With difficulty, I rose to my feet. Returning to the window, I gazed once again at the Autumn’s Return Abode. After a while, over a dozen figures walked out slowly from within the smoke and dust. I squinted, studying carefully. From the foremost gray-clothed monk’s pace and disposition, I could immediately tell that he was Great Master True Compassion. The monks behind him all had majestic and vigorous gaits. Although there were only twelve of them left, there was not the slightest hint of dejection. After a long while had passed, I still had yet to see Xiaoshunzi. I tensed up. My two hands resting upon the window sill tightened, my knuckles whitening. After a while, the roiling dust and smoke was finally dispersed by the autumn wind. Only then did I see an azure-robed figure standing with his hands behind his back within the ruins. The azure robes were speckled with blood. From a distance, the blood was as beautiful as peach blossoms, scattered all over the place on the cloth.1 Before him, a conflagration burned merrily, gradually spreading to the ruined buildings and the surrounding vegetation. By now, imperial guardsmen arrived to put out the fire. Suddenly, the azure-robed man’s figure suddenly disappeared without a trace. Quickly rubbing my eyes, I saw that his figure had reappeared somewhere else. Instantly, before I had even blinked a few times, he appeared at the foot of the tower that the Prince of Yong and I were in. At this moment, Great Master True Compassion and the Shaolin monks were still some li away.
At this moment, Li Zhi was practically dancing a little jig2 as he walked over. Animatedly, he stated, “Suiyun, it was truly due to you that we were able to not only force the Fengyi Sect Master to kill herself, but you also prevented us from suffering irreversible damage. This Prince is truly left speechless … truly speechless.”
Finally able to relax, I turned my head. Smiling, I replied, “This was all due to the contributions of Great Master True Compassion and the senior monks of the Shaolin Temple that we were able to ensure the Fengyi Sect Master’s death. This subject only used delaying tactics to stall for a few days. Moreover, without Your Imperial Highness’s trust in this subject, allowing Zhe to act on my own initiative that day within the Dawn’s Frost Palace Hall, this subject’s stratagem would not have succeeded. Now, with the death of the Fengyi Sect Master, it will be impossible for the Fengyi Sect to overthrow the dynasty. This subject congratulates Your Imperial Highness for eliminating Great Yong’s greatest hidden danger. Your Imperial Highness, please personally go to greet Great Master True Compassion to express your gratitude. In the future, Your Imperial Highness will require the Shaolin Temple’s support to stabilize your position in jianghu. Moreover, dealing with Northern Han’s Devil Sect will require a peak expert like Great Master True Compassion to take command.”
Eager to take action and rubbing his hands together,2 Li Zhi spoke, entirely joyous, “Suiyun, do not worry. This Prince will go immediately to greet the Great Master. However, Suiyun, are you not going to see the Great Master?”
“This subject is about to collapse,” I replied, smiling wryly. “If Your Imperial Highness empathizes with my condition, it is best that this subject be allowed to rest.”
Li Zhi gazed at me with worry. Seeing that my expression was only somewhat tired, he stated in relief, “Suiyun, you have to rest properly. Going forward, this Prince still has to capture all of those supporting the Fengyi Sect in one go before reforming the laws and discipline of the court. These are all complicated tasks. This Prince will have to rely upon Suiyun’s help!”
I smiled slightly, but did not respond. There were many things that needed to be handled in the coming days. It was not a simple task to reform the laws and discipline of the court, especially as the emperor was still alive. In addition, although the Fengyi Sect had lost its central pillar in Fan Huiyao, their painstakingly nurtured strength had intertwined with the Yong court. This strength was not easy to deal with. However, I did not need to worry about these matters. Presumably, Shi Yu had already made preparations. Moreover, there would always be more individuals willing to gild the lily rather than provide help in the hour of need.
Watching the Prince of Yong’s departing animated figure, I released a soft sigh, tears falling down my face. Since entering the Prince of Yong’s service, I had often lingered on the precipice between life and death, exhausting all of my abilities, and shedding blood, sweat, and tears. All of it was for today … Right now, the Prince of Yong’s succession was ensured. Having lost his position as heir apparent, the crown prince’s grave sin of treason would lead to a lifetime of imprisonment or a forced suicide. The Fengyi Sect, serving as accomplices, had already lost their former splendor. Against the remaining scattered remnants, I had been making preparations since long ago to deal with them. It could be said I had avenged my grievous hatred. If that was the case, to someone with my temperament, what use did I have for glory, splendor, wealth, and rank? My vengeance wrought, it was time for me to withdraw. Tenderness bubbled from within, as I thought about Princess Changle and Roulan.
