In the twenty-fourth year of Great Yong’s Wuwei era, for three years following the eighth-year of the sixty-year cycle, Huo Jicheng, by himself, completely disrupted Great Yong’s jianghu. The news of the bloodbath did not spread. There was only one man who became known throughout Great Yong, Huo Jicheng’s adopted son, Huo Li. At this time, we have not yet touched upon Huo Jicheng’s assassination of the Southern Chu King.…
—Shu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jicheng
After contemplating for a short while, I felt relieved. Whatever her past, Li Hanyou had already adopted her current identity. Regardless of the collusion between the Fengyi Sect and the Prince of Jingjiang, this was all in the past. I should consider how to best employ this new information. Unfortunately, the weight of Xia Jinyi’s testimony was insufficient, otherwise it would be enough to have the emperor strip Li Hanyou of her status as an imperial princess. The punishment for the crime of corrupting the bloodline of the imperial clan was not light. But this was unimportant. It would be enough if Grand General Qin believed this was true. However, this information could not easily be exposed. I would have to wait for the opportune moment before unmasking Li Hanyou’s real identity.
But why hadn’t Li Hanyou also recognized Xia Jinyi? Reasonably, the change in Li Hanyou’s appearance should be greater than Xia Jinyi’s. With doubts, I raised this issue.
Xia Jinyi lowered his head, two teardrops falling to the ground. He said, “From a young age, Li Hanyou was beautiful, her appearance not much changed. Moreover, the given name Hanyou was originally one that she gave to herself. That year, when we were studying together, she disliked her original name, thinking it too rustic and uncouth, and thus gave herself this new name. It was only because she was afraid of my parents’ reprimands that only she and I know of this. Therefore, I became somewhat suspicious when I heard the name, Hanyou. It was only that I did not dare to believe this was the case. Only after I saw her did this lowly one become certain of her identity. As for why she has not recognized this lowly one, it is because before the age of sixteen, this lowly one’s temperament was wooden and slow, my skin color dark, and my stature was thick and solid, completely different from my current appearance. This lowly one’s current appearance was transformed through secret medicine from my second master. In addition, my second master also prohibited me from training in external martial arts styles and focus instead on internal martial arts styles only. However, this lowly one did not expect that I would have today’s appearance.”
I could not help but laugh as I replied, “Why did your master, the Dream Daoist, attach such importance to the appearance of his disciples?”
Xia Jinyi did not question how Jiang Zhe knew of his second master’s identity. In reality, Xia Jinyi would have found it strange if Jiang Zhe did not know this. He answered, “My master stated that his disciples could have poor martial arts skills, but they definitely must be dissolute and elegant. That year, this lowly one had already given up on my desire for revenge and was unwilling to exhaust myself training martial arts. Therefore, I was extremely happy learning those insignificant skills from my master.”
I gazed deeply at Xia Jinyi, not uttering a single word. It was possible that his master had another, deeper motive. However, I would need to investigate this matter thoroughly before I could be certain. Returning to the main topic, I gravely stated, “The situation between His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, and the Crown Prince has already reached the stage where neither party can permit the other to coexist.1 Since the Fengyi Sect is supporting the Crown Prince, they are naturally within the list of those that need to be eradicated. You can be reassured. Regardless of whether you are able to live to see that day, Li Hanyou will definitely not meet a good end. Over this year, I have never met with you because I did not want your identity to be revealed. Today, we only have a short amount of time. I know much about your circumstances. In the future, when everything succeeds, I will definitely not treat you indifferently. At present, there is one matter that I need you to perform. This will be extremely dangerous and your life may be in danger. Originally, I had no intention for you to handle this matter. However, only you can do it in a completely secret manner. Are you willing to take the risk?”
With a calm expression, Xia Jinyi replied, “This lowly one had disregarded life and death long ago. This lowly one is well aware of the Crown Prince’s brutality and tyranny. If he ascends to the throne one day, it is likely that the common people of the world will all suffer horribly. Although I am not a benevolent and righteous individual, if I am able to provide my meager contribution to help His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, wrest control of the succession, then this lowly one is willing to die in order to see it happen.”
