Volume 4, Chapter 25: Silencing Witnesses

“Achoo.” Li Hu sneezed mightily, angrily gazing at Jiang Zhe standing with his hand behinds his back at the entrance of the tent. Once again, Li Hu loathed his own weakness, braving such heavy snow to serve as a guard for the enemy. He could not help dropping his hand to his waist. Before he had touched the handle of his saber, a light cough sounded behind him. He irately turned his head and looked, seeing Ling Duan standing there gazing at him with a smile that was not a smile. Seeing him turn around, Ling Duan pursed his lips, indicating for Li Hu to carefully consider the bodyguards standing not far away eyeing them like a tiger stalking its prey. Li Hu let out a breath. Any member of the Stalwart Tiger Guard present could take him down easily. Desiring to assassinate Jiang Zhe was just asking for trouble.

Ling Duan gazed at Li Hu’s dejected figure and couldn’t help smiling wryly. He, himself, also did not have the freedom to act independently. Thinking of this, he couldn’t help but touch the short dagger-axe at his waist, thinking about how to successfully assassinate Jiang Zhe.

I saw each and every one of Li Hu and Ling Duan’s movements clearly. A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of my mouth. The scene forcing these two to submit once again appeared in my mind. Although the two of them were still unreconciled and unwilling, that was insignificant. It was enough as long as I was able to attain my objectives.

***

Within the tent, Li Hu stared oddly at the young man in azure robes. Although he was hotheaded and impulsive, Li Hu was not a fool. Today, the cold and severe aura being emitted by this man left him uncomfortable from head to toe. Li Hu could not help saying, “Hello! Has someone angered you today? Why is your complexion so unsightly?”

A hint of killing intent flashed across Li Shun’s eyes, as he replied, “We have gotten acquainted these last few days. Yet, presumably, the two of you do not know of my identity. This one is Li Shun, a servant of the Marquis of Chu.”

Ling Duan had long anticipated this. He forced a slight, wry smile on his face. At this moment, Li Shun gaze flickered past Ling Duan, intentionally or otherwise. His icy stare was enough to cause Ling Duan to shiver inside. He tried to gather his internal energy, but because he had only recently recovered, he could not do so. He just sat down in disappointment.

Li Hu gawked vacantly. It was some time before he came to the realization, as he replied, “So you are a subordinate of the Army Supervisor? I was about to say … it’s impossible for anyone to have such good intentions without rhyme or reason. However, this old man finds this a bit strange … if your master wished to kill me, he could have beheaded this old man that day. Why has he gone to the trouble and wait until this old man’s injury has healed before acting?”

Li Shun’s expression grew increasingly callous, as he replied, “My young master’s status it far from ordinary. For years, this one has been responsible for the young master’s safety. However, I actually allowed you to nearly harm the young master’s life in front of my eyes. How can I let such extraordinary shame and humiliation go without being avenged? Moreover, if you are let off so easily, wouldn’t that give the misconception that I, Li Shun, can be taken unfair advantage of? For my entire life, Li Shun has been a firm believer of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ However, the day you were taken captive, you were determined to die. If I were to kill you then, it would gratuitously satisfy your desires. As such, I had people provide medical treatment and give you courtesy that were above and beyond, waiting for the moment when you no longer wished to die to kill you. This is my intent. However, killing you by beheading is letting you off lightly. Therefore, I’m going to give you two choices. Choice number one, I will select a warrior from amongst the Northern Han prisoners and have you fight to the death against him. The victor survives, the loser dies. If you are able to win several rounds, you will naturally be allowed to live a few extra days. Choice number two, I have prepared all kinds of torture tools. If you can endure all of them one by one, I will allow you to leave. If you cannot endure, you will naturally die.”

Li Hu felt chills run down his back as he heard these words. Neither of these death methods were good choices. However, he was quite firm and unyielding. He stubbornly and arrogantly replied, “Since I have fallen into your hands, if you want to kill me, just kill me. I’m not in the leisurely mood to be toyed with by you. However, I won’t get involved in any internecine strife.1 If you want to use torture, then just torture me. Let us see how long your daddy can last.”

