Volume 2, Chapter 15: Unaware of the Oriole Behind1

On the same day, assassins from Southern Chu suddenly arrived, killing all of Jiang Zhe’s guards. Jiang Zhe was injured by an arrow, nearly losing his life, and was only saved by the presence of General Pei Yun.…

—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun

Pei Yun was greatly alarmed. Although he did not turn around to look at me, he could still detect the changes in my breathing. Speaking, he asked, “Jiang daren, are you okay?”

From my bosom, I removed a jade bottle, taking one of the pills inside. The roiling qi and blood in my chest gradually calmed down. Lifting my head, I indifferently stated, “I’ve known that you’ve always served the Prince of De. That day, if you weren’t acting under orders to protect Sir Rong in Xiangyang, it would be very likely that His Highness may not necessarily have been attacked by an assassin and died from his wounds.”

That middle-aged man’s head bowed slightly, glistening teardrops appearing at the corners of his eyes. He coldly replied, “Jiang daren formerly held a deep and profound regard for His Highness, going to the trouble of traveling a long distance to try to save His Highness’s life. Unfortunately, His Highness’s fortune was meager. As His Highness was approaching his end, he once privately told me that if Jiang daren pledged allegiance to Great Yong, Southern Chu would be in grave danger. He had me vow if something like this were to happen that I must take daren’s life. His Highness stated that daren would understand. For Southern Chu, His Highness believed there was no other choice than to assassinate daren. He asked that daren forgive someone who is already dead.”

I neutrally accepted, “I will not blame His Highness. Even in death, His Highness is loyal and devoted to Southern Chu. In comparison, I did not have even a shred of loyalty. In life, His Highness’s tolerance for Suiyun’s existence had garnered Suiyun’s extreme appreciation. Your distinguished self be at ease. Today, if I were to survive, that which His Highness entrusted me on that day, Suiyun will never forget. If there is the opportunity, I will not betray that trust.”

That middle-aged man was startled. Afterwards, he recovered his normalcy and faintly divulged, “Jiang Suiyun truly possesses an extraordinary bearing. This assassination was my own idea. When the fate of a nation hangs in the balance, everyone bears responsibility.2 I cannot bear to watch Southern Chu fall. On that day, His Highness would often sigh before me, stating that if Jiang daren were willing to wholeheartedly serve Southern Chu, then the nation would forever be safe. If daren were to pledge allegiance to Great Yong, then Southern Chu could only perish. In this way, Southern Chu will be in chaos both within and without. If you are not killed, Southern Chu will inevitably come to regret it.”

I glanced at him. Just as I was about to speak to stall for time, he seemed to have seen through my intent. His figure pounced towards me, met by Pei Yun. In a flash, the two exchanged several blows, the violent and fierce gale-force killing aura forcing me to retreat into the corner.

Watching them fight bitterly, my mind had actually turned to my memories. At the time, when I returned to Jianye from Sichuan, I had encountered huge changes. During my convalescence, Xiaoshunzi had long ago discovered that the Prince of De had dispatched people to monitor me. Although I knew that temporarily there would not be any changes, I knew that I had to prepare for the exigencies. Therefore, after I had established the Secret Camp, I immediately had Xiaoshunzi thoroughly investigate those by the Prince of De’s side. This Vicious Killer was one of the prince’s most trusted confidants. This man always stayed hidden and was adept at assassination. Although based upon the Prince of De’s temperament, the assassin was not used often, I already had classified this man as a threat long ago. Now, he had appeared here while I was being careless. Who would have expected that he would try to assassinate me, an ordinary surrendered subject, in the heavily-guarded residence of the Prince of Yong? Alas, I had known the Prince of De’s wholehearted loyalty.3 Who could have thought that at death’s door he would leave such a command to have me dealt with? Although I was able to understand, I was still bitterly and frigidly disappointed.

