Volume 5, Chapter 14: Joy at Decisive Victory1

On the seventeenth day of the third month of the first year of Longsheng, the fifteenth year of the sixty-year cycle, the Yong army attacked Anze. Duan Wudi defended resolutely and refused to retreat. On the twenty-first day of the third month, Long Tingfei breached a dam on the Qin River to drown the Yong army. The Yong army was utterly defeated. The Northern Han intelligence network thoroughly searched the region for three days.
—Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Three

Standing on the crumbling walls of Anze and looking down indifferently at the pools and streams below, Long Tingfei did not feel a shred of happiness. Although this flood had drowned countless Yong soldiers, Anze was on the verge of collapse. When killing ten thousand enemies, one would also suffer grievously. If this had not been the last resort, he would not have made such a decision. Thinking how this flood would submerge countless acres of fertile land, leaving so many Northern Han civilians destitute and homeless, Long Tingfei ached dully within.

At this moment, the sounds of Duan Wudi and other commanders paying their respects came from behind him. Unwilling to allow his worries to infect the mood, the expression on Long Tingfei’s face eased greatly to the extent that he forced himself to reveal a smile. In a clear voice, he said, “This time, we have attained victory by flooding the enemy. However, the main Yong army still exists. We will still have to fight arduously in the days to come. Gentlemen, we must not lose vigilance!”

Presently, Duan Wudi was Long Tingfei’s highest ranking subordinate. As such, he responded first, “General, there is no need to worry. Although the Yong army managed to preserve the majority of its strength, their fleet was practically annihilated. The roads between Anze and Jishi have become a swamp, making it difficult for carts and horses to pass. Henceforth, the Yong supply lines will be on the verge of being severed. If the Yong commander-in-chief is self-aware, he may even retreat. General’s scheme were able to defeat the enemy in an instant. All of us bow in respect without exception.”

All of the generals repeatedly voiced their acclaim that Long Tingfei’s art of war was like that of a deity’s. The brilliance of its radiance made all of them feel aglow with health and vigor, completely forgetting the pressure and torment of the earlier siege by the Yong army. Long Tingfei lamented a bit internally. The majority of the officers present were braver than they were wise, making it difficult for them to assume responsibility by themselves. However, he had to maintain his smile, accepting everyone’s congratulations. After all, he could not demoralize everyone. In a gentle voice, he replied, “Having battled continuously for so many days must have been extremely exhausting. With the military affairs that are to come, it is best if everyone goes and gets rest. Tonight, this general will hold a celebratory banquet for everyone.”

The gathered generals continuously voiced their affirmation, withdrawing cheerfully and optimistically, leaving only Long Tingfei and Duan Wudi behind to have a private discussion on the battlements. The two’s bodyguards discreetly withdrew a good distance. As the biting spring breeze blew by, bits and pieces of their conversation drifted with the wind, but they quickly passed.

Although somewhat miserable inwardly, Long Tingfei was quite delighted at having attained such a victory. He regretfully said, “I have been engineering this stratagem for some time now. After Shi Ying’s affair, I had Xiao Tong hunt down and massacre the Yong army’s scouts and spies, tightly controlling the region north of Anze. The Yong army would assume that I fell into a terrible rage because of Shi Ying, totally oblivious to the fact that I am seizing the opportunity to act. In addition, when fourth young master Qiu pursued Qing Dai for over a hundred li,2 he managed to kill the majority of the ranking members of the Yong intelligence network. These several months were the weakest Great Yong’s intelligence network had ever been. As such, I took advantage of the freezing weather to build a dam to create a lake using the spring thaw. Everything was prepared to finally drown the Yong army.

“What caused me further delight was that the navy His Royal Majesty secretly trained was dispatched to help me due to the arrangements of the State Mentor. Fighting bitterly at Anze for five days, we were able to lure the core of the Yong invasion below the walls of Anze, allowing us to attain this success. It is only a pity that the Yong navy is quite large, while it will still take a long time before our navy becomes even remotely powerful. In addition, because of the terrain separating the dam and Anze, it was difficult to firmly find the right timing. I had originally intended to release the flood when the Yong army was most exhausted in the early afternoon. Unfortunately, I do not know how the Yong army was able to discover some clues. Fortunately, Wudi was able to light a warning beacon in a timely fashion, otherwise all these preparations would likely have been for naught.”