I again gazed at him deeply, handing him an emerald-green silk handkerchief. Xia Jinyi accepted it and took a look. His expression changed greatly. However, he did not speak. I carefully explained the arrangements that I had made. Xia Jinyi’s expression was full of dread and admiration. He voiced, “No matter how daren learned of this matter, this lowly one believes that this matter was handled rigorously and no one else knows of this.”
I smiled, but did not speak. There was no need to tell him that Xiaoshunzi had snuck into the palace and accepted two disciples. Although the martial arts skills of these two pitiful children were subpar, they were nimble. Combined with their clever minds, they had unexpectedly discovered an enormous secret.
Seeing that I did not speak, Xia Jinyi could only solemnly put away the silk handkerchief. He said, “This lowly one can only do his utmost.”
Seeing him agree, I took out a porcelain bottle and stated, “Inside are two pills. When the time comes, take the green-colored pill. That pill will protect your heart. It may be assumed that when that day comes, they will take their anger out on you. However, the individual tasked with killing you will not use weapons. To casually and randomly kill someone and shed blood before the Emperor is a crime. If the individual uses fists or palms, I dare to claim your life will be preserved. Afterwards, you have to secretly take the second black-colored pill. All signs of life will vanish and you appear dead. If this were to happen, then I have a way to rescue you. Although from that point on, you will never be permitted to appear in public, I believe that the present you should have no interest in continually muddling along in the turbid and dirty world of officialdom. If you still wish to have a future career, I will definitely not treat you unfairly in the future.”
A look of gratitude flashed in Xia Jinyi’s eyes. He replied, “Many thanks for daren’s considerations for this lowly one’s life. If this lowly one can avenge my great hatred, I couldn’t care less about prestige and great wealth. This lowly one only wishes to personally see Li Hanyou meet her retribution.”
Smiling faintly, I remarked, “This won’t be difficult. After everything succeeds and you have escaped, I will arrange for you to go into hiding. Someday in the future, you will naturally be able to fulfill your long-cherished wish. However, the situation may not necessarily reach this stage. If the Crown Prince refuses to take the bait or if your life is not in danger, you will continue to serve the Crown Prince. Remember, no matter what, you must be loyal and devoted, and must not reveal any snobbish overtones. If you can continue to stand by the Crown Prince’s side, in the future, you will continue to have full autonomy. Keep in mind, if you have the opportunity, there is no harm in inciting disharmony into the relationship between the crown prince and Lu Jingzhong.”
Xia Jinyi hesitated before he revealed, “At present, the Crown Prince is suspicious of the Fengyi Sect and the Prince of Qi, and relies heavily upon Lu Jingzhong. I’m afraid that it will be extremely difficult to sow discord between them.”
“What’s difficult about it?” I replied with a smile, “Those who are talented inevitably are inordinately proud of their ability. Lu Jingzhong’s mindset is sinister and malicious, while the Crown Prince is a petty and narrow-minded individual. You only need to praise Junior Mentor Lu’s outstanding stratagems a few times. The Crown Prince will definitely be filled with jealousy and resentment.”
Xia Jinyi dubiously consented, “This lowly one understands and will absolutely follow orders.”
After we had finished discussing these matters, Xia Jinyi quietly departed. In my mind, I understood that he was not entirely convinced by my judgement. However, he would also definitely not be only paying lip service.2 After all, my methods would not harm him. There was no harm for him to speak a few words of compliment to Lu Jingzhong.
Gazing at my expression, Xiaoshunzi stated, “It’s getting late. Does young master intend to spend the night here or return?”
“Let’s go back,” I tiredly replied. “I do not like this kind of place, entirely suffused with the greasy fragrance of cosmetics. Even breathing the scent makes me feel ill.”