Xiaoshunzi smiled slightly, carrying cruel overtones. Just as he was about to reply, Ling Duan interrupted, “Fool. If you want to die straightforwardly, you should choose the duels. If you want, you can die in the first round by throwing yourself onto your opponent’s weapon. Dying in this manner will be clear-cut. If you are tortured, when you reach the point where you can hope for neither life nor death, you will inevitably beg pitifully. When the time comes, you will be exposed to the public. Even if you die, your reputation will hit rock bottom.”

Hearing these words, Li Hu felt as if his entire body was frozen in ice. However, he was still a bit unconvinced. He asked, “How do you know that I am unable to endure the torture and make such a disgraceful performance?”

Ling Duan smiled wryly. He thought to himself, I have served at the General’s side for many years. It’s easy to fervently wish for death. In comparison, dying as a martyr in an easy manner isn’t that easy. Even a man made from steel would not be able to struggle for long under heavy torture. The general was someone who was adept at torture. Whenever, he started, those being tortured would either try to commit suicide or yield and beg forgiveness. Able to endure the torture until death was already as rare as one in a thousand. Beyond that, he had not seen a single person endure to the end. Just as he wanted to say a few more words, at this moment, Li Shun’s icy gaze had turned to him. Ling Duan did not have the courage to once again warn that foolish and stupid Old Hu. He was unwilling to stick up for him again. There wasn’t anything he could do if Li Hu didn’t understand, especially since he didn’t want to also be placed in such a quandary.

Malice flashed across Xiaoshunzi’s eyes. Ling Duan was truly meddlesome. Xiaoshunzi wondered whether to also have him handled as well.

Li Hu finally understood that the two choices before him were no more than a façade. The man in front of him wanted to kill him in the most painful and humiliating way possible. However, by nature, Li Hu was not someone who would lightly admit defeat. He actually laughed and said, “So that is the case. Fellow, you are truly fake, unwilling to even give someone a straightforward death. This old one has gained much from being allowed to live so many extra days. You can handle me however you like.” Finished speaking, he jumped off of his bed and walked towards the exit. As he walked, he mumbled, “In any case, your daddy doesn’t have any dependents. What harm is there if I leave a bad reputation behind?”

Xiaoshunzi was startled. He originally believed that Li Hu would change his mind and beg for death, and had been calculating when to act to ensure that Li Hu did not die an easy death. However, Li Hu had still chosen the most painful manner of death only because he did not want to cause his comrades to kill each other. With this, it made him somewhat apologetic. Regardless of what was going on, the man was facing death without flinching.

Xiaoshunzi was a grim and callous individual. He turned, preparing to make the arrangements. Ling Duan could not bear to remain silent, speaking, “Brother, on the battlefield, life and death is a constant presence. Your master is now flushed with success. As your prisoners, you can do as you please with us. However, isn’t dragging this matter till today a bit too excessive?”

Xiaoshunzi stopped in his tracks. He turned his head and glanced at Ling Duan, as he replied, “You are one of the Ghost Cavalry, one of General Tan Ji’s bodyguards. This one rather admires General Tan. As such, I won’t bother you for shooting your mouth off, otherwise I would have you enjoy the same treatment as Li Hu. For his personal hatred, General Tan massacred countless soldiers and civilians of Zezhou. These individuals were originally innocent. Presumably, you made no effort to dissuade him. That Li Hu nearly took the young master’s life. How can that be tolerated? You can say that this one is seeking revenge for the slightest grievance.2 You can also say that I am cruel and savage. But. I must kill this man. More importantly, you should worry about your own life. General Tan’s coffin has already been delivered back to Northern Han and naturally will not have to endure mutilation. As for you, were it not for His Imperial Highness’s magnanimity, you would have been hacked to pieces to assuage the hate of the soldiers and commoners of Zezhou and not have the time to be outraged over injustices committed upon someone else.”

Ling Duan was stunned, not because of this man’s ridicule, but because of that man’s stated admiration for the general. How was this possible? Ignoring the fact that the man was a part of the Yong army and should by rights be hostile against the general, even within the Northern Han army, everyone else feared and resented the general, aside from his direct subordinates.

