Volume 5, Chapter 3: Difficult to Explain Oneself

Ying was greatly trusted by the Grand General, performing long-distance raids and accruing outstanding military service. In the twenty-fourth year of Rongsheng, Ying accused Duan Wudi of corruption and collusion with merchants from an enemy state due to a personal grudge. Wudi’s actions were actually tacitly accepted by the Grand General, leaving Ying to bear the crime.
—Northern Han Dynastic Records, Biography of Shi Ying

Inside the Grand General’s residence, Long Tingfei stood in the main hall with his hands clasped behind his back. There was a raging fury inside him. These last several weeks, while he had been busy training the troops and reorganizing the army, he did not forget to monitor his subordinate commanders. In his mind, Duan Wudi and Shi Ying were the most suspicious. Both of them were his most trusted generals. Shi Ying was skilled at warfare and did not have much experience or skill as a schemer. Duan Wudi excelled at defense. Although he was the most trustworthy Northern Han general serving as support, there were far fewer opportunities for him to perform acts of great merit. With this, the rewards and promotions received by Duan Wudi had fallen behind the other commanders. Moreover, Duan Wudi’s temperament was reserved and cautious. Long Tingfei originally suspected him the most. However, with Xiao Tong’s surveillance, there was no evidence to prove that either of the two generals were directly colluding with Great Yong.

Since the army had returned to Qinzhou, Duan Wudi had busied himself with adjusting the defensive positionings. Long Tingfei kept a close eye on all of the changes that he made, discovering that the arrangements Duan Wudi implemented were impenetrable and flawless. As for Shi Ying, aside from war, he was disinclined to pay attention to anything else. Aside from recently becoming infatuated with a songstress, there wasn’t anything unusual going on with him.

Xiao Tong had carefully investigated that songstress, discovering that she was the daughter of a famed scholar of Jinyang, Su E. The Su family had been loyal to the Eastern Jin Dynasty and had refused to pledge its loyalty to Northern Han. After the First Ruler took the throne, the Su family would frequently speak words of mockery. Ultimately, the Su family’s assets were seized and the family condemned after the First Ruler could no longer endure their ridicule. Su E died in prison in the tenth year of Rongsheng. Qing Dai was Su E’s only daughter. After her father’s death, and with her family’s assets gone, the woman was left to her own devices.1 She had to rely upon selling her skills. Even though she was left in such dire straits, the woman’s temperament was haughty, ready to die to preserve her chastity. It could be said that she hated and resented the court. This was extremely clear from her behavior, never giving any face and remaining unsociable towards the rich, influential, and powerful members of the Northern Han court. Fortunately, there were plenty who deeply respected that woman’s demeanor, otherwise it would have been impossible for her to sell her skills in peace. Although it was somewhat inappropriate for Shi Ying to fall in love with that woman, one could see from her behavior that she would never turn to Great Yong for help. Otherwise, she would not have given up the excellent opportunity of fraternizing with the rich and powerful to acquire intelligence. As a result, Long Tingfei had not interfered with the matter between Shi Ying and Qing Dai. Further, Long Tingfei could see that Shi Ying may not necessarily be able to acquire the woman’s affection.

Without any evidence to prove the guilt of the two generals with the greatest suspicions, Long Tingfei had begun to wonder if he had fallen into the enemy’s discord ploy. Who would have expected that at this very moment something would suddenly occur? Shi Ying surprisingly and suddenly accused Duan Wudi of colluding with merchants and smuggling supplies. This left Long Tingfei in a dilemma. Speaking from the heart, although Duan Wudi’s smuggling operation was hidden, if Long Tingfei did not know about it, then he would simply be too incompetent. However, Duan Wudi’s behavior was exactly the kind of thing that Long Tingfei could not do. Besides, all of the profits that Duan Wudi made were used to supplement the limited pay afforded to the troops. As a result, Long Tingfei not only did not condemn Duan Wudi, he had even arranged the army quartermasters to cooperate with Duan Wudi, quietly employing the funds acquired for pay and compensation. However, this was something Long Tingfei could not publicly admit, otherwise, for openly violating national law, he would not be lightly let off by the royal censors even if the Later Ruler was willing to make allowances.

