On the nineteenth day of the third month of the first year of Southern Chu’s Tongtai era, Jiang Zhe’s close attendant, Li Shun, chased the assassin for a thousand li, beheading him at the crossing of the Yangtze River. When this news was spread, all those who heard it were scared into submission. In the following several years, no one dared to copy Nie Zheng1 and Jing Ke2.…
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun
Vicious Killer’s expression changed, as he coldly stated, “Li Shun, I thought you would have stayed by your master to attend to him. Interestingly, you have the courage to chase me here.”
Xiaoshunzi smiled slightly. “Lord Black, although we have never met, I know that the Prince of De has such an individual by his side. You must also know of my existence at the side of my young master. By trying to assassinate my young master, you are my mortal enemy. Even if I am not your equal, I must come here to send you off. Besides, I’m afraid that you are not my match.”
Vicious Killer shivered. He had already not used his name for years. Even the Prince of De did not know his name. Who would have thought that this Xiaoshunzi would know this information? However, his expression did not change, only smoothly replying, “Li Shun, you can be considered a subject of Southern Chu. For years you served at the side of the sovereign and received profound favors. Why have you betrayed your homeland? Could it be that you really place such heavy importance on status and wealth? Even if there are riches and honor, you won’t receive any of it. You had once served in the army and went off to battle, and once accompanied and attended to the King. Don’t tell me that you don’t understand the meaning of loyalty and righteousness.”
His speech caused everyone, even those collapsed to the ground, to turn scornful.
Xiaoshunzi calmly responded, his tone neither servile nor overbearing, “This servant is of humble origins and was also castrated. At best, in the palace, even cats and dogs are more respectable than us eunuchs. Lord Black, you are no more than an assassin, but haven’t you also despised this servant?” Speaking to this point, Xiaoshunzi’s expression became solemn and dignified, his eyes becoming radiant. Slowly and deliberately, enunciating every syllable, he said, “In this world, there is only one person who has never looked down on me. He regards me as a person and not as a servant. When we first met in the palace, the young master was a newly appointed official of Southern Chu. I was only a negligible court eunuch, yet he still regarded me quite highly. After several years of interactions, I would have seen through it if there was even a hint of hypocrisy. However, the young master has been unswerving from start to finish, treating me as he would his own flesh and blood, teaching me to read and to understand the proper rites. He treats me as a confidant and blood relation. In all my life, only young master is deserving of my loyalty and devotion. Southern Chu has not treated me with any grace or favor.
“Lord Black, you reproach me using righteousness. However, I must ask you a question. It could be said that young master has a clear conscience towards Southern Chu. However, has Southern Chu treated young master fairly?”
Vicious Killer was left speechless. How could he not know of Jiang Zhe’s meritorious service? And yet, Jiang Zhe’s ultimate fate was to be dismissed from office. For whatever reason, it was unreasonable for him to attempt to assassinate Jiang Zhe.
Xiaoshunzi did not interrogate him further, instead coldly stating, “I know Lord Black is acting upon the orders of the late Prince of De. Each side serves their own master. Young master does not hate the Prince of De for being heartless, however we cannot permit you to return alive to Southern Chu. Therefore, I’m sorry. You must die here in Great Yong.”
At this moment, the immobile Qiao Yan’er angrily shouted out, “What gall! You don’t know the immensity of the universe!”
When these words were spoken, everyone, including Vicious Killer, looked at her with strange expressions. In the present situation, it was obvious that Xiaoshunzi was standing on the side of these youths. If Xiaoshunzi could not win, then it was likely that all of them would die. Why would Qiao Yan’er contrarily say these words? Actually, Qiao Yan’er knew that she had misspoken as soon as the words flew out of her mouth. However, her natural disposition was headstrong and competitive. For her to inexplicably be poisoned, and for Xiaoshunzi to arrive so suddenly and save everyone, instead caused to feel discontent and resentment. Seeing everyone gazing upon her, she could not help angrily yell, “What is it? Can I not speak thusly?”
Everyone looked away, trying to avoid laughing aloud. Xiaoshunzi’s expression was still as icy as before. He did not have a favorable impression of Qiao Yan’er and company. In any case, they were all the young master’s enemies. It would be great if he could kill all of them. Were it not for the obstacle that his appearance would inevitably become known by everyone, he could not hit a person who was down. It was likely that he would have to kill these people one day. Glancing at Priest Bitter Bamboo, Xiaoshunzi’s gaze became somewhat gentle. Opening his mouth, he spoke, “Priest Bitter Bamboo, I originally should also kill you today. However, my young master has some words for someone to bring back to Southern Chu. Since your identity has already been revealed, this matter will be handed to you.”
