Standing on the deck of the ship, Lin Bi stonily watched the Tranquil Sea Manor recede into the distance. A middle-aged bodyguard walked over to her side and asked, “Your Royal Highness, what should our next step be?”
Lin Bi lightly furrowed her long, shapely eyebrows, replying, “When I first entered the Tranquil Sea Manor, I still maintained the thought of finding an opportunity to act. However, sensing the faint and hidden aura of death within the Tranquil Sea Manor, I knew that we could not act blindly without thinking. Originally, I thought that knowing the location of the Tranquil Sea Manor could still create a chance. Surprisingly, Great Master True Compassion arrived at the Eastern Sea. We are quite relieved that We did not act rashly. It seems like We can only attempt to assassinate him en route.”
The middle-aged bodyguard frowned. “However, hasn’t Great Master True Compassion come on the Yong Emperor’s command to escort Princess Changle and Jiang Zhe back to Chang’an? Their entire journey will proceed under heavy escort. In addition, they also have experts like Great Master True Compassion and Demonic Shadow Li Shun. Even if Master came himself, he would be powerless to act. If we casually suffer losses, it would be too unfortunate.”
Lin Bi did not respond to his question. Instead, she brushed away her beautiful hair from her forehead, saying, “Bodyguard Xiao, you have spent years by Tingfei’s side and are a disciple of the State Mentor. Your discerning ability is naturally quite capable. How do you view the Prince of Qi and Jiang Zhe?”
Although Bodyguard Xiao had not seen the scene within the Hearing Surf Pavilion, he had heard Lin Tong’s lively and realistic narration. After hesitating, he replied, “The Prince of Qi is certainly a famous general. However, compared to the Grand General, he is quite lacking. The Prince’s actions and bearing are excessively arrogant, his power and influence too overbearing. These are flaws that we can exploit. As for Jiang Zhe, this subordinate finds him completely ridiculous. This subordinate has heard that the man possesses surpassing intelligence and wisdom. But from the Princess’s words, this subordinate feels as if he is still an immature child … This subordinate is a bit suspicious of whether he truly is clever and brilliant enough to be the Prince of Yong’s chief strategist.”
Lin Bi smiled faintly and replied, “We also found this laughable at first. Before meeting Jiang Zhe, I believed that he was a frightening and monstrous talent, a meticulous genius. When I first met him at the seaside, We felt as if he was an individual who was untouched by the vulgar matters of the world, a man not of the banal world. However, what happened within Hearing Surf Pavilion truly caused me to open my eyes. Jiang Zhe is actually as innocent as a child in his sincerity. However, that’s what makes him so formidable. Before, I was only on my guard against him. However, now I am thoroughly terrified of him.”
“Although his conduct may be somewhat ridiculous, if the Princess said he was adept at disguise, this subordinate would not find it strange,” claimed Bodyguard Xiao with bafflement before inquiring, “But why does the Princess believe that he is even more frightening with such a nature? This subordinate has also once studied the art of war and tactics. Only a calm and ruthless general can be an invincible military commander. I believe that a strategist must be the same. Isn’t it said that a wise man is ruthless? If Jiang Zhe has emotional weaknesses, why does the Princess believe that he is even more frightening?”
Lin Bi’s expression was highly serene yet hidden in depth, expounding, “My Lin family have been generals for generations. Although we cannot be considered as experts at the art of war, we have our specialties. Some say that a military commander must be cold-hearted and unfeeling. This is truly the case. However, from my years of military experience, if the enemy commander is completely ruthless, acting completely in accordance with the art of war, he would definitely be defeated. If a commander is excessively ruthless, he will not only treat his subordinates as inhuman, he will also treat the enemy as inhuman. Although he would not make any mistakes because of his emotions, a commander must rely upon his soldiers in warfare. While a commander can be ruthless and callous, his subordinates are all flesh and blood. They will be filled with fear, with hatred. This kind of commander will find himself thoroughly and utterly abandoned.
“It is the same for strategists. The different types of strategists can be roughly divided into three categories. The third strategist type has strengths, but also weaknesses. If they were to fight against one another, victory and defeat would not be easy to determine. There is no need to fear these kinds of strategists.
