On the sixteenth day of the first month of the first year of Southern Chu’s Tongtian era, the Commander of Great Yong’s Imperial Guard, Pei Yun mistakenly arrived at the Cold Courtyard. Jiang Zhe, fond of his outspoken and straightforward nature, kept him company and shared a few drinks. After privately discussing for a long time, before long, the topic turned to Pei Yun’s annulment of his engagement and wish to marry another. At the time, everyone laughed at him for turning his back on righteousness and being fickle. Subsequently, many thought Pei Yun was sensible and unwavering. As for Jiang Zhe, he broke a destined marriage, truly deserving the contempt of wise men.…
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun
When I turned my head to look, I saw a youth in gray with a peculiar appearance and calm features being barred by a pair of guards. There was a look of confusion on his face, seemingly not understanding why such a remote location would be so heavily guarded. Those two imperial bodyguards had even drawn their blades. The situation was extremely tense and on a hair’s trigger. Although he did not consider these two guards to be much of an opponent, he had no intention of being a real assassin. Therefore, he made no attempt to resist. When I looked over, he was speaking in a grave tone, “Come, the two brothers, this one is Commander Pei Yun of the Imperial Guard. I have come to the Prince’s residence to attend the banquet, but as I dislike the ruckus, I began to wander all over. I really had no intention of trespassing here. Please forgive this one for not knowing that this location is off-limits.”
The two imperial bodyguards exchanged looks, both half believing, half doubting. If they considered this man’s manner, it was really like that of a general. However, the aura that he was emitting was not only extraordinarily fierce and doughty, but each and every one of his movements carried with them the demeanor of an expert. If this man really had evil intent, then what face did these guards have to report to His Imperial Highness?
I had already recognized Pei Yun. Who could have thought that the person that the Prince of Yong wished to rope in was so formidable? Pei Yun was a commander of the Northern Barracks of the Imperial Guard. He was only a fourth-ranked general. Although he had the heavy responsibility of protecting the capital, he did not have the qualifications to attend a banquet within the Prince of Yong’s residence. With his status, he would at best be allowed to deliver some congratulatory gifts. It was likely that he wouldn’t even have the qualifications to take a seat in the banquet. For him to shockingly appear in the prince’s residence, the Prince of Yong must have specifically sent him an invitation. Thinking of this, I smiled slightly, intending to give His Imperial Highness a helping hand. Rather than having Pei Yun attend the banquet in a side hall, where he could not even have the chance to see the Prince of Yong, he would be better off staying here. So thinking, I commanded, “Do not be rude! This must be Pei Yun, General Pei, correct? This lowly official is the major in the household of the Marshal of the Heavenly Strategies, Jiang Zhe.”
Seeing me speak, the two imperial bodyguards saluted and retreated. Pei Yun walked over and saluted me, stating, “Much thanks to Jiang daren for helping this general out of trouble.”
His gaze towards me was calm and reserved. This was something new and odd. Ever since I had arrived in Great Yong, each and every official that I had met either had looks of curiosity and evaluation or scorn. This man was actually looking at me as if I was an ordinary person. This caused me to be increasingly curious. Consequently, I smiled and said, “It seems like the general does not like the ruckus out in front, therefore has walked towards the back. This lowly official is also this way, thus chose to reside in the Cold Courtyard. Since we have met here by chance, then we were brought together by fate. How about General takes a seat inside?”
“His Imperial Highness’s banquet will soon begin,” replied Pei Yun, hesitating. “I’m afraid that it is inconvenient for this general to stay here.”
I smiled indifferently and replied, “It is not lacking in manners even if General does not take part in the banquet. There’s no point in taking a seat outside of the main hall. How about this? If General is willing, Suiyun is about to eat. Would the general be willing to stay and eat with me? Suiyun will personally explain to His Imperial Highness.”
