During the New Year, prosperity abounded within the city of Chang’an. On the surface, everything was peaceful. However, there were hidden undercurrents.
Vice Minister of Revenue Cui Yang descended from his carriage, fed up with the crowds’ bustling activity in front of the door. His elder sister was Crown Prince Li An’s proper wife. Although she was not as favored as the second wife, the crown prince’s heir was born of his older sister. As a result, the relationship between the couple was nevertheless filled with respect. Originally, during the period when the Prince of Yong’s arrogance was unbridled, although he was the crown prince’s younger brother-in-law, he had few to no visitors, so much so that there were those who made trouble for him to win the Prince of Yong’s favor. This time, with the crown prince’s position as heir apparent solidified, those who had come this year to pay a New Year call had almost trampled flat his threshold. Ignoring the social climbing vile characters, upright and unafraid, he entered the entrance of his residence.
Entering his study, the housekeeper handed over a large pile of calling cards. Cui Yang, in passing, looked over them one by one. When all was said and done, regardless of how he despised these people, power and influence needed others’ support. Without these opportunists, with what would the crown prince use to administer the world? And how would he improve his station in life? After flipping through these calling cards, Cui Yang was suddenly attracted by one of them. This was an exquisite calling card. Upon it was a name that he had never before heard of: Ji Cheng. He was a merchant from the Hanzhong region. Originally, Cui Yang was not in the frame of mind to meet this ordinary merchant. However, attached to this calling card was a list of gifts. On top were astonishingly ten thousand taels of silver and a white jade disc. This was a very heavy gift. For the sake of these gifts, he couldn’t not meet this Ji Cheng. He instructed his housekeeper to invite Ji Cheng to come over. Cui Yang sat behind the desk, drinking tea and mulling over what requests this person would have. For someone to present such gifts, there must be something they want.1 Would he be able to safely accept this gift?
After a short while had passed, a man about thirty years of age entered the study under the guidance of the housekeeper. This man’s appearance was rather quite elegant. Although his facial features seemed to be upright and proper, however, his eyes were somewhat long and narrow, and his nose looked like the hooked beak of a hawk. This combination unavoidably marred his form. However, his manner was outstanding. Standing before the desk, his hands were behind his back. With one glance, it was clear that he was used to being a person above others. Cui Yang’s heart shook, knowing immediately that this man was definitely not just an ordinary merchant. For Cui Yang to be able to serve as the Vice Minister of Revenue, naturally he was not an ordinary person. He lightly asked, “Sire, please sit. Although this official’s position is not high, there are still some things that I can take care. For your distinguished self to present such heavy gifts, what matters do you have? If there are no legal ramifications, this official will naturally consider them.”
This man smiled and replied, “This commoner has come, naturally, because I have something to beg of daren. This commoner has a business proposition. I wish to collaborate with the Crown Prince. However, given His Imperial Highness’s status, how are we commoners able to approach him? Daren is the Crown Prince’s honored relative. Therefore, this commoner has come to ask you for your help. If daren feels like this commoner’s business proposition is feasible, please convey this commoner’s sincerity to the Crown Prince.”
Cui Yang’s brow furrowed and he coldly refused, “The Crown Prince is the heir apparent. Under the heavens, nothing isn’t the ruler’s land. There is no need to be involved with you lowly merchants. If this is the matter, this official is powerless.”
The man sneered and questioned, “If His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, is disinterested in becoming wealthy, then for what purpose does the Crown Prince have for those manors on the outskirts of Chang’an? Who is the behind-the-scenes proprietor of Chang’an’s largest casino in the slave market’s Golden Jade Pavilion? Who is it that has violated the law to privately mine gold outside of Chang’an?”
Hearing these questions, Cui Yang’s heart almost leapt out of his chest. How could this man have so thoroughly investigated the crown prince’s financial resources so clearly? He himself had helped the crown prince manage these businesses. If this news were revealed, the crown prince would at most be reprimanded, while he himself would probably lose his position. A killing aura flashed across his eyes. He believed that this man needed to be captured and thoroughly questioned about his past and ancestors before eliminating him completely. As a result, Cui Yang deliberately stated in an amicable manner, “Actually, this matter may not necessarily not be discussed. Please take a seat. Serve tea. Let us slowly discuss this.”
The housekeeper promptly served tea, inviting the man to take a seat on the chair at the side before he walked out to be the gatekeeper.
