On the twelfth day of the fifth month of the twenty-fourth year of Wuwei, the Crown Princess’s younger brother, Vice Minister of Revenue Cui Yang died violently in the Peaceful Neighborhood. Matters happened thusly.…
—Yong Dynastic Records, Biography of the Prince of Li1
Before I had even entered the hall, I could hear a booming, thunderous voice delightedly say, “Zhangsun, you’re not aware, but I, your elder, was really lucky this time! That jar of shao daozi is sixty years old! Who would have thought that such a rustic shop would have such a good vintage? Therefore, I, your elder, have been reluctant to drink it, intentionally transporting it back. How about it? If you treat me to a meal, I’ll treat you to some drinks.”
Following, a steady voice could be heard. “Old Jing, don’t make such a big fuss. When His Imperial Highness arrives shortly, I’m afraid that you’ll be blamed for not abiding by the rules again.”
The thundering voice impatiently replied, “I, your elder, got it! His Imperial Highness won’t blame me! This time, I, your elder, brought back some good things back!”
I could hear the steady voice laugh and ask, “You have something good? It can’t be just that jar of wine, right?”
The thunderous voice gleefully responded, “You, joker, absolutely won’t be able to guess what I brought back! His Highness will definitely like the things I brought back!”
Li Zhi smiled slightly. With a soft cough, he stepped forward and entered the hall. I followed him inside. Entering the hall, there were two men in martial attire standing solemnly at attention off to the side. Li Zhi walked to the master’s seat and sat down. The two men stepped forward to pay their respects, both their bearings exuding esteem and respect. From this, I could tell that they were both Li Zhi’s trusted generals.
I carefully sized the two of them up. One of them had long eyebrows and phoenix eyes, his face alabaster and whiskerless. His appearance was handsome and yet also delicate and pretty. His height was close to eight chi.2 He had muscular, long, and dexterous arms like an ape, and a narrow waist, making his build seem not as massive. The other man’s stature was also eight chi in height. He had a face like that of a leopard with big round eyes. His appearance was coarse and rough, his figure tall and rugged. It seemed like he was a small mountain. After the two had respectfully saluted and paid their respects, Li Zhi proclaimed, “This Major Jiang is this Prince’s right-hand man. Greet him properly. Afterwards, treat him as you treat this Prince. Be sure to not lack in manners.”
The two turned towards me and paid their respects. I bowed in return, smiling as I said, “Your Imperial Highness is too serious. Jiang Zhe and the two generals are both Your Imperial Highness’s subordinates. I dare not accept the two’s courtesy.”
After we had greeted one another, I walked over and took a seat below the Prince of Yong. The two men remained standing, solemnly at attention, waiting for the Prince of Yong’s command.
Li Zhi smiled and stated, “Sit down. This isn’t the army camp. There is no need for such courtesy. Zhangsun, did the journey pass without mishap?”
The long-eyebrowed, phoenix-eyed general stood from his seat and recounted, “Reporting to Your Imperial Highness, the whole journey went off without a hitch. It was only that there were too many vehicles and horses, thus we traveled a bit slowly. This is the catalog from the Southern Chu envoy.” So speaking, he handed over a booklet.
Li Zhi skimmed it briefly before handing it to me, saying, “How are these works? This Prince does not have any expertise. Take a look.”
I casually opened the booklet and neutrally replied, “There aren’t many genuine quality works. However, this isn’t bad. This subject was not purposely mindful of these works. But, as for those books, although Southern Chu would inevitably have retained some critical classics, I don’t believe we’re going to be missing too much. At worst, we probably received eighty to ninety percent. Some other day, I’ll ask Your Imperial Highness to deliver the catalog to the Cold Courtyard, so that I can take a close look and see if there are any precious works.”
“I have already submitted a memorial to Imperial Father, requesting that these books be organized,” replied Li Zhi, nodding. “Imperial Father has already issued a decree to Hanlin Academy to have them take care of this, assigning the matter to Grand Mentor Zhu Ping. Zhu Ping is rigorous and erudite, and will certainly handle these books properly. This will be a major contribution to later generations; it is unlikely that he will slack off.”
“I also trust Grand Mentor Zhu,” I smiled. “However, some of the books I’ve only scanned through. I would like to ask Your Imperial Highness to permit me to borrow a few books.”