Pei Yun was moved. After he had received His Imperial Highness’s invitation, although it was a glory and an honor, he was not comfortable being among those officials, let alone the fact that with his status, he would only have the privilege of attending the banquet in the outer hall. Truly there was no point. If it weren’t for the Prince of Yong’s invitation, he would only need to deliver some gifts. This man before his eyes was a lot more straightforward than those court officials. For his residence to be so heavily guarded, it seemed like the Prince of Yong regarded him extremely highly. If that were the case, he would not be lacking in manners towards the Prince of Yong. Comparatively, it was actually quite a good idea to stay in the Cold Courtyard.
From Pei Yun’s expression, I knew that he had already consented tacitly and thus I spoke in a clear and bright voice, “Someone go and report to His Imperial Highness that I am keeping General Pei here.”
One of the imperial bodyguards bowed and acknowledged the order. I stepped forward and grabbed Pei Yun’s arm, saying, “Please come in quickly, General Pei. Jiang Zhe deeply admires General’s martial arts.”
Pei Yun was somewhat shyly pulled by me into the reception hall. The time was approaching noon and two servants were delivering food and drink. As per custom, I had them withdraw. Picking up my chopsticks, I pointed at the table filled with food and said, “General Pei, Jiang Zhe is a southerner, therefore His Imperial Highness deliberately and specially found a Southern Chu chef to cook for me. Please taste it and see if you’re used to the food.”
Pei Yun looked at the table filled with side dishes, all of which appeared to be light dishes that seemed to smell, look, and taste great. After tasting a few bites, he could not stop praising the cuisine. Although he was someone who ate meat with every meal, because these were all specialty dishes from Southern Chu, I saw Pei Yun eat with relish. I poured another cup of wine for him and said, “This is a famous wine from Southern Chu named “Peach Blossom,” fermented each autumn using the highest-quality, sweet honey peaches. I had never expected that I would be able to drink this wine here. This was specially brought back from Southern Chu by an old friend. He only delivered it yesterday.”
Taking a sip, Pei Yun felt as if he was tasting honeydew, a fragrant and good wine. However, his temperament was resolute and upright, and he did not like this kind of weak, velvety wine. His brows could not help but furrow. Taking all of this in, I smiled lightly and said, “It seems like General Pei does not like this wine. I have heard that in the border regions of Great Yong there is a kind of shao daozi1 that is incomparably spicy. Does General like it?”
Pei Yun’s face immediately filled with delight, replying, “Daren has shao daozi here? It is rarely seen here in Chang’an.”
I walked to the corner of the room where there was a yellow poplar cabinet. From the bottom shelf, I took out a small wine pot. Although this jar wasn’t big, it contained at least ten catties of wine.2 While it would not have been too difficult for me to bring it over, it was still not easy. Pei Yun promptly came over to take the wine pot, placing it next to the table. He could not help but glance at the cabinet. Inside, it was filled with wine pots and boxes of food.
After removing the seal, Pei Yun could immediately smell the blazing wine fragrance that he could never forget. He took a deep breath and then impatiently poured the wine into a large bowl that I handed him. He very earnestly took a deep gulp, the familiar throat-prickling spiciness causing him to feel as if he had returned to the border regions. Powerlessly, he sat in his chair, once again raising the bowl to his mouth, allowing the liquid to slide down his throat. It almost seemed like tears were falling from his eyes as he thought back to the bloody battles on the border. Those days were filled with happiness and freedom. Now in the capital, although he had high position and great wealth, there was no one that he could pour his heart out to. He yearned to return to the border, but recalling his father’s aged figure, Pei Yun closed his eyes, resisting with great difficulty the misery and suffering in his heart.
I did not expect Pei Yun to be so moved, however I quickly understood his heartfelt emotions. It seemed that the greatest wish of this commander of the Imperial Guard was to once again return to the battlefield. Unfortunately, I was at a loss at what to do. Not only could he not abandon his father still mourning the loss of two of his sons, but wasn’t he himself in a difficult situation as well? But seeing him suffering, I suddenly remembered some matters. If he had children, then it wouldn’t be difficult for him to return to the battlefield. Thus, I inquired, “General Pei, may I know how old you are?”