Cui Yang waited for the man to be seated before he inquired, “I wonder what business proposition your distinguished self has to collaborate with His Imperial Highness? This official will report to the Crown Prince if I consider it workable.”
This man leisurely replied, “This business proposition cannot be considered too great. This year, Great Yong has suffered a drought, causing the harvest to be poor. At present, the market price of rice and flour is three times that of previous years, while the silk that is manufactured in Jiangnan has a high price but no supply. Now that the grievances between Southern Chu and Great Yong are as deep as the seas, trade between the two states has been disrupted. This commoner has some connections in Southern Chu and supplies foodstuffs, silk, tea, and other regional specialties. I wonder what daren thinks?”
Cui Yang’s brow again furrowed, thinking that this was a pretty good business proposition. However, this proposition was somewhat troublesome. Although His Highness, the crown prince, had some income, his expenditures were also enormous—bribing officials, planting spies, maintaining assassins and killers—all required money be spent. Even the yearly tribute to the Fengyi Sect was not a small figure. Glancing at this man, the killing aura in Cui Yang’s eyes weakened. He wanted to speak up, but hesitated. He couldn’t reveal that they were lacking in funds.
This man was extremely adept at discerning one’s thoughts from one’s body language. He continued to speak, “In reality, we don’t require His Imperial Highness to invest any money. As long as we are able to be taken care of by His Imperial Highness and daren, this business will go off without a hitch. You must know that this kind of smuggling operation will sooner or later slip up without the support of His Imperial Highness.”
Cui Yang nodded his head and asked, “If that is the case, then this matter is easy. However, are you prepared to divide the profits?”
This man smiled and replied, “This lowly one is willing to present His Imperial Highness with thirty percent of the profits.”
Cui Yang furrowed his brows. He was well aware of the huge profits of this kind of business. If they were only willing to offer thirty percent of the profits, then wasn’t this too little? However, his side could not furnish any capital. He could not open his mouth to ask for a larger share of the profits. That man seemed to have read his mind and said mysteriously, “In fact, this commoner has another plan. If daren has sufficient courage, this lowly one is willing to offer sixty percent of the profits.”
Cui Yang’s entire body shook, as he questioned, “What’s the plan? Speak and let me listen.”
“Daren wields power in the Ministry of Revenue,” began the man before he continued, “The provisions and wages for the over a million men in the Great Yong army are administered by the Ministry of Revenue. At present, the biggest shortage that Southern Chu faces is military equipment. If His Imperial Highness is willing to use the stored military equipment to exchange for Southern Chu goods, not only will this not cost His Imperial Highness in the least, it will also be possible to swap for even more goods. The profits will likely at least double. After His Imperial Highness receives the gold and silver, then he can order a batch of equipment made to make up for the shortfall. I’m sure that daren should know the price difference. Making one exchange will earn at least five hundred thousand taels of silver.”
Hearing this, Cui Yang was unable to take it anymore. Furiously, he hollered, “Preposterous! Surprisingly, you actually dare to incite this official to support the enemy? Are you a spy from Southern Chu? You would actually come to this official’s home to rave crazily.”
“Daren is mistaken. This commoner is not a spy from Southern Chu,” responded that person with a smile, remaining calm and unruffled. “This commoner is Huo Jicheng, ashamed to be the Head of the Embroidered Union.” Finished speaking, the man moved his hand, shooting forth a white light. It flew past Cui Yang’s neck, piercing through the bookshelf behind Cui Yang and embedding itself into the wall. Cui Yang was scared out of his wits.2 The door to the study was kicked open, the housekeeper standing in the doorway, cold light flashing across his eyes. He held a dagger in his hand.
Huo Jicheng laughed, as his figure suddenly pounced in the direction of the doorway. The housekeeper saw flashes in front of his eyes as the dagger was taken from his hands. When Cui Yang looked over, Huo Jicheng was already back in his sea, beaming while looking at him. Cui Yang had already calmed down. Glancing at Huo Jicheng, he realized that this man would not have taken risks and come here if he didn’t have assurances. To speak of nothing else, if he was offended, Cui Yang knew his life would be lost. He wiped off a layer of cold sweat and expressed, “Please sit, please sit. Presumably the union head is not here to condemn me. His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, has rooted out the Embroidered Union’s branch in Chang’an for the sake of the country. Union Head Huo intends to revive the Kingdom of Shu. The two of us are enemies. This is something that we are helpless to change. If Union Head Huo desires to take revenge, this lowly official cannot blindly agree.”
