Volume 5, Chapter 5: Breaking Off All Ties

At the time, Ying was charged with plotting to rebel and was to be imprisoned. He escaped before he arrived at the prison. The Grand General ordered his arrest. Ying died from suicide. Still angry, the Grand General had him hastily buried on the northern outskirts of Qinzhou.

In the twenty-fifth year of Rongsheng, after Northern Han was conquered, Great Yong’s Prince of Qi announced to the world Ying’s innocence and his death due to love.
—Northern Han Dynastic Records, Biography of Shi Ying

Standing in the corridor, Qiu Yufei listened to the natural and flowing pipa music coming forth from within the pavilion. The music made him feel carefree and relaxed.

After Miss Qing Dai had been brought into the Grand General’s residence, and was being questioned by Xiao Tong, Qiu Yufei had hid nearby in secret. He quite treasured Qing Dai’s talents and appearance, especially her skill with the pipa. He was worried that Xiao Tong’s cruelty would destroy her. As a result, Qiu Yufei would protect her in secret. Regardless of the iron hand or velvet glove used by Xiao Tong, Qing Dai only responded with disdain. Even Qiu Yufei could clearly see the woman’s hatred towards the Northern Han court. Towards Xiao Tong, she was indifferent and disaffected. Whenever Duan Wudi was brought up, her words were filled with bitterness. On the subject of Shi Ying, her expression was melancholic and remorseful. Qiu Yufei could understand her thoughts. She might not have any deep emotions for Shi Ying. However, Shi Ying’s infatuation had touched her greatly. If this kind of woman was a spy for Great Yong, then she would be one of the least qualified. Based upon her temperament alone, she was not fit to be a spy.

After Xiao Tong had tentatively confirmed that this woman was innocent, he did not release her for a few reasons. First, he wanted to carefully investigate all of this woman’s past relations. Second, Long Tingfei had hinted to him to temporarily keep Qing Dai within the Grand General’s residence. Duan Wudi had been busy with military matters for many years. From his anxiety the day before, it was clear that he not forgotten Qing Dai. If the two of them could be brought together, it would be a great deed. However, Duan Wudi was swamped with military matters—with Shi Ying’s death, placating his former subordinates; and dealing with the aftermath of the smuggling case. Neither of these two tasks were simple. Duan Wudi did not have any time to come and see Qing Dai. However, Qiu Yufei could faintly sense that the two of them coming together was impossible, because even though Qing Dai spent her days playing the pipa or sitting quietly, lost in thought, she never once requested to meet Duan Wudi. In fact, if it weren’t for the stumbling block that was Duan Wudi, Qiu Yufei would have discussed music together with Qing Dai.

Footsteps sounded behind Qiu Yufei. From their pace, Qiu Yufei knew that it was Ling Duan who had come and so did not turn around. Ling Duan’s voice drifted over, “Fourth Lord, I’ve brought the wine. Since Fourth Lord is so entranced by the music, why do you not wish to meet with Miss Qing Dai?”

Qiu Yufei turned his head and shot Ling Duan a look of disdain. Seeing the strange smile on Ling Duan’s face, Qiu Yufei rapped Ling Duan on the top of his head, causing him to make a pained face. Ever since the death of Shi Ying, feeling that Tan Ji and Li Hu had been avenged, Ling Duan no longer had a heavy weight upon his mind, regaining his previous optimistic personality. Seeing the strange expression on his face, Qiu Yufei softly scolded, “Nonsense. A gentleman will not seize another’s love. General Duan and Miss Qing Dai were once betrothed to be married. Although they parted ways, I can see that neither of them have forgotten their previous emotions. Further, I only admire Miss Qing Dai’s character and talent, and do not intend to seek a wife.”

At this moment, Ling Duan saw Duan Wudi walk over from the distance and promptly pull on Qiu Yufei’s sleeve. Realizing that it would be inconvenient if he were seen by Duan Wudi, Qiu Yufei hastily yanked Ling Duan behind the rockery of the garden and hid. They watched as Duan Wudi arrived before the door to Qing Dai’s room and stood there with hesitation. He raised his hand several times to push the door open, but stopped each time. Just then, a clear voice as frigid as ice came from within, saying, “Is it General Duan? Please come in.”

