In the fifth month of the first year of Southern Chu’s Tongtian era, the Yong Emperor betrothed Princess Changle to Wei Ying. Wei Ying was renowned throughout the world for his ability and virtue. But the Princess cut her hair and made a solemn pledge, refusing to acquiesce, causing the Emperor to break into a violent rage. It was some time before his anger dissipated. Secretly, the Emperor said to the Princess, “If child has anyone in mind, regardless of worthiness, regardless of social status, We will betroth you to him.” The Princess remained silent.…
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun
The waning moon was like a hook, floating heavily and peacefully in the night sky. Standing below the imperial dais was Princess Changle dressed in plain, unadorned clothes, silently gazing up at the serene, weak moonlight. These days, her originally rounded features gradually gained a sense of heartbreak. Half of her ink-black hair had been cut, and now only reached her shoulders. Palace maids had already helped her groom her hair. Unfortunately, it was too short and could not be tied up into a bun. It was only held together with a headscarf. Although the night breeze was refreshing, Princess Changle’s clothes were thin and the wind penetrated her to the bone. However, throughout, she refused to return to her chambers. Under this kind of moonlight, she would find it difficult to sleep. After a long while, she raised her white hand. Within was a folding fan. On it was written a quatrain:
The cold water of the pond is fresh in the autumn,
The distant road is exhausted when it arrives at the crossing.
Fortunately, the painting could not be painted,
The completion of the painting is a life’s regret.1
She recited the poem in a low voice. This folding fan had recently been delivered by the Princess of Yong, the poem composed and penned by that person. The Princess of Yong knew that she was fond of Jiang Zhe’s poetry and had gotten the folding fan to present to Changle. Jiang Zhe probably did not pay much mind to a simple folding fan, but to Changle, ever since she received the fan, it had never left her side. This object was the most precious item and she would never willingly part with it.
At this moment, Lü’e walked over, carrying a cloak. In a begging voice, she said, “Your Imperial Highness, this servant cannot bear to watch you suffer so. If His Imperial Majesty and the Noble Consort were to learn of this, they will definitely blame this servant for failing to serve upon Your Imperial Highness.”
Princess Changle smiled slightly and accepted the cloak. “We are not so fragile and are here only because of this beautiful night scenery. It’s okay. You go back and retire first. We will go back soon to rest.”
Lü’e saw that the princess’s expression was not bad and thus steeled her nerve to ask, “Princess, this servant doesn’t understand. Xiahou daren is a master of brush and sword, and is also extremely handsome. That he is not to your liking isn’t a problem as, after all, everyone says that Xiahou daren is dissolute and debauched. The Princess’s temper is gentle and kindhearted. It wouldn’t be strange if you dislike him. However, Wei daren not only has behavior and appearance that surpasses others, but is also clean-living and honest, never involving himself in immoral conducts. And yet he is still not to the Princess’s liking. It truly leaves this servant greatly puzzled.”
Princess Changle tranquilly replied, “What do you understand? All right, go …”
Lü’e shivered inside, seeing that the princess’s exquisite features carried with it a faintly discernible sneer. The distinctive dignity of these members of the imperial household caused Lü’e to no longer dare to speak any further. Quietly, as if walking on tiptoes, she withdrew.
Princess Changle sighed slightly, feeling the cold of night become increasingly crisp, her embroidered shoes feeling ice-cold. Just as she was about to turn to return to her chambers, the evening breeze transmitted the sound of a faintly discernible sigh. Princess Changle’s eyebrows slightly furrowed and she questioned, “Who is it that is spying on Us?”
A jade figure glinted and a woman dressed in a green court uniform appeared in front of Princess Changle. Princess Changle stared at this woman blankly before she stated, “So it is Sister Hanyou. Why have you come so late to pay a visit to my Jade Phoenix Hall?”
Fluttering like a breeze, Li Hanyou bowed. “Today, this servant was betrothed to General Qin. But remembering elder sister’s loneliness in the palace, I could not help but feel restless. Therefore, I have intentionally come here. As expected, elder sister has not yet retired. I hope that elder sister can invite me inside to chat.”
Princess Changle placidly replied, “These days, younger sister has frequently come to keep me company. Changle can’t thank you enough. However, it is already the dead of night and it is inconvenient to chat. Younger sister should return home to rest.”