At this moment, Li Hu, who had slowed his pace to listen to the two converse, realized that he would not be able to escape. Somewhat despondent, he walked out of the tent. His temperament was frank and he did not adopt the position of viewing death as a return home. Surprisingly, right when he walked out, he saw a scholar in azure robes and wearing a heavy cloak standing in the distance. Behind him was the black-armored Stalwart Tiger Guard. Although Li Hu had only seen Jiang Zhe briefly that day, from the man’s stance, he knew his identity. He could not help sneering and saying, “So the Army Supervisor daren wishes to personally torture me. With this, even if I, Li Hu, were to die, it would be worth it. However, when I remember daren’s appearance like a drowned rat that day, I find it still quite ridiculous to this day.” Finished speaking, he began to laugh heartily. He wanted to enrage Jiang Zhe in the hopes of a quick death.

Just then, Xiaoshunzi walked out of the tent and immediately caught sight of the smiling Jiang Zhe standing there. He could not help but cry out in fear. Based upon his martial arts, he normally would not have overlooked someone eavesdropping outside. However, with the frequent comings and goings within the army encampment, although he had discovered that someone was standing some distance away, Xiaoshunzi took him as someone unrelated. Besides, he did not expect that Jiang Zhe would appear here. Although there was some distance between them, Xiaoshunzi, who knew insider information about Jiang Zhe, understood that all of his words had already been heard by Jiang Zhe. He could not help flushing with embarrassment, walking over and stammering, “I didn’t want to conceal this matter from the young master, but I bear grudges against this man. Young master, please forgive me.”

Li Hu had originally boiled with righteous rage.3 However, after he had said those fierce words, he saw the azure-robed scholar’s gaze mildly study him without the slightest trace of malice, even carrying some admiration. He could not help becoming somewhat bewildered, as he thought, The one who wants to kill me is Li Shun and has nothing to do with him. Were my malicious words a bit too excessive?

Blushing with shame, he stood there, glancing furtively at Jiang Zhe. No matter how he looked, this youthful scholar was pitifully thin and weak. Li Hu recalled how he had sent him flying into the moat with one strike of his lance. At the time, he felt only pleased with himself and excited. Thinking back on it today, he felt somewhat embarrassed. He was proud of his courage and strength. How could he try to kill a scholar without the strength to even truss a chicken?

While Li Hu was standing there dumbfounded, Ling Duan heard the name, “Jiang Zhe,” from within. He could not help feeling excited. He already knew that it was that man’s stratagem that caused the general to be ambushed and killed. At the same time that he was filled with enmity, he was also curious as to the man’s appearance. As a result, he used all of his energy to rise and walk out of the tent, gazing with rapt attention. Although he felt that Jiang Zhe’s bearing was extraordinary, this man did not possess the shrewd appearance of his thoughts. Although the man was within the army and held both a lofty position and noble rank, he only wore a set of azure robes. There was a smile on his lips and his eyes were gentle. His movements and mannerisms were utterly tranquil and serene, causing all those who saw him to emotionally respond with cordiality and likeability. Ling Duan could not help feeling at a loss. That man was the prime offender in the death of the general … Why was he unable to exude any killing intent towards him?

Seeing all three of them awkward and embarrassed, I could not help shaking my head and smiling lightly. Although I was well aware of Xiaoshunzi’s temperament, I could see that he was trying to beat around the bush and come up with an excuse in advance before taking revenge. Although I was a bit annoyed, I actually felt touched and found this all a bit ridiculous. I glanced at the dazed Li Hu. I had never paid this man any attention. When I fell in the water that day, I only bore a grudge towards the Prince of Qi’s jeering and did not have any thoughts about avenging myself. Who could have known that Xiaoshunzi would act privately without orders? If I had not run into him by chance, Li Hu would likely have cursed him when he reached the underworld. In addition, although I did not recognize the other man, but looking at his young age, frosty expression, his soaring, murderous aura, and his pale skin that seemed to be infrequently exposed to the sun, he seemed to be rare heroic talent. After I took a glimpse of him, I looked at Li Hu. Smiling, I asked, “So you are the one who sent me to that cold water bath? And this man is?”

Seeing me direct a question at him, Ling Duan raised his chin proudly, unwilling to reply. Xiaoshunzi glanced at him impassively before he answered, “This man is Ling Duan and is a member of the Ghost Cavalry under Tan Ji.”