“The second type of strategist possesses a callous and heartless mentality, acting according to one’s interests and for one’s own benefit. Although this kind of individual is terrifying, that person possesses weaknesses that can be exploited. After all, if a man is heartless, no matter how capable his stratagems, he will underestimate the feelings of the enemies whom he has schemed against. Since ancient times, ambitious and ruthless characters have often met unnatural deaths. People too skilled at scheming and machinations will often find themselves reaping what they sow, because they will have forgotten that to some people, it is impossible for interest and benefit to completely be above loyalty and affection. Moreover, if a person only has one’s own interests at heart, then there will be flaws in conduct and deeds. With this, if the opponent is resourceful and intelligent, this kind of strategist’s plans and machinations can be seen through. As long as the opposition’s strength is sufficient, it will be easy to attain victory.
“The most terrifying first type of strategists are those who are rich with sentiment. However, when necessary, they can escape from the influence of their emotions. This kind of strategist is already few and far between,2 and difficult to deal with. However, this kind of strategist also has weaknesses. The talent and schemes also leave others with fear and make them unwilling to approach the strategist. As a result, it is often difficult for these types of strategists to completely showcase their abilities, as they are unable to have those close to them do their utmost to implement the stratagems.
“Although these three types of strategists are terrifying, they all have their weaknesses. However, Jiang Zhe is not like them. He has surpassed those limits.
“You have experienced his stratagems, able to completely discern others’ thoughts. They are like water, able to infiltrate every nook and cranny. He is most skilled at utilizing all external forces that he can exploit, his gaze able to penetrate and see through people’s thoughts. However, when I met him today, I learned that his most terrifying aspect is his sincerity. Regardless of how vicious and malevolent his stratagems are, he treats those by his side with utter sincerity. With this, and not handicapped by those on his side, he can completely utilize his abilities.
“You must know that not only the Great Yong Emperor, Li Zhi, completely trusts him, but even the Prince of Qi, Li Xian, who has always been on bad terms with Li Zhi, also treats him with fondness. Surprisingly, Li Xian was not infuriated when Jiang Zhe purposely rubbed him the wrong way. Now, Jiang Zhe’s son has not only become the Prince of Qi’s future son-in-law, he has also become the last disciple of the Shaolin Temple’s Great Master True Compassion. As such, the Shaolin Temple will not consider him a hidden menace. This kind of individual has the methods to alarm the Heavens and shake the Earth, and charisma that is like the spring wind and rain. With his existence, Great Yong will never fall into civil strife. Tell me, is this man not terrifying? To speak from the heart, that man is our Northern Han’s nemesis. As long as he is alive, I cannot be at ease.”
Killing intent flashed across Bodyguard Xiao’s eyes, as he suggested, “How about we dispatch men and think of a way to assassinate him at any cost?”
Lin Bi declined to comment, instead asking, “When compared to Tingfei, is the Prince of Qi better or worse?”
Startled, Bodyguard Xiao retorted, “Why would Your Royal Highness ask this question? How could that Prince of Qi compare to the Grand General? Ignoring the fact that the Prince of Qi has never gained any advantage against the Grand General, didn’t he also suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of Southern Chu’s Prince of De?”
“In reality, while commanding soldiers could be said to be incomparably complicated,” sighed Lin Bi, “It is in fact merely leading elite troops, and knowing when to advance and when to retreat. Knowing all of this, one can already be a rare capable general. Paired with the ability to utilize ingenious tactics, there are only one or two individuals in this world capable of all this. The Prince of Qi is not an ordinary military commander. Of the famous generals of the present age, when speaking of leading from the front, no one can compare with the Prince of Qi. In addition, Great Yong’s elite and crack cavalry units are not inferior to our Northern Han army. However, the Prince of Qi has always been suppressed by Tingfei. Even against Southern Chu, he was defeated. This is all because his nature is too pigheaded, ambitious and aggressive, filled with the desire to surpass others. Although there are benefits to this kind of personality, able to continue fighting after suffering a defeat and eventually attaining victory, such an individual will also not retreat when needed, giving others the advantage. The Prince of Qi’s personality is arrogant and proud, unwilling to submit to others. If the one admonishing the Prince wasn’t someone he sincerely admired, that individual would most certainly fail with his tail between his legs.3 That is why he has been unable to defeat Tingfei even though he has been at the northern frontier for years.
“Alas, the Prince of Qi does have the talent to be a commander-in-chief. Moreover, after experiencing the battle over succession, he has learned to bear with things patiently. That is why Great Yong’s northern frontier has been stabilized. Seeing the Prince of Qi this time, I was originally unconcerned, because although his aura was threatening and oppressive, his temperament remained stubborn and difficult to change. Moreover, his desire for death is far greater than that of survival. We initially had wanted to inform Tingfei when We returned that this weakness of the Prince of Qi could be exploited.