Li Hanyou’s long, shapely eyebrows furrowed. After thinking it over, she recalled the news that the Princess of Yong had come into the palace. Could it be that Princess Changle had learned of how she tried to make things difficult for Jiang Zhe in the Qin residence? Everyone knew that Princess Changle was fond of Jiang Zhe’s poetry. Moreover, reportedly the person that Princess Changle admired most was that man. Now it seemed that this was highly likely, otherwise why would she be so frigid2 now after being so affectionate last time? If this was the case, she must find out the truth, otherwise wouldn’t this matter spin out of control?
Thinking of this, Li Hanyou smiled. “I have long heard that Your Imperial Highness is fond of the poetry of Southern Chu’s gifted scholar. A few days ago, Hanyou had the fortune of witnessing Jiang zhuangyuan reciting poetry. Although it wasn’t a poem composed by the zhuangyuan, there was sentence that was well said. It is said that poetry expresses one’s ideals. Does elder sister not want to know the details?”
Princess Changle was moved. A few days ago, the Princess of Yong had entered the palace, unintentionally bringing up the poetry gathering. It was only that Noble Consort was next to her, and she did not have the opportunity to ask carefully. She thus agreed, “I’d like to hear the details.”
Li Hanyou skipped over the scheming and fighting, only speaking of the poems that everyone had selected. Finally, when she recited the verses, “No one can be found whence the melodies ended, / On upper river verdant peaks silently stand,” surprisingly, Princess Changle smiled faintly. Li Hanyou mentally understood, but pretended that she did not notice, continuing to speak, “Jiang daren’s selected poem is quite excellent. These last two verses are the most significant. How does Princess feel about Jiang daren’s way of looking at things?”
Princess Changle smiled and replied, “Jiang daren most likely selected this poem to muddle along. From what I can see from his poetry, his verses are either remote and refined, or possessing boundless grandeur, or having profound meanings, or are gentle and contented. There isn’t a single composition that is so ghostly gloomy.” So speaking, she could not help but look down at the folding fan in her hands.
Li Hanyou’s heart jumped and she asked, “Is elder sister willing to lend the fan in your hands for little sister to take a look?”
Princess Changle glanced at Li Hanyou and replied, “You cannot speak of this matter to anyone.… I snatched this folding fan from second sister-in-law. These last few years, very few of Jiang daren’s verses have been circulated. His handwriting is even rarer.” So speaking, she handed over the folding fan.
Li Hanyou softly read the poem on the fan, only feeling a faint distress directly hit her face3 due to the elegance and profundity of the verses. She could not help but state, “Jiang daren’s poetry is truly peerless in the world.”
Retrieving the folding fan, Princess Changle smiled. “Jiang daren’s poetry is circulated throughout the world. If younger sister is fond of it, there is no harm in collecting it.”
Seeing a faint, happy expression on Princess Changle’s face, Li Hanyou suddenly asked, “Why has Your Imperial Highness so rigorously resisted the betrothal? Could it be that you already have someone in your heart?”
Princess Changle’s expression did not change, as she gently responded, “Does younger sister know why Imperial Father is so impatient to find a virtuous husband for me?”
Li Hanyou paid an obeisance and replied, “Everyone knows that His Imperial Majesty loves Princess deeply.”
“The love and affection of members of the imperial household are thin and faint,” replied Princess Changle distantly. “Although Imperial Father dotes on me, this is not the reason why he is so impatient to find a virtuous husband for me. On that day, Imperial Father dispatched me to be married to Southern Chu, but he always felt a brooding gloominess in his heart. If he could not find an ideal husband for me, then Imperial Father would always feel that he has let me down.”
The look in Li Hanyou’s eyes changed. “Does elder sister harbor resentment towards His Imperial Majesty?”