Li Zhi smiled slightly and consented, “You can decide on your own. As for you, Jing Chi. Just a moment ago, this Prince could hear you making a fuss even from outside. What did you bring back for this Prince?”
Jing Chi promptly rose to his feet and reported, “Your Imperial Highness, I’m sure that Your Imperial Highness will like the item that this subject brought back.” Finished speaking, he took out a atlas from within his bosom and handed it over.
Li Zhi opened the atlas and took a look. Suddenly, he trembled, quickly flipping through it without stopping. Only when he finished reading did he exclaim in admiration, “What a complete geographic map of the Middle Kingdom! Jing Chi, where did you acquire this book? Who drew all these maps?”
Growing curious, I reached out beckoningly. Li Zhi passed the atlas over to me. I opened it and took a look. Inside were exquisitely drawn maps, all of them of strategic locations and important mountain passes. All of it was drawn extremely meticulously. I had once had the opportunity to see Southern Chu’s military maps, but this kind of book filled with detailed maps was extremely rare.
At this moment, Jing Chi proudly stated, “This general was ordered to guard against the Chu army in the Jingxiang region. I have patrolled every single checkpoint. A few days ago, we captured a young scholar. When we searched his body, we found this atlas. Originally, I intended to have him executed as a spy. However, after Adjutant Xuan interrogated the scholar, he said that the scholar wasn’t a spy, but rather a descendant of Xu Heng, Xu Jun, and was a rare talent. Therefore, he was forced to stay in the army. However, this man is truly courageous. While he kept his life with difficulty, he surprisingly refused to become an official, insisting on leaving. He only started behaving himself after I, your elder, got angry, claiming that if he still continued to act in this manner, I would consider him a spy and have him killed. I initially intended to bring him back with us this time. However, Adjutant Xuan told me to first ask Your Imperial Highness for instructions.” Removing a letter from his bosom, he handed it over. “This is Adjutant Xuan’s letter.”
After opening and reading the letter, Li Zhi glanced at me and asked, “What does Suiyun think?”
I smiled and answered, “That man is really a genius. However, the world is currently in chaos. If he is allowed to remain among the common folk, he will inevitably run into misfortune. Your Imperial Highness, how about sending him to Sir Ziyou? In any case, there aren’t any maps of Youzhou in this atlas. It won’t be bad if he becomes engrossed in mapping.”
Li Zhi smiled and replied, “Good, this Prince will write a letter to Changqing. Adjutant Xuan is named Xuan Song, styled Changqing.3 Although he is reticent, he is a master of military affairs. His character prizes righteousness and benevolence over wealth. Do you remember the Mad Scholar of Shu, Yang Can?”
After thinking for a moment, I responded, “This subject knows of the person. He once served as an envoy for the Kingdom of Shu and came to Your Imperial Highness’s encampments.”
Li Zhi did not ask how I knew this and only said, “That man is actually an unyielding person. After Shu was destroyed, he unexpectedly cast himself into the river to commit suicide. His testament spoke of Tian Heng’s eight hundred followers who committed suicide to follow him in death, and how the Kingdom of Shu needed those who would die alongside its monarch. After his death, his wife and child nearly died from cold and hunger. In the face of these daunting circumstances, they followed the instructions left in the testament and wrote a letter to Xuan Song. Xuan Song only once had a short conversation with Yang Can, stating that he was willing to help Yang Can if he ever was in need of assistance. Ultimately, Changqing did in fact dispatch someone to deliver all of his savings to Yang Can’s family. After this Prince heard this, I respected him greatly. At that time, he had only just entered into this Prince’s service. Seeing that he was someone who kept his promises, this Prince made him an adjutant. Jing Chi is impulsive and reckless, and so I dispatched Xuan Song to be his adjutant. It seems that this Xuan Song is really deserving of being placed in an important position. Unfortunately, he is needed to supervise military affairs and cannot be transferred back to Chang’an.”
I smiled and remarked, “Military affairs are truly critical. Moreover, now that General Jing has been transferred back to Chang’an to protect Your Imperial Highness, if there is no individual entrusted with handling military affairs, then Your Imperial Highness will surely be uneasy. As for that Xu Jun, since he is Xu Heng’s descendant, then he should be adept at surveying. Your Imperial Highness should use him well.”
At this moment, Jing Chi blushed with embarrassment and asked, “Then, who is Xu Heng? For what reason whenever Adjutant Xuan spoke of that man’s name, it seemed like this general should know who he is?”