At this moment, someone pushed open the door to the room. I did not turn around to look. No one else would enter in such a manner aside from Xiaoshunzi. As expected, Xiaoshunzi’s feminine voice came over hoarsely, “Young master, I fortunately did not fail my mission. The Fengyi Sect Master lit her body’s Samadhi fire, immolating herself.”
“How are your injuries?” I asked softly. “Although the Fengyi Sect Master has died, there are still some matters that I require you to handle.”
Xiaoshunzi smiled and replied, “Young master, do not worry. These injuries are nothing. Great Master True Compassion practically handled, by himself, the majority of the Fengyi Sect Master’s attacks. Therefore, I only needed to harmonize my qi. Moreover, I have reaped a substantial harvest dueling with the Fengyi Sect Master. It was worth it to sustain such injuries. Is the matter that young master wants me to handle the pursuit and execution of the surviving members of the Fengyi Sect?”
Turning around, I solemnly stated, “That day at the Dawn’s Frost Palace Hall, although I gave them the antidote, I also played a trick. Within a month, those poisoned will emit a unique odor that only a wild bird from the southern frontier can smell. I once ordered several men to train several of these birds. As a result, I want you to mobilize the Secret Camp, using those birds to grasp the movements of the surviving members of the Fengyi Sect. For now, do not disturb them. At present, in order to hide their whereabouts, they are definitely using hidden bases that cannot easily be found. I want detailed information on those hidden bases. However, there is one matter that must be done. I want Li Hanyou. This is a matter that I had promised Dong Que.”
“Young master, when all is said and done, it is inappropriate to allow Dong Que to stay by young master’s side,” expressed Xiaoshunzi, glancing at me with concern. “What arrangements have young master made for him?”
Sighing, I responded, “The hatred in Dong Que’s heart is deeper than mine. The murder of his parents is absolutely irreconcilable. The Crown Princess’s maid was pregnant when she was murdered. Were it not for the intelligence from the spies planted next to the Crown Prince by the Prince of Yong, I would definitely not have realized that the maid had been murdered. Alas, I underestimated Li Hanyou’s insanity, not predicting that she would unexpectedly be so ruthless and cruel to a maid. Didn’t you once see Dong Que offer sacrifices to his wife and child in the middle of the night? With that kind of bitter and deep-seated hatred, don’t say that Dong Que is unwilling to let matters be even I cannot let Li Hanyou off. Were it not for my failure to think this through satisfactorily, Xiu Chun would likely not have died and Dong Que would not have been left all alone. As a result, I want you to bring Li Hanyou to Dong Que, allowing him to punish that woman however he likes.”
Thinking it over, Xiaoshunzi observed, “It’s only that to capture Li Hanyou alive, it will inevitably disturb the remnants of the Fengyi Sect. It is likely that young master’s plans will be wrecked.”
“Those plans are merely those that I made on His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong’s behalf,” I explained, smiling slightly. “Their success will not affect the general situation. However, it would be a pity if those useful chess pieces were to be destroyed for no reason. We cannot go handle this matter directly. However, what we cannot do, the Embroidered Union can. Furthermore, if we are to have the Fengyi Sect to follow my arrangements, we will have to provide them with some honey. Besides, in the eyes of those women, there is only self-interest. If handled appropriately, not only will we not need to use force, we can acquire a method of controlling the Fengyi Sect.”
Seeing Xiaoshunzi somewhat comprehend my intentions, I whispered a few things to him. As he listened, he nodded his head, sometimes even supplementing his own views and ideas.
After our discussion had reached its conclusion, we returned to our temporary residence. Upon arriving at the small courtyard, I caught sight of Dong Que staring listlessly off into the distance. I laughed and stated, “Dong Que, you must be anxious to pursue Li Hanyou, no?”
Originally, I had believed that Dong Que would be absentminded and blurt out a response. Who could have expected that he would immediately return to his senses? Respectfully, he replied, “That day, young master promised Dong Que that you would take help me take vengeance. Young master would definitely not fail to live up to your promise. Dong Que will have to rely upon young master to attain my vengeance.”