“From start to finish, there has been no resentment in my heart,” answered Princess Changle, shaking her head. “From childhood, Changle has been fond of poetry and literature, my temperament has been gentle and agreeable, different from the strong and resolute women of Great Yong. Were it not for Imperial Father and Consort Mother’s love and doting, Changle would not have any status to speak of. Therefore, although I was sad when Imperial Father dispatched me to a distant land, I did not complain. Further, We are supported and served by the common people of the world, how can We not sacrifice Ourselves for Great Yong? Therefore, although I was married off to an enemy country and foreign land, it was foreordained that in this life, I cannot spend it with a husband to old age, and thus personally took medicine to abort the child in my stomach. Changle has never blamed Great Yong, blamed Imperial Father. Now that Imperial Father wishes that I marry another, he is naturally hoping to provide me with happiness. However, We have experienced hardships and have long ago become discouraged towards the words ‘love and affection.’ I only desire to perform my filial duties to Imperial Father and Consort Mother. Someday in the future, regardless of which brother ascends to the throne, I am but a widow, a frail woman, presumably no one would be suspicious or jealous of me. When that time comes, Changle will accompany the oil lamp before the statue of Buddha. Such a life is sufficient.”
Li Hanyou sighed with admiration and inquired, “Your Imperial Highness, can it be that you still remember the former King of Southern Chu? He is no more than a mediocre person. Why are you remaining faithful to his memory?” As she spoke, she herself did not believe this was the case, as Li Hanyou looked at Changle with a mournful look in her eyes.
Princess Changle neutrally replied, “That is not the case. We are only downhearted. Not everyone wishes to emulate Wenjun.”4
Li Hanyou said, “Wenjun was originally a wise and virtuous woman. She was only unfortunate that she ran into the brilliant Sima Xiangru, and thus could not help but be enamored. What does the Princess think if Jiang daren is of mind to seek the phoenix?”
Princess Changle looked at Li Hanyou deeply, a faint trace of disdain in her eyes. Li Hanyou smiled and added, “His Imperial Majesty has already stated that as long as Princess is willing, regardless of who it is, he will be able to become the Emperor’s son-in-law. Jiang daren is a peerless talent of our age. If Princess tacitly consents, little sister is willing to communicate this to the Emperor.”
Princess Changle became increasingly frigid, as she coldly declared, “Li Hanyou. We have resided in the depths of the Yong palace for many years, and were further the Queen of Southern Chu. Although I live in seclusion, do you really think that We do not have a single shred of cunning?”
Li Hanyou’s expression changed greatly, and she dropped to the ground. “Your Imperial Highness please calm down. Little sister is only being utterly sincere and cannot bear to see worries lock up the Princess’s eyebrows. If I have offended Your Imperial Highness in any way, Hanyou is willing to accept punishment.”
Princess Changle’s expression became even more frigid, as she slowly and carefully stated, “Jiang daren’s moral character is noble and unsullied. Were it not for second brother’s character, an ordinary person would not be able to get this man to pledge his allegiance. Even though he has surrendered, he is not someone who a common person can insult lightly. We are fond of his talent and respect his moral character. How can I permit you lot to distort Our kindly feelings? I know of the current complicated state of affairs in the court. It is only that Changle was originally an outsider. Why are you determined to involve Us? Princess of Jingjiang, although We are not fond of struggling, if you lot continue to persist in pressing me, We can only report this matter to Imperial Father and immediately become a nun. When that time comes, it should satisfy your lot’s wishes.”
Following, Princess Changle coldly excused herself. “We are tired. Please return, Princess of Jingjiang. It is the dead of night. You have to be careful. If there are such rumors spread, We will have Imperial Father and Mother give me justice.”
When she had hastily returned to her quarters, Li Hanyou caught sight of Noble Consort Ji waiting for her wearing a grave face. She promptly advanced and said, “Martial Aunt, why have you come? Has something important happened?”
Noble Consort Ji answered, “The Sect Master has dispatched news. Huo Jicheng has already been held up by eldest apprentice sister and will certainly be unable to escape. However, currently, the tongues of the entire court are wagging, and this matter must be handled cautiously.”
Li Hanyou happily replied, “Eldest apprentice sister’s martial arts are exceptional and will certainly easily capture Huo Jicheng.” However, her brows furrowed slightly and she continued, “However, how can we remedy the Crown Prince’s current situation? Sect Master has always taught us disciples that guarding against rumor-mongering is more difficult than preventing a flood. Does Martial Aunt have any methods?”