Hearing these words, the expression on Duan Wudi’s face became somewhat restless. Atop the walls of Anze, he had been able to overlook the Yong army. He had been able to see Su Qing gallop into the Yong army to report. Although there was a significant distance separating the two, Duan Wudi had exceptional eyesight. Feeling both admiration and remorse for Su Qing, he clearly remembered her figure. Although the distance between them was large, he was just able to recognize her. However, it was inconvenient for him to raise this matter. After all, he and Su Qing were old flames. Although their ties were now severed, the more Su Qing contributed to Great Yong, the more his circumstances became awkward.

Although Duan Wudi did not want to blab, Long Tingfei suddenly thought of Su Qing. Turning around, Long Tingfei cocked his head. With a smile, he said, “Wudi, your Miss Qing Dai is truly a heroine amongst women. If she were still in Northern Han overseeing the Yong intelligence network, it would not have been so easy for us to hide our intentions. However, it is unlikely that she will be able to continue to serve in Great Yong.”

Greatly startled, Duan Wudi replied, “Why has General said such a thing? This general no longer has any ties to Su Qing. In addition, Su Qing is in quite an important position in Great Yong. Why has General said that she will be unable to find a home in Great Yong?”

Long Tingfei snickered behind his sleeve, thinking that Duan Wudi was unable to forget Qing Dai. However, he did not become enraged as a result. He was well aware of Duan Wudi’s loyalty to Northern Han. What was there to suspect about someone who disregarded their own reputation and abandoned personal considerations? Long Tingfei smiled and said, “A few days earlier, when elder young master Duan came to see me, he spoke of Su Qing. When the Yong army violated our borders at the beginning, he was south of Jishi and witnessed our navy intercept the Yong fleet. Coincidentally, the Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe, was present within the fleet. If our navy had launched an all-out attack, it would have been possible for us to capture Jiang Zhe, causing our military to be invigorated. When elder young master Duan witnessed the situation, he intercepted and killed officers of the reinforcing cavalry units to throw the Yong army into confusion and allow our navy more time to act. Unfortunately, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory and the navy lost a vice commander who hailed from the royal family.”

Reaching this point, Long Tingfei became somewhat sad. However, he forced a smile and continued, “Seeing his whereabouts detected, elder young master Duan decided that he might as well seek to assassinate an important figure within the Yong army. The Stalwart Tiger Guard protecting Jiang Zhe are as many as the clouds. He further has an expert at the level of Demonic Shadow Li Shun. As a result, elder young master Duan selected Su Qing as his target. At the time, Su Qing had just been summoned to a meeting by Jiang Zhe. After our navy retreated, Jiang Zhe should have learned that the Yong officers had been assassinated and specially dispatched Su Qing to notify the Prince of Qi. These were the determinations that elder young master Duan made from Su Qing’s movements. As a result, he selected Su Qing to be his target of assassination. Having spent years in Northern Han, Su Qing was well acquainted with the military situation and terrain. Having her killed would return the greatest reward. Unfortunately, Jiang Zhe truly has incredible foresight and set a trap. Pursuing Su Qing, elder young master fell into the trap. However, elder young master’s martial arts skills are tremendous and he was able to escape. This could be considered to have tarnished Jiang Zhe’s reputation.

“Moreover, elder young master discovered something of interest. Su Qing’s martial arts and swordsmanship were actually handed down from the Fengyi Sect. Fourth young master Qiu should not be so familiar with the sword techniques of the Fengyi Sect. As a result, he did not discover this fact. If I had known of this long ago, I probably could have used this to incite Su Qing’s defection. At the time, in order to escape, elder young master exposed this fact. Ha! The results were definitely lively! Although elder young master did not stay behind to watch the scene unfold, there are a few of our scouts among the refugees who were able to escape. They personally witnessed Su Qing being delivered unconscious to Jiang Zhe’s ship.