I gave Dong Que a look of praise. “I have already made arrangements for this matter. Within ten days, you will definitely see Li Hanyou. Moreover, I will deliver a complete and intact Li Hanyou to you, allowing you to handle her as you will. However, when this matter is handled, you must depart from Chang’an. Do you perchance have any plans? If you desire to become an official, I will make the necessary arrangements for you. Even so, it is best that you temporarily leave the capital. If you return in five or six years, then there will be no further problems. If you do not wish to become an official, I will provide you with substantial funds, sufficient for you to spend the rest of your life in wealth. What are your plans, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Thinking it over, Dong Que answered, “This lowly one was originally a loafer. Even if my family is avenged, I have no place to call home. If young master does not discard me, this lowly one desires to remain by and serve at young master’s side. Although young master has the services of Lord Li and young master’s affairs can only be handled by Lord Li, there will always be matters that will be too trifling for Lord Li to handle. This lowly one understands that I do not have the ability to handle important matters, but can handle those trifling and unimportant matters. I wonder if young master is willing to accept me?”
My heart was stirred. Of those who served at my side, Xiaoshunzi held the foremost position, rarely able to leave my side. As a result, he did not have any set duties. Chen Zhen was the one, in practice, responsible for supervising the Secret Camp. Han Wuji was in charge of the businesses of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. Although the eight elite operatives were all excellent and talented individuals, each had essentially taken charge of a section of responsibilities. Moreover, I had no intention of burying their talents. In the future, no matter where I took up residence, I would require a supervisor who could handle trifling matters. This Dong Que was a suitable candidate. Besides, although I knew that this man had kept some secrets to himself, if we were really speaking of secrets, those carried by Xiaoshunzi and I were definitely greater than his. With this, it seemed like it would be worth it to take Dong Que fully into my service. Although approving mentally, I smiled and stated, “You must understand that if you become the supervisor handling my external affairs, you will have to meet with many knowledgeable and intelligent individuals. Are you not afraid that your identity will be exposed?”
Dong Que actually smiled and riposted, “Didn’t young master say that after five to six years, it wouldn’t be a problem?”
Startled, I could not help but laugh. “Okay.… Since you are willing to serve, that means that we are bound by fate. In the future, I will treat you as a trusted subordinate, so that our acquaintance was not in vain.”
Dong Que saluted again. Before, although his etiquette was complete and entirely present, it was the etiquette of a subject. Now, the salute that he had performed was one of a servant to his master. I advanced and helped him to his feet. Although I did not understand his reasons for remaining at my side, as long as it was no harm to me, I had no intention of allowing such a capable subordinate to depart.
Suddenly, Xiaoshunzi’s brows twitched. He whispered, “Great Master True Compassion has come.”
I had some misgivings in my heart. Right now, by rights, Great Master True Compassion should be going to rest. Later tonight, the Prince of Yong was going to host a banquet for the experts from the various sects. Why would Great Master True Compassion suddenly and unexpectedly come at this moment? After a while, an imperial bodyguard came in to report, “Daren, Great Master True Compassion requests a meeting.”
I gestured towards Xiaoshunzi and Dong Que. Both of them understood. While Xiaoshunzi supported me to welcome the senior monk, Dong Que hid in the inner room. Although Great Master True Compassion had never met Dong Que before, based upon his formidable senses, it would be easy for him to notice Dong Que’s disguise. Although things had been settled, there were still some things that were best kept secret.
Great Master True Compassion had already changed his clothes. Although his injuries weren’t light and his complexion was pale, his expression remained as calm and plain as always. In a fast pace, I walked forward. Saluting, I said, “Originally, I should have gone to personally thank Great Master’s invaluable assistance. However, Zhe’s health has always been poor and was unable to do so, causing Great Master to come personally. Great Master, please do not blame me.”
Great Master True Compassion raised his gaze and looked at me. At present, Jiang Zhe was close to thirty years of age. But because of his pale complexion, his lack of facial hair, and his delicate attractive appearance, the hair on his temples were already powdered white. His frequent illness heavily taxed his mind and body. However, this combination of delicateness and fragility caused him to appear even more elegant, distinguished, and accomplished, making his bearing seem even more natural and graceful. His eyes carried a profound, serene chill. His gaze was tranquil and calm. Compared to their last meeting, Jiang Zhe seemed to be a bit more vigorous and spirited. No matter how one looked, one could only feel that this young man was no more than a lofty and unsullied scholarly character. Based upon his appearances, who could know that he was a vicious and meticulous strategist?
Great Master True Compassion sighed inwardly. The Fengyi Sect Master’s martial arts were slightly better than his. For experts of their level, it was possible to be defeated; however it wasn’t easy to kill. Even if were to collaborate with Jing Wuji, even if they were able to defeat the Fengyi Sect Master, she could still easily escape and flee. However, this weak and feeble scholar, with meticulous care, had used cruel chained strategies to force the Fengyi Sect Master to fall into a situation where she could only die. Ultimately, that once-in-a-generation heroine and peerless woman perished within the imperial clan’s Hunting Palace. This was enough to cause Great Master True Compassion to tremble with fear. Just now, he had heard reports from his disciple and learned the details of what had happened. This youth, at this most critical juncture, had put his life on the line to save the desperate crisis, pacifying the rebellion and rescuing the Imperial Presence. Carefully observing this man’s conduct, the man’s strategies were sinister and ever-changing, able to penetrate every nook and cranny, birthing deep fear in all.
