Cui Yang comprehensively explained everything that had happened. Indignantly, Li An stated, “These rebels, they have such gall! Junior Mentor, what do you think we should do?”
Lu Jingzhong squinted his eyes as he mulled this matter over for a moment before he asked, “Cui daren, you said that this person did not ask for his subordinates back?”
Cui Yang respectfully replied, “Yes, that’s right. Huo Jicheng not only was not anxious to rescue his people, but it seemed like he wanted them all killed to avoid anyone from becoming suspicious of our relationship.”
Lu Jingzhong sneered. “That man indeed possesses a fierce and vicious heart. However, this also illustrates that he is exactly Huo Jicheng. I know something of this Huo Jicheng. From the statements of the disciples of the Embroidered Union, we have learned that the person hails from a family of generals and is a member of an ancillary branch of the Li Family.1 At the time, the Li Family was battling with the Tang Sect over control of Sichuan, concluding with the Li Family’s crushing defeat and the Tang Sect enfeebled. When Great Yong attacked the Kingdom of Shu, both parties were powerless to help. Otherwise, even if we had conquered the Kingdom of Shu, it’s likely that many of our ranking officers would have been assassinated. Neither the Tang Sect’s concealed weapons nor the Li Family’s Great Soul Scouring Hand are honorable and aboveboard martial arts; instead they are most suitable for assassinations. Later when Great Yong occupied the Hanzhong region, while a large part of Sichuan ended up in the hands of Southern Chu, the Tang Sect pledged its allegiance to Great Yong, while the Li Family pledged itself to Southern Chu. It was precisely this Huo Jicheng who was exceedingly queer, instead breaking away and establishing the Embroidered Union, declaring that he wishes to restore the Kingdom of Shu.
“Over these last few years, he has indeed had some accomplishments. Unfortunately, this man’s temperament is narrow-minded and Marquis Lu who is stationed at Sichuan has the ability of a great general. Therefore, he has suffered repeated setbacks. But although this man is incompetent, he has one good aspect. He is vicious and merciless, making decisions when it’s time to decide. As a result, although the Embroidered Union has repeatedly suffered terrible and crushing defeats, it still has managed to preserve its strength. With the recent chaos in Southern Chu, presumably he has been able to take many advantages. Recently, he suffered a great setback at the hands of the Crown Prince. It’s rare that he would think of this kind of idea. In this subject’s view, he has come with sincerity.
“Regardless of what happens in the future, this business proposition is worth considering. He spoke a sentence that was correct. In the future if he were to make this matter public, who would believe that the Crown Prince would collaborate with them? If the Crown Prince wants to do this business, then you must immediately execute all of the rebels of the Embroidered Union in the imperial dungeons before collaborating with Huo Jicheng. Even if one day the Embroidered Union becomes powerful, would they dare to make things difficult for our Great Yong? Even if he were to raise an army to rebel, the matter would only affect the Princes of Yong and Qi, while also reducing the strength of their army. Further, these last several years, Your Imperial Highness’s income practically does not cover our expenditures. This business is worth it. Even if there is a mishap in the future, Your Imperial Highness can excuse what happened as the actions of some officials colluding with the Embroidered Union. Afterwards, everything will be resolved once a few heads have been chopped off.”
Li An pondered over this matter deeply for a bit. Glancing at Cui Yang, he spoke, “This matter’s implications are too great. If it is divulged, I’m afraid that the Ministry of Revenue will fall into chaos. Wouldn’t subject Cui be forced to take responsibility? This won’t do, this won’t do.”
Cui Yang’s ashen complexion gradually relaxed. Gratefully, he looked at Li An. However, although Li An said these words, his expression was filled with extreme reluctance. Lu Jingzhong callously laughed and said, “Although the Minister of Revenue Liang Jinqian seems to be Your Imperial Highness’s confidant, in reality he has different ambitions. Even though he is highly deferential to Your Imperial Highness, he has secretly recorded an account of the public funds that Your Imperial Highness has embezzled from the Ministry of Revenue. I’m afraid that Your Imperial Highness does not yet know of this.”