Of the subordinate generals under Long Tingfei, the majority of them knew some of what was going on. Partly because of his frank temper and worries that he would divulge this secret, and partly because he did not pay attention to these matters, almost everyone knew about this matter; only Shi Ying remained ignorant and in the dark. As a result, Shi Ying’s sudden raising of difficult questions, directly targeting Duan Wudi, left Long Tingfei briefly unable to react.

Without any alternative, Long Tingfei could only order that Duan Wudi be taken into custody. Of course, Long Tingfei had his own selfish motives. Before the undiscovered traitor was exposed, he did not mind temporarily suppressing Duan Wudi. After all, if Duan Wudi were plotting rebellion, then the psychological shock upon the Northern Han army would be enormous. Even so, Long Tingfei was still dreadfully angry. With the exposure of Duan Wudi’s smuggling operation, it was very difficult to wipe the accusation away. With this, regardless of whether Duan Wudi truly intended to betray Northern Han, Long Tingfei was facing the awkward situation of losing a key subordinate. Consequently, he was extremely infuriated with Shi Ying and unavoidably regretted the trust that he had previously placed upon him, indulging in Shi Ying, making him have an exaggerated opinion of his own abilities.2

Xiao Tong walked in. Seeing Long Tingfei’s ramrod-straight figure, he hesitated momentarily before walking over and saying, “General, Yufei has returned. He wants to meet with you immediately.”

Long Tingfei quivered. During this recent period, Great Yong’s security had been extremely tight, making it difficult for any news to arrive regarding Zezhou. As such, Long Tingfei did not yet know the results of Qiu Yufei’s assassination mission. However, from the tone of Xiao Tong’s voice, Long Tingfei could tell that the assassination had failed. Heaving a sigh, he opined, “Fine. It was already difficult to assassinate an army supervisor. It’s enough that Yufei was able to return safely. Allow him to come in. Does he have some urgent matter to report?”

Xiao Tong answered, “It is best to allow him to report this matter to the general. This matter relates to a ranking general within our army. Yufei has never had any dealings with the officers of the army. His words should be relatively fair.”

Startled, Long Tingfei, feeling a sense of foreboding, ordered, “Have him come in quickly.”

Leading Ling Duan, Qiu Yufei entered the hall. Seeing Long Tingfei, Ling Duan’s expression immediately became impassioned, gazing at Long Tingfei with excitement and veneration. Within the hearts and minds of the officers and soldiers of the Northern Han army, Long Tingfei was a deity who surpassed everything. Ling Duan respectfully kowtowed and said, “This lowly one, Ling Duan, pays his respects to the Grand General.”

A look of puzzlement appeared on Long Tingfei’s face, as he inquired, “You are?”

Ling Duan knew that there was no way that he would be recognized by Long Tingfei. After all, the few times that he had appeared before the grand general, he was wearing a bronze mask. Thinking of this, he could not help thinking of Tan Ji and could not hold back the tears that streamed down his cheeks. He responded, “This lowly one was a member of General Tan’s Ghost Cavalry.”

Long Tingfei stared in astonishment at Ling Duan for some time before he walked over and helped Ling Duan up. He stated, “Who would have thought that one of General Tan’s bodyguards would still be alive? Ling Duan, you’re called Ling Duan, correct? Alas, I have already ordered your general’s ashes to be delivered back to his native lands to be buried. The court has also issued an edict bestowing hefty rewards. It is unfortunate that he can no longer go into battle.” As he spoke, Long Tingfei’s tone began to acquire a tint of sorrow. However, he quickly calmed himself before asking, “How did you escape back here?”

