Volume 2, Chapter 25: Caught in a Dilemma

The Prince was bewildered by his affection for Lady Xiao and almost placed the blame on Cui Yang before he was stopped by a warning from Lu Jingzhong. From this point on, discord was sown between Lu Jingzhong and Lady Xiao.…

—Yong Dynastic Records, Biography of the Prince of Li

Setting down the book, I asked, “Were Jing Chi and Zhangsun Ji diligent?”

“Do not worry, young master,” eased Xiaoshunzi, nodding his head. “Both generals are individuals who scrupulously abide by commands. Moreover, their martial arts are outstanding. Huo Jicheng is a famous expert from the Kingdom of Shu, but he almost lost his life when he was surrounded by them. Chiji used smoke pellets to save Huo Jicheng, and was almost captured himself. If they had not received orders beforehand prohibiting them from leaving behind any trace, it is likely that Huo Jicheng would never have been able to escape.”

“How can the Prince of Yong’s trusted lieutenants be ordinary?” I replied placidly. “Last time, you stated that you trained the Great Soul Searching Palm to about fifty percent mastery. No one would be able to see through it, right?”

“Do not worry, young master,” mollified Xiaoshunzi with a smile. “Back in Southern Chu, I once had the opportunity to spar with someone from the Li Family. Although the Great Soul Searching Palm is formidable, I believe that I have been able to imitate it properly. Moreover, Huo Jicheng is only an excommunicated disciple from the Li Family. It wouldn’t be strange if his Great Soul Searching Palm wasn’t exact and pure. The only thing I don’t understand is why young master would go to such trouble and get involved when Cui Yang already intended to ambush and kill Huo Jicheng.”

“If the Crown Prince was allowed to ambush and kill Huo Jicheng,” I explained, shaking my head, “Then Huo Jicheng probably wouldn’t have been able to escape. You were able to see their ambush. If we didn’t strike, how would Huo Jicheng escape? If the Crown Prince succeeded in killing Huo Jicheng, then there wouldn’t be much use for us to expose this matter. Moreover, if we had directly saved Huo Jicheng with the forces from the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets, then not only would Han Wuji and company be exposed, Huo Jicheng would also become suspicious. Therefore, I could only arrange matters so. At present, Huo Jicheng has escaped. According to his personality, if he were to suffer losses, then he would willingly continue to suffer if he could exact revenge. Only by following my plan can we increase the stakes. I had you kill Cui Yang in order to eliminate one of the Crown Prince’s assistants. Originally, if this matter were exposed, the Crown Prince’s scapegoat would have been the current Minister of Revenue, allowing Cui Yang to be promoted. Now that Huo Jicheng killed Cui Yang, I want to see whether the Crown Prince is willing to abandon Cui Yang or the Minister of Revenue. As long as we can see how the Crown Prince handles this matter, we will know who he relies upon the most.”

“Then what is our next step?” inquired Xiaoshunzi.

My eyes flickering, I answered, “We must draw away the Crown Prince’s attention. How about this? I will pay a formal visit to General Qin Yi. Earlier, Qin Qing was implicated because I was attacked by an assassin. I must go and formally apologize.”

Xiaoshunzi replied with dissatisfaction, “Qin Qing is still suspicious. Failing to come and explain matters is intolerable.”

“They could only do that, otherwise this matter will only become increasingly serious,” I stated, shaking my head. “Should His Imperial Highness believe them if they came? Didn’t you notice that the others did not come to explain themselves? It is useless to try to explain this kind of situation. Right now, even though we already know who the assassin was, aren’t we still restraining ourselves? Moreover, this matter is of great harm to Qin Qing. He is innocent and yet due to the several factions adding fuel to the fire,1 the majority of those who know that I was not wounded by a Southern Chu assassin think that Qin Qing was indignant at being forced to apologize to him and tried to have me killed.”

“Should this be reported to His Imperial Highness?” asked Xiaoshunzi, hesitating.

I smiled and returned, “Do you think that such a lowly major such as myself has the qualifications to meet the Grand General? Oh, that’s right, how is Pei Yun’s situation?”