“Humph! That Jiang Zhe is a trusted subordinate of the Yong Emperor and has irreconcilable differences with the Fengyi Sect. After the Fengyi Sect was destroyed, all those related to the Fengyi Sect were exterminated. Although the policy in the Yong army was quite relaxed, based upon Su Qing’s behavior, appearance, and talents, she is undoubtedly a key member of the Fengyi Sect. Now that the Fengyi Sect is the biggest taboo of Great Yong, Su Qing’s future is assuredly destroyed. Even if people remember her past contributions, she likely will still lose her military position.

“In reality, I am quite sympathetic of Miss Su. Because of her family grievances, she was disloyal to Northern Han. Now that her identity has been exposed, that means she is also disloyal to Great Yong. Trapped in such a dilemma, it is possible that she may turn tail. If Wudi has the chance to meet this woman again, there is no harm in trying to recruit her. If it is possible for her to return to Northern Han, I can pardon her of her previous crimes as long as she can eliminate the entirety of Yong’s intelligence network in Northern Han.”

Duan Wudi hesitated for some time before he replied, “Miss Su’s will and determination are unswerving, and is not someone who will change her mind lightly. This general feels that it is unlikely for her to return to Northern Han. However, if this general did not see mistakenly, she galloped with great haste back to the Yong army. It seems that she has not been dismissed from her post.” After thinking for some time, Duan Wudi ultimately decided to not conceal this damaging information. As a result, he did not mince words.

Long Tingfei’s brows furrowed slightly. After only a moment, he beamed and stated, “I do not believe that Jiang Zhe won’t pursue and investigate this matter. Although that man seems scholarly and refined on the surface, his decisiveness is greater than an ordinary individual’s. I have heard Ling Duan speak of the man’s viciousness and mercilessness. Even that Demonic Shadow Li Shun falls silent when Jiang Zhe turns stern. He will definitely not let Su Qing off lightly. Could it be the Prince of Qi’s intentions? Li Xian, the Prince of Qi, once took a disciple of the Fengyi Sect as his wife. It is possible that his former sentiments have not be terminated. Furthermore, it could be said that Su Qing is his direct subordinate. Li Xian’s character has always been arrogant and despotic, declining to bother with trifling matters. Even if he has suffered repeated setbacks, his temperament stays the same. If he were to interfere, it would be difficult for Jiang Zhe to stop it. However, I do not believe that Yong Emperor Li Zhi will let this matter rest lightly. The Fengyi Sect almost seized his throne and took his life. Even if his magnanimity is as deep as the ocean, it is unlikely that he will permit Su Qing’s continued existence. This matter will definitely have further consequences.

“I will first dispatch people to investigate. If Jiang Zhe has become hostile with the Prince of Qi because of this matter, then we will add fuel to the fire and pass this information to the Yong court. This is the best pretext for denunciation. There are those who will definitely not let this opportunity slip by. When the time comes, how can Li Xian survive? However, there is no rush. Right now, the most important matter is confronting the enemy. If we can trap Li Xian at Qinzhou, there is no need for these plots. After all, the Prince of Qi is a hard-to-come-by capable general. Only by dying on the battlefield can he live up to his illustrious name.”

Although Duan Wudi had listened earnestly, he did not make any sympathetic responses to Long Tingfei’s words. He was not skilled at this kind of machination. He was a ranking military officer and not a schemer. If this matter did not implicate Su Qing, he likely would have been completely disinterested in listening.

Understanding Duan Wudi’s intentions, Long Tingfei could not help smiling bitterly inside. His gaze swept across behind him. That kind of empty feeling caused him to ache. It was not that long since his “wings” had fallen with each passing day. Thinking back to when Tan Ji, Su Dingluan, and Shi Ying were still alive, he would feel relaxed wherever he went. Although Tan Ji was not fond of speaking, many of his vicious stratagems had been brainstormed by the two of them. In addition, although he was melancholic, and savage and cruel to the extreme, Long Tingfei felt extremely calm with him in tow.