Qiu Yufei smiled slightly, turning around and departing. He had no wish to be dragged into their personal matters. Ling Duan felt quite curious. Because he was still young, Ling Duan did not have that many qualms. Seeing that Qiu Yufei had already traveled a fair distance away, Ling Duan stealthily crept to the window to eavesdrop on Duan Wudi and Qing Dai’s conversation. If it was as before, his actions certainly couldn’t have been concealed from Duan Wudi and Qing Dai. However, with the two of them meeting again after a long separation, their emotions were surging, not being mindful that someone would be eavesdropping.

Seeing Duan Wudi enter, Qing Dai did not rise to her feet to welcome him, continuing to hold the pipa, occasionally lightly strumming its strings. Duan Wudi stood at the entrance, gazing at Qing Dai. He was remorseful. Back then, Qing Dai was not so calm and beautifully pure as today. If the current her was compared to a winter plum blossom proudly in full bloom in the winter, then her former self was as moving as a lonely and pure pear blossom after a rainstorm.

Qing Dai’s gaze fell upon Duan Wudi. It had been a whole seven years since she had last seen him. The former youthful officer was now a mature and steadfast middle-aged man. The aspects about him that moved her heart in the past still existed, however, the distance between them was as vast as the ocean. Seven years ago, she was still a confused young lady who did not know what to do. Back then, aside from her deep hatred for the Northern Han court, she did not even know how to avenge her family. When she bumped into Duan Wudi, she was truly intent upon spending the rest of her life with him. However, ultimately, this man only understood loyalty. As a result, the two of them had parted ways—he to become a loyal subject of Northern Han while she embarked upon an entirely different path. Qing Dai, née Su Qing, a well-bred young lady of a reputable house, was now the head agent of the Northern Regional Department of Great Yong’s Ministry of War’s Intelligence Management Section. It was impossible for one of the four great and famous young experts of Great Yong’s wulin, the Emei Qingshan,1 to have any relationship with Northern Han’s Boulder General, Duan Wudi.

Seeing Qing Dai remain silent, Duan Wudi finally opened his mouth and spoke, “Qing Dai, we haven’t seen each other for many years. You’ve suffered much hardship. Over these many years, have you yet to fall in love with anyone? Based upon your talents and appearance, you should have found a worthy husband long ago.”

Qing Dai turned her head away and frostily retorted, “General Shi was interested in Qing Dai, but hasn’t he already been hounded to death by the lot of you?”

Duan Wudi hastily replied, “Qing Dai, listen to my explanation. That day, when I saw that Shi Ying was in love with you, I made painstaking efforts to keep away. I understand that you definitely will not forgive me. Shi Ying’s temperament was straightforward and clear. If you had married him, you definitely would have been able to obtain happiness. However, I never expected that he would actually commit treason and betray the country, and further did not expect that he would commit suicide.”

Aloofly, Qing Dai strummed the strings of her pipa, as she said, “There is no need for you to explain. General Shi’s great favor for me did not mean that I would marry him. However, his straightforward and emotional temperament is far better than someone like you.”

Sighing, Duan Wudi asked, “Do you still blame me?”

Apathetically, Qing Dai answered, “I once blamed you. That day, when you left, I felt my entire life become vapid and colorless. As a result, I rushed deep into the mountains, wishing to die in silence. Were I not saved by my master, Qing Dai would have died long ago and the corpse consumed by wild beasts. From then on, Qing Dai understood. I hated Northern Han, while you were loyal to it. This was a contradiction that made us impossible. It wasn’t your fault nor was it mine. It was merely that I overlooked the differences between the two of us.”

Shaking his head, Duan Wudi disagreed, “It wasn’t your fault, it was mine. At the time, you informed me of your intentions quite early on and I agreed to accompany you into seclusion. However, I went back on my word and harmed you. For you to not be married as of today leaves me extremely guilty and ashamed. But Qing Dai, since so much time has passed, don’t tell me you still harbor hatred against Northern Han? That was politics and not related to a personal grudge. Why do you constantly keep it in mind?”