Noble Consort Ji responded, “There is no need for you to worry excessively. You have completed eliminated all witnesses. Right now, there is no one who can prove the Crown Prince’s involvement. Minister Liang is currently no more than a bird in a cage. After a few days, it will be sufficient to kill him to silence him forever. Although it is vital to control the Ministry of Revenue, we must ensure that the Crown Prince does not become aware. Therefore, we cannot handle this matter overtly. We have ways of arranging some of our people inside. This position is extremely important. It is better if we leave the Crown Prince to mess around. Do you have any idea about the party that collaborated with the Embroidered Union?”
“How can I explain this?” expressed Li Hanyou with a wry smile. “The Embroidered Union’s partner was Southern Chu’s Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. However, their power and influence is concealed. At present, there are no traces of their presence, going so far as unloading all of the businesses that they control. This Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets is truly enigmatic, while our power and influence in Southern Chu is not sufficiently formidable. It is truly beyond our power.”
Noble Consort Ji indifferently said, “It is enough for you to remember this matter. The Sect Master has stated that the only way to prevent people from gossiping is to divert their attention. Since such a matter has happened to the Crown Prince, then we must have something happen to someone else. The more confused, the better. In this way, who will remember the Crown Prince’s matter? Even if they remember, as long as we ensure that the Crown Prince ascends to the throne, who will bring this matter up again? Of vital importance is that he does not lose the Emperor’s favor. It is better if you don’t get involved in Changle’s affairs.”
“This disciple follows orders,” obeyed Li Hanyou. “I already have an idea. Please Martial Aunt, do not worry.”
Noble Consort Ji voiced, “You are the Sect Master’s beloved final disciple. Why would I be worried? Handle matters properly. Although your eldest apprentice sister has already received the Sect Master’s true teachings, the Sect Master has yet to select a successor. If your meritorious service is sufficient, I will speak on your behalf to the Sect Master.”
When these words were uttered, a look of delight appeared on Li Hanyou’s face. However, she quickly recovered her serenity. Dropping to the floor, she declared, “Many thanks for Martial Aunt’s kind intentions. Hanyou extremely respects eldest apprentice sister and dares not have any vain delusions.”
Noble Consort Ji smiled slightly. “All right. Go take care of your business.”
Watching Li Hanyou’s receding figure, Noble Consort Ji smiled faintly. As someone who had spent years in the world of fame and fortune, she knew that regardless of whom, those who could lightly discard the enticement of fame and fortune were all lying. How could fame and fortune; power and influence; riches and honor; and glory and splendor be lightly abandoned? Even if it wasn’t money, fame, or fortune, then great authority—with one’s words being adhered to, the awe-inspiring manner of causing the entire world to bend their knee—was even more enrapturing. Who in this world could resist these enticements?
Huo Jicheng concealed himself in the underbrush, holding his breath, not daring to move. At this moment, a raging inferno burned in his heart, as he persistently cursed the incompetence of his subordinates for failing to properly execute his plan and easily being annihilated by Qin Qing’s army. Most vile was the Fengyi Sect. They had already chased him for one day and one night. If he wasn’t an expert at concealment and stealth, it was likely that he would have lost his life to those women’s hands.
Suddenly, Huo Jicheng caught sight of a figure appearing under the dim moonlight. It was an azure-clothed woman, her clothing plain and simple, exactly the attire most favored by Great Yong’s common women. Huo Jicheng was originally someone from Shu, and had great appreciation for beautiful materials. With one glance, he could tell that the woman’s clothing was not made by a famous tailor and seemed to be made by weavers. Under normal circumstances, he would have assumed that this woman was a country bumpkin. However, at this location, Huo Jicheng felt a chill go down his spine. At this moment, this woman set aflame a torch. Under the flickering fire, it revealed the ordinary face of the woman. This woman’s appearance was average, however the severe and serene expression on her countenance caused her figure to immediately acquire a bit of mystery. Huo Jicheng’s heart jumped, recalling a rumor about the Fengyi Sect. Reportedly, because of the beauty of the Fengyi Sect Master, all the disciples she accepted all had good looks. There was only one exception. This person was her first disciple, Wen Ziyan. Wen Ziyan had been accepted when the Fengyi Sect Master was still young. Not only was her appearance ordinary, her aptitude was also not top class. However, this woman had formidable willpower that caused others to admire her greatly, surprisingly receiving the Fengyi Sect Master’s true teachings. At present, she was no more than thirty years old and supposedly had attained seventy to eighty percent of her master’s martial accomplishments. In those days, when the Fengyi Sect was helping Li Yuan fight for supremacy, Wen Ziyan was the Fengyi Sect Master’s most capable assistant. It could be said that she fought throughout the world, her hands covered in blood. Only after Great Yong had pacified the Central Plains did this woman return to seclusion in the Fengyi Sect, from then on not leaving the sect lightly. Reportedly, she had trained most of the martial arts of the disciples of the Fengyi Sect on behalf of her master.
