Volume 3, Chapter 16: Tangled and Complicated

After the turmoil was first pacified, Su Dingluan appeared out of nowhere to attempt to assassinate Taizong. Fortunately, the grandmaster, Zen Master True Compassion, was hidden nearby. Taizong was unharmed. Su Dingluan was a third-ranked general of Northern Han. His nature was violent, adept at killing enemy commanders and seizing standards. There was nothing that he could not break through. He would frequently precede the main force and was nicknamed the “Vanguard General.”

—Yong Dynastic Records, Biography of Taizong

At this moment, the thrum of a bowstring resounded like the sound of pearls falling onto a jade plate. Zhangsun Ji repeatedly notched arrows to his bow and fired. Those men at the front without armor bore the brunt of the attacks, their bodies pierced by the arrows. Due to Zhangsun Ji’s care, he had discovered that the Imperial Guard’s pace was somewhat confused. This should not be possible among the well-trained Imperial Guard. Therefore, Zhangsun Ji was able to shoot arrows to obstruct the assassins in a timely fashion. Seeing that these men were delayed, Li Zhi’s household guard advanced and completely blocked these assassins.

Just as Li Zhi began to smile at the sight of his household guard taking the advantage, suddenly someone burst forth from a nearby shop. The man’s body was as swift and powerful as lightning and thunder, the long lance in his hands stabbing directly at Li Zhi.

Right now, Sima Xiong was in front, supervising the household guards. There was not enough time for him to get back. Zhangsun Ji notched and fired three arrows in succession to delay this new assassin. The arrows were blocked out of nowhere by the man, also brandishing a dagger. Zhangsun Ji’s arrows that could pierce metal were surprisingly and forcibly sent back. Greatly startled, Zhangsun Ji had no time to dodge. He could only use his bow to block the arrows. However, those arrows carried substantial force, forcing Zhangsun Ji’s person and horse to retreat three paces, while his golden bow’s bowstring was severed. Zhangsun Ji surprisingly was powerless to protect the Prince of Yong.

At this point, the Prince of Yong had four personal imperial bodyguards by his side. Simultaneously, they used their bodies to block the incoming assassin. However, the assassin’s body suddenly shockingly shot through the air in an arc, stabbing his long lance towards the Prince of Yong. Although Li Zhi was a valiant general who had experienced numerous battles, the assassin’s attack left Li Zhi completely powerless to dodge. Li Zhi sighed in his heart, lamenting that he was going to die here. He could not help but close his eyes.

At this moment of life and death, the sound of one of the names of the Buddha could be heard spoken.

“Amitabha.” The sound was like a thunderclap piercing the highest of the Heavens. Hearing this, Li Zhi relaxed. The threatening killing aura had disappeared without a trace. Li Zhi opened his eyes and looked, only seeing Great Master True Compassion with his hands together in prayer standing before Li Zhi’s horse. The monk was reciting the many names of the Buddha. Some meters away, a man with a height of nine chi1 glared with hot anger at Great Master True Compassion, holding a steel infantry lance.

Glancing over, Li Zhi could not help but take a deep breath. This steel lance was purplish-black in color. Having spent years on the battlefield, Li Zhi knew that it was only blood that could dye a weapon this color. For this person to have such a stature, such martial arts, and such killing intent, Li Zhi immediately knew this person’s identity. In a clear voice, he declared, “So it is Northern Han’s Vanguard General, Su Dingluan, who has arrived. I wonder how this Prince is so fortunate to have General to personally come to assassinate me.”

The Prince of Yong’s household guard did not find this name strange. However, many of the imperial guardsmen had once served on the northern frontier and had fought in battles against Northern Han. All of these men had long ago heard the name of the Vanguard General. As they had never met the man, they could not help but look over, their gaze filled with curiosity and malice.