Priest Bitter Bamboo did not mock Xiaoshunzi’s words. From the moment Xiaoshunzi appeared, he had begun to search for a hole in Xiaoshunzi’s defenses. However, even though Xiaoshunzi was simply standing there, he could not detect a single flaw on his entire body.
Glancing at the sky for the time, Xiaoshunzi sighed and rued, “The mist enfolds the tower and pavilion, the moon shines dimly on the ferry. Such enchanting scenery. Alas, Lord Black, you won’t be able to see this again.”
Finished speaking, his figure—like the void, like an illusion—pounced towards Vicious Killer. Already knowing that his life hung in the balance, Vicious Killer straightened and met Xiaoshunzi’s attack, his figure like an eagle spreading its wings. The two men clashed. Everyone witnessed the two men exchange blows, but there wasn’t the slightest sound. Apparently, the two men’s fighting styles were extremely ingenious and sinister. In over a dozen exchanges, each and every one was attacking and required defending. They spun in circles, strangely not truly touching the ground. The two fought ferociously, whirling over and over in the space of one zhang,3 causing all the spectators to be dazzled. Although there wasn’t a single sound, the killing auras in the blasts of wind created by the strikes were increasingly heavy. In this way, the two fought for about one hundred exchanges. Suddenly, the two figures stopped moving, standing and facing one another. Xiaoshunzi’s expression was aloof and composed, while Vicious Killer looked ashen. The clothes covering his chest had been ripped to pieces, revealing several claw wounds. With one look, everyone could tell that he was on the back foot. Although the two stood silently, the tension between the two in the air increasingly intensified like a taut bowstring. In the end, Vicious Killer could no longer endure it, letting out a harsh cry, his complexion changing several times. Suddenly, blood burst forth from his seven apertures. His appearance was extremely terrifying.
Seeing this from a distance, the Third Miss cried out in alarm, “This is the ‘Third Transformation of the Demonic Dissection Skill!’ His power will rise tenfold! Your distinguished self be careful!”
Xiaoshunzi cruelly smiled and observed, “Although the Demonic Dissection Skill increases one’s power, it has lasting calamitous effects. By using this skill twice within two months, it seems that even if you return to Southern Chu, you will not live long.”
Vicious Killer callously responded, “Although your master has matchless ability and talent, if he does not have your protection, then he is no more than a hawk without wings. Although I could not kill him this time, as long as I am able to kill you, then I will have snapped off one of his arms. In the future, assassinating your master will be much easier.”
Xiaoshunzi blanched. It had not occurred to him that Vicious Killer was still thinking about assassinating the young master. His bloodlust swelled. At this moment, Vicious Killer had already bounded towards him. This time, the situation was greatly different. Xiaoshunzi seemed to have no opportunity to retaliate and could only rely upon his strange movements to defend. After observing for some time, everyone closed their eyes. Curiously, the two combatant’s irregular and fluctuating movements caused them to feel dizzy. After a while, Xiaoshunzi suddenly took a deep breath of essential qi. Immediately, his body became as light as a feather, nimbly falling back before the gales created by Vicious Killer’s attacks. Suddenly, Xiaoshunzi ascended high into the sky and then counterattacked. Vicious Killer urgently tried to resist, immediately raising his two fists to block the attack. To his surprise, Xiaoshunzi’s figure flipped over in the air, dropping to the ground behind him. A thin palm pressed against his back. Vicious Killer could only feel an icy and sinister qi essence pouring into his body. He used all of his internal energy to block this insidious invasion. That qi essence became like a fiery blaze, pouring into his arteries. Vicious Killer could not help but release a blood-curdling scream, his figure staggering as he tried to throw himself forward, falling to the floor.
At this very moment, Priest Bitter Bamboo attacked with the wind from the small boat. Xiaoshunzi had originally exhausted his qi, but startlingly it was like he was assisted by a deity, his figure strangely flipping and meeting the Daoist priest’s attack. Although Priest Bitter Bamboo’s aquatic skills were the greatest in the world, his palm techniques and internal energy were quite lacking. This time, if he hadn’t guessed that Vicious Killer would escape by water, then he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be invited to participate in this encirclement. Only using three attacks, Xiaoshunzi had repelled Priest Bitter Bamboo. Retreating to the river bank, Priest Bitter Bamboo was trapped. If he retreated, then he could only watch Vicious Killer perish. Even if he continued fighting, it was clear that he was no match for Xiaoshunzi.