Su Dingluan’s death had made Long Tingfei wring his hands the most. The life of this kind of sharp blade capable of overcoming any obstacle had lost his life in Chang’an because he had participated in an assassination attempt on the Prince of Yong’s life on his own initiative. Although the three Lu brothers could replace Su Dingluan, Long Tingfei still felt something was missing. Although the three Lu brothers’ valiance and ferocity were not inferior to Su Dingluan’s, they lacked Su Dingluan’s imposing bearing. Su Dingluan by himself was enough to rally the entire army into becoming undaunted in the face of all perils. His formidable strength was capable of conquering every obstacle. As for the three Lu brothers, they did not have such an effect.

Finally, there was Shi Ying. This was the sharpest ache in Long Tingfei’s heart. Shi Ying was the general he had promoted personally. The trust Long Tingfei had placed in Shi Ying was greater than the other three. However, in one night, Shi Ying had become a traitor who had committed treason and defected. Even as of now, Long Tingfei still had a feeling that the reason he had issued orders to only imprison Shi Ying and not summarily execute him was because he hoped that there was a chance of absolving the situation. However, contrary to Long Tingfei’s expectations, Shi Ying actually went so far as to commit suicide. At the beginning, Long Tingfei had breathed a sigh of relief. After all, he was reluctant to point his sword at this trusted subordinate of his. However, when Su Qing’s identity was divulged, Long Tingfei did not know why but began to wonder if he had been mistaken about Shi Ying. However, the evidence available was undeniable and Shi Ying’s actions caused him an extreme headache. As a result, he had buried these thoughts deep in his mind.

Thinking of the successive deaths of the ranking generals by his side, Long Tingfei found it difficult to endure the rage roiling in his mind. He gazed down from the battlements, regarding the broken scene before him. Thinking of a method of venting the resentment in his heart, he viciously said, “At present, the Yong army does not have any place to take shelter and will definitely scatter in all directions. Since Wudi has said that Jiang Zhe was the first to leave, he will likely be briefly separated from the Yong army. I have already relayed an order to Xiao Tong, dispatching our army’s scouts and spies to search the region. Once they have discovered Jiang Zhe’s whereabouts, we must do everything in our power to ensure that he is killed. Elder young master Duan has made preparations to go personally. If we can kill Jiang Zhe, the morale of the Yong army will definitely plummet. In addition, the Prince of Qi will have no way to explain this matter to Yong Emperor Li Zhi. As for Su Qing’s affair, it is simply trivial. We can use this matter in the future if Jiang Zhe is able to luckily escape. The best outcome is Jiang Zhe getting intercepted and killed.”

Duan Wudi did not attach much importance to this matter. To him, although assassinating an enemy leader would be enough to cause enemy morale to waver, if they could not deal the enemy the most possible damage, it would not be considered as a victory. Moreover, Jiang Zhe was heavily protected. A successful assassination attempt was not necessary. However, Duan Wudi would not dampen Long Tingfei’s spirits. Instead, he changed the subject and said, “General, although the Yong army has been defeated, its main cavalry force remains. Once the floodwaters recede, they will definitely return. Li Xian, the Prince of Qi, has a savage nature. He likely won’t retreat. I wonder what the General has planned in the future?”

Long Tingfei’s mind focused and he replied, “I was just about to discuss this matter with you. Although the Yong army has been defeated, they have not suffered grievous losses. If we laid out lines of defenses before Anze and Qinyuan, although the Yong army would pay a heavy price to break through the defensive lines, Great Yong could send another eighty to a hundred thousand men with its massive territory and army. In comparison, our army will find it difficult to continue. In addition, if both of our two countries suffer disastrous losses, outsiders would likely obtain the advantage. Although both of us hope that Great Yong is besieged on all sides, timing is also of the utmost importance. Further, Anze is already broken. It will be quite difficult to defend Anze.