Interested, I replied, “I have often heard of the valor and ferocity of the Ghost Cavalry serving at the side of the Ghost-Faced General. Surprisingly, you have such abilities even though you are so young. Truly quite rare, quite rare indeed.” As I sighed with regret, right as I was about to tactfully mollify Xiaoshunzi to cease his interests in Li Hu, an odd thought suddenly appeared in my mind.

That day, I had deliberately allowed my letter to be intercepted by Northern Han to raise the possibility of the willingness of some of their generals to surrender. However, I had only obliquely referred to the officers. As for how to increase Long Tingfei’s suspicions, I had handed this matter to the Prince of Qi and only given him a single principle—to not favor or discriminate against anyone. It was best if everyone had suspicions and was like rebels. So as not to frame the wrong person, I only woke Long Tingfei to the reality. However, seeing this soldier, I suddenly realized that compared to the other generals, the most suitable candidate was Shi Ying. That day, he had led an army to intercept the Prince of Qi and me. Our escape was possible largely due to luck. There were probably also those suspicious in the Northern Han army. It was reasonable if Shi Ying had held back in his pursuit. Although I wanted to first eliminate Duan Wudi, Shi Ying was comparatively far more reckless and careless, seemingly more prone to falling into traps.

I went over the information that I had received recently. While alive, Tan Ji was on extremely poor terms with Shi Ying. In this last battle, Shi Ying had stayed behind in Qinzhou due to injuries, while Tan Ji was ambushed and killed. If Tan Ji’s household troops claimed that Shi Ying had treasonous intentions, Long Tingfei would likely believe it to a certain degree. Reaching this conclusion, I glanced once again at Ling Duan. I did not know whether Xiaoshunzi was being deliberate or inadvertent by having the two of them stay together. With this, the chance of success of my discord ploy was even greater.

However, I could not rush this matter. The main priority right now was to keep the two of them by my side, otherwise how could they learn these “secrets”? Thinking of this, I smiled and spoke, “The weather is cold. We should not be having this conversation outside. Let’s go in.” Finished speaking, I walked towards the interior of the tent. Xiaoshunzi rapidly rushed to my side, guarding against any assassination attempts by the two captives. In reality, with the severity of their injuries, it would have been difficult to conduct an assassination attempt. Furthermore, with Xiaoshunzi by my side, even they were in the best of health, it would be impossible for them to succeed. In practice, handling a crisis effortlessly4 solely relied upon recognizing that danger did not exist.

Entering the tent, I selected a chair and sat down. Very slowly, Li Hu and Ling Duan walked in, somewhat unwilling and somewhat curious.

I carefully regarded the two of them for some time before I smiled and said, “Xiaoshunzi, you are a bit too meddlesome.… In a few days, when their injuries are healed, they will be delivered into penal servitude. When the time comes, they will be surrounded by a massive military force, unarmed and defenseless, forced to perform exhausting manual labor on a daily basis. The two of them have relatively excellent martial arts skills. They will likely be in fetters. Even if they want to escape, it will be difficult to do so. Everyone there will be prisoners. Even if we conquer Northern Han, they will not regain their freedom for several years. This kind of suffering is already more than enough. Why are you going to the trouble of retaliating?”

When Li Hu and Ling Duan heard my words, although they were sorrowful, this was the reasonable consequence. Besides, according to custom, seriously injured soldiers without high rank like themselves would likely have been directly executed by the troops assigned to sweeping the battlefield. Those with the qualifications to be prisoners were typically only lightly wounded soldiers and important officers. Even if they became prisoners, the average army doctor would have been powerless to save seriously injured individuals like them. They would likely not have been able to live that long. Honestly, Li Hu’s survival up till today was because of Xiaoshunzi’s wish to retaliate and so he had arranged for someone to give him the proper medical care. As for Ling Duan, this was all because of Tan Ji. The Prince of Qi had intentionally given orders to have him rescued, thus saving his life.

Seeing their two expressions, I felt a hint of pity. Everyone wanted to live, and feared death. These two were the same. If they were to sacrifice their lives for their country or face unbearable humiliation, they likely would not cling abjectly to life. However, they were now prisoners. If there weren’t any unexpected accidents, it was natural that they wanted to survive. Although that was the case, I would not view them with contempt because of it. If I sought to force them to surrender and pay allegiance to Great Yong and betray Northern Han, it would be impossible. On the other hand, exploiting the pressure of death to force them to temporarily give up their dignity was quite possible.

