In the twenty-fifth year of Great Yong’s Wuwei era, the twelfth year of the sixty-year cycle, after the affair regarding the Ministry of Revenue, all levels of Yong society were silent, serenely waiting for the storm to come. Under the pretext of illness, Taizong excused himself from court, never leaving his home.
—Yong Dynastic Records, Biography of Taizong
In the second year of Southern Chu’s Tongtai, the twelfth year of the sixty-year cycle, Jiang Zhe gradually recovered from his injury. At this moment, although the court seemed to be peaceful, everyone was waiting on the beginning of the succession battle. In charge of this matter from the Prince of Yong, Jiang Zhe could only bear with it.
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun
The scenes of springtime were warm and harmonious, the breeze gentle. The area within the Cold Courtyard was covered by shady foliage. Since last year’s incident in the Ministry of Revenue and the sudden death of the Minister of Revenue, Liang Jinqian, the situation suddenly became confusingly calm. Yong Emperor Li Yuan continuously issued edicts, either dismissing, demoting, or fining all of the officials in the Ministry of Revenue. After the ministry was purged, the new Minister of Revenue, Han De of Sanyuan,1 was appointed, a bureaucrat who had spent years in the ministry. As he had not passed the imperial examinations nor had any accomplishments, he was never able to reach his aspirations for many years. During the latest investigation into the accounts of the Ministry of Revenue, it was only his accounts that were the clearest. Therefore, Li Yuan promoted him several grades to become the Minister. Han De was impartial and unbiased, valuing only the emperor. As such, the crown prince did not dare to disrespect him. Although the crown prince once again inserted many of his people into the ministry, it no longer completely obeyed his commands.
During the fifth month last year, the appearance of disciples of the Devil Sect in Xianyang caused alarm in the entire world. Ultimately, that rapist was captured by the Fengyi Sect. The man captured claimed that he was unhappy with the sovereign’s decision to leave the Central Plains, and would frequently return to the Central Plains to stir up trouble. After the Fengyi Sect executed the man, they delivered his remains to Northern Han. The Sovereign of the Devil Sect, Jing Wuji was completely indifferent, not bothering to raise difficult questions and not apologizing. As a result, this matter was ended without a conclusion.
Afterwards, an unprecedented calm happened to Great Yong’s political situation. Every day, the crown prince adhered to a routine, only handling administrative duties. Aside from not relinquishing military matters, the Prince of Yong simply stayed in his residence, single-mindedly focused on reading. He not only did not associate with the ministers of the court, he made no efforts to attract new, virtuous subordinates. His only action was delivering some of the poor scholars who failed the imperial examinations to Youzhou to become officials. Li Yuan had allowed Youzhou to autonomously choose its officials, and therefore did not meddle. These individuals weren’t incomparable geniuses, and as such the crown prince’s faction were unwilling to become hostile over such a small matter. Both sides concealed their strengths and bided their time. As a result, Great Yong entered a period of unprecedented calm and tranquility. However, those who used their heads knew that this was only the calm before the storm. The relationship between the crown prince and the Prince of Yong had reached a point where neither could permit the other to live.
For the time being, regardless of the storm outside, within the Cold Courtyard, a marvelous scene had appeared. Within the pavilion, the Prince of Yong was leisurely looking at a chessboard. Seated opposite him was Xiaoshunzi, placing a piece with a calm expression before indicating that it was the Prince of Yong’s turn. Outside the pavilion, a white-clothed scholar was on all fours on the lawn, playing the role of a mount. Seated on him was a young girl dressed in red. In a tender and loving voice, she called out, “Daddy, faster!”
Over this year of rest and convalesce, I had already completely recovered. Although I still seemed weak and frail, I was radiant and all smiles, no longer looking like I would die at any moment. But after spending around a quarter of an hour pretending to be a mount, I was already panting for breath. I could only beg for mercy, “Lanlan, daddy can’t go on. Surely, you don’t want to exhaust daddy such that there will be no one to read Brother Jun’s letter to you?”
Roulan’s black eyes rolled for a moment before she finally agreed, sliding off my back. In a small voice, she said, “Daddy, I want to go see the Princess.”