“In my opinion, it is best to provoke the Prince of Qi and make him go on an anxious offensive while we withdraw to Qinyuan. When the time comes, if the Yong army wishes to attack, they will have to traverse these swamplands and nearly forty li3 of hilly terrain. Now that their fleet has suffered heavy losses, their supply train will be in dire straits. As we remain entrenched at Qinyuan, not only can we rely upon its stout walls, our supply line will be secured. If this drags out, our army will definitely obtain favorable geographic and social conditions, allowing us to wait at ease for an exhausted enemy. We will be able to fight at our own pace. Even if we cannot win, we will be able to hold up the Yong army. Great Yong still has internal troubles and other external enemies. As long as this war drags out, the Yong army will definitely reach an impasse. Being able to undermine the Yong army’s strength, what’s not to like about it?”

Duan Wudi nodded his head and put forth, “Great General’s plan is feasible. By setting the decisive battle at Qinyuan, not only can we extend the enemy’s supply train—ensuring that the enemy cannot endure a prolonged battle—but our army will be in an invincible position,4 relying upon Qinyuan’s deep moats and high walls, with Qinzhou as our backing. This general asks for permission to immediately withdraw the soldiers and civilians of Anze to Qinyuan. The mountainous roads between are difficult and dangerous, while both shores of the Qin River have become a swampy mess. If we do not rapidly withdraw and get bogged down by the Yong army, then our losses will be quite heavy.”

Nodding his head, Long Tingfei agreed, “Wudi speaks correctly. However, our spies must stay behind for now. I hope to be able to intercept and kill the Yong officers who have been left behind. Elder young master Duan will also stay behind. It is unfortunate that fourth young master Qiu has been detained in the Eastern Sea, otherwise, with the two of them working together, Jiang Zhe’s capture or death would be readily attainable as long as his whereabouts were discovered.”

His brows knit, Duan Wudi asked, “This general is a bit puzzled about this matter. The fourth young master went to the Eastern Sea in the hopes of ensuring that they remain neutral. The Eastern Sea only required that the fourth young master stay behind to maintain its strict neutrality. Isn’t this a bit strange? Besides, they also provided us with a batch of provisions and military equipment. The Eastern Sea’s surrender to Great Yong will happen sooner rather than later. The Yong Army Supervisor, Jiang Zhe, had spent years in the Eastern Sea, while the little Marquis of the Eastern Sea is his disciple. This general feels that something is off. Since we have already obtained the provisions, how about passing a message to the fourth young master and having him return as soon as possible?”

Smiling wryly, Long Tingfei shook his head and answered, “The disciples of the State Mentor are members of jianghu after all. They emphasize faith and honor first. The fourth young master is someone who particularly and scrupulously abides by his promises. Even if the State Mentor ordered him to return beforehand, he would likely refuse. In addition, the fourth young master’s temperament has always been icily arrogant and he is not accustomed to life within an army. Even if he were here, he would not be of much use. Besides, elder young master is going all-out to support us. It doesn’t matter even if fourth young master is not present. Instead, if he departed the Eastern Sea without permission, the Eastern Sea, in anger, would likely become hostile. Regardless of all else, as long as they dispatch a fleet to help Great Yong, we will find it hard to withstand. After all, you also understand that in a few days the Qin River’s water level will return to its normal state. When the time comes, if the Yong military uses its navy to transport provisions, then our wishful thinking5 will not come to fruition.”

Just as the two were discussing secretly, a clamor burst from below. Both men frowned. Duan Wudi berated, “Who is it that is raising such a racket down there?”

From the stairwell, the sound of numerous and disorderly footsteps thudded. Several of Long Tingfei’s bodyguards arrived supporting a soldier with a ragged and sorry figure. Sucking in a breath, the soldier reported, “Grand General, on the fourteenth day, a Yong army broke through Baixing at the Taihang Mountains, violently attacking Hu Pass. General Liu personally took command and bitterly defended the pass. However, the assaulting commander is the Vice Marshal of Yong’s Zezhou army, Jing Chi. In command of thirty thousand horsemen and supported by forty thousand troops from the Zhenzhou garrison, Jing Chi attacked around the clock, non-stop. General Liu has already sent a messenger to report to His Royal Majesty and inform him of this matter. However, lest Hu Pass be lost, he has especially dispatched this lowly one to report this matter to the Grand General to ask the Grand General for the swift dispatch of reinforcements.”