I smiled bitterly as I looked forward. Pei Yun had a grave complexion as he fought with Vicious Killer. Although his moves seemed to be clear and simple, they were like an impenetrable defense as he obstructed the quicksilver and insidious killing blows of Vicious Killer. Although the fight was still even, I could see the heaviness in Pei Yun’s expression and knew that he was probably losing. Examining the room, there was only one window. The door was being completely blocked by the two fighting. Dragging my tired and feeble body, I walked before the window, sparing no effort to push the window open, looking regretfully at the cluster of roses outside. As for this courtyard of mine, although it had been tidied up, after all it was not yet spring, therefore there were plenty of miscellaneous flowers and weeds, including the wild roses outside the window. Although they had not bloomed, there were plenty of thorns on the stalks. If I were to jump out, I would likely be covered by cuts and bruises. Trembling for a moment, I decided that I would only jump out the window as a last resort.4

At this moment, Vicious Killer was already somewhat anxious. It had not been easy for him to sneak into the Prince of Yong’s residence. Moreover, although he had stayed in the residence for a couple of days now, the rules here were strict and rigorous. He had no way of approaching Jiang Zhe. Usually, Jiang Zhe had numerous guards by his side. In addition, every several minutes, there was a patrol squad passing through. If they were disturbed, even if he had three heads and six arms,5 he would not be able to escape. Moreover, although he did not know how formidable Xiaoshunzi’s martial arts were, the assassin knew what it represented when a top-quality expert such as himself could not tell the depths of Xiaoshunzi’s martial arts. Today, the rare opportunity had come. Xiaoshunzi was not present in the Cold Courtyard and the residence was hosting a large banquet. Most of the imperial bodyguards were out up front, causing the defenses around the Cold Courtyard to be greatly relaxed. According to his observations, a patrol would pass in an hour. Therefore, he had boldly killed all of the imperial bodyguards around the Cold Courtyard and hid their bodies. In this way, he would have plenty of time to assassinate Jiang Zhe. The only thing he had not accounted for was that Jiang Zhe actually had an expert from the Shaolin Temple by his side who had mastered Arhat Boxing to perfection. This set of Shaolin fighting techniques that had tight defenses was unexpectedly able to block him. There wasn’t much time left and Vicious Killer steeled his heart and let out a severe shout. His complexion became blood red as blood seeped from the corner of his mouth. His fighting style suddenly changed, its power doubling and adding several degrees of strangeness. With a bang, the two men’s palm and fists exchanged blows. Pei Yun paled, retreating a step. Not even giving the opportunity to retaliate, Vicious Killer had already followed him relentlessly, pouncing upon him once again.

Bang, bang, bang, three successive blows. Pei Yun was forced to retreat three steps, almost touching the table. Under the wind pressure of the exchanges, the pot of shao daozi had been affected, shattering and spilling wine everywhere in a split second. Struck by a spark of inspiration,6 Pei Yun retreated a step and with one leg, he lifted the wine pot into midair and then sent the shattered bottle flying out with a palm. The entire room now was filled with alcohol, drops blending with Pei Yun’s qi. Vicious Killer had no choice but to use both of his hands to draw out the image of multitudinous palms before him, blocking the oncoming shards. At this moment, Pei Yun rushed to my side, grabbing and raising me onto his shoulder before charging out the window. My entire face was in extreme pain from being struck with the shattered pieces of wood. The leather shoes on Pei Yun’s feet did not hesitate to land on the dried rose stalks. Only then did I, in my confusion, realize that we were outside in the courtyard.

Behind us, we could hear a cry of fury, as Vicious Killer had already dashed out, his figure as fast as lightning, striking to kill me. Pei Yun closely protected me. Although the circumstances were extremely dangerous, and Vicious Killer’s martial arts were originally adept at attacking in all directions and caused Pei Yun to be unable to defend, there were benefits to this wide open space. Pei Yun continued to protect me as we hid from place to place, temporarily preserving my life. However, it wouldn’t do if this kind of situation was to continue. I had just been hit by another bout of my illness. At this moment, my hands and feet were weak. Just from this hiding, I was already gasping for breath. It was likely that it would take no more than ten paces before I would collapse.