Pei Yun was after all a descendant of a prestigious house. He calmed down very quickly. Raising his head, he responded, “Troubled daren to ask. This general is twenty-three this year.”
I continued to question, “Has General Pei gotten married?”
Pei Yun blushed with shame and shook his head, replying, “My father has arranged a marriage for me. However, I have always been unwilling. Therefore, I am still a bachelor to this day.”
I suspiciously asked, “Why is this? Your esteemed father presumably is impatiently hoping for a grandson. Since General is obedient to his parents, you should take a wife as early as possible.”
Pei Yun glanced at me. Although he felt as if he was speaking of intimate matters with a comparative stranger, he did not why, but he had an indescribable favorable impression of this youth before him. Although he couldn’t discount the pot of shao daozi, his state of mind was extremely relaxed. Moreover, these matters had been smothered in his heart for a long time. He also wanted to find someone to talk to. Thus, he opened his mouth and said, “Daren does not know, but before I have attained a measure of success in my martial arts, I cannot take a wife. However, at the beginning of this year, my master stated that I am able to take a wife. However, this is not the main reason. Most importantly, my fiancée’s status is special, causing my master and the sect extreme dissatisfaction.”
I was moved and asked, “May I ask which family the general’s fiancée is from?”
Pei Yun smiled wryly and responded, “She is the daughter of Xue Ju, the Vice Minister of Works. Originally, our two families were close throughout the ages. She and I were betrothed when the two of us were still in the womb and we grew up together from childhood. Our regard for one another can be considered to be congenial affection. However, at the age of nine, I ascended Mount Song3 to learn martial arts. When I descended the mountain at the age of sixteen, I learned that she had entered the Fengyi Sect. When my sect learned of this, they immediately summoned me personally back to Mount Song. The First Seat of the Discipline Hall, Martial Uncle Compassionate Ocean personally told me that while the Shaolin Temple could not prevent me from marrying her, I would then lose the opportunity to learn the secret arts of the Shaolin Temple. He wanted me to think it over carefully. As a result, I have been unwilling to this day to complete the marriage. I have tried several times to cancel the engagement, but that side has refused to consent. My father-in-law stated that his daughter had not lost virtue. If I were to cancel the engagement without reason, he would bring me before the emperor to judge innocence or guilt. My father has recently been pressing me. If I weren’t using my life to resist, I fear that I would have been forced to complete the marriage long ago.”
Thinking to myself, I realized that it seemed that the Shaolin Temple really had a deep grudge against the Fengyi Sect. His Highness’s information was correct. Moreover, for Pei Yun to so easily reveal this, it seemed like the Shaolin Temple did not mind falling out with the Fengyi Sect. However, I verbally asked, “This subject does not understand this matter. Doesn’t the matter of marriage follow the dictates of one’s parents and the matchmakers’ words? General, if you were to be married, wouldn’t it be the proper course of action? Why has your honored sect forcibly obstructed this? Isn’t this contrary to human relations? Could it be that General considers your sect’s secret arts to be that important?”