The Northern Han army was known throughout the world for its ferocity and toughness. Perhaps their training was inferior to Great Yong’s soldiers. However, the individual combat prowess of Northern Han’s soldiers was greater than that of Great Yong’s. All of Great Yong’s soldiers, especially those who served on the northern frontier, had frequently heard the names of Northern Han’s high-ranking commanders. The commander-in-chief of Northern Han’s military was the General Who Dominates Distant Lands, Long Tingfei. The man hailed from a prestigious house and was a master of the art of war. Although only thirty years of age, he had repeatedly defeated Great Yong’s armies. The only one that could withstand Long Tingfei’s attacks was Li Zhi, the Prince of Yong. Even Li Xian, the Prince of Qi, had also once suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Long Tingfei. Were it not that Great Yong enjoyed numerical superiority, it was likely they would be unable to advance out past the Great Wall to invade Northern Han, and would instead see Long Tingfei break through the Great Wall and attack the Central Plains. Aside from Long Tingfei, Nothern Han had four generals whose name resounded through the world.

The Flying Tiger General, Shi Ying, was skilled at long-distance raids, capable of breaking any defenses. The Boulder General, Duan Wudi, was adept at defending cities. Any city he defended was impenetrable. Ghost-Faced General Tan Ji was adept at marching the army and troop formations. Lastly, Vanguard General Su Dingluan was skilled at leading from the front and taking the heads of enemy commanders. He was the second disciple of the Sovereign of the Devil Sect, Jing Wuji. Although his martial arts had not reached the level of an expert, he was a hard to come by valiant general from the battlefield. Surprisingly, that this man would actually appear here in Chang’an to attempt to assassinate the Prince of Yong truly difficult to believe.

As everyone was bewildered by Su Dingluan’s sudden appearance, Su Dingluan was also lamenting in his heart. It wasn’t a trivial matter assassinating the Prince of Yong. Even if successful, it was likely that he would die in the process. Why had Sovereign Jing Wuji have him, a valiant battlefield general, come to execute this plan? Originally, because of the quiet on the frontiers, he been bored senseless and had specially masqueraded as a merchant, coming to sightsee in Great Yong and try to acquire some military intelligence. He had already loitered in Chang’an for more than a month.

None could have expected that the Northern Han intelligence network would stir up turmoil in the eastern marketplace at this time with intent to disturb Great Yong’s capital as preparation for the coming invasion in half a month. Su Dingluan had also received an order from Sovereign Jing Wuji to act as circumstances dictated to kill the commander-in-chief of the Yong army, Li Zhi. Su Dingluan had already been in Chang’an for many days now. He was clear that if this incident were to erupt, then Li Zhi would personally come to suppress the turmoil in the eastern marketplace. As expected, Li Zhi had arrived. Based on his exceptional martial arts, Su Dingluan was seventy percent certain of success. Su Dingluan was focused on killing Li Zhi in one blow before taking advantage of the subsequent chaos to escape. Northern Han’s intelligence network had already prepared an escape route for him. To his surprise, things turned out like this and he had been stopped by Great Master True Compassion. The more he thought, the more infuriated Su Dingluan became. Not caring about Great Master True Compassion’s position in jianghu of grandmaster like his master, Sovereign Jing Wuji, Su Dingluan pointed his lance at True Compassion and furiously hollered, “You bald donkey! Why aren’t you cultivating in a temple and instead frequently spoil matters of my Devil Sect? Truly hateful and reprehensible!”

Although Su Dingluan’s words were vulgar, Great Master True Compassion was not enraged. The monk only tranquilly spoke, “This old cassock is a citizen of Great Yong. The contributions of His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, have been outstanding. He is Great Yong’s God of War and also a pillar of the court. How can this old cassock stand idly by and watch you assassinate His Imperial Highness? If Benefactor Su is willing to let go of the butcher’s knife, this old cassock is willing to plea for leniency and ask His Imperial Highness to spare your life.”

Su Dingluan gazed at his surroundings, seeing that the Prince of Yong’s household guard and Imperial Guard had completely surrounded this location, while before him was a grandmaster level expert. Su Dingluan knew that it was would be extremely difficult for him to escape with his life. However, he was resolved. Thus, he icily replied, “Fine. Allow me, your elder, to show all of you my ferociousness.”

