Within the Prince of Yong’s residence’s Cold Courtyard, I had a brocade gown draped over my shoulders as I sat within the pavilion. All the spring flowers had already blossomed, the trees verdant and lush, making the entire courtyard refined and exquisite. After rising from bed at daybreak to appreciate the morning sun, Xiaoshunzi was worried that I would catch a cold and insisted that I drape a brocade gown over my shoulders. As I gazed upon the rising sun and the reddish clouds, there was only one matter, or rather one person, on my mind.
Witnessing my silence, Xiaoshunzi had already dismissed the imperial bodyguards in the surrounding area. Walking close to my side, he softly inquired, “Is young master still bothered by what His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, said?”
I responded with a soft sigh, “Xiaoshunzi, tell me … is Princess Changle really interested in me? How was I never aware of it?”
Xiaoshunzi laughed gently and replied, “Young master, you have never interacted intimately with young women. On a daily basis, you’re either reading books or appreciating beautiful scenery. In the situation between you and the late mistress, it was the mistress who took the initiative. Her Imperial Highness’s temperament is dignified and pure, and she has never revealed her true feelings. It is no surprise that young master does not know this. From what I can tell, the Princess truly has feelings for you, otherwise she would not surround herself on a daily basis with young master’s poetry. I also believe that the Princess knows a bit about what happened in Southern Chu, and yet she has not informed anyone. Moreover, were it not for the half a root’s worth of Ningpo figwort from the Princess, young master would have died long ago.
“I would not believe it if the Princess did not have any affection for you. However, the Princess probably has the same mindset as you. Therefore, she has never been willing to reveal her feelings. Young master, don’t you also treat the Princess differently? All this, Xiaoshunzi has seen bit by bit. However, you two are obstructed by the relationship between liege and vassal, therefore neither of you have ever been willing to express your true feelings.”
I placidly glanced at Xiaoshunzi and asked, “Are you blaming me for refusing to accept the Princess because of the harm it would do to my reputation?”
Xiaoshunzi fell silent and did not speak, clearly tacitly agreeing. I sighed and stated, “How am I, Jiang Zhe, someone who cherishes my reputation? It is only that there are some things that absolutely cannot be done. My responses to Qin Qing’s accusations did not contain a single shred of falsehood. The status between the Princess and me is completely different. However, I am not rejecting this marriage because of this reason. If I truly only had eyes for her, there is nothing that would stop me. However, you must know that the Princess has not made a single statement expressing her willingness to marry me. This means that although the Princess has feelings towards me, she will absolutely not defy etiquette and rites. This being the case, how can I follow the Prince of Yong’s intentions and propose? But if I were to do this, wouldn’t it besmirch the Princess’s reputation? Although there won’t be many who dare to say this clearly, due to the prestige and dignity of the imperial clan, but the brush is merciless. I do not want the Princess to leave behind a bad reputation in the histories. What’s more, I have only had the fortune of meeting the Princess a mere few times. How can I know whether the Princess truly loves the entirety of my person?”
In a low voice, Xiaoshunzi replied, “Young master speaks the truth. It is this servant who misunderstood.”
I serenly replied, “These are only spoken from personal considerations. If we consider this from an official viewpoint, I am a surrendered subject from Southern Chu. What qualifications do I have to take the Princess as my wife? Even if the Yong Emperor agrees to my face, he’ll dispatch someone to have me commit suicide in the blink of an eye. Although the Yong Emperor allows the Princess to make her choice, he probably only wishes for the Princess to marry one of Great Yong’s elites. Moreover, if I were to do such a thing right now, I would likely harm the Prince of Yong. How can I be someone who shirks official business for private considerations? Moreover, you more than anyone, knows the condition of my health. If I were to meet with any misfortune, how could the Princess endure it?”
Xiaoshunzi did not make a single sound. It was a sometime before he stated, “This servant only wishes that young master will not spend the entirety of your life alone.”
I smiled slightly and replied, “When we have ensured the ascension of the Prince of Yong to the throne and avenged the murder of my wife, I will let everything go. When the time comes, if my health improves, I will take a virtuous woman as my wife. How about it?”
Xiaoshunzi smiled and agreed, “Of course that’s good. This servant can’t wait for there to be a mistress,1 and afterwards have a few young masters.”
“The Prince of Yong probably has thought it through these last few days, thus not coming to force me to do anything,” I guessed, exhaling softly and collapsing into the chair. I asked, “That’s right, how is the situation outside?”
Xiaoshunzi revealed an odd look as he inquired, “Does young master wish to hear the good news or the bad news?”
“The bad news first,” I replied with a wry smile.
