I frowned slightly as I read the military report before me. This was information provided by the Prince of Yong’s intelligence network. It would still be a few days before the actual military report would arrive.
On the sixteenth day of the seventh month, the Prince of Qi inspected the frontier up to Zhenzhou.1 The Northern Han army approached the frontier. The Prince of Qi sallied forth with an army, winning the first battle. The twenty-first day of the seventh month, Flying Tiger General, Shi Ying, arrived with an army. The Prince of Qi held fast to the battlements and refused to sally forth. When Shi Ying withdrew, the Prince of Qi led an army to give chase and was ambushed by the Ghost-Faced General, Tan Ji, and was forced to retreat in defeat. On the twenty-sixth day of the seventh month, Shi Ying approached again. Feigning weakness, the Prince of Qi lured a portion of Shi Ying’s army into the city and wiped them out. On the third day of the eighth month, the two armies fought before the city. Disguising herself as an enemy general’s royal bodyguard, Ling Yu of the Fengyi Sect violently attempted to assassinate Tan Ji, gravely wounding the general and causing Northern Han to retreat in defeat. On the fourteenth day of the eighth month, confirmation was received that Northern Han had retreated. The Prince of Qi thus submitted a memorial to announce his victory.
Setting down the intelligence report, I worriedly inquired, “Who could have thought that the Prince of Qi would be able to so quickly stabilize the northern frontier? It seems that he will return soon.”
The Prince of Yong and the just returned Shi Yu exchanged glances. Shi Yu replied, “Your Imperial Highness can submit a memorial to temporarily prevent the Prince of Qi from returning to the capital. Why is Suiyun so worried?”
“The Fengyi Sect must surely have put in much effort to allow the Prince of Qi to so quickly pacify the northern frontier,” I spoke with a sigh. “Infiltrating an army to assassinate its commander is extremely dangerous. Unlike the previous battles for hegemony over the Central Plains where as soon as a general was killed, his soldiers would surrender, the soldiers of the two states would fight to the death. If a general suffered an injury, it was the result of all-out attacks that risked one’s life. The Fengyi Sect disciple likely only narrowly escaped with her life. The Fengyi Sect already urgently desires for the Prince of Qi to participate in the mutiny.”
“What Suiyun is saying is that if His Imperial Highness were to prevent the Prince of Qi from returning,” wondered Shi Yu frowning, “They will take even greater risks out of desperation?”
I smiled wryly and clarified, “It would be fine if they were to take even greater risks out of desperation. The problem is that they’re suspicious of whether the Emperor has firmly decided to depose the Crown Prince. There is something that we are clear about. Although the Prince of Qi is His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince’s supporter, without the Emperor’s intention, the Prince of Qi would not be so determined in his support for the Crown Prince. From certain perspectives, the Prince of Qi is more of a loyal subject. That is one of the reasons why the Emperor brought along the Prince of Qi as an escort to the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor. Although it would be more convenient for us with the absence of the Prince of Qi, if we were to receive the Emperor’s support, then the Prince of Qi would be unable to make too much trouble for us. Therefore, if we are determined to prevent the Prince of Qi from returning to the capital, then the Fengyi Sect will have already calculated this eventuality.”
With a heavy frown on his face, Li Zhi said, “According to this Prince’s calculations, within a few days, the Prince of Qi will return to the capital. If we do not stop him, then the state of affairs in Chang’an will be irremediable. If this happens, then the military will likely suffer disastrous losses.”
Picking up another piece of paper, I reported, “There is another matter. Through Your Imperial Highness’s channels, Ye Tianxiu has reported his survival to the Prince of Qing. However, the Prince of Qing was extremely indignant, dispatching several of his subordinates into the capital.”
Heaving a sigh, Li Zhi expressed, “Truly troublesome. The Prince of Qing has always been so impetuous. If it weren’t for his recklessness, how would he have been exiled to the Hanzhong region?”
“In this subject’s view, the Prince of Qing is an intelligent individual,” I explained with a faint smile. “If he were to remain in Chang’an, it is likely that the Fengyi Sect would inevitably make trouble for him as often as they could. As a result, he is better off far away, as a subordinate warlord garrisoning a vital, strategic location.”
The Prince of Yong and Shi Yu exchanged glances, their faces revealing expressions of embarrassment and regret. My heart jumped and I inquired, “Is there something that Zhe does not know?”