“However, the Prince of Qi became completely different after he met with Jiang Zhe. That stubborn will softened. Moreover, his temper became a lot more cheerful and carefree, so much so that his previous desire for death transformed into vitality and vigor. This kind of Prince of Qi is not something that I want to see. However, I worry most about Jiang Zhe staying by the Prince of Qi’s side. With this kind of Prince of Qi supported by the advice from this kind of trusted strategist, the pressure on Tingfei will be too heavy.”
Bodyguard Xiao replied, “Your Royal Highness, isn’t that Jiang Zhe going to return to Chang’an? We only need to ensure that he is not allowed to arrive at the Prince of Qi’s army.”
“I do not believe that Jiang Zhe will return to Chang’an,” asserted Lin Bi, laughing humorlessly. “Under these circumstances, he will likely directly follow the Prince of Qi to the northern army. The Prince of Qi’s nature is despotic. Even if Jiang Zhe wished to accompany Princess Changle back to Chang’an, the Prince of Qi won’t allow him to do so.”
In alarm, Bodyguard Xiao declared, “Impossible! Great Master True Compassion had come to issue the Emperor’s edict. Don’t tell me that Jiang Zhe would violate the Yong Emperor’s edict? Moreover, he’s not worried that the Yong Emperor would be suspicious of his relationship with the Prince of Qi?”
Smiling, Lin Bi riposted, “Did you see the imperial edict? We only heard the Great Master’s words. How do you know what is truly upon the imperial edict? In addition, is Jiang Zhe someone who would obey an imperial edict?”
Bodyguard Xiao inquired, “Then what does Your Royal Highness plan to do?”
Gazing at the distant horizon, Lin Bi responded, “I want to see whether Jiang Zhe has the ability to arrive at the Great Yong army encampments. Prince of Qi, Jiang Zhe, the two of you are our Northern Han’s nemeses. I will not allow you to reach the battlefield so easily. Strangers meeting by chance become friends, to share these feelings on the battlefield in the years to come. Li Xian, oh, Li Xian, do you still view life and death without regrets?”
With the dawn’s light breaking through the heavy layers of clouds, the quiet of the wilderness was broken by the sharp and clear sounds of horse hooves and wheels. Upon the wide government road, a carriage covered by azure cloth curtains traveled rapidly, surrounded and protected by four hundred cavalrymen. These horsemen were divided into four units. One unit was the vanguard and one was the rearguard. The two other units were escorting the carriage on the right and left. The armors of each of the units had different colors. Of the two units escorting the carriage, one wore black armor, while the other had gray armor. The horsemen before and behind the carriage had scarlet armor.
Those who knew the details about Great Yong’s army would definitely be bewildered by the scene before them. Regardless of unit, the Great Yong army mostly wore azure-colored armor. Although azure was close to black, there was only one unit that wore black armor—the Prince of Yong’s household troops. Aside from this, the Prince of Qi wore scarlet armor, while Qin Yi’s personal troops wore white armor, and the Imperial Guard wore yellow armor. Now that the Prince of Yong had ascended to the throne, the former Imperial Guard was renamed the Rising Dragon Guard with the responsibility of protecting the Imperial City. The Prince of Yong’s former household guard was renamed the Stalwart Tiger Guard and tasked with protecting the Palace City. Combined, the two were regarded as the Imperial Guard. The Stalwart Tiger Guard still wore black armor, their style not changing even though they were now responsible for protecting the Son of Heaven. At present, everyone knew that aside from the Imperial Guard, no one else was permitted to wear black armor. As such, the unit of horsemen in black could only be Emperor Li Zhi’s trusted Stalwart Tiger Guard. However, seeing that the Prince of Qi’s household troops shared responsibility for guarding the carriage, everyone was bewildered about the identity of the individual within.
With a smile upon my face, I gazed at the frowning Prince of Qi, inquiring, “Your Imperial Highness, this time, I asked the Marquis of the Eastern Sea to help seal the Eastern Sea for half a month. It will be impossible for Lin Bi to transmit the news in advance. Based upon the strength of the troops with us, we should be able to return to Your Imperial Highness’s encampment. Why is Your Imperial Highness still so worried and anxious?”