Ling Duan glanced at Qiu Yufei. Qiu Yufei quietly voiced, “Explain everything that has happened to the general.” Ling Duan nodded his head, explaining everything that he had seen and heard. Afterwards, Qiu Yufei added the details of his attempted assassination.

Hearing the two of them disclose, Long Tingfei knit his brows tightly. He had always had some suspicions in his mind. Although there wasn’t anything unusual about what Qiu Yufei and Ling Duan said, to Long Tingfei and Xiao Tong, their testimony and the resultant “truth” that was revealed left the two of them aghast. After all, compared with Duan Wudi, Long Tingfei trusted Shi Ying, someone he had personally promoted, more. In addition, Xiao Tong was also more suspicious of the shrewd and cautious Duan Wudi.

Neither Long Tingfei nor Xiao Tong naturally had any doubts about Qiu Yufei’s testimony. On the other hand, they could not implicitly trust Ling Duan. Long Tingfei shot a glance at Xiao Tong. Understanding, Xiao Tong coughed and asked, “Ling Duan, what do you think that all this is provable?”

Ling Duan vacantly answered, “This lowly one does not know. Although General Shi was always on poor terms with my general, frequently ridiculing and making trouble for my general, this lowly one refuses to believe that General Shi would rebel. It’s just that, if this weren’t the case, why were Li Hu and all of General Shi’s captured troops executed? Compared to them, this lowly one massacred his way through Zezhou following General Tan. Even if they were only seeking to account for the crimes inflicted upon the common people of Zezhou, this lowly one ought to have been executed. In addition, although Marquis Jiang was not the commander-in-chief, this lowly one has seen that the entire Yong army is extremely deferential and respectful of the Marquis. When he came to the decision to keep Li Hu and me by his side, no one dared to object. Even after the Prince of Qi learned of this, he only spoke a few words of warning to the two of us, reminding us to not be discourteous. However, all of a sudden, Li Hu was forcibly taken away and executed with Marquis Jiang not making any move to stop it from happening. I believe that, were it not for my own ignorance of the matter, this lowly one would likely have been executed as well. Moreover, Marquis Jiang is magnanimous, not even blaming Li Hu who almost killed him. If it weren’t for something significant, this lowly one truly cannot understand why all of this has happened.”

Long Tingfei and Xiao Tong exchanged glances. They did not hear any falsehoods in Ling Duan’s words. Moreover, Ling Duan’s train of thought was somewhat chaotic, and it did not seem like a lie that had been fabricated beforehand. This meant that Ling Duan had not surrendered to the Yong army and been sent back to transmit false information.

Seeing through Long Tingfei and Xiao Tong’s intentions, Qiu Yufei grimly interjected, “When I first met Ling Duan, he was on the verge of death. If he had not run into me, he probably would not have returned alive.”

Long Tingfei and Xiao Tong understood the meaning behind Qiu Yufei’s words. If Ling Duan had betrayed Northern Han, it would have been impossible for him to have fallen into such dire straits. Even if the injuries were self-inflicted, there were limits. Since Qiu Yufei had said that Ling Duan had nearly died, then there was definitely no trickery involved. If Ling Duan could even conceal everything from Qiu Yufei’s eyes, then Qiu Yufei would not have the qualifications of being a direct disciple of Jing Wuji.

Just then, one of Long Tingfei’s bodyguards came in to report that Shi Ying was waiting outside to be summoned. Long Tingfei felt a bit of hesitation. Originally, he had summoned Shi Ying to figure out why Shi Ying had suddenly raised difficult questions about Duan Wudi. However, with his head full of suspicions, Long Tingfei was now worried about inadvertently alerting Shi Ying to his distrust. He glanced at Xiao Tong. His eyes glowings, Xiao Tong said, “It is best to first allow him to come inside. There are questions we have to ask sooner rather or later. Junior apprentice brother, bring Ling Duan with you and withdraw to the back.”

Qiu Yufei nodded his head. However, before he left, he casually remarked, “I met General Duan on the road. Grand General, senior apprentice brother, although General Duan has violated military regulations, out of consideration for his painstaking efforts, I hope that the two of you will give him an opportunity.”