The more he understood Jiang Zhe, the more worried Great Master True Compassion became. In the past, the Fengyi Sect Master was also a magnificent and outstanding character. If not for an ill-considered mistake, how would she have caused such problems for the world? This man’s intelligence and knowledge was greater than the Fengyi Sect Master’s. At present, now that the Prince of Yong was clearly the next sovereign of Great Yong, this Jiang Zhe, as the Prince of Yong’s trusted subordinate, would certainly wield great authority in the future. If he were to make a mistake as well, it would inevitably cause the common people to be plunged into misery and suffering, causing the rivers to flow with blood.
It was because of these fears that Great Master True Compassion had come to personally pay a visit to Jiang Zhe. After both parties had made their proper greetings, they took their seats. Reciting one of the many names of the Buddha, Great Master True Compassion stated, “Benefactor Jiang’s resourcefulness is boundless. The Fengyi Sect Master was forced to die from self-immolation. Although this old cassock was able to contribute my humble efforts, without Benefactor Jiang’s planning, the Fengyi Sect Master would likely have been able to flee and come back to haunt us. Alas, Benefactor’s stratagems are excessively vicious. At present, Benefactor is His Imperial Highness’s trusted and major subordinate. By your side you are accompanied by an expert like little brother Li. With a single mistake, you can cause countless innocents to suffer. Henceforth, I ask that Benefactor is able to observe the will of the Heavens and give the common people the chance to live in peace. Would Benefactor please not blame this old cassock for his wordy exhortations?”
Initially, I couldn’t help but feel that this senior monk was unavoidably being a busybody. However, seeing the grave and solemn eyes of Great Master True Compassion, I thus solemnly replied, “This youngster understands the cyclical nature of Heavenly Law and the inevitability of retribution. These are engraved in this youngster’s heart. In the future, if there are any errors and insufficiencies in my conduct, I ask Great Master to remind me.”
Great Master True Compassion’s heart skipped a beat. Don’t tell me that this man is trying to ensure that I not simply focus upon him, but upon the empire at large? If I were to worry about his conduct at all times and were to admonish him, wouldn’t that mean that I would owe this man a favor? However, after carefully considering matters, Great Master True Compassion could see that Jiang Zhe’s expression was completely sincere. He could not help but think, Fine … If this man is truly a wicked and evil character, his true character will be revealed sooner rather than later. Moreover, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, is an enlightened ruler. What reason do I have to be consumed by groundless fears?4 After thinking this through, Great Master True Compassion did not say anything extra, only uttering a few idle words before rising and departing. As he was about to depart, Great Master True Compassion glanced keenly and intensely in the direction of the inner room. He could faintly sense that there was someone inside. However, that man’s breathing was even and subtle, clearly possessing deep internal energy that was quite unique. Due to this hidden man, Great Master True Compassion’s mind could not help but carry private worries.
After Great Master True Compassion departed, with an ashen face, Xiaoshunzi stated, “This old monk surprisingly dares to reprimand young master, truly ridiculous. Does young master desire to teach him a lesson?”
I smiled indifferently and replied, “The wise man knows he knows nothing, but the fool thinks he knows all. The Great Master has a merciful heart and mind. This is his advantage. Moreover, this matter is a reminder to us. In this world, there is nothing that can remain hidden for all eternity. These years, in order to attain vengeance, I have committed numerous cruel and ruthless tasks. Although I have no regrets, there will inevitably be those who bear an irreconcilable hatred towards me. It is only that this time with the Fengyi Sect Master, I do not know how many people will be implicated. By provoking the world’s resentment and causing everyone fear, it seems that I already have fallen into a dangerous situation. With this, the matter that we discussed must be quickly taken care of. All right, I need to think about that the arrangements. There is no need for you to get involved. Go take care of the matter involving Li Hanyou. If this matter is not settled, I will be unable to rest easy.”
Xiaoshunzi silently listened to my words, his expression gradually relaxing. “Young master speaks the truth. Although the old monk was rude, the heart cultivation methods that he gifted to young master are quite useful. These last few days, after practicing them, young master’s health has indeed improved. Considering this matter alone, I will not make things difficult for him.”