Vicious Killer had already regained his strength. With difficulty, he rose to his feet. Smiling wryly, he said, “As expected, Eunuch Shun possesses outstanding martial arts. How was Jiang Zhe so fortunate in attaining such an expert as his servant?”
Xiaoshunzi smiled faintly and inquired, “Properly, it should be: How was Li Shun so fortunate to receive young master’s profound affection and be permitted to follow him? At present, your distinguished self is already at death’s door. Any last words?”
Vicious Killer naturally understood that the arteries and veins of his heart were already broken and was only using his pure essence to stay alive. Without a trace of dread in his heart, he smiled and stated, “I know what Eunuch Shun wishes to know—who rescued me? I will speak forthrightly. That man was Qin Qing. He was the assassin who shot Jiang Zhe with an arrow.”
Xiaoshunzi coldly dismissed, “Do you really have no other candidate to impute?”
Vicious Killer’s heart jumped, and yet he still said, “I am originally someone from Southern Chu, what reason do I have to lie? Therefore, my words are true. It was Qin Qing.”
Xiaoshunzi indifferently replied, “Usually, I should use torture to force you to speak the truth. However, since your life will end at any moment, then forget it. You can die properly. In the underworld, when you see the Prince of De, please extend him my young master’s regards.”
Finished speaking, Xiaoshunzi bowed. Vicious Killer relaxed, already collapsing weakly to the ground. At this moment, Xiaoshunzi suddenly asked, “Whose martial arts are better, Pei Yun or Xiahou Yuanfeng?”
Vicious Killer subconsciously answered, “Xiahou Yuanfeng …” Suddenly he sobered up, correcting himself, “I have never exchanged blows with Xiahou Yuanfeng. I do not know how skilled his martial arts are.”
Xiaoshunzi serenely glanced at him before stating, “Priest Bitter Bamboo, please pass along this message from my young master to Sir Rong and Duke Lu. Previously, although young master did not turn his back upon Southern Chu, due to old affections, he felt guilty in his heart of hearts. Now that young master narrowly escaped death, there is no longer any affection remaining towards Southern Chu. Henceforth, if we meet on the battlefield, then we are only strangers.”
Finished speaking, his figure moved in an instant. In the blink of an eye, he was already several zhang away. After a short while, he had already completely disappeared into the night.
Priest Bitter Bamboo relaxed. Advancing to check, he discovered that Vicious Killer was already dead and no longer was breathing, tired smile on his face, as if he had finally set down a heavy burden weighing thousands of catties. The Daoist priest picked up Vicious Killer’s corpse. He looked at the enemies weak on the ground. Priest Bitter Bamboo knew that if he killed these individuals, then he would have greatly offended Li Shun. Letting out a faint sigh, he boarded his boat. Picking up the oars, he quickly departed. Just as his small boat was concealed by the opposite shore’s clustered reeds, the most powerful of the group, the Third Miss of the Fengyi Sect, was able to move. Standing to her feet, she gave everyone her sect’s secretly concocted antidote. Although the antidote was not specifically made to treat this particular poison, it was still useful. It wasn’t long before everyone could stand once again.
The Seventh Miss exclaimed in surprise, “Third Sister, surprisingly there is such a young expert in the world! Even Big Sister and Ninth Sister cannot easily defeat him!”
Although the expressions of Duanmu Qiu and company were filled with shame, they all nodded their heads in agreement.
The Third Miss’s face revealed a look that seemed to bemoan the state of the universe and pity the fate of mankind. She said, “You lot only know that his martial arts are exceptional and yet do not know the grievous price that he had to pay. From their conversation, that man is a eunuch. If that is the case, then there is only one martial art that allows him to be so powerful. It is the long-lost Sunflower Manual. We cannot know if he castrated himself to train this martial art or he began to learn this martial art after he became a eunuch. Alas, although this martial art is exquisite and profound, the temperament of those practicing it would inevitably become sinister and cruel. With such a man existing in jianghu, I’m afraid that he will ultimately be a calamity.”
Although Qiao Yan’er had spoken rudely earlier, she was still grateful to Xiaoshunzi for saving her life. This moment, she opened her mouth and retorted, “Older sister Ming is being too anxious. Since this man came to avenge his master, then he is the servant of Southern Chu’s most gifted scholar, Jiang Zhe. Although I have never met Jiang daren, I know that he is magnanimous and refined with talent that surpasses others. How could his servant harm the world?”