Li Zhi glanced at Shi Yu. Smiling wryly, Shi Yu responded, “There is something that His Imperial Highness and I have long suspected. The Prince of Qing’s martial arts have roots from the Devil Sect.”
Shaken, I asked, “Don’t tell me it’s Northern Han’s Devil Sect?”
The Prince of Yong answered, “In reality, the Devil Sect is not a singular entity. Reportedly, when Jing Wuji departed from the Central Plains, many disciples of the Devil Sect left the sect and remained in the Central Plains. They are adept at concealment. In addition, we have been unwilling to excessively coerce the Devil Sect and infuriate Jing Wuji.”
“This is also why His Imperial Majesty and Your Imperial Highness do not trust the Prince of Qing, correct?” I assumed with a faint smile.
With a wry smile, the Prince of Yong affirmed, “That is indeed the case. This Prince cannot ascertain to what degree he is willing to go in order to exact vengeance.”
“If that is the case, the Hanzhong region is a vital, strategic location,” I observed, suspicious. “Are His Imperial Majesty and Your Imperial Highness truly not worried?”
Smiling slightly, Li Zhi replied, “As long as the Prince of Qing does not wish to rebel, he can do whatever he pleases in the Hanzhong region. However, if he intends to rebel …” The Prince of Yong smiled and did not finish his sentence.
Understanding the meaning behind his words, I did not pry further. It seemed like the Prince of Qing had someone by his side monitoring him. This was probably a secret that very few people, even within the imperial clan, knew. However, the problem still remained. I asked, “Can Your Imperial Highness convince the Prince of Qing to not enter the capital?”
After thinking it over, the Prince of Yong remarked, “This Prince will write a letter to him and have Gou Lian deliver it. He should definitely have a way to convince the Prince of Qing to not enter the capital.”
With a sigh, I replied, “A pity that the Prince of Qi isn’t so easily to send away.”
After several days, under the suggestion from the crown prince and the important ministers of the court, the Prince of Qi began his journey back to the capital under imperial edict to report his achievements. This was as expected. As a result, the Prince of Yong did not make any attempts to prevent it from happening. However, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, had already come to the decision to arouse the Fengyi Sect Master’s suspicion by preventing the Prince of Qi from entering the capital. I was planning an assassination attempt so that the Prince of Qi would be prevented from being involved in the struggle for the position of heir apparent. Even if it would raise suspicions, it was unimportant, as it would be better than an open battle between the armies of the Princes of Qi and Yong.
While the Prince of Yong and Shi Yu were discussing how to arrange the assassination attempt, an imperial bodyguard entered and reported in. “Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi has dispatched a secret envoy who requests to meet with Your Imperial Highness.”
When we heard this report, we were all dumbfounded. Why would the Prince of Qi dispatch someone to meet with the Prince of Yong? Regardless of the reason, Li Zhi had to meet with this envoy. As a result, the Prince of Yong received this envoy in his study with Shi Yu and I standing to his left and right, respectively.
It wasn’t long before one of the Prince of Qi’s valiant, personal imperial bodyguards entered the study. After saluting, he handed over a letter. After taking a look, the Prince of Yong’s expression changed, and he passed the letter to me. Reading its contents, I discovered that it was an invitation for the princes to have a secret meeting at a Buddhist temple about a hundred li away from Chang’an on the second day of the ninth month. The Prince of Yong indifferently stated, “Please inform the Prince of Qi. This Prince will definitely make the meeting.”
After the envoy departed, Shi Yu hesitatingly asked, “His Highness, the Prince of Qi’s conduct is too abnormal. Is Your Imperial Highness truly going to make the trip?”
The Prince of Yong replied, “If there is an opportunity to change sixth brother’s position, this Prince is willing to take the risk.”
Fanning the folding fan in my hand, I said, “The Prince of Qi is not someone who shirks difficulties.2 It is likely that he won’t change his position. However, this is a good opportunity. If the Crown Prince learns that Your Imperial Highness is having a secret meeting with the Prince of Qi, then they likely won’t implicitly trust the Prince of Qi. At the very least, we should be able to reduce the pressure upon us.”
After hesitating, the Prince of Yong spoke, “We can use this discord strategy, but I am worried that sixth brother will suspect this Prince.”
“The Prince of Qi was already an opponent of Your Imperial Highness,” I replied with a smile. “There’s nothing if not even more rancor. There originally was suspicion between the Crown Prince and the Prince of Qi. If this were to happen, then this would truly be a good method of harming others for one’s personal benefit.”