“Do not worry, young master,” replied Xiaoshunzi. “General Pei has not only recovered from his injuries, his internal energy has greatly improved. Due to fighting with his life on the line, he has already advanced in power and has hopes of breaking the ‘Seventh Layer.’ The Shaolin Temple is also extremely pleased as General Pei took a concubine a few days ago. The woman is from a scholarly family, and is tender and refined. Moreover, her family has an intimate relationship with the Shaolin Temple. Although this hasn’t been made public yet, the union has already been acknowledged by General Pei’s parents. Once the woman becomes pregnant, the Pei family will ask the Xue family to cancel the engagement.”

I mocked, “It seems that General Pei’s parents are unable to wait.”

Xiaoshunzi could not help but laugh. “The Secret Camp has delivered intelligence stating that General Pei’s parents also believe that the general’s fiancée is too active and cannot perform the traditional duties of a wife. Moreover, the Pei family only has this one descendant, and they hate that General Pei can’t take more wives and concubines and impregnate more women. Originally, they intended for General Pei to immediately take several concubines after he got married. Therefore, they agreed when General Pei raised the issue of taking a concubine. It is only because they are considering their in-laws’ face that this matter is temporarily being concealed. Once the concubine has a child, they will be able to properly and legitimately bring her into the Pei family residence. When the time comes, Miss Xue will be unable to do anything no matter how unwilling she is.”

I also could not help but laugh, saying, “So it was actually General Pei who was being too old-fashioned. Now he is able to have the best of both worlds.2 Oh, that’s right, he was once a subordinate of the Prince of Qi. Did the Prince of Qi make things difficult for him after he saved my life this time?”

“Not only did the Prince of Qi not make things difficult for General Pei,” reported Xiaoshunzi calmly, “The Prince also supported the suggestion of His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, to promote General Pei. Before, the Crown Prince had made some moves, trying to seize the opportunity to push one of his people into the Northern Barracks of the Imperial Guard. However, the Emperor was extremely dissatisfied, personally praising General Pei, forcing the Crown Prince to give up.”

I nodded my head and stated, “All right, His Imperial Highness has already retired. Tomorrow morning, I’ll personally go see if His Imperial Highness has any plans. We must go to the Qin residence tomorrow, otherwise it will be overdue.”

***

At dawn on the second day, news of Li Zhi’s visit to Grand General Qin’s residence very quickly spread throughout the capital.

The Prince of Yong and I arrived at Grand General Qin’s residence close to nine o’clock in the morning. The Qin residence occupied a space that was ten mu,3 already quite large when compared to other ministers. However, it was only the layout that was expansive. The exterior was actually quite plain and down-to-earth. Even the series of steps leading to and the stone lions lining the entrance were ordinary. It almost seemed that this residence was the home of an ordinary official. As His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, descended from his carriage at the entrance, Qin Yi, who had received a message announcing the Prince of Yong’s visit, waited with his entire household at the entrance to welcome the prince. Although Grand General Qin’s status was high, the Prince of Yong was, after all, an imperial prince. The required etiquette could not be lacking. I followed behind the Prince of Yong, stealing a glance, seeing that aside from Qin Qing standing behind Qin Yi, there was also another tall and well-built youth and several teenagers. The youth was dressed in the uniform of a military officer. His appearance was quite similar to Qin Qing’s, and seemed to be a bit more straightforward. Aside from these individuals, the two sides of the entrance were lined with retainers and servants, all of them with solemn bearings. It seemed that they were all warriors who had survived many bloody battles.

Qin Yi quickly advanced and kneeled on the ground. “This subject, Qin Yi, salutes Your Imperial Highness.”

At this moment, Qin Qing and the other youngsters also advanced forward and kneeled on the ground. The youth similar in appearance to Qin Qing held an official position. When I heard him call himself Qin Yong, I immediately remembered his identity. He was a distant nephew of Qin Yi. His father was Qin Yi’s distant cousin and had the misfortune of dying on the battlefield. Qin Yi had brought his cousin’s entire family to his own household. When this youth’s paternal grandparents had passed away, it was Qin Yi who buried them. At present, Qin Yong was a Deputy General under Qin Yi. Reportedly, although this man’s appearance seemed to be sincere and guileless, he was actually a veritable storehouse of knowledge. His tactics and strategic mind were both top notch. This man was loyal only to Qin Yi and was extremely filial to his mother. Aside from a few years spent on the border, he spent most of his time following Qin Yi and was Qin Yi’s closest assistant. Qin Yi doted on him more than his own son, Qin Qing.