The Third Miss sighed and replied, “This is why I am so uneasy. Although this man is formidable, he is only a warrior. That Jiang Zhe is a peerless minister of state. The two complement each other. I’m afraid that all levels of society in Great Yong will not be able to rest easy. I must report to Master when I return. If matters get out of hand in the future, I’m afraid that only she can restore the situation.”
Hearing her words, everyone felt this was reasonable. The leaders of the Fengyi Sect were truly capable, possessing profound knowledge and understanding as expected.
After mutually exchanging farewells, they separated and departed. Although information about this battle was spread among the common folk, many in the imperial court knew what had happened. Vicious Killer originally was a top-tier expert from Southern Chu. This time, he had attempted to carry out an assassination in the residence of the Prince of Yong and moreover managed to fight and flee, nearly escaping to Southern Chu. After defeating him in one go, Xiaoshunzi immediately became the focus of everyone’s attention. Were it not for his awkward status, it was very likely that he would have had the qualifications to challenge the throne of the greatest young expert in Great Yong. However, the present him was not thinking of this.
He had managed to confirm that Xiahou Yuanfeng’s suspicions were the heaviest. However, it was very likely that the young master would not permit him to make a move and kill Xiahou Yuanfeng. If this Xiahou Yuanfeng was let off so lightly, wouldn’t he be made to look foolish before the entire world? It would be better if he went first to kill Xiahou Yuanfeng. As long as there were no witnesses, who could know he had killed him? As a result, Xiaoshunzi did not contact the people of the Prince of Yong’s residence, traveling night and day back towards Chang’an. After a mere few days, he had already returned. After slightly changing his attire and appearance, he chose one evening to head directly towards Xiahou Yuanfeng’s residence. He knew that Xiahou Yuanfeng should not have any assignments today and thus he intended to directly enter the inner residence. Unexpectedly, just as he was approaching Xiahou Yuanfeng’s residence, a figure stopped him. Just as he was about to make his move, the man removed his mask, revealing a slightly childish looking face. That man was Chiji, the head of the eight elite operatives of the Secret Camp. Xiaoshunzi’s face grew heavy, about to completely ignore Chiji and walk past.
Chiji promptly said, “This subordinate is here on the young master’s orders, waiting here for Lord Li. Young master has said that Lord Li cannot be impetuous and must first return to see him.”
The look on Xiaoshunzi’s face was icy, not saying a single word. Chiji could only continue, “Young master also said that if Lord Li does not return now, then there is no need for Lord Li to return in the future.”
Xiaoshunzi’s hands curled into fists. He naturally knew that Jiang Zhe would not casually utter these words. It seems that he really must return. Ferociously glaring in the direction of the Xiahou residence, he turned and departed. Chiji hurriedly pulled down the mask and left, his figure very quickly disappearing into the night.
Quickly returning to the Prince of Yong’s residence, Xiaoshunzi made no effort to make himself presentable, directly making for the Cold Courtyard. Seeing that the newly selected imperial bodyguards had made the courtyard impenetrable, he felt somewhat relieved. Entering Jiang Zhe’s chambers, Xiaoshunzi saw him reclined on the soft couch. Jiang Zhe’s bearing was relaxed, clearly and brightly reciting the Classics of Poetry.4 Roulan was leaning on his side, apparently fascinated with Jiang Zhe’s reciting.
Xiaoshunzi felt his entire being calm down. Fine, even if he did not kill Xiahou Yuanfeng right now, it was unlikely that the young master would let him off lightly. Advancing, Xiaoshunzi performed a deep bow before he said, “This servant has returned. I beg for young master’s forgiveness. This servant dares not act rashly again in the future.”
I set down the scroll, looking at the travel-worn Xiaoshunzi. “Thank you for your hard work. Sit first. Do you know how I knew you would go to the Xiahou residence?”
Puzzled, Xiaoshunzi inquired, “This servant was just wondering how young master knew my whereabouts. Even if those witnesses had heard my words, there couldn’t possibly be enough time for this information to be spread.”
A slight, wry smile appeared on my lips, as I replied, “Yesterday, Xiahou Yuanfeng personally came to pay a visit, apologizing humbly, explaining that he had indeed come to the Cold Courtyard that day. However, he stated that he was not the one who shot an arrow at me. He merely took away Vicious Killer. Because of the archer’s respected and honored identity, he dared not intervene. He only took away Vicious Killer to learn some inside information. However, the assassin refused to say a word, seizing the opportunity to escape.”