Finished speaking, the lance in Su Dingluan’s hand darted out, thrust at Great Master True Compassion. True Compassion’s expression did not change. A look of praise flashed across his eyes. His left hand moved, while the right hand made a fist and punched out furiously, a basic move of the Shaolin Temple’s fist techniques, “Skyward Cannon.” However, when used by Great Master True Compassion, it was bold and powerful beyond compare. With one look, it was obvious that no one would be able to block this strike.

Su Dingluan tensed up. However, he was ferocious by nature and did not have the slightest bit of fear as he pierced forward with the lance. The fist and lance met. Great Master True Compassion did not move in the slightest, whereas Su Dingluan was forced to take a step back. However, an ominous glint appeared in Su Dingluan’s eyes. Like a swimming dragon, his infantry lance once again stabbed forward.

Within a few blows, True Compassion’s palm slammed into Su Dingluan’s chest, sending the Northern Han general flying dozens of meters. Blood flowed from the corner of Su Dingluan’s mouth and he lost his grip on his infantry lance. His chest had a depression. With one look, it was clear that Su Dingluan would not have long to live. Fluttering his sleeve, Great Master True Compassion joined his hands together in prayer, reciting one of the many names of the Buddha before withdrawing behind the Prince of Yong’s horse and no longer making any sound.

One of the Prince of Yong’s household guards carefully walked over, using the saber in his hand to nudge Su Dingluan. Seeing that Su Dingluan did not move in the slightest, the guard stooped over and checked his breathing. No one could have expected that Su Dingluan would choose this moment to open his eyes, and with a lightning move, forcibly wrest away the saber in the guard’s hands and chop down at the guard. Facing danger, the guard was not ruffled, back flipping and avoiding the chop. When Su Dingluan chopped horizontally, the guard instantly rolled out of the way. At this moment, Great Master True Compassion’s finger flicked. With a crack, the high-grade, well-tempered, steel saber was snapped.

The guard jumped to his feet. Filled with lingering trepidation, he withdrew to the side. Zhangsun Ji, grabbing a strong bow that he had been handed, notched an arrow and aimed at Su Dingluan. Zhangsun Ji warned, “General Su, if you dare move again, do not blame me, Zhangsun Ji, for being merciless.”

Su Dingluan’s expression became chilly. Laughing loudly, he replied, “Who am I? I am Northern Han’s Vanguard General. Over these years, countless numbers of Great Yong’s generals and soldiers have died at my hands. Now that I have failed in this assassination, what reason do I have to wait to be captured? Great Master True Compassion, you have the same status as my master. Surely, you won’t make things difficult for a member of the younger generation and are adamant that I become a prisoner?”

Finished speaking, Su Dingluan gazed towards Great Master True Compassion. He was determined to commit suicide, but if Great Master True Compassion were to intervene, it was likely that he would be unable to die. Great Master True Compassion heaved a sigh and spoke, “This old cassock is acting on behalf of Great Yong’s empire and thus lent a hand to His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong. If it were not for Benefactor Su trying to harm human life in front of this old cassock, this old cassock would be unwilling to worry about these matters of the mundane world.”

Seeing that True Compassion had already indicated that he would not make things difficult himself, Su Dingluan smiled, pleased with himself, and replied, “Li Zhi, you were fortunate to escape today’s catastrophe. If not for the presence of Great Master True Compassion, you would have died already. It is a pity that I did not know that Great Master True Compassion had already arrived in Chang’an, otherwise, I, your elder, would have killed a few more of the generals of your Great Yong.”

Although Su Dingluan’s words were fierce and malicious, the soldiers of Great Yong respected brave warriors the most. Seeing that he, even with his dying breath, continued to be heroic, looks of admiration filled their eyes. Although they would not be merciful towards Su Dingluan if they were ordered to personally kill this man, however, they were absolutely unwilling to humiliate and disgrace him. Therefore, they looked at the Prince of Yong, worrying that he would become infuriated.