Grasping Qin Yi’s arm, Li Zhi walked alongside the grand general into the residence. Glancing at Qin Qing, I smiled and said, “Last time, when General Qin came to the Prince of Yong’s residence, I invited General to tea. Today, I have come with His Imperial Highness to pay a visit. By rights, it should be General who receives me.”

Qin Qing looked at me with an odd expression on his face, only walking over after he heard me speak. He said, “Major Jiang, please.”

After we had taken a few steps, he asked in a low voice, “Doesn’t Major Jiang suspect me of being the assassin?”

Whispering, I answered, “General Qin is falsely accusing me. Before, I was in a coma for almost two months. Afterwards, I was recuperating from the injury I sustained. How would I have the energy to suspect anyone? Moreover, General is straightforward and upright. Even if you wished to kill me, you would do so overtly. This kind of covert assassination was not of General’s doing.”

A look of gratitude flashed in Qin Qing’s eyes, as his complexion was no longer icy. Quietly, he replied, “Alas, this matter brought me grievous suffering. Dad locked me up for more than a month, almost using torture to force a confession. If it weren’t for third brother pleading for leniency, I’m afraid that I wouldn’t even be able to climb out of bed.”

I raised my eyebrows to signal my puzzlement. Qin Qing pointed at Qin Yong, standing not far behind Qin Yi. “That is my third brother. He is a distant patrilineal cousin of mine. Fortunately, Dad listens to his advice, otherwise, I would be in a miserable state.”

“So that’s why,” I said before asking, “However, at present, does General still believe in those rumors?”

Qin Qing promptly signaled for me to keep my voice low. Softly, he stated, “Don’t speak of this any further. I was just whipped by Dad for bringing up this matter with him. Dad questioned my understanding of Princess Changle. Even if Her Imperial Highness had intimate relations with someone else …”

Speaking to this point, Qin Qing suddenly stopped, looking awkward. I knew that he had revealed something that should never be spoken aloud, and so I changed the subject. “Oh, that’s right.… I’ve heard that the Empress intends to betroth the Princess of Jingjiang to you. You are truly blessed. I have seen the Princess and she is an outstanding beauty and is a worthy bride for General.”

An odd look appeared on Qin Qing’s face, somehow both adoring and regretful. It was some time before he replied, “The Princess is certainly a celestial being. How can this lowly one be compatible?”

My heart sank. Qin Qing was indeed infatuated with Li Hanyou’s loveliness. This wasn’t surprising. He was a descendant of an influential family. Unlike Pei Yun who desired a hardworking and thrifty wife to run his household, he desired a beautiful wife. Li Hanyou not only was a great beauty and had an unusual temperament, but was also a disciple of the Fengyi Sect and inevitably had talent and wisdom that surpassed others. She was precisely the type of wife that Qin Qing yearned for in his dreams. Presumably it was Qin Yi who prohibited this marriage from going through. No wonder he had such a peculiar expression. But if this were to happen and the Fengyi Sect was able to involve Qin Qing, then the Qin family’s neutrality could not be guaranteed. As I thought of these consequences, I glanced in the direction of Qin Yi and Qing Yong. It would be sufficient as long as they were made to understand the potential damage that this marriage could do. I refused to believe that in a matter of life and death, Qin Qing would still be reluctant to part with a woman. It was all just puppy love. So long as they had no opportunity to become intimate, Qin Qing would quickly forget Li Hanyou. Unfortunately, Princess Changle was unwilling to marry Qin Qing, otherwise … Thinking of this, I suddenly felt somewhat gloomy, perhaps because my wound had not yet fully healed.