I smiled and replied, “Not today. After a few days, when the Princess of Yong goes to see Princess Changle, I’ll ask her to bring you along.”
Roulan pouted. “Didn’t the Princess say that Lan’er can frequently go see her?”
A slightly wry smile appeared on my face. This wasn’t something that we had the final say on. After the princess retreated to meditate at the Dustless Nunnery, her marriage to Wei Ying was delayed. Although the emperor did not cancel the engagement, he also did not force the princess to complete the marriage. The only one who suffered was Wei Ying. He did not dare to take a wife nor did he dare to ask that his betrothal to Changle be completed. Rumors about the princess and I were circulated for some time. But as the princess and me never met, and without the crown prince adding fuel to the fire, the Prince of Yong was able to suppress the rumors, causing them to vanish like smoke. After all, no one wished to force the uninvolved Princess Changle to become embroiled in the succession dispute. Furthermore, no one dared to provoke Li Yuan’s anger, and thus these rumors were quickly forgotten.
In reality, I believed that the Yong emperor had heard some of the rumors. However, since there was no love affair between Changle and me, and we never met, I could not be punished for Changle’s possible feelings. Therefore, over this year, I spent the time quite comfortably. It was only that I would frequently think of Princess Changle, recalling the two times that we had met. The Princess of Yong would frequently go to see Princess Changle. Roulan would frequently be brought along by the Princess of Yong. This small detail did not elicit any unwanted attention. Everyone knew that the Princess of Yong treated Roulan as her own. Everyone knew that the heir, Li Jun, was in Youzhou. Every month, Youzhou would dispatch a messenger back to the capital to report. The messenger was bound to bring back toys for the young girl and a letter. Therefore, Roulan’s appearance in the palace had become expected. Princess Changle’s love for Roulan was thought of by everyone as due to her own lack of children and thus liked my little girl. Although there were those who thought that involvement with someone also meant involvement with their connections,2 no one dared to bring this matter up. Matters derived from the imagination could not be brought to light. In addition, in order to see Roulan, Princess Changle would spend half the time in the palace. After all, it was normal for the Princess of Yong to enter the palace to pay her respects to the empress and the noble consorts. However, if the Princess of Yong went to the nunnery to see Changle, it would cause people to worry whether Changle was becoming close to the Prince of Yong. As a result, even Noble Consort Zhangsun loved Roulan dearly, going so far as to allow Roulan to stay in the palace for several days. Roulan had even met Yong Emperor Li Yuan. Li Yuan was quite fond of this clever and naughty little girl. With this, no one dared to gossip and meddle.
Although I did not meet with Princess Changle during this year and had no intention of asking if she loved me, I could not help but have the Princess of Yong pass my newly composed poetry to Princess Changle. She did not respond, only bestowing jade pendants and protective talismans to Roulan. From the Princess of Yong, I learned that over this year, Princess Changle’s complexion had greatly improved, and would not only frequently laugh happily, but was also cheerful before the Yong emperor and Noble Consort Zhangsun. Seeing their daughter like this, they no longer felt anxious to compel her to get married and cause her to become gloomy and unhappy.
If there was anything that caused Princess Changle unhappiness, it was probably Wei Ying’s advances that used gentle and tender sentiment. Wei Ying was earnest and sincere towards the princess. Although he was disappointed at the princess’s refusal to get married, he would frequently send over small presents and books or top-notch brushes and ink-stones to try and win over this beautiful woman. Wei Ying’s tender steadiness in trying to win Changle’s affection little by little caused the emperor and Noble Consort Zhangsun to become extremely touched. Although Princess Changle was not moved, Wei Ying’s refinement and elegance, lack of menace, and thorough courtesy caused the gentle princess to become unwilling to harshly reject him. As a result, she was only indifferent and distant. However, the Yong emperor and Noble Consort Zhangsun both looked favorably upon their union. Thus, Princess Changle would often have “chance” encounters with Wei Ying.
Earlier, after considering Wei Ying’s stubborn infatuation, I realized that there was no harm for me to become colder. If the princess had a compatible match, I would no longer have to worry. As a result, I did not permit Roulan to enter the palace for more than a month. Surprisingly, the Princess of Yong quickly informed me that Princess Changle’s mood was poor and had once again moved to the nunnery. If under these circumstances I did not understand Princess Changle’s intentions, then I must probably be the world’s greatest idiot. As a result, I no longer prohibited Roulan from entering the palace. Although the princess and I never met, I was always able to feel a strange warmth in my heart. Although we were so close and yet so far apart, I did not feel that we were disconnected.
Regardless, I finally was able to get Roulan off my back. What was hilarious was that Roulan had yet to be taught how to read. When Li Jun’s letters arrived one by one, I would burst out with laughter whenever my daughter held the letters in her hand that she could not understand and beg me to teach her how to read. Even if I taught her to read and write, it would probably take two years before she would be able to understand the contents of these letters. Without any other choice, I could only read them to her. In reality, there was nothing about their contents, only talking about the comings and goings of the heir. It was only that this Li Jun was quite articulate. Every single time, Roulan would raise a ruckus and want to go to Youzhou to play. Fortunately, these never lasted too long. Although Roulan was still small, she was shy at heart and would absolutely not allow anyone else to see the contents of the letters, only allowing me to read them for her. As a result, I was able to use this as leverage to let me off. I had already decided to put off teaching her to read and write, otherwise I would lose this trump card.
Seeing that I had finally risen to my feet and was bringing Roulan towards the pavilion, Li Zhi smiled and observed, “Suiyun, you’ve come. All right, let this game end like this.”
I looked at the chessboard, seeing Li Zhi’s pieces already broken and in complete disorder, I smiled and stated, “Everyone states those who are gracious are good commanders. If this were the battlefield, Xiaoshunzi would surely lose. But with this game, Your Imperial Highness can only concede defeat.”
Expressionlessly, Xiaoshunzi collected the pieces and chessboard, uninterested in agreeing with me, only giving me a teasing look. I could not help but touch my nose. Truthfully, if I were to play with him, this little fellow could give me a three stone handicap. Sitting down, I picked up a teacup. Xiaoshunzi had already handed Roulan over to the Princess of Yong’s maids to send her back. I felt my entire body ache from head to toe. After downing the cup of hot tea, I could feel my vigor restore and could not help but let out a comfortable groan.
Li Zhi smiled and said, “Yesterday, Qin Qing impeached the Commander of the Northern Barracks of the Imperial Guard, Pei Yun, stating that his household is a mess.”
I smiled slightly and replied, “This is probably Li Hanyou’s idea, right? Qin Qing completely listens to his wife now.”
The persons who were the most well-regarded over this last year were probably Qin Qing and Li Hanyou. Half a year ago, she had been married to Qin Qing. After the wedding, Qin Qing had been promoted to become the Chief Commander of the Imperial Guard. Though this was an empty position, as the reality was that the Imperial Guard was controlled by the Grand General Who Suppresses Distant Lands. However, as Qin Yi’s eldest son, no one could compare with Qin Qing. Although Qin Yi had not relinquished his power and authority, Qin Qing had the authority to mobilize a section of the Imperial Guard. At present, Qin Qing had become one of Great Yong’s most reputable young generals, while Princess Li Hanyou of Jingjiang had the status of an imperial princess and was a disciple of the Fengyi Sect. Although her marriage prevented her from becoming a disciple of the Internal Hall of the Fengyi Sect, her position in the Fengyi Sect was still very high. This couple would naturally be the focus of everyone. What was rarer was that they were extremely affectionate, causing the entire Great Yong to become very envious.
Li Zhi humorlessly smiled and related, “A few days ago, Pei Yun formally brought his beloved concubine into his household, while his wife proper received a letter of divorce. It is no wonder that Li Hanyou is indignant. Lady Pei, Xue Qiuxue is a disciple of the Fengyi Sect. Reportedly, she is as close as sisters to Li Hanyou.”
Picking up the teacup, I calmly stated, “This can only be blamed on that woman for being stupid. Pei Yun clearly did not wish to marry her. That day when Pei Yun went to the Xue residence to ask for forgiveness, he already spoke quite clearly, indicating that he had a pregnant concubine. If the Xue family was willing to cancel the betrothal, he was willing to pay the price. But that Lady Xue was determined to marry into the Pei family. That, in itself, isn’t much. If that woman adhered to the traditional duties of a wife, Pei Yun would have been able to accept her after some time, as he is a good and honest man. However, she wasn’t experienced enough and she was too hasty, causing Pei Yun to remain at a distance. But now that she has tried to harm the concubine and newborn infant, Pei Yun would have killed her if it weren’t for the Fengyi Sect. Fortunately, this matter was discovered early, otherwise it would have been two lives lost. However, Qin Qing’s criticism is also within reason. Whatever happened, this can definitely be considered as a mess in one’s household.”
“If this happens, then the Fengyi Sect would naturally refuse to let matters lie,” anticipated Li Zhi. “Although they cannot directly interfere due to the rules and customs governing human relations, they can criticize Pei Yun for turning a cold shoulder to his wife proper. As a result, the Fengyi Sect has already quarreled several times with the Shaolin Temple.”
“Although their arguments are correct,” I replied with a smile, “However, the Shaolin Temple basically tacitly accepted Pei Yun’s conduct. Pei Yun is a carefully selected disciple of the Shaolin Temple. They would definitely not be willing to allow Pei Yun to have any relationship with the Fengyi Sect.”
Li Zhi nodded his head. “Be that as it may, the Shaolin Temple will not fall out with the Fengyi Sect. Although the Fengyi Sect cannot openly trouble Pei Yun, Li Hanyou can still make things difficult for Pei Yun through Qin Qing. What do you think we should do? Pei Yun is a nail that you planted in the Imperial Guard with great difficulty. We cannot casually abandon him.”
Shaking my head, I responded, “Your Imperial Highness is overly praising me. I was only the guide. The only person who was able to cause Pei Yun to loyally serve Your Imperial Highness was Your Imperial Highness yourself. Since time immemorial, capable subjects seek their lord. If it were not for Your Imperal Highness’s benevolence, righteousness, and sagacity, how would Pei Yun be willing to pledge his allegiance? This time, Your Imperial Highness must take action to help him, and cause the Shaolin Temple to truly support Your Imperial Highness. Before, the Shaolin Temple was willing to cooperate with Your Imperial Highness against the Fengyi Sect. However, due to the Emperor and the Crown Prince, they could only do so secretly. This time, the Fengyi Sect is being excessively arrogant and will likely infuriate the Shaolin Temple. This is exactly Your Imperial Highness’s opportunity.”
Li Zhi sighed. “Suiyun, this Prince admires you greatly. Your actions from a year ago caused those with knowledge and experience in Great Yong to see clearly the Crown Prince’s true face. Although they have yet to make up their minds and support me, they have all become neutral. Before, many people supported the Crown Prince because he was the heir apparent and because he had not displayed any outward signs of indecency. As a result, even if they felt that this Prince was wise and capable, they always me lukewarmly. Now, even though this Prince followed your advice and does not casually attracting talents, this Prince can feel that they are even more willing to become close to my household. It has only been a little over a year and you have helped this Prince completely reverse the situation. This Prince does not know how to thank you.”
“This is also because Your Imperial Highness is willing to listen to my advice,” I acknowledged gently. “I advised Your Imperial Highness to conceal your strength and bide your time. Your Imperial Highness cheerfully agreed. Over this year, Your Imperial Highness has not made any abnormal moves. As a result, the Crown Prince cannot use Your Imperial Highness’s heavy meritorious service to attack you. His attempts at making things difficult for Your Imperial Highness actually caused others to feel sympathy. In addition, Shi Yu, in Youzhou, has followed Your Imperial Highness’s commands to select officials. Everyone believes that he is doing so for Your Imperial Highness’s fief. At present, Your Imperial Highness has innumerable civil and military officials under your command, and can already begin to realize Your Imperial Highness’s grand ambitions. This subject can guarantee that the Crown Prince will lose his position as heir apparent this year.”
Li Zhi doubtfully said, “Although the Crown Prince has lost a portion of popular support, after all, there is still no possibility of him being ousted from his position. In this year, he has also been quite cautious. How can you be sure that he will be ousted?”
I smiled mysteriously and answered, “These years, Your Imperial Highness has always been focused on inserting your own people into the Crown Prince’s faction. Previously, because of the Crown Prince’s caution, and because of Lu Jingzhong and the Fengyi Sect’s strength, it was always difficult. However, in this year, because the Crown Prince has lost the will of the people over the incident relating to the Ministry of Revenue, and with the underlying tensions between Lu Jingzhong and the Fengyi Sect, hasn’t Your Imperial Highness successfully inserted your people into the Crown Prince’s faction? Although they have not reached the core, His Imperial Highness’s actions, those of the Crown Prince, can no longer be completely concealed from Your Imperial Highness. Do you really not know what the Crown Prince is doing?”
Li Zhi smiled awkwardly. “I do know some of this. Reportedly, the Crown Prince has somehow become enamored with brothels and prostitutes, several times playing around with the most famous and beautiful prostitutes in Chang’an. He only exercised restraint when Imperial Father heard rumors. As a result, he has not done such things recently. Purportedly, he is frequently accompanying the Imperial Father and the Empress in the palace, displaying his filial piety.”
I smiled callously and explained, “That is because he has changed the way he amuses himself. He has become enamored with one of the Emperor’s new concubines.”
Li Zhi was startled. “How is this possible? If Imperial Father were to learn that such incest was going on, then wouldn’t he be heavily punished? It is probable that he would be deposed as heir apparent.” Speaking to this point, Li Zhi paused. It was only some time before he asked, “Using the affairs of the harem to depose the heir apparent isn’t easy to do. After all, the harem is not permitted to meddle with matters of the state.”
“If His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, had some ability, it is possible that the Emperor would not depose him,” I profoundly expounded. “However, the Emperor has already lost confidence in the Crown Prince. Now, to the Emperor, the biggest function served by the Crown Prince is suppressing Your Imperial Highness. If this matter were to flare up, even if the Emperor would not depose him, then the Crown Prince would still be punished severely. Regardless of the Emperor’s intentions to depose the Crown Prince’s position as heir apparent, he would still have to speak out if this were to be revealed. If this happens, then the Crown Prince will naturally be filled with worry and hesitation. Father and son would suspect one another. This is the result that this subject wants—the Crown Prince to feel shame. Even if he is able to preserve his position as heir apparent, it is likely that he will be worried day and night that the Emperor is biding his time to make his reckoning.3 When the time comes, he will inevitably lose his rationality. If this were to happen, the more he wants to make up, the more he would likely arouse the Emperor’s discontent and ire.
“In addition, the matters within the palace chambers are more important than Your Imperial Highness thinks. Since ancient times, the relationship between the Emperor and his sons has never been profound or deep. Savagery between father and son is frequently seen. At that time, it is likely that the Crown Prince’s suspicions of the Emperor’s intentions will become greater than his suspicions of Your Imperial Highness’s.”
Li Zhi wondered, “Surely, Noble Consort Ji and company will help by any means possible? It is likely that this won’t be enough.”
I tranquilly replied, “This subject will only be worried if they put their safety above their principles. The more they do, the more mistakes and flaws they reveal. Does Your Imperial Highness not want their true colors to be seen?”
Li Zhi sank into deep thought, a trace of joy appearing on his face. He declared, “Suiyun truly has wonderful strategies. If their wickedness is not revealed, how can this Prince exterminate them with just cause?”
三原, sanyuan – a county that is located in modern-day Xianyang prefecture
爱屋及乌, aiwujiwu – idiom, lit. love the house and its crow; involvement with somebody and everyone connected; love me, love my dog
秋后算帐, qiuhousuanzhang – idiom, lit. settling accounts after the autumn harvest; fig. to wait until the time is ripe to settle accounts, to bide time for revenge