Thinking of this, I revealed what I considered to be an extremely sincere expression and said, “Brother Li, I let things slip through, nearly leading to your humiliation. Although this was the result of an underling’s actions, it is also the result of a lack of proper guidance on my part. As compensation, I will arrange for Brother Li to temporarily serve out your forced servitude at my side. Once the war has ended, Brother Li will be allowed to depart in peace. If it were following my original intent, I would release Brother Li immediately. However, Brother Li must realize that as Great Yong’s Army Supervisor, there are some things that are inappropriate for me to do. However, there is no need for Brother Li to worry. There is no need for those by my side to go into battle and I will not have Brother Li make trouble for your former comrades. Is Brother Li willing to accept my kind intentions?”

Li Hu’s eyes widened. Truthfully, Jiang Zhe’s suggestion was extremely attractive. Aside from the lack of freedom, it could be said to be exceedingly generous. However, Li Hu had just learned a lesson and was unwilling to believe that such a thing would occur in this world. Besides, could this be considered as treason and defecting to the enemy? Li Hu could not work things out clearly. As a result, he did not know how to reply, at least temporarily.

I turned my attention to Ling Duan and said, “His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, thinks rather highly of General Tan Ji. I, myself, am extremely regretful that I did not have the opportunity to meet General Tan. Young brother Ling is the sole survivor of General Tan’s Ghost Cavalry. Because of this connection, the Prince of Qi has you on his mind. His Imperial Highness does not want to make things difficult for you. But a country has its laws and an army its rules. Right now, younger brother Ling is not permitted to freely depart. His Imperial Highness is a member of the Imperial Clan and the commander-in-chief of the army. It is inappropriate to leave younger brother Ling by his side, and thus he asked me to attend to you. If younger brother Ling does not mind, there is no harm in also staying temporarily at my side. What do you think?”

Xiaoshunzi stood at Jiang Zhe’s side, his expression cold as ice. However, he almost laughed out loud. When did His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, entrust this matter to the young master? All of this came from the young master speaking off the cuff. However, he was intelligent. Seeing Jiang Zhe’s expression, Xiaoshunzi knew that the young master had come up with an idea. As a result, he naturally would not undermine the young master and instead deliberately revealed a look of discontent, stating, “Young master, although you agreed to help His Imperial Highness to look after Ling Duan, he is, after all is said and done, an enemy. We only need to keep them under arrest in the camp. There is no need to keep them by your side. If he chooses to repay your kindness with ingratitude and try to assassinate you, what then? In addition, it is already a blessing for Li Hu that the young master is not blaming him. Is there a need to keep him by your side?”

Although his words were quite disapproving it was actually providing impetus to Jiang Zhe’s words, causing both Li Hu and Ling Duan to feel Jiang Zhe’s kind intentions. However, neither Li Hu nor Ling Duan were able to respond. Although it was more comfortable to stay within the prisoner camps than to perform forced labor—and allowed them to quickly regain their freedom—regardless of what would happen in the war between Great Yong and Northern Han, they would be able to find the opportunity to escape. But would this be the slipup that caused everlasting regret5 and make them treasonous traitors? They both had anxious hearts. The two of them, originally unwilling to communicate aside from sheer boredom, exchanged several looks. Unfortunately, one was too cavalier, while the other was not good at expressing himself. It was almost a farce, as they were unable to make a decision even after a long time had passed.

I found this ridiculous. However, I also knew that it was impossible to get a straight answer out of them. With the lure planted, the next step was to coerce them. Deliberately ignoring the possibility that they would reject, I said, “Since neither of you oppose this, Xiaoshunzi, go make the arrangements and have them move in with the Stalwart Tiger Guard. Once their injuries heal, arrange for them to wait for orders before my tent.”

Finished speaking, I ignored the looks of unwillingness and prepared rejection on their faces, quickly leaving with my bodyguards. Li Hu was most impatient, shouting, “Wait a moment! I don’t—” Just as he spoke those words, he forcibly swallowed them, because he saw Xiaoshunzi standing there, blocking the entrance. Xiaoshunzi had a strange smile on his face, as his fair right hand suddenly appeared and placed itself upon Li Hu’s shoulder. A freezing and sinister qi poured into Li Hu’s body from his shoulder, causing his entire body to grow cold, unable to say a single word.