“The bad news is that something major has occurred in the capital,” said Xiaoshunzi. “At present, everyone is going to watch the fun and no one is paying attention to the Crown Prince’s activities.”
My brows furrowed, as I asked, “What has happened to divert all of the attention away?”
Xiaoshunzi answered, “This matter was originally a jianghu affair. Young master knows about the Guanzhong Alliance, right?”
I responded, “I remember, the Alliance Head is Sha Qingyuan. His daughter, Sha Zhijing is a disciple of the Fengyi Sect. They are the biggest jianghu faction in Chang’an.”
Xiaoshunzi confirmed, “That’s right, young master met them once. A few days ago, Sha Zhijing went to Xianyang2 to visit her maternal grandmother and had actually been killed. Reportedly, she died gruesomely. No matter how poor the martial arts of a disciple of the Fengyi Sect, they had all trained in the martial art called ‘Falling Jade Killing Technique.’ This martial art had been personally created by Fan Huiyao and was based entirely on the supple flexibility of a woman’s body. In close combat, it was completely unscrupulous and was used by the disciples when they faced a strong opponent who they could not escape from. Even if they could defeat their opponent, the result would be mutual destruction. If that was not capable, then the martial art would allow the disciple to commit suicide. Thinking back, it truly is a shame. Liang Wan feared injuring the Princess so did not dare to act blindly, thus not using this martial art. In short, with Sha Zhijing’s death, both the Guanzhong Alliance and the Fengyi Sect are chasing after her killer. As for the killer, he has continued to commit crimes. Over the last dozen or so days, quite a few unbetrothed women have died in the area around Xianyang. The killer, however, has left behind clues.”
I said, “If that’s the case, based upon the power of the Fengyi Sect and the Guanzhong Alliance, this man should have been captured and executed long ago.”
Xiaoshunzi shook his head. “Initially, as the Fengyi Sect’s main force had not yet arrived, this person wreaked havoc in the Xianyang area without any fear. By the time the Fengyi Sect’s manpower arrived, the criminal had already escaped without a trace.”
I frowned and inquired, “How did this matter elicit the attention of the court ministers?”
Xiaoshunzi smiled wryly and responded, “All of the dead women had signs of being raped and their virginity taken. Therefore, the members of jianghu all suspect that the Devil Sect has returned to the Central Plains. That year when the Devil Sect Sovereign Jing Wuji withdrew north to the desert, the disciples of the Devil Sect followed. Those who did not depart went into hiding. One of the branches of the Devil Sect, the Pitying Fragrance Faction, specializes in taking women’s virginities. If the Devil Sect has reappeared, then it is likely that Jing Wuji may return to the Central Plains. Now that he is the State Mentor of Northern Han, his return from retirement can symbolize Northern Han on the verge of launching a large-scale invasion. If this is the case, how can the civil and military officials of the court not be concerned? Therefore, at present, no one remembers the affairs relating to the Embroidered Union.”
I subconsciously fanned the folding fan in my hands, asking, “What do you think?”
Xiaoshunzi answered, “I don’t find it strange that there are some Devil Sect disciples who remained behind in the Central Plains. I would find it strange if they were not present. Moreover, the movements of the members of the Devil Sect are concealed. Although there have been rumors of their whereabouts these last several years, all of it seems to be groundless.3 Therefore, I believe that the Fengyi Sect is using this as a pretext to make a fuss, drawing away everyone’s attention.”
I smiled coldly and replied, “The Devil Sect’s strength has already attached itself to Northern Han. Jing Wuji wishes to continue to compete with Fan Huiyao. However, there is no meaning to compare martial arts. It’s likely that victory or defeat between them will be based upon who can unify the world. As soon as something happens to the Crown Prince, the Devil Sect appears. What a coincidence! Since this is the case, I will join in on the fun. Xiaoshunzi, do you know what the Minister of Revenue, Liang Jinqian is doing right now?”
Xiaoshunzi answered, “He is currently atoning for his crimes. However, according to the Prince of Yong’s intelligence, the Crown Prince is preparing to take over his power. Liang Jinqian has already been placed under house arrest.”
I smiled slightly and inquired, “Has Han Wuji settled the matter relating to Huo Jicheng?”
Xiaoshunzi smiled. “This is exactly the good news that I needed to inform young master. Huo Jicheng has disappeared. However, we left behind a fake corpse. Trying to cover it up will only make it more conspicuous. At present, both the Fengyi Sect and the Crown Prince are chasing after him. However, he has disappeared without a trace. The Secret Camp has already delivered Huo Jicheng’s proof of identity.”