Li An’s entire body trembled with shock, urgently inquiring, “Do you speak the truth? How did you learn this?”
Pleased with himself, Lu Jingzhong responded, “Your Imperial Highness, as the saying goes, ‘old men and young wives are the most restless.’ Liang Jinqian has been cautious his entire life. Pitifully, he is already fifty and yet has taken a woman just over twenty as a concubine. Inevitably, he found her difficult to handle. That woman is loose and lascivious, and has been having an affair with Liang daren’s younger brother-in-law. Unfortunately, their conduct was insufficiently secretive as they were caught in the act by Liang daren. Influenced by anger, Liang daren had the woman beaten to death. As for his brother-in-law, he could only drive him out and refuse to permit him to come back. Unexpectedly, this concubine attached to this adulterous relationship was passionate and actually told her lover that Liang daren was keeping a private set of accounts. That little fellow harbored resentment. By lucky coincidence, he and I are acquaintances, and he ended up coming to my home to report this secret. I was originally planning on informing Your Imperial Highness today. However, Your Imperial Highness was in the middle of appreciating this song and dance. As a result, I had not yet had the time to report this.”
Li An’s face was grave, as he asked, “Do you have proof?”
Lu Jingzhong rose to his feet, stepping forward and presenting a piece of paper. Li An accepted the paper and took a look. On the paper was really an account of the money and grain that he had embezzled from the Ministry of Revenue, including the date used and the date returned, both extremely clear. Li An stood, angrily uttering, “What a good old flunky. This Prince is determined to take his life.”
Lu Jingzhong smiled and replied, “This is only what that little fellow stealthily copied down to serve as proof. Originally, this subject would have easily taken care of that Liang Jinqian. So long as Your Highness puts your mind to it, we will be able to easily steal the accounts and kill him to prevent him from divulging these secrets. However, this subject feels that this lets him off too lightly. Now this is a good opportunity. We will let Cui daren handle this matter, but secretly change things. If this business goes off without a hitch, then that is for the best. We can have a reckoning with him when all this is over. If something unfortunate happens, then we can have him take the blame. When that time comes, Your Imperial Highness needs only to make suitable arrangements. I can guarantee that he won’t be able to reveal the truth. Afterwards, Cui daren will be by proper rights promoted to Minister of Revenue. By then, the Ministry of Revenue will be Your Imperial Highness’s personal treasury.”
Hearing to this point, Li An laughed heartily and stated, “A good plan. Subject Lu, you are indeed our think tank.” An ominous glint flashed in Li An’s eyes before he coldly said, “However, keep a strict eye on him. He must not perceive our intentions nor allow him to give his accounts to someone else.”
Li Jingzhong straightforwardly asked, “Your Imperial Highness be at ease. Are you not comfortable with this subject’s handling of matters?”
Li An suddenly remembered something and asked, “Where is that informant?”
Lu Jingzhong indifferently responded, “That person would always be a scourge left alive. This subject has taken the initiative and has already taken care of him.”
Pleased, Li An nodded his head and replied, “Not bad. That person had learned this Prince’s secrets, so how can he be allowed to continue to remain alive in this world?”
Hearing that he himself would become the Minister of Revenue, Cui Yang’s face was originally lit up with delight. But when he heard the two talk about entrapping and killing Liang Jinqian, his state of mind did not have the slightest bit of fluctuation. However, he could not help but grow cold. In his heart, he realized that he should no longer continue listening. If he had learned any secrets, then it wouldn’t be worth it if he was killed to be prevented from divulging a secret. Thinking of this, he promptly spoke, “Your Imperial Highness, Lu daren, the hour is already quite late, this subject should withdraw. If Your Imperial Highness approves of this matter, this subject will go back and wait for Huo Jicheng to come calling.”
Lu Jingzhong thought to himself, There are some important matters that need to be discussed, it would be better if he departed. Therefore, he said, “Your Imperial Highness, it is also good if Cui daren goes back, so as to avoid the questioning from the people of the Embroidered Union. Your Imperial Highness, how about we first allow Cui daren to agree to this matter? With regards to the specific arrangements, this subject will go discuss them with Cui daren.” At the same time he spoke, he shot the crown prince a meaningful glance.