Pei Yun could also see this danger, thinking that he could only fight with his life on the line. His complexion suddenly became solemn and serene, the color of his skin having a faint golden color. He no longer continued to dodge; setting me down, he leapt towards Vicious Killer. Seeing the color of Pei Yun’s skin, Vicious Killer gasped in alarm, “Divine Diamond (Vajra) Force!” He did not dare to be neglectful. The two figures merged before suddenly separating. Almost as if he hadn’t felt anything, Pei Yun turned and attacked again. Vicious Killer’s complexion was somewhat wan. This was the first time that he had lost when contesting internal energy with Pei Yun. He did not know that Pei Yun himself was also finding it hard to take. Pei Yun had only mastered seventy percent of the Divine Diamond Force. For him to put his life on the line to employ this technique, he would receive severe internal injuries if he used it longer than the time it took for a stick of incense to burn. Even if he wouldn’t die, he would not be able to improve his martial arts. Although this was risky, he still decided to stride ahead without any second thoughts. This was not because of Jiang Zhe’s kind treatment nor because he wished to curry favor with the Prince of Yong, and definitely not because of the benefits that Great Yong would attain from him protecting a surrendered Southern Chu subject. He did not have any second thoughts about performing any meritorious deeds. At this moment, all he could think about was the instructions that his master had given him when he was accepted as a disciple of the Shaolin Temple—protect the kindhearted and innocent. He had never felt that there was any disloyalty in Jiang Zhe’s surrender to Great Yong.

Although I did not understand martial arts, I knew that the more common sense was transcended, the greater the subsequent consequences. Although Pei Yun’s martial arts had suddenly skyrocketed, he definitely would not be able to sustain it for long. Seeing that he had tangled Vicious Killer up, I took to my heels and ran towards the entrance to the courtyard. The remains of the imperial bodyguards should be there. As long as I was able to find a copper whistle, I would be able to call for help. Those copper whistles were exquisitely manufactured. The entire residence would be able to hear it even if I were the one blowing.

Vicious Killer had tried to chase and kill me several times, but was blocked by Pei Yun. His killing intent was set ablaze as his complexion became blood red again, his power increasing once more. This time, he could not help but vomit a mouthful of blood. Vigorously, he shot forth a palm that beat back Pei Yun. Just as Vicious Killer was about to pounce on me, he was once again obstructed by Pei Yun. At this moment, he began to hesitate. If he used the Demonic Dissection Skill more than three times, he would then bleed from all seven apertures.7 Although this skill could triple his power, then he would have to convalesce for several years afterwards. Thinking it over, his power and martial art techniques were all above this youth, and could kill him in ten or so exchanges. When that moment came, there was still time for him to chase after and kill Jiang Zhe.

When I arrived at the entrance to the courtyard, I found the remains of the imperial bodyguards in the grass. However, I immediately grew frightened. All of the copper whistles had been gathered and tossed at the side of these corpses, all of them destroyed. Vicious Killer’s conduct was indeed thorough. I blankly looked around. What was to be done? What was to be done? It was likely that I would not be able to escape. Gritting my teeth, I examined my surroundings. Where could I hide? It wasn’t that I wished to run away from the battle. If I were to get away, Pei Yun would be able to disengage himself. If I did not go, Pei Yun could only die. Suddenly, I recalled that there were some poisons used for self-protection hidden in my chambers. I hurriedly went back into the courtyard, limping as I ran towards my chambers.

When the two fighting saw that I had come back, Vicious Killer relaxed. With Jiang Zhe’s return, he could focus on killing Pei Yun. As he slowed down his pace, the pressure on Pei Yun was greatly reduced. However, Pei Yun remained extremely anxious. Why had Jiang Zhe come back?

Both men had questions in their minds. After they exchanged several more blows, Pei Yun was already finding it difficult to continue. In his head, he thought, I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t die on the battlefield, but rather in the Cold Courtyard in the Prince of Yong’s residence. The assassin’s hands were resolved, firm, and determined, refusing to relax. Vicious Killer was not in a rush. After a short while, he would be able to complete his assignment. At this moment, I had picked up a circular steel cylinder and hastily walked out. Looking towards where the two were fighting bitterly, I yelled out in a loud voice, “General Pei be reassured, although this poison of mine is formidable, it will not be immediately fatal. I will give you the antidote.”