Long Tingfei frowned slightly. Sighing, he replied, “How do I not know of this? However, this matter is likely not so simple. Although Shi Ying is hot-headed and impulsive, I originally believed it to be unintentional that he did not think to report this matter to me first before making this matter public. But now, it seems like it may have been intentional. Yufei, I will handle this matter properly. As for Ling Duan … Yufei, do you have any thoughts?” Long Tingfei could tell that Qiu Yufei was close with Ling Duan. As such, he intentionally asked this question.

Qiu Yufei answered, “I’m quite fond of the boy’s aptitude. I am prepared to bring him back to meet with Master and eldest apprentice brother. If eldest apprentice brother takes a fancy to him, I want him to take eldest apprentice brother as his master. If impossible, I will be forced to take him as my disciple.”

Hearing this kind of response, both Long Tingfei and Xiao Tong became interested. Xiao Tong walked over and took a careful look at Ling Duan. Smiling, he said, “Although his aptitude is upper middle, the child has a firm and unwavering attitude. Further, he is not someone upright, outspoken, and inflexible. Since he became one of the hand-picked one in a thousand Ghost Cavalry at such a young age, eldest apprentice brother should definitely be interested. Excellent, junior apprentice brother. Your insight is quite good.”

Qiu Yufei smiled slightly. Calling to Ling Duan, Qiu Yufei led him to the rear of the main hall.

Only then did Long Tingfei summon Shi Ying. It wasn’t long before Shi Ying walked in with long strides. He had already dispelled all of the alcoholic scent on his body. After he had walked in, he respectfully performed a military salute and inquired, “Does the Grand General have any instructions summoning this general here?”

Long Tingfei gazed deeply at Shi Ying, as he responded, “Shi Ying, there is a matter that I have never asked you about. Now that Duan Wudi will soon arrive under custody, I wish to ask you: how did you learn of Duan Wudi’s smuggling operation? This is something quite grave. Why did you not consult me over this matter, choosing instead to openly speak of it during a military conference in the presence of all of the gathered generals? Fortunately, Duan Wudi did not try to run off out of fear of punishment. If there were any mishaps, wouldn’t they be your sins?”

Hesitating momentarily, Shi Ying responded, “This matter was accidentally discovered by this general’s deputy, Shi Jun. He informed this general. Out of anger, this general did not think and spilled the beans during the military conference. This is this general’s fault.” Speaking to this point, Shi Ying revealed a look of slight shame.

In order to have his revenge against Duan Wudi, he hadn’t even thought of reporting this matter beforehand to Long Tingfei. Although he was blunt, he was not stupid. If his subordinates could discover this kind of large-scale smuggling operation, then it would be strange if Long Tingfei did not know anything about it. Only by doing this so openly could he force Long Tingfei to execute Duan Wudi. Shi Ying knew that, although he was deeply trusted by the Grand General, the Grand General valued Tan Ji and Duan Wudi more. Further, if like years past, it would have been possible for the Grand General to severely punish Duan Wudi. However, with the current desperate situation, the Grand General would likely try to cover up this scandal. However, the longer Duan Wudi was allowed to live, the more Qing Dai would never have a look of happiness on her face. Over these past days, he could see that her complexion become increasingly thin and haggard, causing Shi Ying to feel a pain that pierced through his heart.

Although the changes on Shi Ying’s face were slight, both Long Tingfei and Xiao Tong focused on him, seeing these changes clearly. Long Tingfei sighed inwardly and said, “Wait outside to directly confront Duan Wudi.”

Voicing his consent, Shi Ying withdrew. After he had gone, Long Tingfei’s face grew frigid, as he said, “Xiao Tong, Shi Ying has ulterior motives. Go personally to his residence and investigate to see if there is anything that does not belong.”