“If that’s the case, then you go personally handle the matter,” I said, rising to my feet. “Go kill Liang Jinqian. Do not act physically; use poison. If this happens then what do you think everyone will think?”
With an odd expression on his face, Xiaoshunzi replied, “Naturally it would be that the Crown Prince killed Liang Jinqian to silence him. Young master’s plan is truly vicious and ruthless.”
“That is exactly my intention,” I stated with a smile. “I have another matter that I want you to handle. Huo Jicheng will not truly die. Although he is physically dead, he still remains alive in the hearts and minds of the people. That is his remuneration for the million taels of silver he helped me earn. Be sure to not sully his good name.”
Holding back laughter, Xiaoshunzi agreed, “Do not worry, young master. I will definitely transform Huo Jicheng into the Crown Prince’s nightmare.”
I warned him, “Be sure to be careful. If your identity is exposed, then I will be in dire straits.”
Xiaoshunzi gravely replied, “Do not worry. If I am no match, I’ll just run. I will definitely not allow them to capture me.”
I was still a bit anxious. However, after recalling that I could arrange for Jing Chi and Zhangsun Ji to provide support, I no longer worried. Just as I was about to exhort a few more words, even if Xiaoshunzi would blame me for being long-winded, I heard the sound of footsteps approach from a distance. From the sound, I could tell that the Prince of Yong had arrived. He had probably come to apologize. Nevertheless, I still had to give him a way out of the embarrassing situation.4 Waving my hand to have Xiaoshunzi withdraw, I waited for the Prince of Yong to arrive. However, when I saw the Prince of Yong, his face carried a difficult to explain distress. My heart jumped and I asked, “Your Imperial Highness, why are you so sad?”
Li Zhi replied in an agonized voice, “Today, Imperial Sister was determined to leave the palace to pursue purity in the Dustless Nunnery. Imperial Father and Noble Consort Zhangsun could not convince her otherwise and could only give their consent, only prohibiting her from taking vows and becoming a nun.”
My heart shook, and I was unable to say a single word. Gazing at the Prince of Yong’s fervent gaze, I could only softly respond, “Your Imperial Highness, marriages cannot be forced. The Princess’s wholehearted prayers to the Buddha are probably the only way for her to peacefully and joyfully spend her life.”
Li Zhi let out a soft sigh, saying, “Let’s not speak of this.… As long as Imperial Sister does not take her vows, there will be room to save the situation in the future. What should our next step be? The marriage between Qin Qing and the Princess of Jingjiang has caused me to be greatly disappointed.”
I smiled reassuringly. “There is no need for Your Imperial Highness to be overly worried. The only thing that we can do at present is letting Your Imperial Highness treat the Qin family with proper courtesy, otherwise it won’t be good if they join the Crown Prince’s faction. I believe that Grand General Qin will not be so unwise. The Qin family has several other young sons.”
Li Zhi’s eyes brightened. Without him speaking, I knew that he would handle this situation better than I could. At this moment, I caught sight of Jing Chi’s figure surreptitiously sneaking back into the courtyard. Presumably, he had slipped out last night, having been stifled by his stay in the Cold Courtyard. I had originally intended to pretend that I did not notice his return, but after thinking it over, I called out, “General Jing, why aren’t you coming over to pay your respects to His Imperial Highness?”
Jing Chi stopped sneaking about and walked over. Following etiquette, he paid his respects to the Prince of Yong. I smiled and stated, “His Imperial Highness wants you to compose a poem. What do you think?”
Jing Chi’s jaw dropped, not knowing what he could do. With a laugh, the Prince of Yong declared, “I have heard that you have learned how to compose poetry. This Prince is very interested. How about this? This Prince will choose a topic. Oh, that’s right! Where did you go just now?”
Jing Chi awkwardly responded, “This general went out to gamble last night. I have returned now to go to sleep.”
Li Zhi glared at him and suggested, “How about this? Compose a poem using sleep as the topic.”
Jing Chi racked his brains for some time before responding with one line: “The Buddha sleeps well.”
Li Zhi chuckled and replied, “This is truly interesting. It seems that you have seen the reclining Buddha at the Great Transformation Temple.”
Jing Chi promptly confirmed, “That’s right. Yesterday, this general went out with General Zhangsun and went to the Great Transformation Temple. Because the hour was too late, we did not return.”
I smiled and spoke, “All right. There is no need to explain further. Continue composing the poem. If you can compose a poem, I will spare you. Otherwise, I will have you copy the Art of War for the entire day.”