Moved, the Prince of Yong added, “But we still need to secretly transmit this information to the Crown Prince.”
Laughing humorlessly, I replied, “Based upon the abilities of the Fengyi Sect, as long as Your Imperial Highness pretends to be extremely careful, they will definitely have someone monitoring you. When the time comes, we can allow them to catch sight of the meeting from a distance. As there is no way for them to know what is really happening, when the time comes, they will naturally expect the worst.”
The Prince of Yong smiled slightly. “If it is possible to keep sixth brother out of it, then everything will be worth it. After all, sixth brother is a talented field commander.”
At dusk on the second day of the ninth month, the Prince of Yong departed Chang’an with little luggage. Aside from the over a hundred imperial bodyguards, who had departed before and after him, were Xiaoshunzi and I. I insisted upon accompanying the Prince of Yong because I was curious as to the Prince of Qi’s intentions. Moreover, my decision-making was needed to cope with any contingencies. As for Xiaoshunzi, without his protection, how would I feel safe to take such a long journey? Under these circumstances, aside from the Fengyi Sect Master personally taking action, my safety was assured.
The meeting location was a rundown temple in an extremely desolate location. It had already been abandoned and there was no one presiding over it. It was daybreak when we arrived. The Prince of Qi’s personal guards had already cleaned this temple up, setting up heavy security. However, all of them were in commoner’s clothing. Aside from the carriage beside the temple, there was nothing conspicuous about this temple.
After they arrived, the Prince of Yong’s household guard quickly established a defensive perimeter. With hostility, both sides stared at one another. Coincidentally, the two sides were equally balanced, ensuring that the temple was impenetrable. I shot a glance at Xiaoshunzi. Understanding my intentions, he moved to a position that would allow him to keep an eye on the entire temple. This would prevent anyone else from reaching a spot that would enable them to see what was going on within the temple. Following in the wake of the Prince of Yong, I entered the small temple. Within the swept clean main hall and before the shabby Buddhist statue, a man dressed in silk brocade robes stood with his arms behind his back. His head was proudly raised, gazing upon the Buddhist statue. I stopped walking. The current Prince of Qi was very different from the Prince of Qi that I had last seen.
Four years ago, when we first met in Southern Chu, he was a domineering imperial prince soaring in the clouds, covered head to toe in death, causing all those who saw him to give way in the face of superior strength.3 The second time we met, he had been injured and poisoned. As he was dying, he could not hide his outspoken and straightforward attitude. The third time we met in the Yong capital. He was filled with fervor. If I had not been moved by his intentions, there was no way that I would have used him as a tool to disengage myself from the Prince of Yong’s household. After that, while the struggle between the Prince of Yong’s household and the crown prince’s faction was like a raging storm, although the Prince of Qi was a member of the crown prince’s faction, he was constrained and could not return to the army. Even if he was arrogant, aggressive, and domineering, he could not hide the disappointment that he felt. The previous aggressive, domineering aura had gradually vanished. Meeting him today, because of the baptism by fire of the successful campaign on the northern frontier, the already thirty-year-old Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, had a sort of restrained and natural domineering aura, somewhat similar to the Prince of Yong of years past.
While I was letting my imagination run wild, the Prince of Yong had already walked forward and stated, “Sixth brother, I’ve arrived. What do you wish to say to me?”
Li Xian slowly and evenly turned around, a faint smile appearing on his face, as he replied, “Second brother, the situation is already on a knife-edge, correct?
Li Zhi’s expression wavered. He did not respond. Turning around again, Li Xian continued, “Who doesn’t want to seize the Imperial Throne? With big Brother sinning on his own and now suspecting everyone, it seems like the throne will be second brother’s.”
“If you are willing to wholeheartedly support me,” replied Li Zhi unhurriedly, “I will treat you as I have in the past.”
“Like the past?” Li Xian burst out into loud laughter. “Once upon a time, my youthful self admired you. After entering the military, without second brother’s teachings, it is likely that I would not have lasted long. However, I have always wanted to escape second brother’s shadow. Therefore, I stopped on the path to become the next second brother, but rather became today’s Prince of Qi. However, second brother, I may have easy morals and perhaps I am foolish, but I am not fickle or a turncoat.4 Since I am supporting the Crown Prince, I will not betray him even if I have to die.”
Unable to suppress his anger, Li Zhi declared, “If big brother is plotting a rebellion, are you going to follow him to commit outrages?”