I smiled slightly, immediately understanding that this general’s character was like his appearance, gruff and unrefined. I gently explained, “Xu Heng was a famous master of geography from the previous dynasty. All of his life, he was fond of touring the world and wrote several travel accounts. Scholars are fond of reading his travel accounts. Without leaving their home, they would be able to learn the local conditions and customs of every place in the world.4 Even generals should take a look. The more you know, the more benefits to an army marching and fighting.”
Jing Chi immediately looked embarrassed and awkward, stating, “Although this general knows a few characters, there is no way that I can understand those scholarly books. Moreover, I have many responsibilities. When will I be able to find the time to study?”
Li Zhi suddenly became solemn, as he said, “Jing Chi, you’re always this way, not seeking to better yourself. Although you are courageous in battle, you will only stay a general. If you wish to take charge of and responsibility for a section, you must study. Since you have come to Chang’an, this Prince will temporarily not assign any responsibilities to you. You should take this opportunity to obediently read and study some books. This is a military command.”
The complaining Jing Chi immediately stopped talking, remorseful. I could not help but smile and intervene, “Your Imperial Highness, these few days, I have some things with which I will likely have to bother the two generals. How about handing this matter to me? This subject will guarantee that this will be resolved to Your Imperial Highness’s satisfaction.”
“This is actually good,” replied Li Zhi. “Jing Chi, why aren’t you coming forward to kneel before you teacher?”
Seeing the Prince of Yong’s imposing demeanor, Jing Chi had no choice but to advance and perform the proper ceremonies, looking distressed throughout. Li Zhi and I exchanged glances and smiled. This Jing Chi had a stubborn and intractable temperament. It would not be easy to control him. If I were to try to order him around, he would not obediently listen and do as he was told. Now with this method, I could perfectly and legitimately order him about. If he were not obedient, I only needed to punish him by copying a couple of pages from books to force him to bend his head and obey my orders.
I glanced at Zhangsun Ji, seeing his expression was tranquil and calm, although there was a hint of understanding in his gaze. It seemed that he was extremely shrewd. He would surely be a good assistant. My plan should be able to be implemented without a hitch. I revealed a look of sincere joy.
On the twelfth day of the fifth month, outside of Chang’an’s Illustrious Virtue Gate,5 with night approaching, the city gates were about to be closed. A middle-aged man dressed in the garb of a merchant entered through the gate. Although it was already early summer, this man still wore a bamboo hat. His features could not be seen clearly under the concealing shadows of the bamboo hat. The soldiers on guard duty glanced at this man suspiciously, but did not stop him. This wasn’t a critical moment and there was no need to strictly search and interrogate him. This man seemed to be familiar with Chang’an’s streets and alleys, turning left and right. After slightly less than an hour, he arrived at the southwest corner of Chang’an, the Peaceful Neighborhood, where the lowest and poorest commoners lived. What was different about this neighborhood from others was that when night fell, aside from idling ruffians, there was no one else on the streets. On both sides of the alley were the homes of poor commoners. From time to time, one could hear the sounds of laughter and some other noises. Those areas were the locations of underground casinos and residences of unregistered prostitutes. This place, when enveloped by darkness, had its own deformed prosperity.
This man passed through the dark alley. The dim lamplight on both sides caused his silhouette to stretch greatly in length. The long abandoned compound ahead was his destination. He lightly pushed open the door to the courtyard and walked in. The interior of the central building was brightly lit. Just as this man stepped onto the stairs, two men appeared from the shadowy nooks beside the building. One of the men used a lantern to take a close look at this visitor’s appearance after he had removed the bamboo hat. The two men quietly withdrew.
Entering the building, this man immediately caught sight of Cui Yang seated under the dim lamplight. The man stepped forward in greeting, stating, “Cui daren, have you been well since we last met?”
Cui Yang returned his politeness and replied, “I am fine. Union Head Huo is now famous throughout the lands, truly deserving of congratulations!”
The man smiled arrogantly and stated casually, “This is our final transaction. I hope that we can properly finish off what we started. This is the location where you can pick up the goods.” So speaking, he took out a wax pellet.
Cui Yang smiled slightly, handing over a box. “Inside is the balance of money that you are owed. After today, we will no longer have any ties. However, His Imperial Highness has said if Union Head Huo is willing, we can keep in touch.”