Hearing the soldier’s report, Duan Wudi felt like he got the jitters. Zhenzhou and Qinzhou were separated by the Taihang Mountains. As long as the mountain passes were stoutly defended, there was nothing to worry about. Besides, over these years, the Yong army’s invasions had always attacked through Zezhou, while there was no activity from Zhenzhou. Who could have thought that the Prince of Qi would actually dispatch his ranking deputy to attack Hu Pass? Hu Pass and Qinyuan were separated by a mere two hundred li.6 If Jing Chi breached Hu Pass within ten days, they would be able to catch the Northern Han army in a pincer attack from before and behind. The majority of Northern Han’s military was concentrated at Daizhou, Jinyang, and Qinzhou. The Jinyang army guarded the capital, while the Daizhou army had the onerous burden of repelling the barbarians of the north. Neither could be mobilized and transferred lightly. As for the garrisons at the various mountain passes, they also could not be casually shifted. The only available reinforcements that could be dispatched were from Qinzhou. Thinking of this, Duan Wudi clasped his hands and said, “Grand General, this general asks for the order to proceed to reinforce Hu Pass.”

Long Tingfei’s complexion did not change, only frostily replying, “When the scouts did not notice Jing Chi’s banner, I had already suspected that he would attack via Zhenzhou. It seems everything is within my expectations. Although Hu Pass’s garrison commander, Liu Wanli, is a member of the royal family, he is of mediocre talent, unfortunately. If he had half your ability, I would not have to worry about Hu Pass. However, you cannot go to reinforce. The Yong army also has commanders who are skilled at defense. A good defender will definitely be a capable besieger. Without you at Qinyuan, our army will definitely be defeated.”

Duan Wudi urgently returned, “However, if Hu Pass falls, none of the garrison commanders of the mountain passes in the southwestern part of our country are capable. Jing Chi’s advance will likely be like a hot knife through butter. When the time comes, and our army is mired in a tough battle with the Yong army, wouldn’t we still face the prospect of being pincered? It will probably be impossible for us to avoid defeat. Further, Jing Chi will be able to directly attack Jinyang. If the capital meets with disaster, wouldn’t our crimes be unpardonable?”

Smiling softly, Long Tingfei stated, “Wudi, you are worrying excessively. As long as we order each of the garrisons to strictly stick to their defenses, then even if Jing Chi breached Hu Pass, don’t tell me that he and his army will have the energy to siege every location? He will definitely make a beeline for Qinyuan. If he became insane and attacked Jinyang, I would actually rejoice. Jinyang is easily defended and difficult to attack. Even if Jing Chi’s tens of thousands of troops besieged Jinyang for a month or two, he would find it impossible to capture. However, I reckon Qinyuan should be Jing Chi’s objective. After all, destroying our army is the crux of the matter. If we did not learn of Jing Chi’s appearance, we likely would have been defeated. Since we have already learned of it now, I naturally have ways within Qinzhou to completely destroy Yong’s Zezhou army.”

Duan Wudi furrowed his brows tightly, unable to think of a way to stably score a victory. After all, the enemy had over two hundred thousand troops, while Northern Han had only a hundred thousand or so troops. Included within this figure were plenty of new recruits. In the face of the ruthless Yong army, how could they withstand being hit from both before and behind?

In comparison, Long Tingfei’s expression remained composed as he declared, “I will report this matter to His Royal Majesty. Although this plan is a bit risky, if our army were to lose, then our country would face ruin. I believe that His Royal Majesty will approve such a decision.”