So shouting, I activated the mechanism in the direction of the two, a red pellet shooting out of the cylinder, exploding in the air above the two men’s heads. A pink vapor immediately enveloped the two men. Vicious Killer was greatly alarmed; he knew that Jiang Zhe was a master of medicine. It would be normal if he had some poison on hand for self-protection. He promptly tried to escape, but was firmly held up by Pei Yun who had had his courage stirred. The assassin could only hold his breath. He unexpectedly felt his four limbs become numb when the vapor contacted his skin. Although Pei Yun had the same feeling, the martial arts that he had trained in were genuine Buddhist divine arts. Therefore, he was able to endure a dozen or so breathes. As a result, his palm struck out and landed on Vicious Killer’s lower abdomen. The assassin’s figure shook before collapsing to the ground. However, he had been pushed by the power of the palm out of the vapor. Meanwhile, Pei Yun’s body was on the verge of collapse, falling to the ground.

I was overjoyed at this unexpected outcome, promptly rushing over, taking an antidote from a jade bottle, and shoving it in Pei Yun’s mouth. After a short moment, he sat up. Hoarsely, he said, “The poison has already been detoxified. Daren be at ease, Pei Yun will escort daren to a safe place.”

I helped Pei Yun up, gratefully replying, “Many thanks to General for saving my life. We should leave quickly. It would be a disaster if there are more assassins.”

Pei Yun shared my thoughts. If there were more assassins, he would have no strength to protect me. The two of us walked towards the entrance of the courtyard, mutually supporting one another. Both of us were extremely tired. Just as we exited the courtyard, I immediately felt a distant killing aura. Just as my ears heard the faint sound of a bowstring being released, a white feathered arrow flew through and slammed into my chest near my heart. I stared blankly at the arrow in my chest and the blood that immediately began to seep out. Surprisingly, I would lose my life just like this. Strangely, I did not have the least bit of fear in my heart nor was there any enmity. I did not blame the man who had killed me. Life on earth was governed by the law of the jungle where the strong preyed on the weak. He naturally had his reasons. Looking in the direction from where the arrow had been shot from, that hidden assassin was also coldly looking back at me, his hands holding a bow and arrow. He was dressed in blue garb, a white headscarf covering his face. His eyes, clear as the waters of spring, carried with them a shred of regret as he watched me. I could feel my life drain away and hear Pei Yun cry out in alarm. However, I already did not have the energy to think more of it. At death’s door, the beautiful image of Piaoxiang appeared in my heart. Then I saw Roulan’s small figure. Lastly, I saw the figure of the handsome youth who had always been by my side. My sight was already becoming cloudy. Amidst the haziness, I could see Xiaoshunzi fly towards me, his entire face filled with shock and heartbreak. Oh, truly regretful … I didn’t have the opportunity to entrust Roulan into his care. However, I believed that he knew this. With a faint smile and filled with regret, I finally closed my eyes, my consciousness sinking into the bottomless abyss, sinking.…

As a result, I did not hear the mournful lamentations filled with despair.

***

In the great hall, Li Zhi was smiling as he toasted his honored guests, his eyes sweeping over everyone. Not long after the banquet had begun, Qin Qing said his goodbyes. Li Zhi already knew that he had gone to the Cold Courtyard and had some dispute with Jiang Zhe. The bygone enmity should have already been resolved. Although there should still be some ill-feelings, it should not be too serious. Oh! Both father and son, Xiahou Lan and Xiahou Yuanfeng had come to attend the banquet. As Xiahou Yuanfeng’s status was comparatively low, he was attending the banquet in a side chamber. This man could not be underestimated. It was not an easy thing to be able to gain Imperial Father’s favor for so many years without end. If this man was not already supporting the crown prince and wished to get a share of the action on his Imperial Sister, it was likely that Li Zhi would have tried to recruit him. Adept with both brush and sword, Xiahou Yuanfeng was worthy of being considered the number one young expert in Great Yong. After his defeat of Pei Yun, Xiahou Yuanfeng had already taken the position as the brightest and the best.

Alas, Pei Yun was not present. The one that Li Zhi looked most highly upon was Pei Yun. Although he was once a subordinate of the Prince of Yong, this man was also a layman disciple of the Shaolin Temple. Moreover, he held some resentment against the Fengyi Sect. It should be possible to recruit him. Although it was a pity that Pei Yun was not present, there would be other opportunities.