Instead, however, Li Zhi laughed for a long period and stated, “General Su’s failure was this Prince’s luck. Do not worry, General, this Prince will agree to your request. Not only will I not force you to surrender, I will also deliver your body back to Northern Han to allow your King to give you a proper burial as befitting as a hero.”

As he spoke, Li Zhi displayed the entirety of his natural heroic quality, as if he were an imposing bird of prey, causing everyone to become convinced and subdued.

Su Dingluan laughed miserably. Shakily, he rose to his feet. Opening his mouth, blood gushed forth. Not paying this any mind, he took a few steps forward and stooped over to pick up his infantry lance. Everyone thought he would commit suicide, but surprisingly before Su Dingluan had even stood up again, he used all of his strength to throw the lance. Like a shooting star, the infantry lance shot through the air towards Li Zhi. Everyone could not help but cry out in alarm. However, Li Zhi had expected this long ago, moving sideways and dodging the infantry lance. All of the household guards immediately became indignant, their blades unsheathed and arrows notched, only waiting for the Prince of Yong’s command, after which they would hack Su Dingluan to mincemeat.

Without a hint of fear, Su Dingluan straightened his body and calmly declared, “I am a real man. I can only die under the blades of warriors. How can I commit suicide? If Your Imperial Highness is willing to personally kill me, it will be my honor and privilege. Dingluan will gift this infantry lance to Your Imperial Highness. Why have you dodged?”

The Prince of Yong stared back at him perplexed before he laughed and replied, “A disciple of the Devil Sect is truly formidable. This Prince is truly fond of your temperament. However, it’s trivial that you attempted to assassinate this Prince; it’s a grave matter that you slaughtered the innocent commoners of my Great Yong. General Su’s hands have been stained with the blood of my Great Yong’s people. Please forgive this Prince for being unable to show you mercy. All soldiers, who is willing to send General Su to the underworld?”

Urging his horse forward, Sima Xiong declared, “Your Imperial Highness, this fiend desires to assassinate Your Imperial Highness. His sin is reprehensible and unpardonable. This general has not satisfactorily protected Your Imperial Highness and cannot escape punishment for failing my duty. Please allow this general to kill him.”

The Prince of Yong nodded his head slightly. Urging his horse forward, Sima Xiong towered above and looked down upon2 Su Dingluan. Raising his head, Su Dingluan gazed back at Sima Xiong, not a single shred of dread in his eyes. Sima Xiong also admired this man. Just as Su Dingluan raised his head, Sima Xiong chopped down with his blade. Only a flash was seen when Su Dingluan’s head fell to the ground, blood spewing out in all directions. Just as his head was chopped off, Su Dingluan hollered, “Quite comfortable!”

Sima Xiong’s expression did not change, returning back to the Prince of Yong’s side. In a loud voice, Li Zhi stated, “Although this man’s nature was savage and cruel, he was nevertheless a hero to the end. This Prince has already promised him that I would return his body to his homeland. Do you have any objections?”

All the soldiers yelled in unison, “We obey Your Imperial Highness’s commands.”

Only after making sure that this matter had been settled did Li Zhi lead his household guards and Great Master True Compassion back to his residence. While traveling, Li Zhi asked in a baffled voice, “Great Master, weren’t you cultivating in the Cold Courtyard? How did you suddenly appear to save this Prince?”

True Compassion’s horsemanship was mediocre. Although, based upon his martial arts, there wouldn’t be any danger, he still had to be careful and cautious when riding. He answered, “Your Imperial Highness, this old cassock was entrusted with this matter by Sir Jiang. Earlier, Benefactor Jiang hurriedly came to inform me that Your Imperial Highness had gone to the eastern marketplace to quell the unrest. He explained that after thinking it over, he could not figure out how the chaos in Chang’an would harm Great Yong. Seeing that there were some flaws in the plan, he became worried that this was all for the purpose of enticing Your Imperial Highness to leave the confines of your residence and increase the probability of a successful assassination. Therefore, he asked this old cassock to hurry to the eastern marketplace and secretly protect Your Imperial Highness. Unexpectedly, Sir Jiang was correct, hitting the mark with his words.3 It is also Your Imperial Highness’s benevolence that has moved the Heavens, being assisted by such an uncanny scholar.”