Once he saw Lu Jingzhong’s glance, Li An immediately knew that he had some private secrets to discuss that would be inconvenient for Cui Yang to know about. Smiling, he said, “All right, Cui Yang, you go back first. After we’ve discussed this, Lu daren will go speak to you in detail. However, this Prince has already agreed to this matter in principle. You should properly think over how to start out on this task.”
Cui Yang accepted the order before he withdrew. Li An looked at Lu Jingzhong. He inquired with a smile, “Are there any other matters? Speak … Is there any need to conceal it from Cui Yang? Is it important?”
Using a finger to twirl his whiskers, Lu Jingzhong sneered, “Your Imperial Highness, although the Ministry of Revenue belongs to you, more than half of the military is in the hands of the Prince of Yong. It is because of this that we cannot do this business on our own and must allow the Embroidered Union to run errands for us. However, if the military pays attention to this matter, no matter how ferocious the Embroidered Union, are they capable of struggling against the Prince of Yong?”
Li An frowned and inquired, “Does this mean that this business cannot be done, then?”
Lu Jingzhong shook his head and responded, “How would this do? This subject has an idea that would cause the Prince of Yong to be too busy to worry about Your Imperial Highness’s affairs. When that happens, wouldn’t Your Imperial Highness be as steady as Mount Tai? Although we have a scapegoat in case something happens, we will inevitably lose money.”
Listening to this point, Li An’s eyes lit up, as he replied, “What idea such that the Prince of Yong won’t have the time to worry about others? If that is the case, even if we aren’t able to do this business, then we will still be perfectly satisfied.”
Lu Jingzhong smiled and stated, “This is also a coincidence. Your Imperial Highness wishes for Xiahou Yuanfeng to become the husband of Princess Changle. However, the Princess has yet to agree. Therefore, this subject has asked Concubine Lan to have Noble Consort Ji question the Princess about the matters of her heart. Yesterday, when this subject came to this residence, Concubine Lan transmitted a message from the Noble Consort, stating that Princess Changle seems to have no intention of remarrying. This subject originally thought it would be fine even if the Princess refused to remarry. In any case, no one would have received any benefit or advantage. Therefore, this subject did not take this matter to heart. Concubine Lan also took the opportunity to speak a few more words. First, Princess Changle usually does not have any hobbies and is only fond of reading poetry. Moreover, she is most fond of the poetry of Southern Chu’s foremost gifted scholar, Jiang Zhe, a scroll always in her hand on a daily basis. Second, yesterday, Princess Changle went to the Prince of Yong’s residence to drive away her worries. When she returned to the palace, her mood was extremely good.”
Li An’s brow furrowed and asked, “Are you saying that Princess Changle and that surrendered subject from Southern Chu have personal connections? Don’t talk nonsense! You know about this younger sister of mine. She is extremely virtuous, and would definitely not have a love affair with anyone.”
Lu Jingzhong smiled and answered, “This subject also knows that this is a matter where shadows cannot even be caught. However, as long as we embellish the details,2 naturally, there will be those who will accept this as true.”
Li An’s eyes widened and his eyebrows rose, and he said, “You’re saying …”
With a smile, Lu Jingzhong replied, “Naturally, I’m talking about Qin Qing, General Qin. General Qin is deeply in love with the Princess, unwavering to this day. However, the Princess has been frigid3 towards the general ever since she returned, completely disregarding the feelings engendered from being childhood friends. General Qin has been extremely annoyed. Consequently, he has been very haughty when treating the surrendered subject from Southern Chu, going so far as to insult Jiang Zhe in front of everyone at the Honeydew Hall. It is said that the Prince of Yong highly values this Jiang Zhe. Over this matter, Qin Qing has already heavily offended the Prince of Yong. This presents us with an opportunity. We can send some people to whisper a few choice words into General Qin’s ears, saying that the Princess had conducted a love affair with Jiang Zhe in Southern Chu, and this was the reason why she took no notice of General Qin.…”
Speaking to here, Li An exploded in anger and exclaimed, “Shut your mouth! For Great Yong, my Imperial Sister married to the distant Southern Chu. Now that she was finally able to return with great difficulty, regardless of whether she had a love affair, we cannot permit you to disgrace the Princess’s reputation.”