Huo Jicheng opened the wooden box. Seeing the golden beads inside, he smiled. “The Crown Prince is quite sensible. It is gold that is comparatively secure. Otherwise, if your side paid using banknotes, wouldn’t I be toiling for no recompense? Cui daren, every half month, I will send someone to meet with daren. If there are any matters, it is sufficient to inform the courtier.”
Finished speaking, Huo Jicheng turned and departed. Cui Yang smiled cruelly. In his head, he thought, His Imperial Highness has already set out to eradicate the Embroidered Union. It is unlikely that you survive the night.
It wasn’t long before a man dressed in black entered and reported, “Daren, just as we were about to make our move, we discovered that there were people arriving to rescue Huo Jicheng and could only stay our hands for the time being.”
Cui Yang frowned. “Who was it? Did you see who it was?”
The man in black shook his head. “We do not know who it was. They were all dressed in the garb of poor commoners. Before Huo Jicheng even came out, they had seized control of several strategic locations. As we could only arrange the trap after Huo Jicheng had entered, we did not expect that he would bring several subordinates with him. He definitely entered the city by himself.”
Cui Yang sighed. “Let it be.… Let’s first go back and report to the crown prince. We’ll take care of him another time. In any case, as we did not act, there is still the opportunity to lead him into a trap.”
Just at this moment, a short, miserable cry could be heard outside. The black-clothed man shivered. In a low voice, he said, “We’ve been ambushed! Daren, be careful!”
Finished speaking, he turned and was about to exit the building when the door suddenly silently opened, and a black-clothed and masked man entered. His height was average and his eyes were as cold as ice.
The man in black stepped before Cui Yang, guarding him, and callously questioned, “Who are you to have the impertinence to ambush us? Do you know of our identities?”
The intruder glanced at the black-clothed man. He suddenly shot out, attacking the man in black who retaliated. In this small and narrow room, the two exchanged several blows. The man in black found that he was helpless, while his opponent was free and unconstrained. After only a few attacks, the man in black was struck in the chest by his opponent. The man in black cried out in a miserable voice, “Great Soul Searching Palm!” Before the sound had dissipated, the man in black had already collapsed to the floor. The man in black’s martial arts weren’t completely bad. It was only that he could not fully display his martial arts in such a small and narrow room. In comparison, his opponent, if he were to act in such narrow surroundings, not even the three grandmasters of the era would be able to stop him. The intruder quietly walked over and tore away the black cloth covering the man in black’s face. After memorizing the man in black’s appearance, the intruder glanced at Cui Yang.
Cui Yang let out a miserable shriek and shrank into the corner. Trembling violently, he said, “Hero, please spare my life! This lowly official will surely be very grateful. This lowly official is the younger brother-in-law of the Crown Prince. If hero has any demands …”
Before Cui Yang had finished speaking, the intruder had already flicked his sleeve, turning and departing. Just as he was celebrating a narrow escape,6 Cui Yang suddenly felt an acute pain in his chest and he felt darkness closing in around him. What is happening? thought Cui Yang through the haze.
When the intruder walked out of the room, several men in the attire of poor commoners stood silently at attention outside waiting for him. On the floor were some twenty to thirty men dressed in black. The intruder did not make a single sound, only gesturing with his hand, everyone’s figures disappearing into the darkness.
Huo Jicheng walked on the streets, filled with happiness. He was thinking about spending a night at the most famous brothel in Chang’an. Just as he was letting his imagination run wild, he scurried along with his head down. After all, he was in someone else’s territory. Suddenly, Huo Jicheng halted. He could see gray-clothed, masked man standing in front of him with his hands behinds his back. The masked man’s tall and slender physique emanated a thick bloodlust. In addition, Huo Jicheng could also sense faint killing auras in the dark alleyways on both sides. Huo Jicheng did not turn around, but he could sense that there was someone standing behind him as well.
Not even bothering to think, Huo Jicheng leapt high up into the sky, throwing himself on the roof of a dark house. Just as he was rising, the faint twang of a bowstring sounded. Huo Jicheng ducked as he felt an arrow fly past his scalp. Already lying on the roof of the house, Huo Jicheng rolled to the side to escape. Sounds could be heard nearby. Several men in black had already given chase to flank their target. Huo Jicheng felt the powerful gale of a palm strike rushing towards his back. Turning his body, Huo Jicheng retaliated with his own fist. Although his attacker got the worst of it and let out a low groan, Huo Jicheng had no choice but to slow down, as the swords and sabers of the several other men in black were nearing him. Neither side made any sound, beginning to fight desperately in the darkness.