Reaching this point, the somewhat haggard complexion that he had shown these last several days suddenly revealed a dazzling luster, making those aqua eyes seem profound and bright. His imposing figure seemed to be as tall and straight as a mountain peak. At this most difficult moment, he had finally broken through the heavy, dark clouds that had encompassed him, regaining his arrogance and self-confidence.

At this moment, all of the generals began to climb up to the battlements, having heard the news. All of them hoped to ascertain Long Tingfei’s decision. Seeing Long Tingfei full of confidence and valor, all their anxiety and fear scattered like dark clouds before the shining sun.

Giving a cheerful smile and pointing into the distance, Long Tingfei inquired, “Gentlemen, although the Yong army is incomparably formidable, do you men have the faith to follow me and defeat the Yong army?”

The gathered generals instinctively and simultaneously shouted, “We generals pledge our lives in loyalty and devotion to His Royal Majesty, to follow the Grand General and fight to the bitter end! We will definitely defeat the Yong army and protect our homeland!”

Long Tingfei laughed heartily. His laughter was open and resonant, making the Northern Han soldiers—who were busily picking up the pieces—express confident smiles.

Seeing Long Tingfei in such high spirits, Duan Wudi was finally able to settle down. Looking to the spring sun breaking through the dark clouds, Duan Wudi thought, Could this be a sign of our coming defeat upon the Yong army?

***

While Long Tingfei was fully confident, the Northern Han court in Jinyang was filled with gloomy worry. Atop the Orchid Terrace, Devil Sect Sovereign Jing Wuji was playing weiqi versus the Later Ruler of Northern Han, Liu You. Liu You’s expression was grave. While he carefully thought over each move he made, Jing Wuji’s moves seemed to be made in passing, almost as if he wasn’t taking the game to heart. However, of the two, the one who was driven into defeat was Liu You. From Liu You’s frowns and anxiety, it was more akin to him being tortured rather than playing weiqi. After a long while, Liu You pushed aside the game board and rose to his feet. He said, “We have already lost. State Mentor’s skill is brilliant. We are not afraid to admit Our inferiority.”

“Your Royal Majesty’s mind isn’t on the game,” replied Jing Wuji with a slight smile. “And is instead on the situation on the frontlines in Qinzhou. How can you not lose?”

Smiling wryly, Liu You stated, “State Mentor is someone outside of the banal world after all. Could it be that you are completely unconcerned about the war on the frontlines?”

Rising to his feet, Jing Wuji walked over to the railing. Stretching his hand out to point at the distant Sublime Virtue Palace Hall, he said, “Within the audience chambers, all of the important civil and military officials are waiting for Your Royal Majesty’s arrival to discuss important matters. All of them are exceptionally worried about the war. Why does Your Royal Majesty not go and discuss with them?”

Coming to Jing Wuji’s side, Liu You also gazed at the distant audience chambers. That was where he usually held his audiences. However, none of the individuals within were of any benefit to these important matters of state. Heaving a sigh, Liu You replied, “Right now, aside from Tingfei and Bi’er, who else is of any use? State Mentor, if you were willing to act personally, it would definitely ensure that the Yong commander-in-chief be assassinated. When the time comes, we will have no need to worry about their retreat. Right now, Great Yong no longer has the Fengyi Sect, so who is capable of stopping State Mentor?”

“Why does Your Royal Majesty not trust in Long Tingfei’s ability to save the crisis?” asked Jing Wuji with a frown. “Now that Great Yong’s main army has been halted south of Qinyuan and the Yong army newly defeated, if Wuji were to act now, it is likely that it will enrage all levels of Yong society. Although the Fengyi Sect Master is already dead, Great Master True Compassion remains alive. He is a Buddhist disciple and thus has not accompanied the army here. If he led the disciples of all the sects to Qinzhou, my Devil Sect’s disciples would be outnumbered. We would probably suffer. Besides, Lingxiao, Xiao Tong, and Yufei are all serving the country. This is already enough. There is no need for this seat to act personally.”