Lu Jingzhong shivered like a cicada in winter, promptly falling to his knees to apologize. Only when Li An calmed down, did he voice, “Your Imperial Highness be at ease. Even if this subject had enormous nerves, I would not dare harm the Princess’s reputation. This matter will not be leaked out. Even if Qin Qing learned of this matter, would he dare to propagate it? No matter how hot-headed General Qin is, he will never do such a thing. If this subject guesses correctly, General Qin will inevitably look for an opportunity to interrogate Jiang Zhe. We can dispatch assassins to secretly follow. Since this matter is no more than groundless accusations,4 that Jiang Zhe should certainly be capable of explaining this thoroughly. When General Qin has been satisfied and departs, we will act and kill Jiang Zhe. This ploy will benefit us greatly. First, regardless of whether that Jiang Zhe has talent, killing him now will cause the Prince of Yong to be grieved. Second, the Prince of Yong will inevitably suspect that Qin Qing killed Jiang Zhe. If this happens then even if Grand General Qin Yi is able to explain everything, the Prince of Yong will certainly bear a grudge in his heart. Thus, the Prince of Yong will be occupied with demanding justice from Grand General Qin Yi. How would he be able to consider us?”
Li An’s complexion was heavy and grave, wavering. Lu Jingzhong continued, “The people involved in this matter all have high status and great authority. Who would spread this gossip? What’s more, to speak something that is punishable by death. Although the Princess is someone who has performed meritorious service, she is after all, the Queen of Southern Chu. With Southern Chu’s fall, the Princess became the Queen of a destroyed nation. In the past, Xi Shi had performed meritorious service to the state of Yue and yet was thrown into the lake to drown by the Queen of Yue. What’s so bad about the Princess only suffering a few words of idle gossip? Additionally, the Princess and Noble Consort Zhangsun lean towards the Prince of Yong. Your Imperial Highness must not be unaware of this, otherwise why would you think about having Xiahou Yuanfeng to become the Princess’s husband?”
Li An was silent and did not speak a word. His eyes brimming with tears of excitement, Lu Jingzhong added, “Your Imperial Highness is an enlightened sage. At most, after Your Imperial Highness ascends to the throne, it will be sufficient for Your Imperial Highness to greatly comfort the Princess. If we do not eliminate the Prince of Yong, Your Imperial Highness will never be at peace.”
Thinking it over, Li An finally heaved a deep sigh and replied, “You have to be careful and ensure that this matter is not spread. If Imperial Father or Imperial Sister hears this gossip, We will absolutely not spare you.”
Lu Jingzhong knocked his head against the ground and replied, “Your Imperial Highness be at ease. This subject will absolutely not allow this gossip to be disseminated.”
After hesitating for a moment, Li An said, “However, that person is presumably is in the Prince of Yong’s residence. How can assassins infiltrate it?”
Lu Jingzhong smiled and replied, “Your Imperial Highness be at ease. After the fifteenth, the Prince of Yong will call a feast to see off the heir. According to custom, he must inevitably invite to the feast all of officialdom. Your Imperial Highness be at ease. This subject will definitely have Qin Qing be the scapegoat. As for that Jiang Zhe, he can only blame fate for being unkind. Who let him pledge allegiance to the Prince of Yong?”
Li An nodded his head slightly. Seeing that they had finished discussing these affairs, he called out in a loud voice, “Xing Song! Xing Song!”
The door to the hall was pushed open and a gloomy looking middle-aged man came in. Dropping to one knee, he greeted the crown prince. Li An casually inquired, “Did that Xia Jinyi go anywhere? Has he communicated with anyone?”
Xing Song respectfully responded, “Reporting to Your Imperial Highness, Xia Jinyi conversed with the musicians and dancers for a little while. Afterwards …” Speaking to this point, Li An’s brows furrowed and began to exude a killing aura from his eyes.