A mocking smile appeared on Qing Dai’s face, as she responded, “Politics? Personal grudge? I only know that the members of my entire clan are either dead or scattered because of a royal edict from the King. My mother died from an untreated illness, while I was forced to sell my music in brothels. All of this was because of Northern Han. Until this day, the reason why I have remained in Northern Han and refused to leave is solely for the day when Northern Han is destroyed. Only with its fall will my cherished dreams come true.”

With a pop, a clear and crisp slap to the face resounded. After Duan Wudi slapped Qing Dai, when he saw her face swollen, he could not help shamefully stating, “Qing Dai, I’m sorry. I should not have raised my hand against you and you should not have said those words. If others heard them, you would be treated as a spy. In addition, you should not—”

Qing Dai cut off his words, interjecting, “In addition, I should not have spoken such demoralizing words in front of a Northern Han general like you, right? These past several years, the common people can no longer endure the deprivations and misery. Aside from a few influential and powerful aristocrats who still lead lives of luxury, the common people have not benefited in the least, let alone live and work happily and in peace. What’s the harm even if Northern Han falls?”

Duan Wudi’s complexion became grave, as he replied, “Qing Dai, we are in the Grand General’s residence.”

Qing Dai snorted frostily, turning her face away. Duan Wudi said, “I’ll pretend today that I didn’t hear you say such words. You must understand that the royal family down to the common people, aside from a small minority of influential officials, are fighting to the death. No one wants to be enslaved. Who doesn’t know of the deep hatred between Great Yong and Northern Han? If Northern Han be destroyed, then our people will likely be unable to emancipate themselves for generations. As such, we must fight this war. Even if we are defeated, we must ensure that Great Yong suffers disastrous losses. When the time comes, even if Great Yong destroys Northern Han, they will not dare to excessively persecute our people and will always be worried that our people will rise in rebellion. Qing Dai, I am only saying these words to you. It is as you say. Northern Han’s situation is truly desperate. If we don’t fight, we will still die. If we fight, we may still die. It is best to win, but if we don’t, we will ensure that Great Yong will always remember the savagery and ferocity of the warriors of Northern Han. Only in this way can we ensure that our people won’t be humiliated. You have read the Classics and Histories. Do you not remember that, when Eastern Jin was established, the taxes upon Daizhou, Jinyang, and Qinzhou after they surrendered were thirty percent higher than other lands? When the barbarians invaded, the officials sent by Eastern Jin deliberately exploited our people. The people’s plight only improved a hundred years later. Qing Dai, do you also want our fellow countrymen to suffer such harsh hardships?”

Qing Dai did not refute his words. However, it was not within her power to determine what would happen to the common people of Northern Han after Northern Han was defeated by Great Yong. In addition, even if Great Yong treated the citizenry of Northern Han well, the fate of Northern Han’s royal family and ranking military and civil officials would be bleak. Based upon this fact alone, Northern Han would not lightly and willingly cease fighting. Besides, the current situation did not guarantee that Great Yong would succeed. However, what she was most interested in was whether Duan Wudi was truly so pessimistic. If such a high-ranking general of Northern Han felt this way, then the chances of Great Yong’s victory would be increased. Thinking of this, Qing Dai could not help smile wryly inside. Her years of experience had taught her to keep calm and cool at all times. Even the loss of self-control just now was to deepen the impression of haughtiness in Duan Wudi’s eyes. Based upon this impression, it would allow her to ensure that Duan Wudi would never anticipate that she was a spy.

Seeing that she did not speak, Duan Wudi apologetically said, “Qing Dai, I know that you won’t forgive me. In a few days, I will ask the Grand General to let you go. Over these next few days, you should rest properly.”

Qing Dai was startled. It was not her desire to be detained here. She knew that Xiao Tong had not ceased his investigations. Although she had been careful and cautious these last several years, there were some instances in which she couldn’t be clear about her whereabouts. For her safety, it was best that she left as soon as possible. Thinking of this, Qing Dai stonily asked, “Has General Shi been buried?”

After hesitating, Duan Wudi answered, “General Shi has been buried on the northern outskirts. The Grand General was quite furious. As such, General Shi was only hastily buried.”

Lowering her head, Qing Dai replied, “In life, General Shi treated me with love and sincerity. I want to go and offer sacrifices at his grave. I wonder if that is possible?”