Li Zhi could also not help but exclaim in astonishment. After mulling it over, he asked, “Doesn’t that mean that Suiyun has no one by his side protecting him? What can be done if someone tries to assassinate him?”

Smiling, Great Master True Compassion responded, “Do not worry, Your Imperial Highness. Pei Yun is currently by Sir Jiang’s side. Moreover, there are also fifty personal guards. Even if this old cassock were to act personally, it is extremely difficult to be successful without taking some time. Demonic Shadow Li Shun is currently in the residence. If something were to happen, he would be able to rush over in time. There is no need to worry, Your Imperial Highness.”

Only hearing these words did Li Zhi relax. However, his brow remained furrowed and tensed. Before he had become the crown prince’s enemy, the Fengyi Sect had also recommended several bodyguards to him. However, because he did not like having women in the army, so the only ones that he had kept were male. Even though this was the case, the Princess of Yong and his family were protected by the Fengyi Sect. After today, Li Zhi realized that if something were to happen, it would be inconvenient if his family did not have capable bodyguards by their side.

At this moment, Great Master True Compassion suddenly interrupted Li Zhi’s thoughts, “Your Imperial Highness, this old cassock’s original home has a pair of distant grandnieces. They are nineteen years old this year and have entered the Emei Sect to learn swordsmanship. They have already finished their training and descended from Mount Emei. Although the moral character and swordsmanship of the two girls are fairly good, they are highly mischievous. This old cassock has heard that the Crown Princess is incomparably virtuous and kind. It will be the two girls’ blessings if they can receive the Crown Princess’s guidance and teachings for several years.”

Li Zhi was overjoyed, promptly replying with gratitude, “Many thanks to Great Master!”

Smiling, Great Master True Compassion said, “Your Imperial Highness is being overly courteous. It is this old cassock who is asking Your Imperial Highness for help. How dare I accept Your Imperial Highness’s gratitude?”

Li Zhi uttered a couple of polite words. The two had reached a tacit understanding. Neither openly stated that these two women were being dispatched to protect the Prince of Yong’s wife, concubines, and children. Moreover, as these two women were from the Emei Sect, their arrival would also signify that the Emei Sect was supporting the Prince of Yong.

Arriving at the Cold Courtyard and seeing that Jiang Zhe was safe and sound, Li Zhi finally completely relaxed. Only after seeing off Great Master True Compassion and Pei Yun did Li Zhi address Jiang Zhe, “Fortunately, you invited Great Master True Compassion to go save my life, otherwise this Prince would likely have lost my life.”

I blushed and replied, “This was because this subject did not think it through and was fortunate to act before it was too late.”4

Smiling wryly, Li Zhi stated, “In reality, this time wasn’t bad. Although this Prince narrowly escaped being murdered this time, we were able to kill Northern Han’s Vanguard General. That in itself is pretty good compensation.”

“Although that is the case,” I explained with a sigh, “For the situation to reach such a state, the Prince of Qing will become enraged by the slaughter of his subordinates. If he dispatches men to investigation the perpetrator, it is likely that this chaotic situation will only worsen. The assassination attempt on Palace Attendant Zheng and the turmoil in the eastern marketplace, although Your Imperial Highness performed meritorious service by suppressing the turmoil, is likely because of Your Imperial Highness making sacrifices at the secondary altar and causing the Heavens to send these disasters. Moreover, tonight’s events will cover up the Crown Prince’s filthy and illicit sexual relations with the harem that are an irreverent crime to the Heavens and the Earth and to all the divinities.”

Hearing this, Li Zhi could not help but feel a chill in his heart. He wondered, “Don’t tell me that this kind of deliberate distortion of the truth5 will be believed?”