An anxious look flashed across Liu You’s eyes. He replied, “Although that is the case, a second Yong army has besieged Hu Pass for many days. Once Hu Pass falls, that army will then be able to attack Qinzhou directly from the rear. When the time comes, Qinzhou will be attacked from two sides. No matter how capable Tingfei is, what can he do? The army at Daizhou cannot be mobilized lightly. While Jinyang has a hundred thousand troops, they are not cavalry. Once Hu Pass falls, the kingdom will face unprecedented danger. State Mentor, please take pity and act personally this once.”

Just as Jing Wuji was about to utter a few consoling words, a eunuch attendant reported loudly from below the terrace, “The Grand General has submitted a secret petition!”

Hearing this, Liu You was delighted. He knew that Hu Pass’s garrison commander would definitely request reinforcements from Long Tingfei. As Long Tingfei had submitted a memorial at this moment, he had definitely come to a decision. As such, Liu You promptly said, “Quickly deliver the memorial.”

Accepting the memorial, Liu You opened it and looked. His complexion changed several times. A long time passed before he handed the memorial to Jing Wuji. After reading it, Jing Wuji smiled slightly and said, “As expected, Tingfei has a stratagem. Does Your Royal Majesty have any other concerns?”

“This is too risky!” exclaimed Liu You anxiously. “If things do not go according to Tingfei’s reckoning, what then?”

Jing Wuji uncaringly answered, “The country is about to fall; what use is there to worry about so much? If the Grand General is defeated, then it won’t be long before Northern Han submits. If Your Royal Majesty still has misgivings, why not ask Princess Bi? If Princess Bi also agrees, Your Royal Majesty should presumably not object, correct?”

After thinking it over for a period, Liu You answered, “State Mentor is correct, We should go ask Bi’er. However, if Bi’er does not agree then We will have to act forcibly. If we suffer defeat at Qinzhou, our country will no longer be capable of withstanding and confronting Great Yong. Bi’er will definitely understand.”

Silently nodding his head, Jing Wuji folded his hands behind his back and stared off into the distance. The flowers in the royal garden had begun to blossom. Within the wispy willows, the palace seemed to be even more magnificent.

If defeat were suffered at Qinzhou, this endless, beautiful scenery would probably be ravaged. With that, the Devil Sect’s roots in Northern Han would be pulled out. All of his hard work over these years would have been wasted. However, no matter the case, he definitely could not personally act to assassinate a ranking general of Great Yong. the present situation was not like that of the past. In those days, the warlords were vying for supremacy. Victory or defeat could not be anticipated. As a result, he could behave unscrupulously. Right now, in comparison, Great Yong’s momentum in unifying the world was difficult to stop. If he acted personally, it would likely lead to the Devil Sect’s complete destruction. This was something that he absolutely could not condone. Even if Northern Han fell, s long as he held back, then obstructed by his existence, Great Yong’s court would not dare to coerce the Devil Sect, possibly to the point of even ensuring the continuation of the Northern Han royal family.

Sighing lightly, Jing Wuji walked to a corner of the Orchid Terrace. There stood a celadon vase filled with rolled paintings. Reaching out, he picked out one of the paintings and gently unrolled it. Upon it was drawn a woman in white, performing a sword dance under the bright moon. Muttering to himself, Jing Wuji said, “Qinghui, oh, Qinghui. If not for your unwillingness to withdraw into seclusion and admit your advancing years, how would you have met your end at the Hunting Palace in Mount Li? What kind of individual is that young man who caused your death? Let it be considered as taking revenge for you if Lingxiao is able to intercept and kill him!”

Footnotes:

胜固欣然, shengguxinran – the first half of an idiom, 胜固欣然,败亦可喜 (shengguxinran, baiyikexi) that literally means joy after both victory and defeat
54 kilometers (about 33.5 miles)
21.6 kilometers (about 13.4 miles)
不败之地, bubaizhidi – lit. an undefeatable/invincible position
如意算盘, ruyisuanpan – idiom, lit. wishful thinking, smug calculation; fig. counting one’s chickens before they are hatched
108 kilometers (about 67 miles)

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