Duan Wudi had a sour feeling. Although he had long known that he should not have any excessive expectations that they could reconcile and reunite,2 he was still unhappy at the sentimental thoughts that Qing Dai displayed for Shi Ying. However, since he had ultimately relinquished her, after some thinking, he remarked, “All right. I should be free tomorrow and will accompany you to pay your respects to General Shi.”

Qing Dai nodded her head slightly. It was for the best that she be accompanied by Duan Wudi. Picking up the pipa once again, she began to play it softly, creating sorrowful music. Duan Wudi knew that Qing Dai no longer wished to speak with him. After staring deeply at her, trying to engrave this woman’s appearance into his heart, he turned and walked out. It was impossible to fill in the gaping chasm between the two of them. Duan Wudi could only hope that the Grand General would not blame Qing Dai. After all, under the current circumstances, it would be impossible for anyone to object to the execution of a mere songstress who hated the state.

Gazing at Duan Wudi’s departing silhouette, Qing Dai gently released a sigh of relief. If the two of them had not separated all those years ago, they probably would not be enemies today. It could be said that she still resented him. After all, were it not for revenge, she would not have changed the plan without prior approval. The original order from her superiors was merely to frame Shi Ying with evidence of his defection before spreading rumors that Duan Wudi was smuggling military materials and committing treason. Afterwards, all of the carefully prepared evidence would lead to Shi Ying. Although this assignment was difficult, it was doable by Great Yong’s forces hiding in Qinzhou. However, when Qing Dai came to make the arrangements, she unexpectedly discovered that Shi Ying had actually fallen in love with her at first sight. In addition, after running into Duan Wudi in the Flying Swallow Tower, the loathing in her heart was stirred. As a result, she had selected a plan that was difficult even for herself to control, deliberately instigating Shi Ying’s jealousy of Duan Wudi. Then she had Shi Ying obtain the intelligence that she had prepared, allowing him to begin the attack on Duan Wudi. Originally, her superiors only wanted her to cast suspicions upon Shi Ying, while also damaging Duan Wudi’s reputation. However, her actions had nearly caused Duan Wudi to be condemned, while Shi Ying died tragically in the Flying Swallow Tower. If Shi Ying’s temperament hadn’t been as reported, her actions likely would have resulted in failure. Fortunately, she was successful. However, she had been detained, leaving her with lingering fears.

Qing Dai did not know if she had overdone it. She would probably be punished after she returned to Great Yong. But she was delighted at being able to see the predicament that Duan Wudi was in. However, this feeling quickly disappeared like smoke. After meeting him today, Qing Dai knew that she no longer hated him. Philosophical differences weren’t something that love could cover up. At the time, even if Duan Wudi had gone into seclusion with her, they were still likely to have parted ways one day.

Sighing softly, Qing Dai once again recalled Shi Ying’s appearance and smiling face. She remembered the words of Jiang daren when she had arrived at the Zezhou main encampment to report in. That gentle and tranquil young man had hit the nail on the head with his assessment, stating, “Shi Ying, although considered a capable and famous general, has only been frustrated a few times. Not long after he enlisted, he received Long Tingfei’s recognition. From that point on, his entire career has gone quite smoothly. Due to Long Tingfei’s protection, he knows nothing about quite a number of dismal matters. In addition, he has a major character flaw—his unwillingness to be wronged. He especially cannot tolerate being suspected and not trusted. As long as Long Tingfei suspects that there is a chance of him defecting, Shi Ying will definitely feel aggrieved. As long as he is properly guided, he will do something irremediable. When the time comes, it will be impossible for Long Tingfei to not suspect him.”

That Jiang daren had, sure enough, been quite accurate in his assessment. Were it not for Shi Ying’s temperament, if he made a full account of himself to Long Tingfei, the one dead would likely be Qing Dai herself. However, even though she was quite unfeeling right now, she could not help feeling affection and pity. Although she was using paying respects as an excuse to help herself escape, she truly did not want to do so. Even she was moved by this kind of man.

***

Facing the cold and miserable wind blowing through the vastness of the world, at Shi Ying’s simple and crude gravesite, Qing Dai felt an indescribable sorrow. After she had burned the ritual money, Duan Wudi softly said, “Qing Dai, let’s go back. It’s bitingly cold out here. We should not stay too long. Once General Shi learns that you have come to see him today, he will be able to rest in peace in the underworld.”