Bringing over the cloak, he draped it around my shoulders. Placing a bamboo hat with a muslin covering on my head, I walked out of the room and exited through the side door of the brothel. Outside, in the dark alleyway was an ordinary looking carriage. Xiaoshunzi helped me board the carriage before he followed me inside. After the carriage’s hanging screen was lowered, the carriage began to move. I knew that the surrounding area was defended by my personal guard. Their leader was Jing Chi. Over this last year, he was always by my side if he was not within the barracks. Every time I left the prince’s residence, he would snatch the opportunity to accompany me. Could it be that he became muddled by all the books that I had him transcribe and copy?
The carriage made several twists and turns. It was the dead of night and there practically was no one present on the streets. As a result, the carriage’s speed gradually increased. Pulling aside the curtain of the carriage’s window, I observed the trees on both sides of the street speed past. On both sides of the carriage were six mounted imperial bodyguards following closely. I knew that Jing Chi was definitely bringing up the rear. Although I was not familiar with Chang’an’s streets, I knew that our present location was already quite far from where I had secretly met with Xia Jinyi and was thus reassured to allow the carriage to travel so quickly. Today, the imperial bodyguards that followed me out were those that I trusted the most. However, even they did not know why I had gone to that brothel. In reality, in order to prevent others from discovering my whereabouts, I had specially arranged a meeting with someone else. Naturally, that individual had sufficient reason to meet with me in secret. If the crown prince’s people were to discover that individual’s whereabouts, they would presumably suffer a terrible headache. That individual was someone whom no one could discover his whereabouts, the famous Huo Jicheng.
A year ago, I had ordered my subordinates to kill Huo Jicheng and silence him forever, and yet still faked his continued survival. Huo Jicheng only did two things over this last year. However, this was enough to cause the Fengyi Sect incessant and sufficient grief.
The first matter was that the Fengyi Sect set a trap using the remnants of the Embroidered Union, waiting for Huo Jicheng to walk right into the trap. However, although Huo Jicheng entered the trap as they had planned, they were beaten at their own game. All of the disciples of the Fengyi Sect and those experts from jianghu invited to assist were all handled in one fell swoop. However, no one knew what strategy was used, as all of the participants were killed, only leaving behind a lime-pickled head, publicly exposed and suspended on the roadside. From that point on, the remaining elites of the Embroidered Union disappeared without a trace. It was only until the second matter occurred two months later did they reappear.
That matter was quite dubious. Luoyang was a large city. Within, the relationship between the orthodox sects and the underworld were complicated and tangled. On the surface, the two largest and influential families, the Luo and Ding families, were polite and amiable. Both of them were upright and orthodox sects that adhered to the banner of the Fengyi Sect. However, behind the scenes, they were fighting bitterly. Aside from these two sects, there were several minor sects and factions that existed. Neither of the two families wished for their struggle to result in both sides being harmed. Instead, they used the minor sects and factions as proxy agents. Who could have thought that the city of Luoyang would suddenly fall into an unstable situation? The strength of a minor faction suddenly expanded rapidly, absorbing and annexing all the other minor sects and factions. The two families could not sit idly, cooperating to suppress this new opponent. Who could have expected that the minor faction unexpectedly pledged support to the Luo family? With this, the Ding family became worried about the dramatic increase in the Luo family’s strength, and inevitably began to make preparations. However, before they could act, all of the important characters in the Luo family were assassinated. The Luo family was naturally unwilling to let this matter rest. The Ding family seized the opportunity to expand its own strength. The two sides repeatedly fought bloody battles. The secondary leader of the minor faction was bought over by the Ding family. A foul wind and a rain of blood immediately swept through the city of Luoyang, leaving no one at peace.
Only after the arrival and mediation of the Third Miss, the “Compassionate Guanyin” Feng Feifei and the Seventh Miss, the “Hibiscus Sword” Xie Xiaotong, of the Fengyi Sect in Luoyang did both sides finally sit down. Only then did everyone discover that someone was inciting disharmony from within. With that, the minor faction immediately became the target of attack. When the two families united and breached the minor faction’s main branch, they discovered that the leader of the faction had already been assassinated in his sleeping chambers. After a thorough investigation, they discovered that a youth named Huo Li was missing. The members of the minor faction only knew that this youth was the faction leader’s new bodyguard. It was only after he had arrived, did the minor faction began to wantonly develop. Moreover, some suspected that this youth was the faction leader’s strategist. It was only because of his young age that it was difficult to believe this fact.