Li Xian was startled. Instantly, he changed his tack and replied, “So that is the case. Second brother intends to force big brother to rebel. In this way, you can perfectly and legitimately become the heir apparent.”
“Sixth brother, I have always admired your intelligence,” spoke Li Zhi, heaving a sigh. “But why are you presently unwilling to cover things up? Right now, the arrow is already notched. I’m afraid that I cannot allow you to enter the capital.”
The Prince of Qi smiled faintly. “Second brother, do not worry. I am not a fool. I am clear about the present state of affairs. I will not prevent you from doing what you intend to do. I also will not inform big brother. However, unless big brother truly rebels, I will not betray him. If second brother does not believe me, there is someone in the carriage outside. Once second brother has seen who it is, then you will immediately understand that I will not reveal a hint of what has happened today.”
The Prince of Yong’s expression shifted, as he shot a glance at me. I, who had remained silent throughout, withdrew from the main hall. Walking to the front of the carriage, I lifted up the curtain. Within the carriage were two individuals, one seated and one lying down. The seated individual was a fifty-year-old, middle-aged man. His facial expression was respectful and calm. Lying down was a delicate looking youth, his skin color blackened. Although he was in a coma, his expression looked disturbed and uneasy. In a low voice, the middle-aged man spoke up, “This is my little master, Jiang Haitao.”
Stunned for a second, I then smiled and introduced myself. “I am Jiang Zhe.”
The middle-aged man happily exclaimed, “You’re Jiang daren! The medicine brought back by General Fang stabilized my little master’s injury.”
In a soothing voice, I replied, “Your distinguished self, do not worry. At present, His Highness, the Prince of Yong, is still waiting inside the main hall for my report. Please wait a moment.”
Returning to the temple, I respectfully glanced at the Prince of Qi and walked to the Prince of Yong’s side. In a low voice, I whispered, “It’s the son of Marquis Jiang.”
The Prince of Yong’s expression changed greatly, and he stared in astonishment at the Prince of Qi. Li Xian’s expression was icily arrogant and yet he did not speak a single word. Becoming softer, the Prince of Yong spoke, “You must know that by becoming involved in this matter, I can coerce you, right? It’s fine if news of this matter were to spread. The Crown Prince and the Fengyi Sect won’t let you off.”
In an aloof and detached voice, Li Xian replied, “I don’t care what they think. This child called me uncle. I would be too heartless if I were to stand idly by. I wonder if second brother has the courage to take over?”
The Prince of Yong suddenly lightly saluted. “This Prince is ashamed to admit that he is inferior to sixth brother’s chivalry. Do not worry. Since this child has already arrived in Chang’an, I will do my utmost.”
Turning around once more, Li Xian requested, “Take him away. When he is completely healed, send him back. If that is inconvenient, then I will take him back.”
Li Zhi gazed solemnly at the Prince of Qi and asked, “Are you truly unwilling to change your mind? You must know that once everything begins, things will only conclude when one of us is dead.”
Li Xian smiled faintly, his smile exuding ridicule. Icily, he countered, “Many thanks for second brother’s kind intentions. Even if I were to support you, would you truly trust me?”
The Prince of Yong was left speechless. He truly wished to state that he would implicitly trust the Prince of Qi. But remembering his frequent opposition and the Princess of Yong, Qing Zheng, Li Zhi ultimately only weakly stated, “I believe that sixth brother has his ways to express his sincerity.”
Turning to the side, Li Xian said in a low voice, “Although Zheng’er has her faults, she is after all my wife, the mother of my child. Li Xian is untalented and cannot kill my wife in order to obtain riches and honor.”
Li Zhi heaved a heartfelt sigh, replying, “Then good luck, sixth brother.” Finished speaking, he turned and departed.
I glanced at the Prince of Qi. Cupping my hands together in front of my chest, I stated, “Before, Zhe only knew that Your Imperial Highness was outspoken and straightforward. Today, I learned that Your Imperial Highness dares to act with courage and determination.5 Would Your Imperial Highness please be careful going forward? The Crown Prince is a fool, while the Fengyi Sect is ambitious to the extreme. Why does Your Imperial Highness wish to be buried alongside them?”
Li Xian glanced at me. In a dull voice, he replied, “Suiyun is an incomparable talent in the entirety of the world. If I had ruthlessly killed you, it is likely that I would still have fallen into today’s dire straits.”