Qing Dai forced a slight smile with her lips. If Shi Ying’s spirit knew of her intentions, then it would likely be impossible for it to rest in peace. She deliberately poured the contents of a bottle of spirits in front of the tombstone, silently praying in her mind, “General Shi, Qing Dai had no choice but to impugn your reputation. Once Great Yong has unified the world, Qing Dai will definitely absolve the injustice done to you.” After she finished praying, Qing Dai took the pipa off her back and began to play the last verse of “Ambush from Ten Sides” that she never played, “Returning to Camp,” in those chilly conditions.

Duan Wudi did not find anything strange about this. After he had met Qing Dai again, he had discovered that she was enamored with the pipa, rarely, if ever, allowing it to leave her side. Furthermore, it was expected that her to play the pipa at Shi Ying’s grave. However, right when the music came to a stop, Duan Wudi suddenly heard a sharp whistle. He subconsciously turned his head to look and found that his two bodyguards had dropped miserably to the floor, black feathered arrows in their throats. In addition, some thirty zhang3 out were over a dozen horsemen in black clothing, their faces covered by black cloth. All of them had exquisite bows slung across their shoulders and they all glared at Duan Wudi menacingly. Duan Wudi was astounded. Why are there assassins here? Could it be that Shi Ying’s subordinates are here to take revenge? He could not help regret bringing only two bodyguards with him. Unsheathing the saber at his waist, he moved to protect Qing Dai. In a low voice, Duan Wudi uttered, “Get on the horse and we will charge out.”

Duan Wudi was unprepared when Qing Dai sighed lightly. Internal energy suddenly flooded into his body, making him numb. Unable to stand properly, he collapsed to the ground. Afterwards, a pair of hands lifted him to an upright seated position, allowing him to lean on Shi Ying’s tombstone, and Qing Dai’s frigid and beautiful appearance appeared before his eyes.

Just then, Duan Wudi suddenly understood many things: why Shi Ying hated him so fiercely and why Shi Ying died at the Flying Swallow Tower. He harshly asked, “Qing Dai, could it be that you’ve already pledged your allegiance to Great Yong?”

Contempt shone deep in Qing Dai’s eyes. At that point, one of the black-clothed horsemen dismounted with a bundle. The horseman said, “Young miss, please change quickly. We cannot stay here too long and must leave Qinzhou before anyone discovers our departure.” From her melodious and sweet-sounding voice, and her figure, it was possible to immediately discern that the horseman was a woman.

After handing over her pipa, Qing Dai took the bundle and walked behind the tombstone. It wasn’t long before she had changed into a set of black equestrian garb for men. She accepted the black cloak from another of the horsemen. At this moment, with her wearing men’s clothes and a sword at her waist, her expression was frigid. She was no longer that songstress selling her music in a brothel, but rather the head of the Great Yong intelligence network in Northern Han—Emei Qingshan, Su Qing.

Walking in front of Duan Wudi, she indifferently said, “Seven years ago, you were so heartless. You nearly caused me to commit suicide by throwing myself into a ravine. However, I ultimately survived. Since you are so loyal to Northern Han, there is nothing I can say. I can only choose this path. If Northern Han does not perish, I will never be able to close my eyes and die peacefully. Wudi, since we are now enemies, there is something that I want to ask you, even though I know it’s impossible. Are you willing to surrender to Great Yong?”

With a sneer, Duan Wudi retorted, “Since you know of my loyalty, why would I perform an act of treason and defect? Qing Dai, I have been deceived because of my personal feelings. After thinking it over, I have to ask, were you the one who deliberately instigated Shi Ying to make trouble for me? Was General Shi truly a traitor or was he framed by you?”

Qing Dai sighed softly. She had long ago known that he would not surrender. Since she had orders to spare him, she could only ensure that Shi Ying continue to be framed. Revealing wrathful look on her face, Qing Dai answered, “Shi Ying was more perceptive than you. If he had not acted on his own initiative and caused you difficulties because of me, it would have been impossible for my Great Yong to have lost such an excellent insider.”