Jing Chi promptly said, “I’ve got it … With one rest, a hundred matters resolved. / I desire to mimic him and sleep.” Reciting to this point, he could not think of the final line, no matter how he racked his brains.
Li Zhi smiled and observed, “Although the second line is somewhat like a humorous poem, it can barely be considered as acceptable. What is the last line? Jing Chi, if you can’t compose it, Sir Jiang will lose the bet.”
Jing Chi immediately felt dizzy. He knew that if Sir Jiang lost today, then he would have no chance to catch up on his sleep. But no matter how he thought, he could not think of a final line, only causing his brow to be beaded with sweat. Li Zhi smiled slightly and comforted, “It’s no matter if you can’t come up with the last line. As a general, you’re not bad at pacifying the world, but you probably aren’t capable of composing poetry.”
At this moment, Jing Chi was struck by a spark of inspiration, recalling all the times that Jiang Zhe lectured him, Jiang Zhe would frequently mention, “pacify the world, sweep away the warning smoke.” He thus recited, “No one heeds the warning smoke.”
Both Li Zhi and I could not help but stare blankly at him. In reality, I had no expectations of winning this bet with the Prince of Yong. I didn’t expect that Jing Chi could actually compose a poem. Li Zhi recited the poem,
“The Buddha sleeps well,
With one rest, a hundred matters resolved.
I desire to mimic him and sleep,
No one heeds the warning smoke.”
“Good, good. This last verse turns something crude into a literary gem5 and shows the poet’s inherent heroism. This Prince wholeheartedly admits defeat.” Finished speaking, he removed the jade pendant from his waist and said, “Suiyun, Li Zhi completely admits defeat. Able to teach Jing Chi how to compose poetry in half a month—truly formidable.”
I accepted the jade pendant, a faint, wry smile on my lips, as I replied, “Jing Chi, this jade pendant was lost to me by His Imperial Highness. I will borrow it to gift it to you.6 If you weren’t able to compose this poem, the loser would have been me.”
Jing Chi respectfully accepted the jade pendant. “Many thanks to Sir for your reward.”
I smiled gently, shaking my head. What could I say? Who could have thought that this coarse general would cause me to sit up and take notice? Originally, I had intended to deliberately lose to the Prince of Yong, gifting the Prince of Yong this protective belt of mine. It seemed like I could not do so this time.
In the Eternal Serenity Neighborhood, the Minister of Revenue, Liang Jinqian gazed at the lonesome lamp, filled with distress and terror. He was an old fox who had bobbed up and down for many years in the waters of officialdom. How could he not see his desperate straits? Ever since the Ministry of Revenue smuggling case was exposed, he had immediately understood what was going on. What bullshit about Cui Yang investigating the smuggling? He was basically acting under the crown prince’s orders to smuggle. In addition, he had been completely excluded from the beginning. Although he was not dismissed from his post after the situation came to light, once he saw that the crown prince was hurrying to take over his power and authority, he knew that the end drew nigh. He did not want to be resigned to his fate, strongly desiring to use his secret accounts to accuse the crown prince of embezzlement. However, whenever he recalled the profound relationship between father and son, he became completely discouraged. More terrifying was that as he tried to figure out why the crown prince was abandoning him, he realized that he had not seen his younger brother-in-law for quite some time. He inwardly trembled. Examining his secret accounts, he discovered that all of his secret markings had disappeared without a trace. At this moment, he really felt as if a bucket of ice-cold water poured over his body. He trembled without stop. Thinking of how his wife, concubines, and children would not be able to escape after his death, he truly wished that he could flee immediately. However, the entire world belonged to the emperor. Where would he be able to escape to?
Before he could think of an escape plan, assassins from the Fengyi Sect had already arrived by his side. One was a woman in plain, unadorned clothing. Although her appearance was beautiful, her entire body exuded a dense killing aura. Gazing at this woman, while holding his beloved youngest son in his arms, Liang Jinqian surrendered. In accordance with her orders, he handed over all of his authority and power. Right now, he was completely worthless and was placed under house arrest in his home by the crown prince. Presumably in a few days, after the situation had calmed down, he would be punished for the crime of smuggling military equipment and be executed. Even if he was demoted to become a commoner, he would still die when leaving the capital. He truly didn’t mind dying. This entire life, he had enjoyed prestige and great wealth, enjoying money and women. However, his death wasn’t important. What would happen to his family? After only half a month, all his hair turned white. His originally well-maintained appearance became aged and haggard.
Just as he was racking his brains, the door to his room suddenly opened softly. A man in black entered. When Liang Jinqian saw this man’s arrival, he was not surprised and unemotionally stated, “Are you here to take my life? This old man has been waiting for some time now. In reality, that lady has been residing in my inner residence for some time. Wouldn’t it be simpler to have her kill me?”
The man in black closed the door and asked, “If you simply die, you will implicate your family. Do you not want to resist?”
Liang Jinqian’s heart jumped. This man’s feminine voice was pleasant to hear and did not seem to be the voice of an ordinary person. Liang Jinqian raised his head and gazed at the man in black’s face. The man’s face was covered with a black cloth, only revealing a pair of bone-chillingly icy eyes. Liang Jinqian slowly spoke, “How does this old man not know this? However, I have fallen deep into the trap and do not have the strength to struggle.”
That man lightly removed the cloth covering his face, revealing a face that was as cold as ice. The man smiled gently and expressed, “One’s death can be unimportant7 or highly significant.8 If you die legally, then you would not only implicate your family members, but would also benefit the crafty villains. If you are willing to commit suicide, I can promise you that your family will be able to peacefully live the rest of their lives. In the future, if your sons or grandsons are capable enough, they will be allowed to attain scholarly honors.”
Liang Jinqian’s eyes brightened. If he were to commit suicide, then perhaps those people wouldn’t make things difficult for his family. However, how would their survival be guaranteed? He truly did not trust the crown prince. After a good while, he responded, “You are in the service of His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince. If I were to commit suicide, could you truly have the Crown Prince let my family off?” His words were filled with doubt.
That man laughed lightly and replied, “The Crown Prince’s promises cannot be guaranteed. But do you believe in the Prince of Yong’s promises?”
Liang Jinqian was greatly surprised, as he stuttered, “You … You serve His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong?”
That man calmly replied, “His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, knows that you have done much for the Crown Prince. However, the Crown Prince is preparing to completely abandon you. Your family members, especially your children, will be buried with you. If you are willing to commit suicide, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, will arrange for them to settle in Youzhou. His Imperial Highness’s words carry enormous weight,9 and will not try to deceive you.”
Liang Jinqian’s mind turned before he finally answered, “I trust in the sincerity of His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong. If this old man had long ago followed His Imperial Highness, then I would not have fallen into today’s straits.” Finished speaking, he retrieved a newly ink-stained volume and said, “This old man once recorded an account of all of the funds that the Crown Prince had embezzled from the Ministry of Revenue. However, it has been taken away. These last few days, I have recorded from memory what I can remember. I hope this will be of use to His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong.”
That man accepted the volume and gravely stated, “His Imperial Highness will be grateful for your diligence. This is red arsenic.10 You will definitely not feel any pain. I know that you wish to say your goodbyes to your family, but I cannot take any risks. Therefore, I can only trouble you. If you have any last words, you can write them down.”
Liang Jinqian smiled slightly. Picking up a brush, he wrote a short message. Not bothering to seal it, he handed it to his unexpected visitor. Afterwards, he laughed and said, “Whenever a ranking minister of our imperial court has committed a capital offense, the Emperor would frequently bestow red arsenic. His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, is truly a shrew individual. Please inform His Imperial Highness that this subject believes in his promises.” Finished speaking, he drained the poison in one gulp. In an instant, he began to bleed from all small apertures on his head and died.
The man glanced at Liang Jinqian’s note. Upon it was straightforwardly written two lines:
Greedily coveting money and thus lost one’s good reputation,
Loving power and influence and thus lost one’s life.
—Liang Jinqian’s last words, second day of the sixth month of the twenty-fourth year of Wuwei, the eleventh year of the sixty-year cycle
主母, zhumu – lit. mistress of the household
咸阳, Xianyang was the former capital of the Qin Dynasty and was a county just outside of Chang’an; currently a prefecture in modern-day Shaanxi Province
捕风捉影, bufengzhuoying – idiom, it. chasing the wind and clutching at shadow; fig. groundless accusations
台阶, taijie – lit. steps, flight of steps; fig. way out of an embarrassing situation
点石成金, dianshichengjin – idiom, lit. to touch stone and turn it to gold; fig. to turn crude writing into a literary gem
借花献佛, jiehuaxian’fo – idiom, lit. presenting the Buddha with borrowed flowers; fig. to win favor or influence using somebody else’s property
轻于鸿毛, qingyuhongmao – idiom, lit. light as a goose feather; trifling, unimportant
重于泰山, zhongyu’Taishan – idiom, lit. heavier than Mt. Tai; fig. extremely serious matter
一言九鼎, yiyanjiuding – idiom, lit. one’s words worth nine sacred tripods; fig. words of enormous weight, trustworthy
White arsenic with sulfide impurities, causing it to appear red