Huo Jicheng indifferently replied, “You’ve spoken the truth. To you, my Embroidered Union are rebels. The matter in Chang’an is something that was unavoidable. But these are only trivial matters. They can be considered to have displayed their utter loyal to Shu. However, as the saying goes, ‘there are no perpetual enemies.’3 Currently, we suffer restrictions and exclusion everywhere. If this continues, I fear that not only will there be no hope of reviving our state, but we will also not be able to keep our lives. If His Imperial Highness is willing to collaborate with us, we will not necessarily have to revive our fallen kingdom. To be able to become rich isn’t a bad course. Although His Imperial Highness has already stabilized his position as heir apparent, however, the Prince of Yong continues to eye it covetously. As a result, the Crown Prince has many people on whom he needs to spend money. To speak the truth, we are the only candidates who can collaborate with His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince. At present, the Prince of Yong is the one most desiring the Crown Prince to make mistakes. If others were serving His Imperial Highness, if they fell into the Prince of Yong’s hands, they could very easily and comprehensively confess all of the Crown Prince’s doings. Our Embroidered Union and the Prince of Yong have grievances as deep and profound as the seas. The hate of a vanquished nation can never be forgotten. We will never support the Prince of Yong. We also know that if it weren’t for the Prince of Yong’s stratagems, Great Yong and the Kingdom of Shu would not necessarily have gone to war. Therefore, there are no deep grievances between us and His Imperial Highness. If we are able to help the Crown Prince eradicate the Prince of Yong, then we would have made the greatest effort in avenging our late king. Moreover, even if someone exposes the collaboration between the Embroidered Union and the Crown Prince, would anyone believe this? Who would believe that the Crown Prince would work together with us rebels? In addition, the Crown Prince had just recently crushed our Embroidered Union’s branch in Chang’an.”
The more Cui Yang listened, the more he felt that Huo Jicheng’s words were reasonable. Although he felt that this man was cold and reserved, feeling no distress at the loss of his comrades, he still felt that this man’s words were correct. After hesitating, he inquired, “There are still a few noble brothers of your Embroidered Union in the imperial dungeons. I wonder if your distinguished self has any intentions.”
Huo Jicheng smiled faintly and responded, “If His Imperial Highness feels that this doesn’t matter, then they can be released. If His Imperial Highness finds it difficult, then they can be executed so as to prevent others from suspecting the relationship between the Crown Prince and the Embroidered Union.”
Cui Yang was frightened. This man was truly vicious and merciless. He closed his eyes. It was some time before he suggested, “This official cannot make a decision on this matter. How about this? Let’s talk after I have reported this matter to the Crown Prince. Sire, come back tomorrow to hear the reply.”
Huo Jicheng smiled slightly and remarked, “This is the way it should be. However, Cui daren, the concubine that you are keeping in the city is pregnant. Why haven’t you brought her home? Could it be that your wife is jealous?”
Hearing this, Cui Yang’s hands began to shake. He almost dropped the teacup he had just picked up. He looked at Huo Jicheng’s handsome features, seeing what seemed like a devil.
Huo Jicheng respectfully bowed and stated, “This commoner will take my leave. If daren is not anxious, it would be better if your concubine not be moved before childbirth.”
Listening to Huo Jicheng’s casual threats, Cui Yang waved his hand weakly and without strength before he replied, “Union Head Huo be at ease. This official will not use deceit. Regardless of what, this official will not arrange a trap to set up the union head.”
Huo Jicheng departed from Cui Yang’s residence. Taking a breath of the icy air, he felt carefree. This time, he had taken a giant risk. However, this was too attractive, having enormous benefits. How could it not be seized? In comparison, what did lives matter? As long as he lived, then the Embroidered Union would never be destroyed. Once he had obtained the necessary provisions and military equipment, as well as over a million taels of silver, at that moment, they would be able to raise the banner of the heir of the Kingdom of Shu, reviving the Kingdom. If he one day was able to ensure that the heir ascended to the throne, then he would become entirely worthy4 of becoming the regent. At that moment, who would be able to compare with his magnificent glory?
When a cold burst of wind blew over, Huo Jicheng’s boiling mind calmed down. He thought to himself that he needed to meet again with the people of the Pavilion of Heavenly Strategies. If their side were not successful, this business proposition would not be successful.