Duan Wudi sighed internally. He was now a prisoner, while Shi Ying was already dead. Since Qing Dai had spoken such, Shi Ying was indeed a traitor. With difficulty, he raised his head and said, “Qing Dai, I do not blame you for pledging your allegiance to Great Yong. It is understandable for you to have acted thusly because of the hatred and enmity in your heart. However, I, Duan Wudi, will never bend my knees and surrender. If you still remember our previous affection, please send me on my way.”

Qing Dai dryly replied, “You do not need to worry. I never had any intention of capturing you and bringing you to Great Yong. I understand your temper quite well. Since wherever you turn, there is death, what’s the point in humiliating you?”

Calming down, Duan Wudi stated, “Since that is the case, fine. I can repay what I owe from the olden days with my life. Henceforth, our grievances are settled.” Finished speaking, he closed his eyes, waiting for Qing Dai to act.

With her hand on her sword hilt, Qing Dai felt her heart ache. She muttered, “End our grievances. Good, good! This day has come.” So speaking, Qing Dai drew her sword and stabbed at Duan Wudi.

Suddenly, the woman in black at Qing Dai’s side drew her own sword and blocked Qing Dai’s thrust. Hearing the strange sounds, Duan Wudi could not help opening his eyes. Seeing the scene before him, he was completely baffled, though he maintained his composure. Seeing his expression, Qing Dai felt her heart soften, her previous affection for him welling up from within. She wondered, If no one were to block this thrust, would I truly have been able to kill him?

The woman who had blocked Qing Dai said, “Young miss, your selfishness caused General Shi to die. If we can bring General Duan back with us, it is possible to make amends. If you kill him, wouldn’t it be too pitiful?”

Qing Dai was moved. Although she had set her prepared plan in motion by transmitting information using her pipa, her trusted subordinates only knew that it was necessary to keep Duan Wudi alive. However, the reason she had given was false. When she had changed the plan without permission, although the result was even more satisfactory, her superiors would likely still punish her. Alas, she could only accept the punishment.

She looked deliberately at Duan Wudi. Seeing the hint of unease in his eyes, Qing Dai knew that he feared being kidnapped to Great Yong. She smiled wryly inside. It was impossible to bring a captive with her back to Great Yong. However, it was still necessary to act this entire farce out. As such, Qing Dai purposefully withdrew her sword and did not speak. After some time, she finally sighed and said, “Since I have already made a big mistake, I do not hold out any extravagant hope that I will be able to atone. This man has treated with me sincerity. Without his help, I likely would have been trapped in Qinzhou unable to escape. Fine. I would rather stake my life and repay his kindness. Since that is the case, leave him here. Let’s go.”

Another black-clothed horseman trotted his horse forward and said, “Young miss, this man is a ranking general of Northern Han. If he is not killed, his actions will surely cause the deaths of countless numbers of our soldiers. How can the young miss let him off out of private considerations?”

Qing Dai raised her eyebrows and replied, “You have no say in the decisions here. Since I have already decided, if our superiors blame us, I will naturally assume responsibility.”

Just then, another horseman in black galloped over, shouting, “Young miss, not good! Xiao Tong and Qiu Yufei are hurrying over at full speed! Young miss, we must leave now!”

Accepting the reins handed her by one of her subordinates, Qing Dai mounted the horse. To Duan Wudi, she heartlessly said, “Henceforth, the two of us no longer have any connections. If Qing Dai is lucky enough to survive, and we meet on the battlefield, there is no need for you to let me off leniently.” Finished speaking, she urged her horse forward with her spurs and whip.

The horseman who had been reprimanded by Qing Dai glanced resentfully at Duan Wudi before spurring his horse and following Qing Dai. The woman in black was the last to leave, gazing at Duan Wudi with eyes brimming with killing intent. As she departed, she flicked a needle out with her right hand, which penetrated into Duan Wudi’s body.

Duan Wudi laughed bitterly as he listened to the sound of hoofbeats disappear into the distance. He then heard the sound of horses coming from Qinzhou. The location where he was hit felt both numb and itchy, and was most peculiar. Shortly, he felt dizzy and gradually lost consciousness.

Footnotes:

娥眉青衫, emei qingshan – lit. beautiful azure jacket
破镜重圆, pojingchongyuan –idiom, lit. a shattered mirror put back together; fig. to pick up the pieces and start again, for a separated couple to reconcile and reunite
About 88 meters (100 yards)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *