Volume 2, Chapter 3: Prelude to the Storm

Leisurely, I sat within a refined wing on the second floor of a small building. Gazing out the window, I looked at the bamboo forest. It was almost as if I had returned to Southern Chu. At present, I was already a major serving in the prince’s household, with a position of extreme importance. However, I still wished that I could bring Xiaoshunzi along and tour the world incognito, even though the Prince of Yong repeatedly advised me to be careful with my safety. Presently, I lacked a suitable candidate capable of becoming a mole in the service of the crown prince. Unfortunately, all of the candidates supplied by the Prince of Yong were unsuitable for this task. The individual must be dissolute and licentious to conform to the crown prince’s temperament. This individual must also be adept at ingratiating himself so that he can obtain the crown prince’s favor. This individual must also be an outstanding talent so that he can receive the crown prince’s recognition and appreciation. Finding this kind of individual was really quite difficult. Although the candidates supplied by the Prince of Yong were just barely suitable, I still wished to find a more suitable candidate.

I hadn’t been sitting for too long when the door quietly opened and Chen Zhen and Han Wuji entered. I had prepared this location long ago. The owner of this extremely famous restaurant in Great Yong, Jing Shunqing, was my younger cousin. Two years ago while I was still in Southern Chu recuperating, when the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets had already become quite famous, Jing Shunqing had come seeking refuge. The reason was because he had a disagreement with my maternal uncle.

My mother hailed from a prestigious family. In Jiaxing, the Jing clan was a literary family that was second to none. But after my mother had passed, a huge conflict erupted between my father and the Jing clan, because the house we resided in and all of the land had been gifted to my father by my maternal grandfather. After my mother passed, my maternal uncle, who never got along with my father, demanded that everything be returned. Reasonably speaking, these assets were under my father’s name. They had no right or authority to take them back. But my father had an innately proud character. Under the abuse, bullying, and humiliation of my uncle, my father abandoned everything. Bringing me along, he left Jiaxing. He also explicitly stated that he was breaking all ties with the Jing clan. Therefore, after I became the zhuangyuan, the Jing clan did not have the face to reconcile with me.

This younger cousin of mine was somewhat dull and wasn’t fond of studying. As a result, he was not favored or doted upon by my uncle. In addition, he had intimate relations with a maid, impregnating her. After my uncle learned this, he wanted to abort the fetus, sell off the maid, and force my cousin to immediately marry his fiancée. In reality, to my cousin, as long as he was able to take the maid as his concubine, the pair would’ve satisfied. However, my uncle resolutely refused to allow my cousin to offend the in-laws. At the end, this younger cousin of mine angrily brought along the maid and ran off to seek refuge with me in Jianye.

I had a pretty decent impression of this cousin. Although he wasn’t suited to studying, he was extremely shrewd and astute. Reportedly, he had begun to handle the family’s estates and other affairs long ago. His fiancée was the daughter of one of Southern Chu’s rich merchants. His would-be father-in-law only arranged the marriage because of my cousin’s talents. My uncle, seeing that my cousin had no hopes of attaining scholarly honors, decided that my cousin might as well be allowed to marry up. Who could have imagined that my cousin would engage in an illicit sexual relationship with a maid and offend the in-laws? That was why my uncle became abruptly angry.

I was both sympathetic towards my cousin and resentful towards my uncle. Therefore, I arranged for my cousin to seek a meeting with the master of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. It was only natural that the “master” of the pavilion, Han Wuji, extremely appreciated and recognized my cousin, providing him with the finances to become a merchant. To avoid the suppression of my cousin’s in-laws, my cousin crossed the Yangtze River and went to Great Yong. At the time, relations between Southern Chu and Great Yong were outwardly peaceful and harmonious. As a result, my cousin did not meet with any obstacles, setting up roots in Great Yong. My cousin was really a commercial genius. In merely two years, my original investment of one hundred thousand taels of silver had increased immeasurably. Through trade between Southern Chu and Great Yong, my cousin became fabulously wealthy. In addition, he had shrewdly planned ahead and transferred his funds to other investments in time, becoming a major player in the manufacture of silk. This success was due to improvements I made to the loom and his own intelligence and ability. Moreover, a year later, his would-be father-in-law came calling. Not only did they reconcile, my cousin’s marriage to his fiancée was concluded. In reality, although the fiancée was stubborn, she wasn’t someone unreasonable. The cooperation between my cousin and his father-in-law allowed my cousin’s business to grow rapidly. Businessmen all attached great importance to one’s interests. They all had seen the crisis in Southern Chu. Therefore, the two made preparations to transfer a part of their businesses and wealth to Great Yong. Thus, my cousin became the pioneer opening the path.

At the time, I didn’t think that my cousin would be so remarkable. At the time, we had agreed that the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets would own fifty percent of his businesses. After my cousin had achieved great success, the pavilion suggested that its share of the business be sold for five hundred thousand taels of silver. Of course, my cousin had prepared for us to ask for a ridiculous price. However, I naturally would not be overly greedy. In addition, the pavilion never did anything that would cause its collaborators to feel distressed. As a result, the shares were sold at a reasonable price. However, in accordance with the usual practice, the pavilion maintained a ten percent share. For my cousin, he understood the power and influence of the Heavenly Secrets Trade Association. Therefore, the two sides cheerfully came to an agreement. My cousin was someone who valued benevolence and righteousness. Although he did not know of my relationship with the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets, he still sent heavy gifts on several occasions, thanking me for my earlier guidance.

Before I had been captured by the Prince of Yong and brought to Great Yong, I dispatched Chen Zhen and company ahead to wait in Great Yong. I had placed many people within my cousin’s businesses. Although they had no recollections about their experiences in the Secret Camp, they still remembered the Secret Camp’s benevolence and favor in arranging gainful employment for them. In addition, their natural aptitude was quite remarkable after all. As a result, they all became important managerial personnel. Combined with an identity from the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets, the Secret Camp members were able to come and go as they pleased within my cousin’s businesses.

As for this restaurant, it was one of my cousin’s businesses. It was named “Jiangnan Spring,” specializing in the distinctive style of Southern Chu cuisine and was greatly welcomed by the influential officials of Great Yong. This cousin of mine was quite good. When he learned that I had been taken captive, he personally came to Chang’an, hoping that he could help me. Several times, he had tried to use his connections to beseech the Prince of Yong to be magnanimous.1 But because he did not have the right connections, it was only after I became a major serving in the prince’s household did the Prince of Yong learn that my cousin had tried to use his connections to save me. Contrary to what one might expect, he valued my cousin highly. Only so was I allowed to easily leave the prince’s residence to eat and drink at Jiangnan Spring. After all, there was no one who could secretly plot with the owner against me here. The Prince of Yong also sent several guards with excellent martial arts to protect me. Otherwise, the Prince of Yong would be uneasy about my safety.

Gazing at Chen Zhen and Han Wuji, I smiled and said, “How have you two gentlemen been? I was headstrong and willful, causing you two to worry.”

After the two greeted me, Han Wuji smiled and jokingly replied, “This subordinate racked his brains2 to arrange young master’s plan to fake your death. It is a pity that it could not be used.3 Young master was still moved by the Prince of Yong. Young master should compensate us for our meticulous planning!”

Giving Han Wuji a supercilious look, Chen Zhen retorted jokingly, “Stop talking rubbish. Who was it that kept on saying that there was no need for the young master to dangerously fake his death? Who was it that after hearing that the young master changed his mind was wild with joy?”

Although I knew that Chen Zhen was only joking, my heart was still moved. I looked at Han Wuji, my mind racing. He was someone from Shu. Why would he approve of my allegiance to the Prince of Yong? My suspicious gaze was fixed on Han Wuji. If there were problems with this person, then wouldn’t that mean that the existence of my Secret Camp had already been divulged? But there haven’t been any signs indicating this.

In his former life, when all was said and done, Han Wuji spent every day scheming and plotting. Seeing my gaze, he inwardly trembled. Hurriedly, he kneeled to the ground, explaining himself, “Young master, this subordinate truly supports Great Yong. A few days ago, while we were waiting in Chang’an for young master, this subordinate ran into a former colleague of mine. Seeing that my situation wasn’t too bad, he told me that he wanted me to join them to save the Crown Prince of Shu and reestablish the kingdom. At the time, I tactfully refused. However, that person stated that there were already people organizing a resistance. If I did not agree to join, then when those people found me, they would absolutely not let off a rebel like me who forgets his roots. This subordinate knew that those people could only bully the weak and fear the strong. If young master pledged allegiance to the Prince of Yong and can draw support from the Prince of Yong, then these people would not dare to brazenly seek out this subordinate.”

I sighed gently. It was not strange that the remnants of Shu would form a resistance. However, this kind of method was too stupid. Han Wuji was originally someone who was opposed to Great Yong. At the time, when I had planned to fake my death, although he didn’t say much, his behavior and actions were extremely proactive. But now, he was overjoyed at the news of my allegiance to the Prince of Yong. This kind of transformation was precisely brought about by the rebels. How could someone, who had already abandoned his past and built a new life, be willing to invest himself into a rebellion without any future prospects? After confirming that those rebels would not be able to cause any major problems, I still made clear to Han Wuji and the others to pay close attention to their own personal safety and well-being. Even though assassinations could not change a country’s fortunes, they were still able to completely change the fate of a single person. Pondering, I spoke to Han Wuji, “The next time they come to force you, you simply say that you are currently in the middle of doing business and are willing to give them financial support. However, you yourself are unwilling to participate.”

Surprised, Han Wuji asked, “Young master, why do this?”

I smiled distantly and replied, “I want you to be able to control their operations. If this happens then it will be of some assistance to me. In the future, it will make things easier if we want to eliminate them.”

Han Wuji fell silent. I was somewhat puzzled. Just as I was about to ask him what was going on, Xiaoshunzi’s voice reached me, “Young master, he is someone from Shu.”

Only then did I recall that although he had just expressed relief at my allegiance towards Great Yong, this did not imply that he was willing to see the Shu resistance fail.

Lightly shaking my head, I explained, “Wuji, I understand your thoughts. However, you must understand that the majority of those people aren’t loyal and devoted to the Kingdom of Shu. Rather, they are intent on rebelling so that they can seize back the power and authority they lost. For them to use such a method to plot rebellion will not only have no chance of success, but also implicate and harm many more people. For example, if you didn’t have the ability to defend yourself, how would they deal with you? You should think this through clearly. I will not have you do something that you are reluctant to do. I will assign this to someone else.”

Still kneeling on the floor, Han Wuji lowered his head to the ground and replied, “This subordinate thanks young master for your magnanimity.”

I glanced at Chen Zhen and saw him lightly nod his head, signaling that he would handle this matter. Moreover, he would also monitor Han Wuji and prevent him from jeopardizing my cause.

Seeing that Han Wuji had already calmed down, Chen Zhen inquired, “I wonder if young master is prepared to tell the Prince of Yong about the existence of the Secret Camp?”

I smiled faintly and responded, “What is your view?”

“This subordinate thinks that if the Prince of Yong were told,” answered Chen Zhen, “Then young master would have reduced your own ability to protect yourself. But if the Prince of Yong isn’t told, then I’m afraid the Prince of Yong will become suspicious of young master’s loyalty.”

I glanced at Xiaoshunzi. Xiaoshunzi coldly uttered, “You speak the truth. However, we absolutely cannot allow the Secret Camp to come out into the open. The reason why young master has room to maneuver is all because of the existence of the Secret Camp. Moreover, even if the Prince of Yong becomes suspicious of young master’s loyalty, at worst, we leave Great Yong.”

Thinking it over, I stated, “Xiaoshunzi is taking it too far. If this happens then we will become enemies with the Prince of Yong. This is no good. The Secret Camp cannot be revealed. How about this? Afterwards, I will limit as much as possible my meetings with Chen Zhen. Chen Zhen will be responsible for and take charge of the Secret Camp. Xiaoshunzi will be responsible for passing along my directives. From now on, the Secret Camp’s mission will be to blend its members into the lower rungs of society in Chang’an. Remember my words: they must not become involved with the upper class and influential officials. With this, even if the Prince of Yong discovers the existence of the Secret Camp, he will not be afraid. All in all, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, will not believe that I do not have a bit of my own strength that I can rely upon. At worst, I will say that the Secret Camp is Xiaoshunzi’s subordinates. I believe that this reason will be acceptable. At the least, they can see some of Xiaoshunzi’s abilities.”

Xiaoshunzi nodded his head and replied, “During the period when the Prince of Yong had the young master placed under house arrest, there were always experts assigned to keep an eye on us. Although I could come and go at will, if I were to bring along young master, I fear that I would not be able to escape easily. Currently, the martial arts of the guards that the Prince of Yong has dispatched to our sides aren’t bad. However, they are tasked with protection, as there are no experts capable of bothering me. As a result, their fighting strength is a lot weaker, merely prepared to help me protect young master.”

Just as I was about to give them instructions, a cacophony of noise and the sound of weapons clashing could be heard from outside. My brows furrowed slightly. This room was Jiangnan Spring’s best and most high-level location. How could there be people acting here? I glanced at Xiaoshunzi. Understanding my signal, he walked out of the room. It wasn’t long before he returned and told me that there were actually people outside fighting. According to what he could tell, Xiaoshunzi believed that it stemmed from a grievance in jianghu. I had previously witnessed the bloodiness and chaos of battle and had also witnessed the verbal sparring of scholars, but I had never seen someone kill due to grievances from jianghu. I could not help but be interested. After informing Xiaoshunzi, I walked out of the room.

Although Jiangnan Spring was nominally a restaurant, in reality it was a small courtyard. The entire courtyard was composed of a garden that ingeniously showcased Jiangnan’s landscape—flowers and plants, bamboo forest, small bridges, running water, and rock gardens. These aspects divided the garden into over a hundred spaces. Each space was composed of different kinds of balconies and pavilions, making for true peace and quiet amidst noisy surroundings. Every pavilion was joined by winding corridors. The corridors were surrounded by luxurious vegetation. As a result, the layout was extremely graceful and reserved, most suitable for private discussions and meetings.

The small pavilion I was currently in was very refined and elegant. Pushing open the second floor door, the exterior balcony was surrounded by vermillion banisters. On the side was a corridor leading to the stairway down. The Prince of Yong’s guards were all waiting on the bottom floor. I stood before the banister and looked down. Below, in the corridor connecting this pavilion to another, stood an elderly man with his hands behind his back. Behind him stood two formidable looking middle-aged men and a beautiful and graceful young woman. Along the corridor, atop a rock garden stood a yellow-robed scholar. His appearance was elegant, although he carried a bit of frivolousness. In his hand, he held a jade flute. Opposite him stood a handsome youth, a sword in his hand. The two were currently fighting. The youth’s swordsmanship seemed to be pretty good, the glinting of the steel forcing the scholar into a difficult situation. However, the scholar would occasionally laugh, abuse, and taunt. I watched as the youth flushed with anger, almost as if he were insane.

The moment I looked down, the scholar was fighting back and yelling at the same time, “Aiyah! Truly scary! This lowly student only made a few jokes. It’s not like I was fighting over a beauty with you. Be at ease! Although your junior apprentice sister is beautiful, this lowly student is used to seeing the beauties of the world. There are innumerable women who are more beautiful than her! It’s only a few teasing sentences, not a hair on her body was harmed. Why are you fighting so desperately?”

The youth shouted back, “Nonsense! Nonsense! You came to us to rely on us. With good intentions, we accepted you. And yet … and yet, you did such a rude thing! Offending my junior apprentice sister.” So speaking, his swordsmanship rapidly increased in speed.

The yellow-robed scholar simultaneously blocked the attacks and solemnly vowed, “A sweet, fair, graceful, wise, and virtuous woman can only be matched by a gentleman. This lowly student is only respectfully admiring a beautiful woman and tried to woo Lady Sha for several days. There is definitely no intent to molest. Moreover, Lady Sha is a disciple of the Fengyi Sect. Even if this lowly student was extremely daring, I would not dare to offend her! Jingjing! Jingjing! Plead for leniency on my behalf. I have not offended you!”

The beautiful young woman’s face blushed, as she ferociously countered, “What wooing? You stay beside me every day, bothering me. When you have nothing to do, you would play your flute outside. And … and you even stole my belongings! Be obedient and let my senior martial brother beat you up! Afterwards, return what you stole. Otherwise, I will absolutely not let you off!”

The yellow-robed scholar heaved a deep sigh and lamented, “Alas! It seems you won’t let me off! Those watching have seen enough, right? Little brother, if you still don’t come save me, I’m going to die!” As he was speaking, suddenly the jade flute in his hands erupted into a thousand phantoms. The youth wasn’t able to clearly distinguish it clearly and subconsciously retreated a step. Who would have thought that he would forget that he was standing atop a rock garden? He stumbled. In the split second that he was hurriedly stabilizing himself, the scholar suddenly flew up high into the sky, charging towards my location. He called out, “Little brother! Help me!”

Just as his figure flashed, one of the middle-aged men standing behind the elderly man suddenly sprang forth like a hawk. The scholar’s hand shook. Everyone only heard the sound of a violent explosion, covering the area with roiling smoke. Within the smoke was also a light, reddish mist. The scholar shouted, “Little brother! Don’t use poison! I don’t have any significant grudges against them!” Everyone immediately covered their noses, waiting for the smoke to clear. When everyone was able to see, they found that the scholar had disappeared. In the direction that the scholar had fled was a balcony with a wryly smiling black-clothed scholar. Behind him stood a delicate looking servant who was turned away, secretly laughing.

Pointing furiously at the balcony, the youth roared, “Where is that scoundrel? Quickly hand him over! You actually dare use poison in broad daylight? You must surely not be a good person!”

Being so accused, I could not help but continue to smile wryly. Unexpectedly, I had been framed. A moment ago, Xiaoshunzi had whispered to me that the scholar was preparing to escape. I merely was curious as to how he would escape. When the smoke roiled, Xiaoshunzi immediately stepped in front of me. Afterwards, we heard the scholar’s words framing and shifting the blame to us. I did not know what that red smoke was, but I was completely positive that it was not poisonous. But how was I going to explain it to those people glaring at me?

At this moment, the guards from the prince’s household charged to the second floor of the pavilion. Seeing that I was unharmed, a guard walked forward to my side and in a low voice, asked, “Daren, what has happened?”

I lightly shook my head. Raising my voice, I said, “Gentlemen and lady, that person does not have any relation with this one. Please perceive the truth.”

The youth loudly retorted, “Quibbling! When we met that person, he was heading directly towards this pavilion. A moment ago, he escaped in your direction. It would be strange if you weren’t accomplices. Hurry up and speak, what is your relationship with the Dissolute Wastrel, Xia Jinyi?”

I smiled slightly and answered, “This one has nothing to do with that person, please understand.”

The elderly man suddenly said, “Does your distinguished self so despise our intelligence? That surnamed Xia was originally walking towards your pavilion. A moment ago, when he saw you, he repeatedly tried to escape in your direction. If he did not have any relationship with you lot, why did all of you not refuse even once?”

At this moment, the guard whispered into my ear, “These people are from Chang’an’s Guanzhong Alliance. That elderly man is the Alliance Head, Sha Qingyuan. The Guanzhong Alliance consists of Chang’an’s warriors. In reality, it is used by the court to exercise control over jianghu. Sha Qingyuan is currently neutral, but is leaning towards the Prince of Qi, because many of his disciples are serving in the Prince of Qi’s army.”

Suddenly, a vague plan began to be formulated in my mind. I thus spoke, “Alliance Head Sha’s words are mistaken. We only came out to see what was happening after we heard the uproar outside. There are a number of pavilions nearby. When that person abruptly shouted out, how could we know that he was trying to implicate us? Alliance Head has only heard one side … Doesn’t this unavoidably harm your dignity?”

Footnotes:

高抬贵手, gaotaiguishou – idiom, lit. to let someone off lightly; to be generous, to be magnanimous
费尽心思, feijinxinsi – idiom, lit. to rack one’s brains; to take great pains to think something through
功亏一篑, gongkuiyikui – idiom, lit. to ruin the enterprise for the sake of one basketful; to fail through lack of a final effort

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