Pei Yun lowered his head and replied, “Although this general is obsessed with martial arts, I am not someone unruffled by sentiment and forgetful of righteousness. If she were an ordinary woman, I would rather my sect reclaim all the martial arts that I have learned than turn my back. It is only that when I first returned to Chang’an seven years ago to pay my respects to my father-in-law, I met her. She had become very formidable, completely different from her childhood innocence and sincerity. Although at present, the combination of her appearance and temperament are ten thousand in one, also trained in martial arts, however I felt that she was some distance away from me. Although her smiles are still sweet, they are no longer able to touch my heart. Moreover, she is always together with those women of similar statuses. If she isn’t going out hunting or touring, she is acting wantonly to her heart’s content inside Chang’an. Although I am not someone who cannot bear his wife to be outstanding, I nevertheless hope that she is capable of performing the traditional roles of a good wife and attending to the needs of my parents. As a matter of fact, two years ago, when I returned from the border, I originally no longer considered improving my martial arts and decided to promptly get married, so that my parents could enjoy their old age and play with a grandchild.4 But when I met her again, the dissatisfaction in my heart did not diminish in the slightest. She was indeed outstandingly beautiful and had talent surpassing others. However, what I want is a good wife who is willing to share meager resources. When we are married, she must attend to my parents on my behalf while I return to the battlefield to serve the state. But it is impossible for her to do so. Every time that I’ve met her, she is either discussing major events of the world or the situation of jianghu. I really do not want to take such a woman as my wife.”
I silently gazed at Pei Yun, knowing that every single one of his words came from the bottom of his heart. With regards to a fierce general from a battlefield, what he needed was not a woman as beautiful as a picture. What he needed was a good wife who could keep house for him. The Fengyi Sect probably did not anticipate this. Not all men were so fond of a wife who was remarkably beautiful, exceptionally talented, and yet incapable of handling life’s daily necessities.5 Thinking of this, I smiled faintly and stated, “In reality, General is overthinking it. There are no parents in this world who are not biased towards their children. If the general explains to your parents the principle of marrying a virtuous wife, your parents will surely understand. If you are hindered by your parents-in-law, then there is no harm for the general to take a concubine on the outside. When you have gotten a son, don’t tell me that your parents would be angry when they see their grandson.”
Pei Yun was moved. When that moment comes, it was likely that he could not use the need to practice martial arts as an excuse to delay the marriage. Seeing his expression, I understood that he was already willing, although it was still somewhat inconvenient. And so, I said, “General has repeatedly tried to cancel the engagement. It’s only the opposite party who has refused. Presumably, the reason that the general gave to cancel the engagement was inadequate and insufficient. Moreover, you have no wish to offend your parents-in-law. When the time comes, there is no harm for General to explain that you had unintentionally formed a relationship with another woman on the outside, and cannot abandon and not care for her. Even if the opposite party has a greater background and justification, they won’t be able to prevent the general from taking concubines, right? If they angrily cancel the engagement, then wouldn’t this be in accordance with the general’s wishes? If they persist in wanting to marry their daughter over, can an outsider query about the matters between husband and wife? So long as the general only dotes on the concubine and your parents dearly love their grandson, it’s likely that it won’t be long before your esteemed wife will propose a divorce.”
Somewhat unable to bear it, Pei Yun lamented, “Although the plan is good, I’m afraid that it is too hurtful.”
I unsympathetically replied, “Although it will harm another for a while, presumably the general’s fiancée has many pursuing her. If the general reluctantly takes a wife who you do not like, when in the future, husband and wife become estranged, not only will you not be able to display filial piety to your parents, you will also not be able to properly educate your children. This would truly be contrary to human relations. If that Miss Xue is a good and virtuous woman, then for this subject to speak thus is to break a marriage that was destined by fate, an unpardonable crime. However, presumably Miss Xue …”
I did not speak any further, but seeing Pei Yun’s complexion become red and white, surely my words were correct. How many of the disciples of the Fengyi Sect liked showing their face in public? Moreover, it was common practice in Great Yong to be open and unrestrained. Even commoner women from the sect did not leave the entrance of the home, nor step out from within the inner residence, not to mention the women from distinguished and powerful families.
After a while, Pei Yun’s expression calmed down. His face still somewhat red, he turned to me to express his thanks. I smiled and said, “All of the general’s worries have disappeared today. How about we drink some more?” Pei Yun toasted me respectfully. I poured a cup of the Peach Blossom wine for myself. I couldn’t tolerate drinking the shao daozi.