Huo Jicheng could sense that all of these men had fairly good martial arts, especially the one who had exchanged blows with him. His martial arts were outstanding. From the corner of his eyes, Huo Jicheng could see an azure clothed man standing in the middle of the street. Although Huo Jicheng could not make out this man’s features, he could see that the man held a bow in his hands. From the man’s slender figure and distinguished bearing, he could tell immediately that he was the leader of these men. It was likely that he disdained attacking from all sides, and therefore he did not make a move. Huo Jicheng secretly rejoiced, examining his surroundings, hoping to find a means of escape. However, these men had cut off all avenues of escape. As he fought, Huo Jicheng tried to think of a strategy.
Just at the moment that Huo Jicheng was imminent danger, a short and small figure suddenly dashed out from the darkness. This figure tossed two fiery red pellets. The pellets exploded with a thunderclap, causing red smoke to billow. Seeing that the opportunity had arrived, Huo Jicheng immediately charged in the direction that he had identified as the best escape route. At this time, there was already the sound of commoners sounding, awoken by the din. Seeing that the situation was not too encouraging, the masked men took advantage of the red smoke to quietly retreat.
In a panic, Huo Jicheng fled without bothering to choose a path. After he had run for some time, a figure suddenly appeared before him, waving his hand. Huo Jicheng immediately identified this man, joy filling him. Huo Jicheng hurriedly followed this man. This man’s qinggong was outstanding, with him leading Huo Jicheng through several twists and turns before quickly arriving at the back door to a compound. Pushing open the door, the man turned and beckoned his head. Huo Jicheng promptly followed him inside. This was a safe house. After entering the inner chambers, Huo Jicheng tiredly sat down in a chair and gratefully said, “Brother Han, if you hadn’t come to save me, I’m afraid that I would have already lost my life.”
The man regretfully replied, “Union Head Huo, you were too careless. How could you not think that the Crown Prince would silence you? If I did not provide support outside, the result would only have been disastrous.7 Fortunately, I had subordinates prepare smoke pellets, otherwise I would have been powerless to save you.”
Crestfallen, Huo Jicheng replied, “I did not anticipate that they would so quickly burn the bridge.8 Moreover, I originally believed that I could at the very least escape as the Crown Prince could not brazenly surround and attack me. It had not occurred to me that the martial arts of his subordinates were so excellent. The imperial household truly has as many experts as there are stars in the sky.”
Han Wuji sighed. “Rest properly for two hours and I’ll bring out of the city. There are several points on Chang’an’s city wall that are not tightly guarded. Your qinggong is outstanding; you should be able to escape from there. I’m afraid that tomorrow morning, the soldiers will likely conduct a search of the entire city. If you do not leave tonight, then I’m afraid that you won’t have the opportunity again.”
A cruel and vicious expression appeared on Huo Jicheng’s face, as he ruthlessly responded, “Much thanks to Brother Han. I will definitely not let the Crown Prince off lightly. I am not to be trifled with.”
Around midnight, Huo Jicheng escaped through an old section of the city walls, using a flying claw9 to climb out of Chang’an. At the same time, within the Cold Courtyard of the Prince of Yong’s residence, Xiaoshunzi, changed back into servant attire, reported to me, “Young master, the hunting operation has succeeded.”
戾, li – lit. brutal, violent; Prince of Li likely refers to the posthumous title for Crown Prince Li An
Eight chi is slightly over six feet in height.
常青, changqing – lit. evergreen
风土人情, fengturenqing – idiom, local conditions and customs
明德门, mingde men – lit. Illustrious Virtue Gate; this was the southern gate of the city of Chang’an
死里逃生, silitaosheng – idiom, lit. mortal danger, escape alive; a narrow escape
凶多吉少, xiongduojishao – idiom, lit. everything bodes ill, no positive signs; inauspicious, everything points to disaster
过河拆桥, guohechaiqiao – idiom, lit. to destroy the bridge after crossing the river; fig. to abandon one’s benefactor upon achieving one’s goals, to burn one’s bridges
A grappling hook that can also be used as a weapon.