***

When the Prince of Yong had stepped through the entrance of the Qin residence, the crown prince had already received news of Cui Yang’s death long ago. However, Cui Yang and company’s bodies weren’t discovered by the crown prince’s people, but rather by the Imperial Capital Magistrate. The Vice Minister of Revenue and the crown prince’s brother-in-law dying in a poor district where good people and wretches intermixed,4 was already enough to cause the crown prince a big headache. The crown prince believed that Huo Jicheng had discovered trouble and spared no effort in retaliating, killing Cui Yang. The shock of the strength available to Huo Jicheng and trying to figure out how to handle the aftermath was already enough to cause the crown prince a big headache. The last batch of smuggled goods had not yet been received. The losses suffered from this were already severe. Now that Huo Jicheng had managed to escape, if he were to run amok … Thinking of this, Li An could not but feel frightened and could not help regretting his decision to exterminate the Embroidered Union. Alas.… He shot a glare at Lu Jingzhong. If it weren’t for Lu Jinghzong’s advice, then it was possible that the current problems would not exist.

Lu Jingzhong was aware of the crown prince’s habit of taking out his anger on another person and didn’t take it seriously. Lu Jingzhong opened his mouth and stated, “Your Imperial Highness, although the situation has changed, there is no need to worry. Although we have lost the last batch of goods, it is, generally speaking, unimportant. Moreover, we may not actually suffer any losses. What can the Embroidered Union do by withholding this last batch of goods? Aside from Your Imperial Highness, if there were anyone else who could receive such an enormous shipment, would Your Imperial Highness not know of it? When the time comes, this subject has ways to retrieve the greater part of our losses. Currently, the most crucial point is who Your Imperial Highness wishes to preserve between Cui Yang and Minister of Revenue Liang Jinqian.”

Li An scowled, replying, “Of course, it’s Cui.…” Li An stopped, calming down. Originally, he had intended to use Liang Jinqian as a scapegoat if something were to happen, allowing Cui Yang to be promoted to become Minister of Revenue. But now with Cui Yang’s death, if he were to still do this, then wouldn’t he have no one in the Ministry of Revenue? The Minister of Revenue wasn’t a position that just anyone could hold. Experience, rank, and ability all must meet certain qualifications. Moreover, the Ministry of Revenue was within the scope of his influence. If he did not use a close confidant, then his control over the ministry would be greatly restrained. However, Liang Jinqian was secretly keeping his own records and was already showing his disloyalty. He was unwilling to let Liang Jinqian off so easily. Most importantly, Cui Yang had an intimate relationship with him. If something were to happen to Cui Yang, others would surely turn their gaze towards him. Wouldn’t this invite disaster?

Just as Li An was hesitating, Xia Jinyi entered and reported, “Your Imperial Highness, Concubine Lan requests a meeting.”

Li An was already quite trusting of Xia Jinyi, especially when he received news that Vice Supervisor Xing Song had died the previous night. Last night after word was received, Xia Jinyi was dispatched to the Peaceful Neighborhood, destroying the features of all of the suicide squad members, destroying all of the evidence linking the incident to the crown prince, and eliminating or bribing any and all witnesses. Xia Jinyi’s methods were extremely thorough and formidable. Although the Imperial Capital Magistrate knew that the crown prince was involved in this incident, all of the evidence had been destroyed. The magistrate was not a fool and could only pretend to be deaf and mute. Because of this, Li An decided to employ Xia Jinyi in an important position. Although this man did not have superb martial arts or any moral integrity, he was adept at flattery and extremely capable. In Li An’s mind, Xia Jinyi was the best candidate to replace Xing Song, otherwise he would not have the qualifications to come in and interrupt.

When he heard that Concubine Lan, Xiao Lan, was waiting, the crown prince promptly ordered, “Allow her to enter. Earlier, when We were looking for her, where did she go?”

After a short moment, Xiao Lan entered the chambers. She was twenty-six years old, her appearance gorgeous and her conduct outstanding. She had been the crown prince’s second wife for years. Her position and environment caused her already exquisite and elegant temperament to be enhanced with grace and nobility. After she entered the chambers, she performed the proper courtesies towards Li An and greeted Lu Jingzhong. Lu Jingzhong had already risen to his feet long ago. When Xiao Lan took a seat, he stepped forward to pay his respects.

Li An impatiently stated, “You see each other every day, there is no need to go to such lengths.” After he explained the situation, he asked, “Lan’er, the situation has already developed thus far. Presumably, you already know what has happened. What do you think We should do?”

Xiao Lan smiled slightly as she responded, “Your Imperial Highness, if your servant were to speak, you cannot blame me.”