The complete trust just now caused the two of us to begin to become friendly. Therefore, our conversation gradually stopped being restrained. This Pei Yun displayed keen interest and pleasure discussing military matters. He was once a valiant commander under the Prince of Qi. Therefore, many of his stories were related to the Prince of Qi. Although the Prince of Qi was not a famous general, he was intrepid and fearless. Moreover, he was willing to listen to the advice of his retainers. As a result, he was highly esteemed by the officers and soldiers in his army. Pei Yun was also extremely respectful when he spoke of the Prince of Qi. It seemed like I couldn’t scorn the Prince of Qi. His previous two attacks on Xiangyang failed because of Xiangyang’s tight defenses and because the army did not have clear strategies and objectives. I had heard the Prince of Yong explain that these campaigns had been promoted by the crown prince alone. It may be assumed that I scorned the Prince of Qi for these failed invasions. It seems that I truly treated him unjustly. As long as several capable retainers were dispatched to help the Prince of Qi, then he would be capable of assuming personal responsibility to guard a region.
Just as our discussion was getting extremely friendly, I heard music sound from out front, signaling the start of the banquet. Although the banquet hall was some distance away, one could still vaguely hear it. Becoming aware that the banquet had already started, I laughed and said, “Today, I have stopped you from taking part in His Imperial Highness’s feast, however, you shouldn’t be considered to have lost out. The wine that I have here should surely leave you satisfied.”
Pei Yun smiled and replied, “Many thanks for Jiang daren’s shao daozi. Were it not excessively rude, I would want to take a pot of wine away with me.”
Just as I was about to respond, the sound of a soft groan arrived at my ears. I shivered internally, perking my ears to listen carefully. I heard another urgent breath, followed by the sound of bones breaking. Oh Heavens! There was someone attacking and killing the imperial bodyguards defending the Cold Courtyard. I forcefully calmed myself down. I knew the approximate locations of all of the guards. From the sounds, the position of the two recently killed imperial bodyguards should be quite close. The rest of the guards were over a hundred paces away and I would not be able to hear the sounds they made. I glanced at Pei Yun and saw that he had not yet become aware of what was happening. Afterwards, I heard the sound of someone pushing open the gate to the courtyard. This sound should also have been taken note of by Pei Yun, however he didn’t seem to pay any special attention to it. I glanced at his expression, noticing no abnormalities. It seems that he assumed it was one of the Cold Courtyard’s servants. I set down my cup and wondered why there was someone killing the guards around the Cold Courtyard. I determined that the other imperial bodyguards had already been killed; otherwise one of the guards would have noticed that someone was entering the Cold Courtyard without permission. Looking at the time, it was right when everyone was becoming intoxicated. The majority of the imperial bodyguards were out up front. Therefore, this man was able to easily penetrate this far. I did not even have the strength to truss a chicken. I glanced at Pei Yun. Was he reliable? After all, he was once a subordinate of the Prince of Qi.
Pei Yun looked at Jiang Zhe with a strange expression on his face. Why did Jiang Zhe suddenly fall silent? Moreover, his expression was somewhat queer. Pei Yun could not help but begin to gather his strength to prepare for any eventualities. Just at this moment, he caught the sound of soft footsteps, of feet stepping on the accumulated snow in the courtyard. Pei Yun’s heart trembled. He could tell from the sound that the person coming had exceedingly brilliant qinggong. From the sound, that person was probably only leaving small holes in the snow. Was it an expert from within the prince’s household? Pei Yun almost immediately dismissed this thought because this man’s caution and care did not resemble someone from the prince’s household. Checking his body, he remembered that he had not brought any weapons. Although he was adept with his limbs, it was still good if he had a weapon at hand. He immediately spoke in a low voice to Jiang Zhe, “Jiang daren, there’s someone coming from outside. He does not seem to be someone from the Prince’s household. Do you have any weapons here?”