Hearing his words, I grew distressed. With these words, I fully understood that this proud and arrogant imperial prince had already given up control over his destiny, willingly allowing himself to be drowned in the blood of this struggle to become heir apparent. However, I was powerless to help him. Reaching today’s state, regardless of what kind of person the Prince of Qi was, neither the Prince of Yong nor I would be willing to let go. Were it not for the opportunity to use today’s meeting to sow discord between the Prince of Qi and the Crown Prince, I would absolutely not allow the Prince of Qi to return to Chang’an.
Bidding my farewell, I departed. When I boarded the carriage, the Prince of Yong’s face was frosty. Even when the carriage started moving, he did not speak. It was a good while before he listlessly stated, “A pity about the Prince of Qi.”
I knew that the Prince of Yong’s killing intent had been stirred. However, I could also hear the deep and profound regret in his voice. This had not been present when we were discussing assassinating the Prince of Qi. Thus, I replied, “Your Imperial Highness, do not worry. It looks like the Prince of Qi won’t follow the Crown Prince into rebellion. At the very least, there is no need for Your Imperial Highness to worry that the Prince of Yong’s army will rise in revolt.”
Shaking his head, the Prince of Yong recited, “One cannot afford to take the chance.6 If we cannot reliably control sixth brother, this Prince cannot rest easily. Suiyun, do you have any solutions?”
After considering over a hundred, a thousand possible approaches, I could only regretfully shake my head and answer, “Other than killing the Prince of Qi, this subject does not have any ways of controlling him.”
The Prince of Yong let out a light sigh, speaking no further. Only then did I continue, “Unless we can cause the Prince of Qi to suddenly fall seriously ill. Without the Prince of Qi personally commanding them, his troops are the same as a pack of wolves without an alpha.”
Li Zhi raised his eyebrows and he stated, “Let’s first take a look. However, we have to make preparations now. We can’t wait before acting.”
Smiling slightly, I replied, “I wonder what the Fengyi Sect is going to think of all this.”
After the Prince of Yong’s carriage had traveled into the distance, the head of the Prince of Qi’s personal guards walked in and reported, “Your Imperial Highness, we should also get going. If the Crown Prince learns of this matter, the Crown Prince will likely become suspicious.”
“That doesn’t matter,” replied Li Xian, nodding his head. “I have already fulfilled my obligations as a subject and as a brother. There is nothing I can do if the Crown Prince were to become suspicious.”
The personal guard suddenly asked, “This subordinate doesn’t dare doubt Your Imperial Highness’s decision, but is that man truly deserving of Your Imperial Highness’s loyalty?”
The Prince of Qi then expressed contempt. “This isn’t something that you can question.”
Although that personal guard had a look of terror on his face, the unbending resolve in his eyes did not change in the slightest. Glancing at him, Li Xian sighed and explained, “Seeing the Crown Prince’s nature exposed, I am also extremely disappointed. However, I have the tiger by its tail.7 Even if he is heartless, I cannot be faithless. Regardless of what happens, without the Crown Prince’s previous help, I absolutely would not have today’s accomplishments.”
Not long after the Prince of Qi’s carriage departed, a woman in the clothes of the commoners stood up on top of a knoll. Although her clothing was simple, it was exceedingly elegant. Watching the Prince of Qi depart, she smiled icily. Although her smile was callous and ruthless, it was like the dazzling radiance of the morning sun, quite moving.
镇州, a prefecture that is now modern-day Zhengding County in Hebei province
知难而退, zhinan’ertui – idiom, lit. to sound out the difficulties and retreat to avoid defeat; fig. to back out of an awkward situation, to get out after finding out what it’s really like
退避三舍, tuibisanshe – idiom, lit. to retreat three day’s march; fig. to give way in the face of superior strength
朝秦暮楚, zhao Qin mu Chu – idiom, lit. serve Qin in the morning, Chu in the evening; this is an idiom regarding the many officials of the Qin Dynasty who surrendered as the dynasty fell; fig. quick to switch sides
敢作敢为, ganzuoganwei – idiom, lit. to do something without fear of the consequences; fig. to dare to do anything
不怕一万，只怕万一, bupayiwan, zhipawanyi – idiom, lit. we’re not afraid of the ten thousand times that it turns out okay, we’re only afraid of the one time that it turns out bad; fig. one cannot afford to take the chance
骑虎难下, qihunanxia – idiom, lit. if you ride a tiger, it’s hard to get off; fig. impossible to back down; have a tiger by the tail