After walking through several avenues and small alleys, ascertaining that no one was following him, Huo Jicheng stealthily entered into a home. When its aged owner saw him, he did not make any sound, leading Huo Jicheng to the sleeping chambers. The old man pressed against a couple of places on the wall several times. The wall quietly began to move. Flourishing his sleeves, Huo Jicheng entered. Behind him, the door closed without making a sound.
Under the dim light, Han Wuji leisurely and contentedly sat in a chair, watching Huo Jicheng walk in. He stood, clasping his hands together in greeting and asked, “Union Head Huo, you’ve come. How did the discussion go?”
Huo Jicheng smiled faintly and replied, “It’s still unclear and is dependent on whether their master is convinced. Brother Han, how is the situation on your side?”
Han Wuji smiled and answered, “I have already gotten a letter via homing pigeon. That side has already consented. Moreover, they have agreed to cooperate long-term. They urgently need these things. In addition, their treasury was practically emptied by the Prince of Yong. In the future, they hope to acquire gold, silver, and supplies through us from Great Yong. The trust of our Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets is still there. If this side is settled, then we can partner up to get rich.”
Huo Jicheng poured a cup of tea for himself, drinking it in one gulp. He said, “Although our Embroidered Union’s strength in Great Yong was not small, after the Crown Prince’s thunder-like anger, from now on our progress will inevitably be extremely challenging. If we are unable to bribe the Crown Prince, then this proposition will not come to fruition. However, you should be at ease, we have private ties to many officials. The majority of them have ties to the Crown Prince’s faction. As the saying goes, ‘like attracts like,’5 and I can see that the Crown Prince isn’t a good person. This kind of continual fighting and scheming is not difficult for me.”
Han Wuji bowed and replied, “Then I will have to trouble the union head. Our power and influence still cannot penetrate deeply into Great Yong. Therefore, we will have to completely rely upon the union head’s help. However, Union Head can be at ease with our operations in Southern Chu.”
A greedy look suddenly flashed across Huo Jicheng’s face before he spoke, “We know of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets’s power in Southern Chu. If your noble pavilion master is willing, we will be willing to further our cooperation.”
Han Wuji smiled slightly. He was aware that Marquis Lu was stationed in Sichuan, splintering the Embroidered Union with his attacks. When the Prince of De controlled the general situation in Southern Chu, the Embroidered Union could never have been able to have an effect. In comparison, in Great Yong, because their present objectives were not targeted at Great Yong, they were therefore allowed to develop and expand. However, with the Prince of De dead, it seemed like Huo Jicheng wished to expand towards Southern Chu. Han Wuji tactfully responded, “We understand Union Head’s intentions. However, at present, we are doing this business. If Union Head excessively and hurriedly moves forward, then it would inevitably harm the business. In reality, there is no need for the union head to be overly anxious. In any case, this business will only continue for a few years. By the time it concludes, Union Head will be well prepared. Then, the union head can do as he pleases.”
Huo Jicheng glanced at Han Wuji, his expression shaking strongly before he replied, “Brother Han is indeed resourceful. I wonder if you are willing to refer me to the pavilion master to discuss the matters relating to our collaboration.”
“Our pavilion master has handed the entirety of this matter to me to take care of,” declared Han Wuji unyieldingly. “Union Head should not seek the distant and neglect what’s close at hand.”
Afterwards, his expression became mysterious, as he continued, “Moreover, the pavilion master does not meet with outsiders. Even I have only met the pavilion master once, and even then, did not see the pavilion master’s real face. However, pavilion master has spies beside every single one of his subordinates. Union Head should be careful.”
Huo Jicheng looked somewhat unhappy. But after thinking it over, he remembered that the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets had always been a mysterious organization. No wonder this was the case. As a result, he warmly stated, “Brother Han is also a remnant subject of the Kingdom of Shu. For the sake of the great cause of reviving our kingdom, you should do your utmost. This matter will have to further trouble the supervisor. Do put in a good word to the pavilion master.”
Huo Jicheng was of mind to win over Han Wuji, thereupon his speech became gentle and filled with sincerity. Han Wuji became apprehensive, thinking in his head that this man was indeed temperamental. He would need to be careful and not reveal any inconsistencies. Deliberately making his expression fill with sadness, he took a good while before he responded, “I am also someone from Shu. How can I not think about reviving our kingdom? It is only that the pavilion master is not fond of getting involved in affairs of state. As a result, he restricts us extremely strictly. If the profits weren’t so ample this time, the pavilion master would not have agreed to this business.”