The Prince of Qi sighed and responded, “I also believe that it will be impossible for Northern Han to deliver the information. I only learned yesterday that you invited Lin Bi in order to restrict Northern Han’s reaction. Next, you asked the Marquis of the Eastern Sea to mobilize his forces in order to prevent the Northern Han army from receiving the information in advance and laying an ambush on our journey. After all, this road is only dozens of li from the border. If Northern Han’s cavalry laid an ambush on the road, it would be difficult for us to escape. This stretch of road is close to the border. Great Yong’s army may not have the advantage. In addition, I cannot mobilize too many troops to serve as escort to prevent inadvertently alerting the enemy and giving them an opportunity to exploit. With my three hundred personal troops and Imperial Brother’s one hundred Stalwart Tiger Guard serving as your bodyguards, the four hundred cavalry will be enough for us to breakthrough even if we are ambushed and have to defend until reinforcements arrive. Further, without several days of planning, I do not believe that Northern Han is capable of creating an inescapable net.”
Speaking to this point, the Prince of Qi could not help but laugh in spite of himself, continuing, “To speak of this, you and the Emperor are truly cautious. Who would have expected that the Stalwart Tiger Guard had already arrived at Binzhou? Moreover, when Great Master True Compassion arrived and Lin departed, you immediately set out. It is likely that Lin Bi is still behind us. Even if Lin Bi were able to send the news now, it would be too late.”
I instinctively asked, “Since that is the case, why is Your Imperial Highness still so worried? Could it be you are worried about Li Lin? With Zhen’er taking care of him, why are you still worried? Although Lin’er is still young, no matter how anxious you are, it will be impossible for him to go onto the battlefield. There is no need to worry with him going back to the capital with Zhen’er this time. In addition, they are traveling under Great Master True Compassions’ protection.”
Frowning again, Li Xian answered, “I know that Changle will properly protect Lin’er. I was never worried. I don’t know why, but I feel like I’ve overlooked something. Although we have temporarily cut off communications between Lin Bi and Northern Han’s intelligence network, Northern Han has experts like the Sovereign of the Devil Sect. If they have received the news, I fear that they will try to ambush us on the road. Suiyun, you don’t know martial arts … if you run into the enemy, I am worried about your safety.”
I smiled lightly and replied, “We have to take the risk. This is the shortest route. Going as fast as possible, we will reach your encampment in five or six days. When the time comes, protected by three hundred thousand troops, there will be no need for Your Imperial Highness to worry. Even if we run into the enemy, under Your Imperial Highness’s leadership, Zhe will not worry. Moreover, Xiaoshunzi is always traveling with us. At worst, he can protect me and escort me out of the encirclement.”
Li Xian’s brows slightly smoothed over. It was truly strange. Originally, he also felt that Jiang Zhe’s plan was extremely meticulous. However, during the entire journey, Li Xian had sensed that something was off. This area would frequently see Northern Han light cavalry. However, during this return trip, they had not run into a single one. This caused Li Xian to feel the danger of an approaching storm.
At this moment, someone reported from outside of the carriage, “Your Imperial Highness, Jiang daren, the scouts that we sent out have not responded.”
Li Xian frowned. “The terrain up ahead is level, the best battlefield to employ cavalry. We must take precautions. Dispatch two men to take a look. Have them leave behind their horses and go on foot.”
Two of the Prince of Qi’s soldiers dismounted from their horses. Taking off their heavy armor, they changed into civilian clothes and sprang into the brush on both sides of the road. They instantly disappeared from sight.
Pushing aside the window curtains, I gazed out. It was late autumn, the withered grass on both sides of the road taller than a man. Under the autumn breeze, they undulated like the cresting waves on the sea. In addition, because the road was higher than its surroundings, I could see far off into the distance. Even if there were thousands of troops hidden in the area, it would be impossible to discover them. I could not help but feel my heart grow cold. Could it be that there were truly ambushers here? Could it be that all of my false trails, leading them to believe that I was returning to Chang’an, had failed? However, in this short time, how could they have set an ambush here? Although Great Yong’s present frontier was not fortified against Northern Han, this did not mean that they could enter Great Yong’s territory without a thorough and meticulous plan.
At this moment, a sharp copper whistle sounded from before us. I shook inside. This was a warning issued by our scouts. For them to be unable to quietly return meant that they had run into grave danger. It seemed like there were not only ambushing troops, but in all likelihood many of them.