If this matter were to conclude in such a manner, although it would leave individuals filled with doubts, it could only be allowed to end in such a way. At most, they could only investigate that youth’s background. However, the problem was that they discovered a secret letter amidst the faction leader’s correspondence. This letter was actually written by Huo Jicheng. There were only a few uncomplicated irrelevant words within the letter. It was only at the end did the letter state that Huo Jicheng’s adopted son, Huo Li, would come to provide support. Seeing this letter, everyone looked at each other with dismay. Who could have expected that someone who had slipped through the net would have such fierce and sinister methods?
Henceforth, the Fengyi Sect’s order came down: search for Huo Jicheng everywhere. However, although the authorities and the Fengyi Sect issued strict orders for Huo Jicheng’s arrest, there was no news of Huo Jicheng. However, after this, Huo Jicheng became a scourge to the Central Plains second only to the Sovereign of the Devil Sect. Most terrifying was that after he had completely reorganized the Embroidered Union, that organization disappeared and reappeared like smoke. Although some of its members were still entrapped by the Fengyi Sect and the Great Yong authorities, but when these members were ensnared, they would either fight to the bitter end or commit suicide. Even if one or two of them were captured, those captured were all completely numb, not knowing what they had done and also not knowing how to communicate with others. They had only received written commands to execute actions. Reaching this point, there was no way to investigate any further. But from the obtained intelligence, everyone could see that the Embroidered Union had already become a mysterious organization.
Because of this, the senior-most disciple of the Fengyi Sect, Wen Ziyan, once again reappeared in jianghu, taking charge of chasing and killing members of the Embroidered Union. The Fengyi Sect’s command was transmitted throughout jianghu: all members of the Embroidered Union were to be killed without reprieve. From that point on, although Huo Jicheng would occasionally appear, he would very quickly disappear again. Wherever the “Bloody Handed Rakshasa,” Wen Ziyan, appeared, rivers of blood would run. But because of Huo Jicheng’s profound schemes, always leaving behind traces of his collaboration with the top individuals of the wulin of various regions, and because Wen Ziyan would rather mistakenly kill innocents rather than allow a single guilty individual to escape, Wen Ziyan became an indiscriminate executioner. Members of Great Yong’s jianghu would immediately become frightened when hearing Huo Jicheng’s name. It was only when all the major sects of jianghu penned letters to Fan Huiyao, did the Fengyi Sect finally recall Wen Ziyan. Only with this did the slaughter that lasted half a year finally conclude. If they learned the news that Huo Jicheng had arrived in Chang’an, one couldn’t know how frightened everyone would become.
Proud of myself, I smiled. Who could have imagined that Huo Jicheng was all a part of my schemes? Originally, I felt that Huo Jicheng’s identity could be exploited, and thus had Han Wuji brave the dangers to kill and silence Huo Jicheng. Afterwards, I had Xiaoshunzi coordinate with Chen Zhen and Han Wuji to exterminate all of the disciples from and experts invited by the Fengyi Sect. Although this plan relied upon Xiaoshunzi’s excellent martial arts skills, the matured members of the Secret Camp were the primary strength. Based upon the first-rate martial arts that they had learned and the military formations that I had taught them, and combined with assassination and scheming, we were able to completely exterminate all of these experts in one go.