In a low voice, Xiao Tong voiced his compliance before turning to depart. Long Tingfei felt hatred building inside, slamming a hand on the table, making the teacup and everything else on the table buck, splashing tea everywhere. The hall was immediately packed with Long Tingfei’s bodyguards. His expression calming, Long Tingfei ordered, “Go tidy up. Once Duan Wudi has arrived, remove his shackles and bring him to see me. Bring all of the soldiers escorting him to the rear and ensure that they do not wander freely. Shi Jun should be the escorting officer. Also bring him to see me.”

After roughly an hour had passed, Duan Wudi finally arrived under escort. Seeing that although Duan Wudi’s expression was serene, his appearance was disheveled, Long Tingfei briefly did not know what to say. Regardless of why Duan Wudi was smuggling, regardless of whether he had tacitly accepted, this matter had already been exposed. If the truth was revealed, then everyone would know of the gravity of the dire situation facing Northern Han, likely causing the morale of the army to waver. Moreover, a crime that violated national law would not be easily made allowances for in the court. Although the king trusted and thought highly of him, Long Tingfei knew that there were many court officials who were dissatisfied and resentful of his power and authority. Long Tingfei knew that, when the time came, he would be recalled to the capital and held to account. If as before, Long Tingfei would not mind being condemned. As long as he was able to continue to command the army, noble and official ranks were both insignificant. However, the current situation was quite dire. Great Yong could attack at any moment. He could not leave Qinzhou for even a single moment. If the king was too obvious in siding with him, Long Tingfei knew that the king would lose popular support and negatively affect his reputation. The only way of resolving this situation was to have Duan Wudi take the blame. Although it would only take one command from Long Tingfei, and Duan Wudi would obey, not implicating him even if Duan Wudi had to die, and he himself was truly not involved in the smuggling, Long Tingfei could not bring himself to allow Duan Wudi to be punished in his place.

Duan Wudi understood the thoughts in Long Tingfei’s mind. Stepping forward, he kowtowed and said, “This guilty general pays his respects to the Grand General. Grand General, please punish this guilty general according to national law and military regulations. This guilty general will be willing to accept any punishment. It is only that the country is in dire need of talents. Grand General, please allow this guilty general to live. This guilty general wants to die upon the battlefield and not on the execution grounds.”

Long Tingfei trembled slightly. It was a long time before he walked forward and raised Duan Wudi up. Bowing deeply, Long Tingfei replied, “General Duan, this is all Tingfei’s fault and yet has forced General to bear the responsibilities. There is no greater crime than this.”

A hint of emotion flashed across Duan Wudi’s face. Solemnly, he replied, “Why is the Grand General saying such words? This is all because this general was blinded by greed.3 What does this business have to do with the Grand General?”

Long Tingfei understood Duan Wudi’s intentions. Since Duan Wudi was already assuming responsibility and guilt for this matter, it would be impossible to implicate Long Tingfei. Long Tingfei sadly straightened his body and instructed, “Wudi, wait at the side for now. Right now, there is another matter that is more important. For now, wait and listen. Someone come, summon Shi Jun.”

Entering the hall, Shi Jun was extremely uneasy. He was quite shrewd. Ever since he had run into Qiu Yufei, he had no longer dared to make things difficult for Duan Wudi. In the last stretch of the journey, he felt his heart continuously beat with nervous tension. Shi Jun was a younger cousin from Shi Ying’s clan. From a young age, he had been fond of bravery and fighting, and was a well-known hoodlum in his home village. Afterwards, he had joined Shi Ying. Because his mind was nimble and his martial arts were quite good, Shi Jun had risen from a common soldier and become Shi Ying’s deputy. Although Shi Ying was valiant and an excellent fighter, he tended to be a bit nepotistic4 with the people whom he employed. However, Shi Jun understood his shortcomings. With Shi Ying’s trust, Shi Jun used petty favors to win over the soldiers of his cousin’s army, barely enough to allow him to stand on his feet.