Huo Jicheng was practiced in a cultivation method that allowed him to reduce his breathing and heartbeat to its lowest limits. At this moment, he was like a lifeless rock. He could sense this woman was concentrating her attention and listening closely to her surroundings, and so he did not dare to take a single breath.
It was a long time before this woman seemed to be disappointed, waving her hand to extinguish the torch in her hands, her figure disappearing into the darkness. Huo Jicheng only moved softly after another hour had passed, finally stretching his long since numbed limbs. After regulating his breathing for a moment, he looked up at the starlight in the skies, trying to determine cardinal directions. Earlier, the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets had sent him news: if he was able reach a farmhouse about thirty li away, then they would be able to deliver him to Great Yong’s borders. After feeling that he had largely recovered his energy, he continued his journey.
Traveling in the dark was originally an extremely difficult matter. Huo Jicheng was already frightened from his past experiences and was overcautious as he traveled. He finally arrived at the small farmhouse at daybreak. This farmhouse was extremely remote, its surroundings completely deserted. Huo Jicheng monitored it for quite some time and only after determining that there wasn’t an ambush did he step forward and knock on its door. The door opened. When the two fifteen- or sixteen-year-old youths saw that it was Huo Jicheng, they revealed looks of joy. Huo Jicheng entered the farmhouse and saw the figure of Han Wuji.
Seeing Huo Jicheng, Han Wuji sighed. “Union Head Huo, why were you so obstinate? You were able succeed in your first raid. I had advised you to quickly withdraw. But you refused. Now that the Embroidered Union has been seriously damaged, what do you plan on doing?”
Huo Jicheng blushed with shame. “I only continued because my subordinates urged me onwards, thus falling into a trap. However, it doesn’t matter. The Embroidered Union still has half of its manpower on the outside. As long as I can find them, within three to five years, I will be able to make a comeback. I will have to request that you dispose of that batch of goods for me.”
Han Wuji smiled. “There is no need for me to dispose of it for you. I will purchase it at fifty percent of its value. Take the banknote with you when you go. Isn’t that better than leaving empty-handed?”5
Huo Jicheng delightedly asked, “Is Brother Han speaking the truth?”
Han Wuji answered, “Why would I deceive you? I will slowly sell that batch of goods. At the very least, I will not make a loss. Brother Huo, in order to rebuild the Embroidered Union, what can you do if you don’t have any money?”
Huo Jicheng clasped his hands and stated, “Many thanks to Brother Han for your generous friendship. If I can one day make a comeback, I will definitely not treat Brother Han unfairly.”
“The more friends one has, the more potential paths,” replied Han Wuji with a smile. “I am only listening to the Pavilion Master’s orders. Brother Huo, first take a bath and change. I have already prepared food and drink. After you have eaten your fill and changed into the clothes I have prepared for you, changed your appearance, and changed your identity using the identity documents that I have prepared for you, you will be able to strut out without fear.”
Huo Jicheng worriedly said, “However, the Fengyi Sect’s Wen Ziyan is pursuing me closely without letting up. How will she willingly give up?”
Han Wuji smiled. “Do not worry, Union Head. I have already prepared a corpse to take Union Head’s place. The corpse is in the room next door. Once the Union Head has departed, I will burn down this farmhouse, faking Union Head’s death.”
Huo Jicheng was moved, replying, “First let me take a look at its likeness.”
Han Wuji pointed at a small door. Huo Jicheng opened the door and walked in. Inside, on the bed, was a corpse, its figure very similar to his own. With this, Huo Jicheng was relieved. It seemed like the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets had no intention to kick a man who was down.