Xing Song continued, “Afterwards, that person went to the inner gardens to have a private meeting with Xiu Chun,5 one of the maids that attend to the Crown Princess.”
Li An’s heart first lightened. This Xia Jinyi had been allowed to stay as an imperial bodyguard because he had performed great service and due to his senior apprentice brother’s face. Originally, he had only treated Xia Jinyi as a malingerer. Unexpectedly, this man was humorous and witty, possessing the gift of gab and adept at song and dance and romance. It wasn’t long before he became fond of Xia Jinyi. However, he could not randomly keep a person by his side. Just now, when Cui Yang came to report so mysteriously, if Xia Jinyi was a spy, he would certainly have exhausted all methods to eavesdrop. Standing outside guarding the entrance was Zhang Jinxiong. Xia Jinyi would have easily been able to find an excuse to remain behind.
Unexpectedly, Xia Jinyi had no intentions of eavesdropping, instead occupying himself with an illicit relationship with a maid. If he were a spy, then he was the stupidest spy in the world. If he were even a little bit qualified, then he wouldn’t be doing these kinds of things. The harshest punishment for someone having an illicit relationship with a maid would be being beaten to death with staves. Pleased with him, he thought to himself that this Xia Jinyi would from now on be allowed to stay by his side. Xia Jinyi was a good flunky, loyal and amusing. He was so much better than his senior apprentice brother. As for having an illicit relationship with a maid, although Li An was somewhat dissatisfied, this wasn’t a major issue. Although this maid attended to the crown princess, Xiu Chun’s appearance was not bad, though not outstanding. Li An had never paid any attention to this girl. A few days earlier, the crown princess had even spoken with him about marrying off some of her attendant maids.
At this moment, within the inner gardens of the crown prince’s residence, Xia Jinyi was embracing a beautiful maid, speaking sweet and honeyed words. He was speaking of his wanderings in high spirits, enthralling this young lady who had never even taken a step out of the prince’s residence. While he spoke, he began to grope her. He was experienced with matters of the heart, and would not be impulsive and terrify this young girl. He tenderly kissed Xiu Chun’s powdered neck, and also began to nibble on her blushing red earlobe. His pair of hands stopped behaving, roaming all over Xiu Chun’s delicate body. It wasn’t long before he easily caused this unlearned young girl to become completely distracted. Seeing that he was successful, Xia Jinyi embraced the young girl’s trembling and pampered body, hiding behind the rock garden. Just as Xia Jinyi was about to undress, just as he was about to get what he wanted, suddenly an inhospitable shout rang out. Xia Jinyi was frightened and begin to tremble. His lustful heart immediately vanished, and he promptly tidied his clothes. After some time, noticing that there was no activity outside, Xia Jinyi stuck his head out, catching sight of his immediate superior, Vice Supervisor Xing Song standing outside with his heads behind his back. Under the moonlight, his entire face was cold and frosted. At once, Xiu Chun had become clear-headed, hurriedly arranging her clothes. With her head lowered, she left the rock garden. With a plop, she kneeled on the ground, her entire face filled with shame, weeping without end. Xia Jinyi also hurriedly kneeled on the side. Pitifully, he implored, “Supervisor daren, please spare this little one this once.”
Xing Song coldly replied, “You, little fellow, have the impertinence to engage in an illicit relationship with one of the Crown Princess’s maids. Quickly come with me to see His Imperial Highness.”
Xia Jinyi was so frightened that his complexion became wan, as he begged, “This little one implores daren to grant me a favor. This little one is no more than a wastrel. What does life and death matter? Xiu Chun is young. I beg the supervisor to spare her this offense. Afterwards, this little one will absolutely dare not come again to seduce her.”
Xing Song smiled and replied, “You little one, rise. Afterwards, you must not repeat this crime. Go back. If you let me catch you again, I will flay your skin.”
Hearing this, Xia Jinyi was filled with joy, repeatedly kowtowing in thanks until Xing Song’s figure had disappeared. He perceived that his entire body was already covered in cold sweat.