A few days ago, when Shi Ying had ordered him to find Duan Wudi’s shortcomings, Shi Jun was greatly troubled. It wasn’t because of his fear of Duan Wudi’s prestige and status, but rather because Duan Wudi was always so careful. Shi Jun had nowhere to start his investigations. However, he had no choice but to comply with Shi Ying’s orders. In a stroke of luck, one of Duan Wudi’s subordinate officers had been demoted by Duan Wudi for violating military regulations. Quite resentful, the officer had sought for an opportunity to remain in Qinzhou. After Shi Jun learned of this officer’s predicament, he immediately began to befriend the officer, bringing him to drink and play. Discontented with Duan Wudi, the officer revealed Duan Wudi’s smuggling operation under Shi Jun’s beguilement. Shi Jun immediately reported this valuable information to Shi Ying.

As a capable general, it didn’t take long for Shi Ying to discover evidence after he had learned of this matter. After all, since he had received the tacit acceptance of the army’s high-ranking generals, Duan Wudi did not go overboard in protecting the secret. Under Shi Ying’s careful planning, he was able to smoothly acquire substantive proof of Duan Wudi’s participation. The entire incident had gone off without a hitch.

However, there was something that Shi Jun had kept hidden from Shi Ying. Over the course of the investigation, much of the evidence that Shi Jun had “discovered,” was not actually found by him, but rather obtained from a few mysterious individuals. Without this intelligence, it would have been impossible for Shi Ying to acquire information to use against Duan Wudi.

However, Shi Jun was extremely regretful of his shortsightedness, thinking back on those mysterious individuals arriving at his door with gold and silver, explaining the bad blood between themselves and the merchants collaborating with Duan Wudi. Because they were business rivals, they wished to help Shi Ying strike a blow against Duan Wudi to eliminate the behind-the-scenes supporter of the opposing merchants. This was a very fair reason. Moreover, at the time, he was in dire need of the information that they provided. As a result, Shi Jun accepted. However, while traveling to Qinzhou, Shi Jun discovered that his superior may have stirred up a hornet’s nest. If something were to happen to Shi Ying, then his own high position and wealth would be lost. But no matter how regretful he was, it was to no avail. When Shi Jun arrived at the Grand General’s residence with Duan Wudi in his custody, Duan Wudi had immediately been released from his shackles and escorted in to see the Grand General, while Shi Jun and his escorting troops had been detained. This made Shi Jun feel deeply uneasy. While he was figuring out how to handle the situation, it wasn’t long before he was summoned. Shi Jun naturally did not have any way of refusing and could only force himself to enter Long Tingfei’s White Tiger Sanctum where the Grand General met with high-ranking subordinate officers. Once he caught sight of Long Tingfei’s ashen expression, and the anger and killing intent brimming from his body, Shi Jun felt as though he was unable to breathe. Advancing several steps, he then dropped to his knees, his body involuntarily beginning to tremble.

Seeing Shi Jun’s reaction, Long Tingfei believed his suspicions confirmed. He somberly asked, “Shi Jun, was it you who discovered that Duan Wudi was smuggling?”

Shi Jun carefully answered, “It was precisely this general.”

His voice brimming with rancor, Long Tingfei asked, “How did you discover this? Could it be that you dared to secretly monitor a high-ranking general?”

Shi Jun opened his mouth, desiring to speak. However, he found that he could say nothing. Neither beguiling Duan Wudi’s subordinate nor receiving bribes from the merchants were things that could be revealed openly. If Shi Jun openly revealed these matters, not only would Duan Wudi be innocent even if he was guilty, Shi Jun himself would likely be dragged out to be executed. Thinking of this, beads of sweat began to flowing freely from Shi Jun’s forehead. Kneeling on the floor, he repeatedly kowtowed, too frightened to speak a word.

Long Tingfei furiously cried out, “Are you still not going to speak the truth? If there is even a single lie, I will charge you with keeping secrets from your commander-in-chief and have you chopped into mincemeat.”