Li An replied, “Your words always consider us. Even if it is inappropriate, We will not blame you.”

Xiao Lan impartially advised, “Although Cui daren is the Crown Princess’s younger brother, he is already dead. Even if he was once Your Imperial Highness’s right-hand minister, he is no more than a sacrificial pawn at this moment. Although Your Imperial Highness does not like Minister Liang, you cannot cut off your own supporters. The only thing that can be done at present is to use Cui daren as a scapegoat and first steady Minister Liang. I, your servant, will ask the fellow disciples of my sect to control Minister Liang. Once this matter has quieted down and after Your Imperial Highness has a trustworthy candidate, it won’t be too late to settle matters with Minister Liang. Although this will wrong the Crown Princess, as long as she has Your Imperial Highness’s protection, who would dare to make things difficult for her?”

Hearing this, Li An repeatedly nodded his head, saying, “You speak very reasonably. But if this matter implicates Cui Yang, then we will not be able to escape responsibility.”

“That is why Your Imperial Highness must be ruthless and heartless,” replied Xiao Lan, disdain flashing in her eyes. “Take advantage of the fact that this matter has not yet come to light; you can say that you found Cui daren’s death suspicious and thus investigated the Ministry of Revenue’s accounts, discovering that Cui daren had used some underhanded methods. In this way, you place righteousness before your own family.5 Who would be capable of implicating you then?”

Hearing this, Li An smiled with delight. Just as he was about to agree, he saw that Lu Jingzhong was uneasy. Li An immediately wondered if Lu Jingzhong had other thoughts and thus asked, “Junior Mentor, what do you think of Concubine Lan’s suggestion?”

Lu Jingzhong glanced at Xiao Lan. In his mind, he thought, This woman’s mind is truly vicious. She can even think up this kind of killing two birds with one stone strategy. However, it was inconvenient for him to express these thoughts aloud. He thus casually remarked, “Although Cui Yang can’t be considered much, the Crown Princess is Your Imperial Highness’s primary wife and is Cui Yang’s elder sister. The heir is Cui daren’s nephew. If Your Imperial Highness were to place righteousness before family …”

Although Lu Jingzhong did not continue, Li An completely understood the meaning behind his words. If Li An wished to place righteousness before family, then Lady Cui would definitely be involved. If that were to happen, then there were those who would add fuel to the fire and the crown princess’s position would go to another. Imperial Father would definitely become dissatisfied, believing that he did not care for the emotions between husband and wife. Thinking of this, Li An became cold, counting himself fortunate to receive Lu Jingzhong’s reminder.

Xiao Lan was extremely intelligent. Seeing that something was amiss in Li An’s expression, she said, “I did say that Your Imperial Highness cannot blame this servant.”

The crown prince forced a smile on his face and replied, “We will not blame you. However, your method won’t work.”

Xiao Lan smiled. “What’s difficult about this? Although I don’t have any other ideas, my junior apprentice sister, Princess Li Hanyou of Jingjiang, will come to see me in a little while. She is also Your Imperial Highness’s younger patrilineal cousin. I have long heard that my junior apprentice sister is extremely intelligent. There is no harm for Your Imperial Highness to ask her. She is my junior apprentice sister, don’t tell me that she will side with outsiders?”

At this moment, Xia Jinyi knocked on the door and entered, reporting, “Your Imperial Highness, the Crown Princess dispatched a maid to come report that the Princess of Jingjiang has already arrived and is currently in the Crown Princess’s chambers.”

Li An was overjoyed, instructing, “Quick, send someone to invite her here. Say that we have an urgent matter that requires her assistance.”

Footnotes:

推波助澜, tuibozhulan – idiom, lit. to push the wave and add to the billows; to add momentum, to encourage something to get bigger, to add fuel to the fire
两全其美, liangquanqimei – idiom, lit. to satisfy rival demands; to get the best of both worlds, to have it both ways, to have one’s cake and eat it too
Roughly 2/3 of a hectare.
龙蛇混杂, longshehunza – idiom, lit. dragons and snakes mingle; fig. a mix of good people and wretches
大义灭亲, dayimieqin – idiom, lit. to place righteousness before family; ready to punish one’s own family if justice demands it

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