Ling Duan became terrified. He clearly saw the faint desire to murder in Xiaoshunzi’s eyes. He could not help asking, “Hasn’t your master already let Li Hu off?”

A hint of hesitation flashed across Xiaoshunzi’s eyes. After a while, he dropped his hand and answered, “Since the young master has already made his decision, there is nothing that I can say. However, if you wish to decline, I will immediately kill the both of you. At most, I will be reprimanded by the young master. If you do not appreciate the young master’s kind intentions, then the two of you are heedless of danger,6 and it won’t take much for me to kill you two.”

The two of them shivered greatly. It wasn’t worth it if they were to die under these circumstances. Ling Duan grit his teeth and thought, If I stay behind, it may be possible to kill Jiang Zhe one day. When the time comes, it would be worth it to die. Ignoring whether these thoughts were an excuse, Ling Duan hatefully said, “This one is willing to obey. Old Hu, what about you?”

At this moment, Li Hu also smartened up, surprisingly understanding Ling Duan’s hints. In a deep, gruff voice, he answered, “I will as well.”

Bloodlust shone in Xiaoshunzi’s eyes. At this moment, he was really quite indignant. He had seen through their schemes at first glance. Leaving these two by the young master’s side was not something he was willing to accept. However, he had no choice but to suppress the rage in his heart. He understood that it wasn’t strange for the two of them to have these thoughts. That was also why the young master was certain that the two of them would surrender.

Walking out of the tent, Xiaoshunzi chuckled grimly at heart. It was a pity that the two of them were too naïve. Human nature was truly strange. Once people became accustomed to yielding, then they would gradually give up their persistence. Regardless of whether they were sincere, yielding this time would gradually cause them to give up their enmity and the courage to resist. However, before they completely surrendered, he needed to take care at every moment. It was only that, although he did not understand the young master’s plan, they would likely be completely exploited before the two of them had even yielded.

From that day forward, Li Hu and Ling Duan were forced to change into the uniform of the Yong army, becoming bodyguards serving at the side of Army Supervisor Jiang Zhe.

The two of them were completely preoccupied with thoughts of assassinating Jiang Zhe. If they didn’t do this, they would remember the scene where the honeyed words spoken by Jiang Zhe and the threats of Xiaoshunzi forced them to yield. Unfortunately, they did not have any opportunity to act. Although Jiang Zhe had an amiable and indolent personality, seemingly completely without any wariness towards the two of them, unfortunately, the bodyguards by his side were cautious and alert. Let alone assassination, even if they touched their weapons, they would immediately catch the attention of a dozen eyes. Besides, Xiaoshunzi was always at Jiang Zhe’s side. His icy gaze seemed to be able to penetrate straight into their hearts.

Speaking of this point, the two did not understand why Jiang Zhe still ordered them to be given weapons even though they were into forced servitude by his side. Even Li Hu remarked in private, wondering if the Army Supervisor daren was friendly with everyone. This was not an impression that Ling Duan believed. At the very least, whenever the Prince of Qi came to hold discussions with Jiang Zhe, the two of them would be kept away. It seemed that it wasn’t that Jiang Zhe was not wary. However, with this, Ling Duan felt a load off his mind. He was not an idiot. Having followed the general for years, Ling Duan understood a bit of the art of war. If Jiang Zhe had adopted a position of completely trusting the two of them, Ling Duan would definitely believe that Jiang Zhe had malicious and ulterior motives.

Li Hu sneezed again. As someone from Northern Han and having lived for years in the even colder Qinzhou, he should not have caught a cold so easily. Unfortunately, having only just recovered from serious injuries, his vitality had been greatly sapped. This naturally left him more susceptible to illness. As for Ling Duan, although he was young, his internal energy was even more profound. At present, he had already recovered his range of motions.

Just then, the sky began once again to snow. Xiaoshunzi, who the two of them feared most, walked to Jiang Zhe’s side and said, “Young master, it’s snowing. It’s best to return to the tent to rest.”

Ling Duan rubbed his somewhat frozen hands, bending his ear to eavesdrop on Jiang Zhe’s response. Under this kind of cold weather, he also wished to go back and warm himself by the fire. From the distance, the wind carried a voice saying, “The day after tomorrow is the anniversary of my late father’s death. Unfortunately, I am drifting outside and am unable to go back to sweep the tombs. Do you know if there are any temples nearby? Offering sacrifices before the Buddha is good as well.”