Shi Jun was scared witless, his complexion as pale as paper. He promptly revealed how he had received clues from that subordinate officer and of the bribes and intelligence that he had received from those mysterious individuals. Long Tingfei erupted into anger, lashing out with a foot, kicking Shi Jun off to the side. Although he vomited blood, Shi Jun did not dare to wipe his mouth clean. Crawling forward, he kneeled down and repeatedly said, “This general is aware of his crimes. Grand General, please spare my life.”

Long Tingfei callously ordered, “Drag him out and hand him over to Xiao Tong for interrogation. Use whatever cruel methods necessary.” By Long Tingfei’s order, several bodyguards walked in and dragged Shi Jun out.

Sitting back into his marshal’s seat, Long Tingfei closed his eyes in exhaustion, carefully going over Shi Jun’s oral confession. The mysterious individuals who provided the intelligence were incredibly suspicious. Glancing at Duan Wudi, he asked, “Wudi, do you know who would harbor a grudge against you and also obtain detailed information about your smuggling operation?”

Duan Wudi frowned. After thinking for a few minutes, he finally answered, “The merchants who collaborated with this general were all major merchants within the country. There are only two or three merchants with the qualifications to be involved in such a venture. This general had reached an agreement with them, splitting the profits proportionally. Apart from them, even if other merchants are envious, none of them have the financial resources to participate. Moreover, they have no way of receiving accurate information about our caravans. The only possibility is the merchants from the Eastern Sea who deal with our merchants. They are the only other individuals who have access to the caravan information. However, how would they have the ability to lay their hands on Northern Han’s military matters?”

Long Tingfei smiled wryly for some time, a chill flashing across his eyes. He replied, “How do they not have the ability? We have all forgotten that that man spent nearly three years in the Eastern Sea. He likely has long since known about this matter.”

Duan Wudi’s face paled greatly. He naturally knew who Long Tingfei was speaking of. However, he still cautiously asked, “Grand General, this may not be the case. All of the merchants who we worked with were carefully investigated and should definitely not be agents of Great Yong. In addition, we also deliberately excluded the Hai family, because of the excessively close relations between the Hai family and the Eastern Sea. Those merchants from the Eastern Sea did not have any problems. The majority of them were from Southern Chu. Behind-the-scenes, their backer should be Southern Chu’s most mysterious Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. No matter how brilliant that man’s methods, it is impossible for him to extend his hand so far. Furthermore, there shouldn’t be any problems with the intelligence that we received from Southern Chu. For many years, the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets has repeatedly harmed Great Yong’s interests. We once even suspected that the backer of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets was an influential family from Southern Chu. Since we share a common enemy with Southern Chu right now, they would definitely not choose this moment to hit us while we’re down.”

Long Tingfei had great confidence in Duan Wudi’s judgement, however, he still felt that this matter was definitely a result of Great Yong’s meddling. Aside from Great Yong, who would want the Northern Han army to fall into disarray? After thinking it over, Long Tingfei said, “You have said that relations between the Hai family and the Eastern Sea are extremely close. According to Princess Bi, the Hai family has relations with Jiang Zhe. All of the smuggled goods have to pass through Binzhou. The Hai family completely controls that port. It was probably impossible to hide clues5 from their eyes. If they put their minds to it, they should be able to find the information. Alas …”

This time, Duan Wudi remained silent. Long Tingfei’s conclusion was reasonable. It would have been impossible for the shipments of the goods to be concealed from the Hai family. Could it be that Jiang Zhe had long arranged for chess pieces in Binzhou? A ridiculous thought suddenly popped into Duan Wudi’s mind. Could it be that Jiang Zhe’s purpose for going into seclusion in the Eastern Sea, letting the Jiang and Hai families develop Binzhou into an important port, was all for the sake of luring them into smuggling? Right now, if that trade route were cut off, Northern Han would likely immediately run into a situation of insufficient supplies. Thinking of this, Duan Wudi suddenly felt his entire body grow cold, but did not have the courage voice his thoughts. He could only console himself, No matter how astute Jiang Zhe is, it is impossible for him to be so farsighted. The Eastern Sea is under the control of the Jiang family. It is impossible for him to freely and effortlessly control them.