After Cui Yang returned to his residence, he hurriedly and casually ate some food. Then he stared blankly into the distance under the lamplight. He knew that his fate was closely linked,6 especially if the crown prince fell. However, he felt increasingly scared out of his wits while following the crown prince. As for the Prince of Yong, Cui Yang recalled when he had delivered army provisions to the Prince of Yong’s army and the audience that he had been granted. At the time, the Prince of Yong wore a set of light armor and a brocade gown. When he handled matters, he was swift and decisive, while in private, he was easygoing and amiable, causing one to feel that he was being cleansed by the spring wind. Although the crown prince was the heir apparent and was his brother-in-law, he was nevertheless arrogant and haughty, often causing Cui Yang’s back to be covered with cold sweat. Inevitably there was the feeling that he was skating on thin ice. Thinking of this, Cui Yang was practically thinking about betraying the crown prince. However, he quickly had second thoughts. The crown princess was his own elder sister. The crown prince’s heir was his own nephew. Fame and fortune ultimately transcended his conscience and fear. Cui Yang rose to his feet, thinking to himself, and realized that he had no way to turn back.
Looking at the color of the sky, Cui Yang saw that dawn was already breaking. He had spent much time coming and going from the crown prince’s residence, and had been in deep contemplation for some time. Cui Yang pushed open the window. Last night, he did not know that a light snow had fallen overnight. Outside the window, the radiance of the snow was splendid. Cui Yang walked out the door, taking a deep breath of the frigid atmosphere. At this moment, the housekeeper came forward to report, “Reporting to daren, that guest from yesterday has come again.”
Cui Yang smiled slightly before he replied, “Invite the guest to see me in the study. It’s still early. Presumably, the guest has yet to eat breakfast. Deliver two portions to the study.”
A clear and bright laugh could be heard from outside before a voice said, “This commoner has come again to disturb daren.”
Cui Yang raised his head and looked over, catching sight of Huo Jicheng dressed entirely in gray. He carried with him a graceful elegance as he stood against the wind. Stepping forward, Cui Yang cupped his hands in greeting and spoke, “Brother Huo, no … Brother Ji, please come to the study to speak.”
Huo Jicheng saw that although Cui Yang seemed to be somewhat exhausted, he was unable to conceal his happiness. Huo Jicheng knew that the proposition was successful. As such, he returned the greeting and replied, “Good, then I’ll have to trouble daren.”
Finished speaking, the two exchanged looks and laughed, almost as if they were old friends. Amidst the laughter, Huo Jicheng’s mind had fallen far away. If he were able to obtain sufficient army provisions and military equipment, then he would be able to advantage of the war between Great Yong and Southern Chu, thus the revival the fallen Kingdom of Shu would be just around the corner.7 He had to rely upon the help of the Pavilion of Heavenly Strategies, otherwise he would be in an extremely difficult situation8 in Southern Chu. He would wait until their association had deepened and then he would think of a plan to annex the Pavilion of Heavenly Strategies, pocketing the countless assets of the Heavenly Secrets Trade Association. Even if he were unable to revive the fallen kingdom, he would still be filthy rich.
Cui Yang’s thoughts were a lot simpler. If this business were successful, not only would he be able to skim a generous amount of the profits, he would also be able to advance the crown prince’s trust and regard for him. His future would be bright.
历，li – different character from the surname of the Great Yong imperial family (李, Li) meaning strict or severe
添油加醋, tianyoujiacu – idiom, lit. to add oil and vinegar; fig. adding details while telling a story to make it more interesting, to embellish details
冷若冰霜, lengruobingshuang – idiom, lit. as cold as ice and frost; icy manner, frigid
捕风捉影, bufengzhuoying – idiom, lit. chasing the wind and clutching at shadows; fig. groundless accusations; to act on hearsay evidence
绣春, xiuchun – lit. embroidered spring
一条线拴俩蚂蚱, yitiaoxianshangdemazha – idiom, lit. grasshoppers on the same line; fig. the dooms of the two are closely linked
指日可待, zhirikedai – idiom, lit. be able to count the days until; just around the corner
寸步难行, cunbunanxing – idiom, lit. unable to move a single step; to be in an extremely difficult situation