On the fourth day of the tenth month, the Imperial Presence returned to the capital. Sitting inside a carriage accompanying the army, I was leisurely and relaxed. After the Yong emperor returned to the capital, an enormous storm would break out. This was completely unavoidable. Even if Li Yuan desired to be half-hearted, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, would definitely not agree. Although the ones who rescued the Imperial Presence were the Qin family, it would be reasonable to say that the situation rested in Li Yuan’s control. However, there were some changes to the inevitable and right situation because of some subtle reasons. First, although Qin Qing had died by Li Hanyou’s hands, if it weren’t for Li Yuan’s decision to betroth them, it would not have led to today’s results. Although Qin Yong had rescued the Imperial Presence, everyone knew that the people who had transmitted the emperor’s secret edict were the Prince of Yong’s subordinates. With this, the Prince of Yong not only contributed to the pacification of the rebellion, he was also an entirely worthy5 candidate as heir apparent. Combined with his usual prestige, he had already completely surpassed Li Yuan’s power and prestige. Beyond all this, the Prince of Yong had taken the most risks. As a result, the handling of the aftermath could absolutely not bypass his involvement. However, the Prince of Yong had long made preparations for matters within the capital, relieving me of worry.
Before rescuing the Imperial Presence at the Hunting Palace, the Prince of Yong had dispatched trusted imperial bodyguards to deliver a letter to Shi Yu in the capital. Upon receiving the letter, Shi Yu made careful and meticulous arrangements, constantly monitoring all of the important ministers of the court. Although neither Wei Guan nor Zheng Xia, responsible for the governance and defense of the capital, were ordinary individuals, how were the many years of the Prince of Yong’s management typical? Moreover, in these last several years, the Prince of Yong had cast a wide net, secretly controlling a majority of the low level officials. Although he was unable to control the court, it was quite easy for him to undertake such a surveillance operation. Besides, Shi Yu had managed the Prince of Yong’s affairs in Chang’an for many years. As a result, Shi Yu was able to completely sever the communications between the Hunting Palace and Chang’an. While the Hunting Palace was embroiled in a life and death struggle, Chang’an remained undisturbed. After the disciples of the Fengyi Sect had escaped, it wasn’t that they weren’t interested in sending a message to Chang’an, they simply did not dare to throw away their lives by going to Chang’an. As a result, the messengers that they dispatched were only normal disciples. All of them were either captured or killed by Shi Yu.
After the Fengyi Sect Master was killed, the Prince of Yong had dispatched men back to Chang’an to report the situation to Shi Yu. With this news, Shi Yu raised his vigilance, not daring to lower his guard. Moreover, the Fengyi Sect had many accomplices within the court. In addition, the entire court was filled with Wei Guan’s students and old friends. If something unforeseen were to happen before the emperor and the Prince of Yong returned to the capital, the foundations of Great Yong would likely be shaken. Consequently, Shi Yu decisively sought out Zheng Xia. Zheng Xia had always been upright and plainspoken. Although Wei Guan’s qualifications and position were above Zheng Xia’s, Zheng Xia was the one who was the Yong emperor’s mainstay. When Zheng Xia saw the emperor’s secret edict and the Prince of Yong’s handwritten message, he carefully asked several questions before believing Shi Yu’s words. Zheng Xia’s conduct was extremely decisive, immediately cooperating with Shi Yu to place Wei Guan under house arrest before easily seizing control of the situation in Chang’an. With Zheng Xia appearing, the civil officials in the court all trembled as they followed orders. As for the military officials, though they belonged to different factions, understood that Zheng Xia and Shi Yu represented the orders of the emperor and the Prince of Yong, and did not dare to disobey. As for the Prince of Qi’s subordinates, one, they always been at a disadvantage, while two, they had not received any orders from the Prince of Qi. As a result, they tacitly accepted everything that occurred. Everyone was waiting for the enormous changes that would occur when the Yong emperor returned to the capital.
A storm was brewing.…
星罗棋布, xingluoqibu – idiom, lit. scattered about like stars in the sky or chess pieces on a board; fig. spread all over the place
手舞足蹈, shouwuzudao – idiom, lit. hands dancing and feet leaping; fig. dancing and gesticulating in joy, dance a jig
摩拳擦掌, moquancazhang – idiom, lit. to rub one’s fists and wipe one’s palms; fig. to roll up one’s sleeves for battle, eager to get into action or start on a task
杞人忧天, qirenyoutian – idiom, lit. the man of Qi fears the sky falling; fig. groundless fears, the sky is falling!
当之无愧, dangzhiwukui – idiom, lit. fully deserving, without any reservations; fig. entirely worthy