Just then, Xiao Tong returned, his complexion grave. He handed a small brocade box to Long Tingfei. Opening it, Long Tingfei saw that there were two letters within. Taking a look, Long Tingfei was immediately and completely disheartened.6 Neither of the letters had headers nor signatures. The first letter said:

Sir’s former subordinates have all been silenced. Sir’s charity has been repaid. With Long’s defeat at Zezhou, does Sir still not understand? Once the army has advanced north, it will be too late for Sir to regret. If you renounce the dark and seek the light, you will be offered a marquisate. General, please think it over.

The second letter said:

It is fortunate that Sir understands the current situation and is acting in accordance to the Heavens. Please eliminate Duan Wudi first to display your sincerity. I will help General with this task in secret.

In anguish, Long Tingfei sadly asked, “Did you ask his trusted bodyguards? Could it be that he is being framed?”

Xiao Tong painfully answered, “This subordinate carefully interrogated them. No one knows how Shi Ying was communicating with Great Yong. However, this brocade box was discovered in a cabinet in Shi Ying’s sleeping quarters. The only one was a key to the cabinet was Shi Ying. In addition, there were bodyguards who reported that Shi Ying would check the contents of the box every night before he went to bed. If someone was framing Shi Ying, those letters would not have been within the box last night at the very least.”

Long Tingfei massaged his forehead with his hands without speaking. His expression was icy and gloomy. After some time, he said, “Summon Shi Ying to come see me.”

Once Shi Ying walked into the hall, Long Tingfei could no longer restrain the anger and indignation that he felt. He tossed the brocade box and the two letters before Shi Ying. Emotion flashed across Shi Ying’s eyes. Seeing the letters, he blushed scarlet and asked, “Why is this general’s personal correspondence in the Grand General’s hands?”

With Shi Ying’s words, Long Tingfei, who was still holding out the last bit of hope in his heart, despaired. He callously asked, “So you admit that these two letters are yours?”

His face deep red, Shi Ying answered, “These do belong to this general.”

Long Tingfei suddenly guffawed heartily, his laughter filled with sorrow. He stated, “I have always valued you highly and yet you repay me in such a manner.… Are you worthy of the trust placed upon you by His Royal Majesty and the soldiers of the army?”

Shi Ying was completely baffled, thinking, What do the poems given me by Qing Dai have to do with anything? He subconsciously picked up the letters and read them. As he reread them, he was completely stupefied, utterly speechless.

“Originally, I believed that your failure to intercept and kill the Prince of Qi was an accident,” continued Long Tingfei bleakly. “I had also believed that the reason you were making things difficult for Wudi was because you could not stand greed. However, right now, do you have any explanation? When has Northern Han ever let you down to cause you to commit treason and defect?”

Shi Ying’s mind was in a mess. The more he desired to explain, the more anxious and flustered he became, making it difficult for him to defend himself. He remained speechless as he held the two letters. As he had not yet fully recovered from his injuries, under his urgency, he could not help vomiting a mouthful of blood.

Footnotes:

无依无靠, wuyiwukao – idiom, lit. no one to rely on; fig. left to one’s own devices, on one’s own
不知天高地厚, buzhitiangaodihou – idiom, lit. not to know the immensity of the Heavens and the Earth; fig. an exaggerated opinion of one’s own abilities
利欲熏心, liyuxunxin – idiom, lit. desire for profit blinds the mind; fig. blinded by greed
任人唯亲, renrenweiqin – idiom, lit. to appoint people by favoritism; fig. nepotism, corrupt appointment
蛛丝马迹, zhusimaji – idiom, lit. spider threads and horse tracks; fig. tiny hints, traces, clues
万念俱灰, wannianjuhui – idiom, lit. every hope turns to dust; fig. completely disheartened

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