Hesitating, Xiaoshunzi replied, “Young master, sixty li from here is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. It was originally a Zen Buddhist Temple. Afterwards, because of the multiple invasions of Zezhou by the Northern Han army, the temple was abandoned. Recently, because of our victory, Zezhou has begun to recover. Monks have returned to manage the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery and should be able to hold a sacrificial ceremony. Moreover, the common people of Zezhou all believe that the Northern Han army cannot step an inch in. As a result, there are villages and shops lining the road to the temple. In addition, before winter arrived, the road was repaired. If the young master goes, there shouldn’t be any impediments. However, with the heavy snows these last several days, travel likely won’t be easy.”

Suddenly, clear and bright laughter rang out, and a voice said, “Suiyun, facing the wind and braving the snow! Why are you harming yourself like this?”

Ling Duan looked over and caught sight of the Prince of Qi walking over in casual dress, enduring the snow. Jiang Zhe also gazed at the Prince of Qi, finding it disagreeable, as he replied, “For Your Imperial Highness to come here, presumably there is another military matter. Zhe is only an Army Supervisor. Surely, there is no need for Your Imperial Highness to discuss everything with me, right?”

The Prince of Qi smiled and declared, “With a talent like you present, if this Prince does not know to utilize you to the fullest, wouldn’t that make me extremely stupid? This Prince does indeed have something to discuss with you.” Finished speaking, he pulled Jiang Zhe towards the tent.

Ling Duan glanced at Li Hu, shrugging his shoulders. The two of them walked back to their tent. Whenever Li Xian arrived, they would be allowed to return to their tent to rest. As a result, the two of them did not wait for the order and prepared to directly return. Before they had gone more than a few steps, they saw one of the imperial bodyguards by the Prince of Qi’s side, Zhuang Jun, rush over. Ling Duan halted. He recognized Zhuang Jun. When he was originally taken captive, it was Zhuang Jun who looked in on him on behalf of the Prince of Qi. As a result, Ling Duan was prepared to greet him.

Seeing Ling Duan stop, Zhuang Jun mentally celebrated. Walking over, he smiled and said, “Ling Duan, there is a matter that I need to speak with you about. Allow him to go ahead.”

Hearing his words, Li Hu did not say a word and went ahead, leaving Ling Duan behind. Finding it a bit strange, Ling Duan asked, “Bodyguard Zhuang, what’s going on?”

With a solemn expression, Zhuang Jun answered, “Ling Duan, you are always together with Li Hu. Have you ever heard him speak about the interception and attempted murder of His Imperial Highness?”

Somewhat at a loss, Ling Duan replied, “I’ve heard him speak of it. However, he wasn’t clear about the details.”

His complexion increasingly grave, Zhuang Jun inquired, “What do you know?”

Ling Duan shivered inside. He warily responded, “I don’t know much, only that they split their troops in pursuit and were ultimately defeated at the Gu Mountain Stronghold. He does not know how they were defeated. Therefore, I do not know much, only that he caused the Army Supervisor daren to fall into the water.” He did not conceal anything. Zhuang Jun probably knew more about these matters than him.

Zhuang Jun seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Smiling, he said, “Since that is the case, then never mind. All right, we haven’t seen each other for days. Let’s take advantage of the discussion between His Imperial Highness and the Army Supervisor daren to chat. How has it been going recently?”

Ling Duan was touched. Seeing Zhuang Jun gaze in the direction of his tent, intentionally or otherwise, a thought suddenly appeared in his mind. Zhuang Jun wanted to delay him here and even asked about what Li Hu had said. Could it be that something was afoot? Feeling great urgency, he didn’t even bother to be perfunctory with Zhuang Jun, simply turning and running back to his tent. He saw two of the Prince of Qi’s imperial bodyguards blocking his path. Ling Duan steeled himself, brandishing his short dagger-axe. Although he had only recently recovered and his strength was insufficient, since the dagger-axe techniques that he had learned from Tan Ji were unusual, one of the imperial bodyguards was forced to stagger back one step after a few blows. Ling Duan charged through. At this moment, Zhuang Jun yelled, “Let him go!”