Xiaoshunzi stared back confounded. It was quite a while before he asked, “Then doesn’t that just leave Li Hanyou?”
“I had originally already suspected that assassin was a woman,” I said with a faint smile. “From the eyes as clear as spring water and her slim, white hands. I didn’t expect that Xiahou Yuanfeng would go so far as to acknowledge his presence at the scene. In all likelihood, there were three individuals who came to assassinate me on that day. Vicious Killer came because of the Prince of De’s orders and does not merit much anxiety. Xiahou Yuanfeng is extremely close to the Crown Prince. I’m sure that the Crown Prince would not trouble the Fengyi Sect over this kind of matter. It’s very likely that Xiahou Yuanfeng was dispatched by the Crown Prince. However, by chance, he ran into the Fengyi Sect making a move against me. Li Hanyou personally took action, and therefore, Xiahou Yuanfeng did not act that day. I believe that if Xiahou Yuanfeng was truly the archer, then he would have killed Vicious Killer long ago to silence him. It’s just that—why does the Fengyi Sect wish to kill me? Could it be that some traces of that matter have been exposed?”
The look on Xiaoshunzi’s face changed several times before he spoke, “Young master, the Fengyi Sect has fixed their attention on you. We need to be extra careful.”
I indifferently shook my head and replied, “There is no harm. They were unsuccessful this time. If the Fengyi Sect is as arrogant as they say, then they will not try again. If they cannot use other channels to deal with me, then it would unavoidably harm their reputation. After all, at present, if I were to die, everyone would know that my death was perpetrated by the Fengyi Sect. I believe that there will be no worries about my safety in the meantime at least. However, we must guard against their other methods. At present, I have recently suffered a serious injury and can avoid their wrath. On the contrary, your reputation is too prominent and conspicuous. You must be careful.”
Xiaoshunzi nodded his head and replied, “Young master speaks rightly. However, this servant will be careful.”
I stretched leisurely. “You have also spoken reasonably. I’m getting tired. Please carry Roulan back.”
Xiaoshunzi promptly said, “Young master, I acted recklessly. You haven’t punished me yet.”
“Okay, I’ll punish you,” I idly replied. “Oh, that’s right. I really want to eat Osmanthus Cake. I will punish you by having you buy for a box of top-quality Osmanthus Cake. I want the kind that I loved to eat before.” I was already half-asleep, completely unaware of what I was saying.
Xiaoshunzi looked at me blankly. Osmanthus Cake was the most famous snack in Southern Chu’s capital of Jianye. How could one eat this here in Great Yong? Even if he ran all the way to Jianye to purchase a box, when he returned, then the cake would have already gone stale.
In a daze, he walked out of the door. At this moment, the team leader of the fifty guards, Zhou Wu, walked over. Seeing Xiaoshunzi’s baffled expression, Zhou Wu asked, “Lord Li, what’s happened? Does daren have any orders?”
Vexed, Xiaoshunzi responded, “How can I get Osmanthus Cake?”
Zhou Wu stared blankly at Xiaoshunzi, muttering, “Osmanthus Cake?”
Xiaoshunzi had already left, carrying Roulan in his arms.
聂政, Nie Zheng was a famous assassin during the Warring States Period. After killing a man, he fled with his mother and sister to the state of Qi, becoming a butcher. Yan Zhongzi (严仲子) arrived in Qi and befriended Nie Zheng, treating him with great kindness. After Nie Zheng’s mother died, he volunteered to assassinate Prime Minister Xia Lei (侠累) in order to make a name for himself. Nie Zheng was successful, but realizing that his sister would be implicated, he disfigured his face before committing suicide. Nie Zheng’s corpse was exposed in the marketplace and prevented from being buried by the ruler of the state of Han. Learning what had happened, Nie Zheng’s sister traveled to Han. To help her brother fulfill his wish of becoming famous, she identified his corpse. Crying loudly to the Heavens three times, she fell dead beside her brother.
荆轲, Jing Ke was a famous assassin during the Warring States Period. Originally from the state of Wei, he eventually became a retainer to Prince Dan of Yan after Wei was conquered by Qin. He was later dispatched to kill Ying Zheng, King of Qin, but failed and was killed himself.
丈, zhang – a measure of length, measuring about 3.3 meters
诗经, shijing – known as the Classic of Poetry or the Book of Songs or the Book of Odes, it is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry dating to the 11th to 7th Century BC; it is included as one of the Five Classics (五经) that was said to have been compiled by Confucius.