After changing his clothes, he ravenously devoured the food until he was full and downed a cup of tea. He found that he could barely tolerate the aching of his entire body, presumably because of the exhaustion of journeying through the night. He wished that he could sleep for a while before continuing onwards. However, with them chasing from behind, Huo Jicheng could only say, “It seems that I should take my leave. This place is too unsafe.”
Han Wuji smiled slightly and apologized, “I’m sorry, Union Head Huo, you won’t be going anywhere.”
Huo Jicheng was greatly alarmed. Just as he was about to jump to his feet, he could feel his two legs go weak. Strangely, he could not move a single step. With shock, he gazed at Han Wuji and asked, “Are you also seeking to betray me?”
“We are both people of Shu,” replied Han Wuji coldly. “Although we don’t have the strength to restore our state, we cannot slaughter our own people. As the Head of the Embroidered Union, how many people of Shu who have refused to join you have you harmed? Your crimes are uncountable.”6
Huo Jicheng angrily replied, “What does this have to do with you? You have received quite a lot of benefits from me.”
Han Wuji uncaringly replied, “That’s true. We have relied on you for a lot. However, today, you are at an impasse.7 We are completely unwilling to be implicated by you. You know of some of the matters regarding our Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. Moreover, the Pavilion Master had issued an order long ago: to kill and silence you before the Fengyi Sect could find you. We absolutely cannot allow the Fengyi Sect to learn that we are supporting you in the shadows.”
Huo Jicheng shivered inside. Thinking that although he had been flush with success, the conducts and deeds were truly mostly his proposals. Could it be that he had become someone else’s chess piece? He thought highly of himself,8 and thinking this, he could not help but become madly enraged, his eyes almost popping out of their sockets.
Han Wuji smiled slightly and stated, “Union Head Huo, when you meet the Han Zhang couple in the underworld, be sure to beg for forgiveness. In addition, my young master wishes for me to communicate to you that young Miss Roulan is doing well.”
Huo Jicheng finally understood and he replied, “You are taking revenge for Han Zhang?”
Han Wuji did not speak further, a dagger slipping out from his sleeves. Lightly brandishing it, he severed Huo Jicheng’s throat. Once this wanton and berserk man’s life was ended, his eyes still contained indignation and gnashing wrath. Han Wuji brought out a jade bottle, pouring the fine powder within onto Huo Jicheng’s corpse. After a series of terrifying sounds, Huo Jicheng’s body was completely dissolved, only leaving clothing, shoes, socks, and some scraps of other articles. Han Wuji indifferently said, “Shanzi, Quhuang, gather everything up. It is time for us to leave.”
After Han Wuji led the two youths in eliminating all traces of their presence, he set fire to the farmhouse. Not long after they had departed, Wen Ziyan arrived. She had long ago noticed that someone had been eliminating Huo Jicheng’s trail, creating several false trails and leading her down the wrong path. However, she was finally able to discover Huo Jicheng’s real trail. Unfortunately, she arrived one step too late, only discovering a charred corpse. An indescribable coldness emanated from her eyes. On discovery of that corpse, because she arrived in time, the majority of the corpse had not been scorched. It was only the facial features that were completely burned away. Wen Ziyan smiled coldly. From this corpse’s limbs, she could immediately tell that the body while living was not a martial artist. Huo Jicheng’s desire to escape required her willingness to allow him to do so.
This is a poem by the Song Dynasty poet, Sima Chi (司马池), entitled Circumstances of Departure.
冷若冰霜, lengrubingshuang – idiom, lit. as cold as ice and frost; icy manner, frigid
扑面而来, pumian’erlai – idiom, lit. something hits one in the face; directly in one’s face, something assaults the senses
卓文君, Zhuo Wenjun was a young widow who eloped with the famous Han Dynasty poet, Sima Xiangru. Her poems often complain about the inconstancy of male love.
两手空空, liangshoukongkong – idiom, lit. empty-handed; fig. not receiving anything
罄竹难书, qingzhunanshu – idiom, lit. so many that the bamboo slats have been exhausted; innumerable crimes
穷途末路, qiongtumolu – idiom, lit. the path exhausted, the end of the road; an impasse, in a plight with no way out
自视甚高, zishishengao – idiom, lit. to think highly of oneself; giving oneself airs; arrogant and self-important