Sprinting back to his tent, Ling Duan saw Li Hu exhausted on the ground, being dragged by two of the Prince of Qi’s imperial bodyguards, preparing to bring him out of the tent. Ling Duan was highly alarmed. Although he knew that getting involved would not be beneficial, Ling Duan still obstructed the two bodyguards. The short dagger-axe in his hand shook slightly. He understood very clearly that if the Prince of Qi truly wished to execute Li Hu, there was nothing he could do. However, over these last several days, Ling Duan had long since set aside the grudges and resentments between Tan Ji and Shi Ying. In his view, no matter how annoying Shi Ying was, it had nothing to do with Li Hu. How could he tolerate seeing this kind of straightforward man dying before his eyes?

Just then, Zhuang Jun led several imperial bodyguards and walked over slowly. The Stalwart Tiger Guard living in tents on both sides crowded around, curiously watching the odd scene unfolding before them.

Zhuang Jun sighed and said, “Ling Duan, Li Hu’s affairs have nothing to do with you. The Prince of Qi has issued orders, including him in the list of those to be executed. It is best that you do not get involved.”

Ling Duan’s expression became baleful, his breathing growing coarse. Gripping his short dagger-axe tightly, he said, “We originally were captives and do not have control over our lives. If you want to kill us, you can naturally do so. However, if you want to take Li Hu away, you must first kill me. In any case, I have long wanted to follow General Tan to the underworld.”

Zhuang Jun heartlessly spoke, “If you wish to save him, then you have to pass through me.” Finished speaking, he shot out a palm at Ling Duan. Ling Duan used everything to fight back. After the two had exchanged several dozen blows, Ling Duan was already gasping for air. After several additional exchanges, Ling Duan was smacked to the ground by Zhuang Jun.

Heaving a sigh, Zhuang Jun uttered, “I’ll pretend the matter today has not happened. Go back and rest.” As he spoke, he signaled with his hand. The two imperial bodyguards dragged the unconscious Li Hu out. Ling Duan’s eyes narrowed. However, he was incapable of getting back to his feet. After all, he was young, and his eyes gradually grew hazy.

Just then, a Stalwart Tiger Guard stepped forward with an ashen complexion, blocking Zhuang Jun. He said, “Bodyguard Zhuang, have you come with the Army Supervisor daren’s orders? These two individuals have personally been given shelter by the daren. Without his orders, please forgive us for being unable to permit you to take Li Hu away.”

Zhuang Jun cupped his hands together and replied, “His Imperial Highness is currently in the Army Supervisor daren’s tent. This matter is of utmost importance. The daren will definitely not obstruct it.”

The Stalwart Tiger Guard coolly voiced, “I have already dispatched someone to report this matter to the daren. If the daren gives the order, we will of course not intervene.”

At this moment, a Stalwart Tiger Guard hurriedly ran over from Jiang Zhe’s tent, whispering a few words in the Stalwart Tiger Guard blocking the place. Ling Duan could faintly hear, “Interception and killing … cannot be leaked … silence any witnesses …”

Although disjointed, Ling Duan already understood. It seemed like Li Hu was included on the list of individuals who needed to be silenced because of certain secrets. What was going on for this kind of nobody to also be executed? Just then, Zhuang Jun’s ambiguous questioning once again reverberated in his mind. He watched helplessly as Li Hu was taken away. Ling Duan felt sharp pain in his heart. His vision dimmed and he slipped into unconsciousness.

Footnotes:

自相残杀, zixiangcansha – idiom, lit. fratricidal fighting; fig. internecine strife, be at each other’s throats, mutual annihilation
睚眦必报 yazibibao – idiom, lit. angrily staring and wanting revenge due to a small resentment; fig. seeking revenge for the slightest/smallest grievance
义愤填膺, yifentianying – idiom, lit. be filled with righteous (moral) indignation; fig. one’s blood boils with righetous [virtuous] rage
履险如夷, lüxianruyi – idiom, lit. to make one’s way through a dangerous pass as if walking on level ground; fig. to handle a crisis effortlessly
一失足成千古恨, yishizuchengqianguhen – idiom, lit. a single slip can cause lasting sorrow
不知死活, buzhisihuo – idiom, lit. have no idea of death or danger; fig. act recklessly and blindly

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