Just as his eyes were sweeping past, Li Zhi caught sight of Xiaoshunzi in the garb of a servant standing in the corner of the hall, the eunuch’s frosty eyes observing the officials in the hall. This Xiaoshunzi was only loyal to Jiang Zhe. Although no one knew how high his martial arts were, it should be lower than Pei Yun and Xiahou Yuanfeng. He was a capable subordinate. From his request to observe these guests who could potentially be enemies, one could see that he did not lack for brains. If he weren’t this loyal, Li Zhi would have arranged a plan for him to enter the palace.

At this moment, Li Zhi saw one of the imperial bodyguards hurriedly enter the hall and walk to Gou Lian’s side, speaking to him in a low voice. Gou Lian, responsible for organizing this feast, furrowed his brows. After replying a few words, Gou Lian stood and walked to Xiaoshunzi’s side. Xiaoshunzi’s countenance immediately changed, as he quietly withdrew from the hall. Gou Lian then turned and walked towards Li Zhi. However, at this moment, all of the distinguished personages of the court had also come forth to encircle Li Zhi and he could not disengage himself. It was some time before Gou Lian was finally able to find the opportunity to get close to Li Zhi. In a low voice, Gou Lian reported, “You Imperial Highness, something has happened. Vice Supervisor Hu Wei and two of the bodyguards assigned to protect Suiyun were killed in the inner residence. On the side there were also the corpses of two eunuchs. I have already dispatched men to protect Major Jiang.”

Li Zhi was greatly alarmed, promptly stating, “This Prince must go take a look.”

Gou Lian replied, “At present, I’m afraid that Your Imperial Highness won’t be able to disengage yourself.”

Just at this moment, a clear cry of lamentation could be heard from the direction of the Cold Courtyard. The lament sounded with keening mourning, filled with the grief and hatred of losing one’s closest kin. The sound was sharp and mournful. Although it was distant, it still caused everyone to feel an almost unbearable pain. The wine cup in Li Zhi’s hand fell onto the ground, shattering into pieces. He was filled with an ominous premonition. This direction, this sound! He knew that it could have been caused by only one situation. Fiercely, he sprang to his feet. In an angry voice, he roared, “Everyone listen to my command! Guard the entire residence! Regardless of noble or low status, no one is allowed to enter and exit without permission! Come with this Prince!”

Finished speaking, Li Zhi shook his brocade gown, immediately rushing towards the Cold Courtyard. The anxiety in his heart had surpassed the feeling when Jiang Zhe had used stern words to refuse him. As he walked, he silently prayed to the Heavens. If the Heavens were able to bless and protect Jiang Zhe, he was willing to give up years of his life as replacement.

Finally reaching the Cold Courtyard, Li Zhi saw that it had already been protected by the previously dispatched imperial bodyguards and personal soldiers. After he had charged into the courtyard, Li Zhi immediately came to a halt and stared blankly at the scene before him. The ground of the entire courtyard was covered with dark red blood and signs of a bloody battle. Outside of the bodyguards that had been dispatched, there was no sign of Jiang Zhe and Xiaoshunzi. Imperial bodyguards were mournfully standing before the entrance to the living chambers. In a trance, Li Zhi entered. On the soft couch, Li Zhi caught sight of Jiang Zhe’s body peacefully resting, his complexion wan. In his chest was a broken arrow. Xiaoshunzi was kneeling beside the couch, tightly clutching Jiang Zhe’s right hand.

Li Zhi felt stabbing pains in his heart, and he almost fainted, unable to utter even a single word.

Footnotes:

Is the last part of an idiom that originates from the Zhuangzi (螳螂捕蝉,黄雀在后, tanglangbuchan, huangquezaihou) – lit. the mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind; fig. to pursue a narrow gain while neglecting a greater danger
国家兴亡,匹夫有责, guojiaxingwang, pifuyouze – idiom, lit. the rise and fall of the nation concerns everyone; everyone bears responsibility for the prosperity of society
赤胆忠心, chidanzhongxin – idiom, lit. red-bellied devotion; wholehearted loyalty, to serve somebody/something with body and soul
万不得已, wanbudeyi – idiom, only when absolutely essential; as a last resort
三头六臂, santouliubi – idiom, lit. to have three heads and six arms; fig. to possess remarkable abilities, a being of formidable power
灵机一动, lingjiyidong – idiom, lit. a bright idea suddenly occurs; to hit upon an inspiration, to be struck by a brainwave
Two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and mouth

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