Hearing the warning whistle, the Prince of Qi’s bladelike brows tightened. Jumping out of the carriage, he mounted a blazing red warhorse. All of the escorting soldiers were well-trained and quickly arranged themselves in a formation to break through the enemy encirclement. Responsible for driving the carriage, Xiaoshunzi revealed a look of worry. He carefully took a look at the carriage’s horse and whispered, “Young master, the speed of the carriage is too slow. We won’t be able to keep up. What should we do?”
In these critical circumstances, I instead calmed down. I coolly replied, “You and I are not capable of commanding a battle. This will naturally be handled by His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi. This carriage is manufactured from steel. There are steel plates all around the carriage. As long as the carriage is protected, there is no need to worry about my safety. In a moment, listen to His Imperial Highness’s instructions. If we do not make a surprise move under this kind of situation, we will all die here.”
By this time, the Prince of Qi had already issued orders to wheel towards the interior of Great Yong. It seemed like he wished to rendezvous with the local garrison. At this very moment, bugle horns simultaneously sounded from all directions. I had already completely covered the windows of the carriage with steel plates. Through the small window on the carriage door, I stared out, seeing that the entire horizon was covered by Northern Han cavalry, traveling as fast as lightning—their riders like tigers, their horses like dragons. They very quickly surrounded our unit. Diligently counting, there were more than three thousand cavalrymen. This was not a chance encounter. The raiding parties from Northern Han usually numbered around a hundred. Just then, I could see that directly in front was a black banner with a red character. On that banner was a large “Shi” character.
I heard the Prince of Qi shout, “Flying Tiger General Shi Ying! You dare to infiltrate my Great Yong to wreak havoc! Do you truly so despise my Great Yong?”
Beneath that banner was a middle-aged general of over thirty years of age with a slim face and a grim look. He shouted back in response, “Northern Han and Great Yong are enemies! Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, you cannot blame me for your failure to conduct yourself properly and instead take such risks. Today, you can only die! If you dismount and surrender, I may spare your life with your respected status.”
Beside him was a man in the uniform of a soldier of Northern Han. Because his helm’s visor was down, I could not see his appearance. However, based upon my heightened senses, I could see that he was pointing at my carriage and saying something. Afterwards, I saw that the general’s eyes also fell upon my carriage. When that icy gaze swept past, I could feel a chill run through my body.
The middle-aged general yelled, “Boys! Kill Li Xian and capture that carriage for me! I will reward whoever brings me Li Xian’s head a hundred catties of gold! I will reward whoever captures that carriage a thousand catties of gold!”
Then the middle-aged general pulled down his visor and raised the lance in his hand. He led the charge and attacked. The Prince of Qi, Li Xian, smiled coldly. Pointing his precious saber forward, he shouted, “Break through!”
After this order, I could feel the carriage begin to move forward rapidly. I grabbed onto a handle on the wall of the carriage. The small window on the door of the carriage had been covered by Xiaoshunzi, leaving the carriage interior pitch-black. While I could not see what was going on outside, I could hear the deafening war cries outside.
At this very moment, I was smiling wryly in silence within the darkness. I had already thought through many things. Why did it seem like troops had been waiting in action here for a long time even though Lin Bi was still far behind us? That was because I had forgotten about one individual—Lu Can. The only possibility was Lu Can. His meeting with Lin Bi wasn’t to form an alliance or anything else, but to reach an agreement with Lin Bi. Southern Chu was responsible for passing on the information, while Northern Han was responsible for the ambush. Regardless of how resourceful I was, against thousands of enemies, there was only one outcome. Lin Bi and Lu Can both understood how to achieve victory.
It was a bit strange though.… By rights, I should be filled with dismay and sorrow. The first disciple of my life, Lu Can, was so heartless, ferrying his master to the underworld. However, I felt a faint hint of joy. In my eyes, Lu Can was exactly missing this heartlessness and stubbornness. Only with this could he be considered as a disciple that I could be proud of. I silently listened to the sounds outside. I understood that I was basically useless in this situation. If I were to die here, I wonder how ridiculous it would be.
心腹之患, xinfuzhihuan – idiom, lit. calamity within one’s bosom; hidden great danger or trouble; in this case, it’s referring to a nemesis who needs to be removed
凤毛麟角, fengmaolinjiao – idiom, lit. as rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns; fig. few and far between
无功而返, wugong’erfan – idiom, lit. to return without any achievement; fig. to go home with one’s tail between one’s legs