Moreover, because of Huo Jicheng’s caution, the majority of the members of the Embroidered Union did not know his appearance. Relying upon the command pendant that he had left behind, Chen Zhen was able to take command of the Embroidered Union, dismissing all of the members who were kind-hearted or who had been forced to join the Embroidered Union. The ones who were left were all savage and cruel. Afterwards, Chen Zhen used extreme measures to thoroughly subdue them, ordering them to go into hiding all over Great Yong. In reality, all of their assignments were fabricated. In order to fulfill their assignments, they had to rein in their savagery and conceal themselves amongst the common people. None dared to do evil or slink off, as Chen Zhen had all of them take a highly toxic poison I supplied. In order to receive the antidote every month, they would absolutely not dare to run away or disobey orders. With this, we were able to completely separate and control these individuals, using them when we needed to.
Following, I began the second step of my plan. Although the relationship between the Luo and Ding families of Luoyang seemed to be harmonious, it was really not the case. As they were the Fengyi Sect’s accomplices, I had Daoli pretend to be Huo Li and infiltrate into a minor faction. Relying upon my teachings and the commands of Chen Zhen and Han Wuji, conflict was provoked between the two families. Not only was the impression that Huo Jicheng had surreptitiously seized the opportunity left behind, but we were also able to cripple the strength of the two greatest and most influential families in Luoyang. Days earlier, I received news from His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong. The current general assigned to garrison Luoyang was from the Prince of Yong’s faction. He had already successfully gained complete control over Luoyang. However, I did not reveal the truth about Huo Jicheng to the Prince of Yong, otherwise I would become the mastermind behind the rebel organization, the Embroidered Union. This wouldn’t do! What’s more, with the subsequent slaughter perpetrated by the Bloody Handed Rakshasa, although those killed were either members of jianghu or local tyrants from influential families, the Prince of Yong inevitably felt that all this was too excessive.
Through this slaughter, both the Fengyi Sect and I were able to acquire good harvests. I was able to successfully reduce the Fengyi Sect’s strength, and also transformed the Fengyi Sect’s original noble and virtuous image into one of bloody reality. This would cause everyone to remember that the Fengyi Sect had started out by relying upon assassination and slaughter. However, the Fengyi Sect was also able to successfully massacre the opposition forces that had gradually arisen in jianghu. Without the cooperation of the Fengyi Sect master, then it would have been unlikely for me to achieve my objective.
The Prince of Yong had once expressed his worry that the loss of so many experts in jianghu would harm the combat capability of the army. After all, a significant number of the experts in the army came from jianghu. I took the opportunity to hint to the Prince of Yong that the army could take advantage of the situation and recruit experts, and also announce that if they were to join the military, then those individuals who remained in jianghu would not be permitted to come disturb those soldiers. As a result, quite a few experts enlisted in order to escape the storm broiling in jianghu. This matter received Grand General Qin and the Prince of Qi’s support. Who wouldn’t seize the opportunity to increase their own forces? Because of this, no one was able to take full advantage, and yet at the same time, no one lost out.
The only ones who were truly pitiable were those who somehow got involved for no reason in the conflicts. However, these individuals were either bandits of jianghu or local tyrants. Their deaths would actually be of benefit to the common people. Therefore, I tucked my sympathy away in the back of my mind.
If news of Huo Jicheng’s arrival in the capital were to spread, I wonder if the crown prince would feel fear and trepidation in the face of disaster?3
Just as I was calculating the soon-to-be executed plan, a loud shout could be heard coming from before the carriage. The voice came from Zhou Wu, the imperial bodyguard assigned to opening up the path. Then there was a cry of alarm. Subsequently, the carriage came to a sudden stop. Completely unprepared, my body shot forward. Even as I was about to slam into the door of the carriage, Xiaoshunzi swiftly grabbed me around the waist and pulled me back. I felt fortunate. Calming my rapidly beating heart, I glanced at Xiaoshunzi and said, “What has happened?”
你死我活, nisiwohuo – idiom, lit. you die, I live; irreconcilable differences, two parties cannot coexist
阳奉阴违, yangfengyinwei – lit. outward devotion but inner opposition; to pay lip service; to agree overtly, but oppose in secret
心惊肉跳, xinjingroutiao – idiom, lit. heart alarmed, body leaping; fear and trepidation in the face of disaster