case, then forget about it. I’ll just ask His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, to think of something. I believe there has to be an appropriate manor out there. Alas, if Your Imperial Highness is unwilling, then matters will be difficult. Who allowed me to become beholden to His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong?”
Suddenly, Li Xian responded, “There are no problems. I will definitely help Jiang daren, no Sir Jiang, find a suitable manor. It will both be tranquil and elegant, and easily accessible to allow me to visit.”
“If that is the case, then Suiyun can only thank Your Imperial Highness very much,” I replied.
Seeing the Prince of Qi depart in high spirits, I felt somewhat guilty. Although the Prince of Qi was impulsive and reckless, he treated me with sincerity. It was a pity that I would ultimately have to betray his trust. In reality, the one who I was letting down the most was the Prince of Yong. He treated me diligently and attentively. Otherwise, why had he launched a sneak attack on Jianye? This was something that I had thought through recently. I was afraid that the reason for his attack on Jianye was to acquire me.
After Li Zhi had seen Li Xian off, he reentered his residence with a pale white face. The Prince of Qi’s delight had left him thoroughly discouraged. Shi Yu was also extremely disappointed. Li Zhi could not believe that the Prince of Qi had so easily and without effort received Jiang Zhe’s acknowledgement. If that was the case, what was he?
Returning to his study, Li Zhi quietly stated, “Ziyou, help me prepare a banquet to see off Sir Jiang.”
Shi Yu dropped to his knees. In a trembling and frenetic voice, he cried out, “Your Imperial Highness, this man cannot be allowed to leave.”
Li Zhi’s voice was extremely calm. He replied in a misty voice, “Prepare a pot with a compartment for me. I want to see him off.”
Shi Yu’s entire body trembled, as he replied, “As you command.” His eyes were filled with sorrow and despair.
Raising his head, Li Zhi stated, “Ziyou, did I do the right thing? If this man were to serve the Prince of Qi, I would not be able to eat or sleep in peace. It would be better to kill him to forever remove the danger.”
Distressed, Shi Yu replied, “Poisoning this man to death will remove the danger. If we don’t kill that man, we will eventually die by his hands.”
With tears falling down his face, Li Zhi sadly said, “But if we were to kill the man, this Prince’s mind cannot be at peace. This Prince has always believed that I am magnanimous. Now, I will have to murder someone who is unwilling to pay his allegiances to this Prince.”
Shi Yu remonstrated, “Your Imperial Highness must not be too softhearted. This person possesses superlative talent. If he were allowed to leave, it would greatly endanger Your Imperial Highness’s great ambitions.”
Weakly and powerlessly, Li Zhi gestured with his hands and replied, “This Prince has already made my decision. Tomorrow, We will use a Soul Enrapturing Pill.”
“Yes,” replied Shi Yu, “If this happens, his life will end without any outward signs in twenty-four hours. He will not suffer any pain.”
Li Zhi did not make a single sound.…
高高在上, gaogaozaishang – idiom, lit. set up on high; not in touch with reality; aloof and remote
察言观色, chayanguanse – idiom, lit. to weigh up somebody’s words and observe their facial expressions; to discern what somebody thinks from their body language
百家, baijia – the Hundred Schools of Thought refers to the philosophies and schools that flourished during the Spring and Autumn, and Warring States Periods
尺, chi – measurement used for height; its length ranged anywhere from 23.1 cm to 29.4 cm; seven chi is about 161.7 cm to 205.8 cm
无事不登三宝殿, wushibudengsanbaodian – idiom, lit. one doesn’t visit a temple without a cause; fig. to visit somebody with an ulterior motive, having a hidden agenda