“It isn’t that it is believable, but rather that there are those who are willing to believe,” I clarified, glancing at the Prince of Yong,.“His Imperial Majesty will give an opportunity to the Crown Prince. Your Imperial Highness’s prestige has shaken the imperial capital. However, after hearing it, His Imperial Majesty will feel that Your Imperial Highness’s prestige is too high. In order to suppress Your Imperial Highness, he will forgive the Crown Prince this time.”

“Who would have thought that this Prince’s painstaking efforts for the empire would suffer from suspicion and jealousy because of this incident?” pondered Li Zhi with a wry smile. “Alas, how could this Prince stand idly by and watch last night’s incidents from unfolding?”

I smiled slightly and saluted the prince, stating, “Your Imperial Highness, you were right this time. The Emperor is suspicious towards you. However, of the common people, who does not admire Your Imperial Highness’s morality and conduct? If news of this matter spread, it will only be of benefit to Your Imperial Highness. Further, if the Emperor seizes this opportunity to spare the Crown Prince, this will represent that the Emperor has already lost trust in the Crown Prince. As a result, the Crown Prince will become increasingly anxious and frightened. Because of this, the mutual suspicion between a father and son, a liege and vassal will only deepen. Having lost the Emperor’s favor, the Crown Prince’s position as the heir apparent will be in grave peril. As long as we send away the Prince of Qi, Your Imperial Highness will be able to do as you please. At present, everything is prepared for Your Imperial Highness, only missing one small detail.6 Would Your Imperial Highness please order Shi daren to prepare to return to the capital?”

A look of joy appeared on Li Zhi’s face. However, it quickly disappeared, as he said, “It is fine to pen a letter to Shi Yu. However, this Prince wishes to see how Imperial Father handles this matter. Alas, I hope that Imperial Father will be just, otherwise I, as a son and a subject, will be gravely and bitterly disappointed.”

I did not reply. The Prince of Yong was doomed to be disappointed. Gazing at the brightening sky, I felt somewhat tired and asked the Prince of Yong to go and rest. Returning to my chambers, I saw that Xiaoshunzi had returned prior. Seeing the displeasure on his face, I asked, “What’s going on? Why is your complexion so ugly?”

Xiaoshunzi complained, “Young master, it’s nothing if you sent me to protect the Princess of Yong, but why did you send Great Master True Compassion to rescue His Imperial Highness and not inform me?”

Smiling wryly, I responded, “There was no way for me to call you back. There is no need to worry. Great Master True Compassion had already made arrangements with the Prince of Yong. Next time, you won’t have to leave my side. However, you must do one thing for me today. The next few days, the talk in Chang’an will not be good. Have Xia Jinyi leave the city and hide to prevent him from being discovered. After all, he is not a nameless non-entity in Chang’an.”

Xiaoshunzi’s complexion became somewhat grotesque as he replied, “I have already thought of this long ago. However, Chiji reported that that an uninvited guest arrived at that residence.”

Surprised, I inquired, “An invited guest? That residence was a secret location that we meticulously prepared. How could an outsider find it?”

Xiaoshunzi’s complexion became even more contorted and he responded, “That man was Ye Tianxiu, His Highness, the Prince of Qing’s Imperial Bodyguard. Young master has met this man before.”

With this, I was truly left dumbfounded. How could things be so coincidental?

Footnotes:

About 6’9”
居高临下, jugaolinxia – idiom, lit. to live high and look down; to overlook, to tower above
一语中的, yiyuzhongdi – idiom, lit. to hit the mark with a comment; to say something spot on
亡羊补牢, wangyangbulao – idiom, lit. to mend the pen after sheep are lost; fig. to act belatedly, better late than never
颠倒黑白, diandaoheibai – idiom, lit. to invert black and white; fig. to distort the truth deliberately, to misrepresent the facts, to invert right and wrong
万事俱备,只欠东风, wanshijubei, zhiqiandongfeng – idiom, lit. everything is ready, all we need is the east wind; fig. lacking only one tiny crucial item

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