I glanced at Pei Yun. He seemed like he could be trusted. My safety would temporarily have to rely upon him. The person coming probably harbored malicious intentions. However, I did not have anything on hand that could summon the imperial bodyguards on duty out at the front of the residence. Those imperial bodyguards who had been killed did have copper whistles on their person. However, there was no way for me to get them. I did not know if Pei Yun was able to block the incoming foe. If no one arrived in time, I feared that my life would end.
I did not hesitate, retrieving a dagger from the cabinet. This was the only weapon in these chambers. Although the hairpin in my hair was incomparably sharp, I was not counting on Pei Yun using it.
Pei Yun frowned, pushing the dagger back to me and said, “You should keep it to protect yourself.”
I smiled wryly and looked at the exquisite dagger. This was a small knife that was originally used to cut meat. In the hands of an expert, it would be able to take lives. What use did it have in the hands of someone like me? However, I still took the dagger. Since Pei Yun’s boxing skills were formidable, it wouldn’t be much use given to him. At this moment, a quiet voice came from outside the door. “Sir Jiang, His Imperial Highness knows that Sir is unwilling to attend the banquet, and has specially dispatched this subordinate to deliver some imperial wine.”
Pei Yun’s expression relaxed, glancing awkwardly at me, seemingly feeling as if he was too sensitive. I stopped him, shaking my head. It wasn’t possible that this man had been dispatched by the Prince of Yong. His Imperial Highness knew my habits; he would absolutely not dispatch a stranger to deliver wine. If he had sent Xiaoshunzi, it would have been reasonable. However, it was impossible for him to have sent a stranger.
I indifferently stated, “Who is outside the door? Please come in to speak.”
The door was sorrowfully pushed open. Entering the room was a middle-aged man dressed in the garb of an imperial bodyguard. His appearance was so average that he would be lost in a crowd. With one glance I could tell that he was not someone from the prince’s household. Moreover, I could smell two odors from his body: one was the scent of the fumes from the kitchen; the other was the faint reek of blood. Looking at him, I coldly asked, “Are you the recently arrived chef from Southern Chu?”
The middle-aged man stared back blankly, while Pei Yun also looked at me with a strange look. I ignored their bewilderment and coldly continued questioning, “Why have you come to kill me? Who sent you?”
Pei Yun immediately fixed his attention closely on the middle-aged man, his eyes filled with wariness. That middle-aged man’s expression suddenly transformed from gentle into grim and sinister. In an instant, the seemingly mediocre imperial bodyguard disappeared, replaced by a cold-blooded killer. Pei Yun took a step forward to stand in front of me. The middle-aged man suddenly laughed and he asked, “How did Jiang zhuangyuan know that I was a killer?”
My expression became intensely grim and severe. I callously replied, “I know who you are. You are Vicious Killer, the greatest assassin in the Southern Chu army. Previously, you obeyed the orders of Prince Zhao Jue of De. At present, you probably follow Rong Yuan’s orders, correct?”
The middle-aged man’s expression became grave as he callously responded, “No wonder the Prince’s dying command was that if Jiang Zhe surrendered to the enemy, we must by necessity spare no effort to kill you.”
Hearing this, I could not help but dribble a mouthful of blood from the corner of my mouth. I slowly sat down, closing my eyes.
烧刀子, shao daozi – aka sorghum wine is a strong distilled liquor (baijiu, shaojiu) that is fermented from sorghum that originates near Tianjin. It is also a brand name today.
Roughly 5 kilograms
嵩山, songshan – Mount Song is the central mountain of the five Great Mountains of China. Although it is one of the sacred Taoist mountains of China, it also is home to a significant Buddhist presence as it contains the Shaolin Temple, birthplace of Zen Buddhism
含饴弄孙, hanyinongsun – idiom, lit. with malt sugar in one’s mouth and dallying with one’s grandson; to live a life of leisure at old age while playing with grandchildren
柴米油盐, chaimiyouyan – idiom, lit. firewood, rice, oil, and salt; fig. life’s daily necessities