Huo Jicheng realized that it was imperative that he not be too hasty with this matter. He spoke, “Many thanks for the supervisor’s good intentions. I still need to arrange matters and will take my leave right now. After this matter is successful, I will return to discuss the particulars with Brother Han.”
Han Wuji promptly rose to his feet and stated, “This matter is extremely urgent. I won’t detain Union Head any further. Allow me to see Union Head off.”
“There is no need to see me off,” replied Huo Jicheng, “So as to avoid attracting attention.”
Han Wuji still respectfully escorted Huo Jicheng to the entrance of the room. In order to fool everyone, he did not see him off out of the door.
After Huo Jicheng had departed, the aged owner of the house suddenly straightened, pulling a mask off his face, revealing the face of an elegant youth. Han Wuji smiled and said, “Daoli, you must remember, if a person becomes greedy, it will hasten their death. This Huo Jicheng is indeed vicious and merciless. When he is trying to rope others, he is filled with fervor. If I did not know of his conduct and deeds, I fear that I would have been fooled. If one’s conduct is duplicitous and filled with empty words,6 one may be able to fool someone for a while, but one will never be to conceal things for the entirety of one’s life.”
The youth respectfully replied, “Daoli benefits from this advice.”
Han Wuji smiled and continued, “‘Jostling and joyous, the whole world comes after profit; racing and rioting, after profit the whole world goes.’7 The way that the young master employs stratagems is beyond our expectations. Although I do not know the young master’s intentions, this matter will definitely not be good.”
At this moment within the crown prince’s residence, a private discussion was also being held. Cui Yang waited until Huo Jicheng had departed before he immediately left his home and hurried to the crown prince’s residence. He was the crown prince’s younger brother-in-law and was the crown prince’s confidant. No one made any effort to obstruct him as he headed straight for the crown prince’s accommodations. When he entered the gorgeous Great Hall, he saw the crown prince wearing informal dress, in the middle of watching singing and dancing. Cui Yang could not help but take a few peeks. With this one glance, Cui Yang’s eyes were glued to these dancers. Primarily these dancers wore skirts made from lotus leaves with lotuses covering their silky bosoms. Their exposed skin was as light as snow. Their posture and movements were graceful, their lithe movements touching and exciting. While it was clear that their attire was revealing, the tune of the dance was not lascivious. These women’s movements were not affected in the least bit by shyness or embarrassment, and did not have any overtones of obscenity or coarseness, causing the body and mind of any spectator to be entirely free from worry.
Seeing Cui Yang entranced, Li An taunted, “Cui Yang, why have you come? What are you doing standing there?” Finished speaking, he waved his hand. Those dancers withdrew. At this moment, Cui Yang saw that Lu Jingzhong was also present, sitting off to the side. In addition, beside the crown prince stood a handsome imperial bodyguard.
Cui Yang calmed his heart and replied, “Your Imperial Highness, this subject has a secret matter to report.”
The crown prince’s brows furrowed. Before he opened his mouth, the imperial bodyguard piped up, “Your Imperial Highness, this subordinate has another dance that requires me to consult with the musicians and the dancers. How about this subordinate first depart? When it is completed, I can allow Your Imperial Highness to appreciate it.”
The crown prince replied, “You can go. This Prince is awaiting your new tune. Have your senior apprentice brother keep an eye outside and prevent anyone from entering without permission.” After the imperial bodyguard had withdrawn, Li An glanced at Cui Yang and inquired, “What’s the situation? Speak.”
礼下于人，必有所求, lixiayuren, biyousuoqiu – idiom, lit. when somebody humbles himself before you, he must have some request to make of you
魂不附体, hunbufuti – idiom, lit. body and soul separated; fig. scared out of one’s wits
This is from a speech that British Prime Minister Henry Temple, the Lord Palmerston, gave in the House of Commons in 1848: ‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.’
当之无愧, dangzhiwukui – idiom, lit. fully deserving, without reservations; entirely worthy of
物以类聚，人以群分, wuyileiju, renyiqunfen – idiom, lit. birds of a feather flock together, people of a kind group together; similar things come together, like attracts like
口是心非, koushixinfei – idiom, lit. mouth says yes, heart no; duplicity, empty words
This is a quote from the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) by Sima Qian in the Biographies of Usurers.