In the first month of the fifth year of Tongtai, Great Yong’s emissary, Gou Lian, requested an audience after giving massive bribes to all of the officials. At the time, the King was young and the court was controlled by Prime Minister Shang Weijun. Lian had several secret discussions with him. Fearing Lu Can’s meritorious contributions, Prime Minister Shang restricted Lu Can and did not permit him to go into battle, resulting in the loss of this golden opportunity. This was truly an unpardonable crime.
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of King Min of Chu
I practically groaned continuously as I read the entire contents of the intelligence report in my hand. As for the Prince of Qi, as he read the report, he remarked, “Suiyun, I didn’t expect that your stratagem would be so insidious, leaving, of the two of Long Tingfei’s ranking subordinates, one dead and one injured.”
I could only feebly try to explain that these weren’t my arrangements. In fact, the plan created by the head agent in Northern Han, Su Qing, was far more vicious and ruthless than mine. In addition, the results were far better. Not only was Shi Ying framed and Duan Wudi discredited, Long Tingfei’s reputation had also been severely impacted. If it weren’t for the heavy losses suffered during Qiu Yufei’s interception of Su Qing’s escape back to Zezhou—even with the outstanding martial arts of Su Qing and her subordinates, and the timely arrival of reinforcements from Zezhou—, this plan would have been perfect.
However, I guiltily realized that this wasn’t Su Qing’s fault, but rather mine. I had let Qiu Yufei escape. Although I did not know how he had suddenly advanced to the Xiantian realm, I felt it my responsibility that Su Qing had suffered such heavy losses. Although the Devil Sect was Northern Han’s assistant, Jing Wuji could only serve as a deterrent. With such stature, if he personally attacked the enemy or assassinated someone, the entirety of Northern Han would likely feel the country was on the verge of collapse.1 In addition, if Jing Wuji did not act, then the grandmasters on our side could only hold back as well. As a result, unless it was a critical juncture, Jing Wuji would not take action. In comparison, the threats posed by the disciples of the Devil Sect were far greater. Who would have thought that Qiu Yufei’s martial arts would improve so greatly, advancing to the Xiantian realm? Because of this, I could not blame Su Qing. I only regretted for a moment, as I knew that Qiu Yufei could not be killed and had to be released for the plan. Preparing to deal with the aftermath, I decided to recruit Su Qing for the army center. After all, the army would invade Northern Han quite soon. Since Su Qing’s real identity had been discovered, it would be quite appropriate for her to serve as an aide. The woman was truly not simple, spending so many years in Northern Han without her identity being discovered. This time, the methods she used to enter the lion’s den left me in deep admiration.
After organizing the intelligence reports, I ordered Huyan Shou to call Su Qing inside. Having changed into a set of men’s azure robes, although she was as lithe and graceful as any woman, she was like a cold plum blossom in the depths of winter. Her expression impassive, she walked into my tent and kowtowed, stating, “Subordinate, Su Qing, pays her respects to the Marquis of Chu, the Army Supervisor daren. Subordinate violated daren’s orders and altered the plan without permission, causing many of my comrades to be killed. Daren, please punish me.” Finished speaking, she coughed gently several times, her complexion becoming increasingly white as snow.
I gazed admiringly at this woman for a few moments. She was an extraordinary woman. Six years ago, she had stormed to the fore of Great Yong’s jianghu, wearing azure Confucian robes and yet not hiding her womanly identity. Her methods were fierce and vicious, but she was straightforward and aboveboard. Although she never revealed her true identity to anyone, in the short span of half a year, her reputation resounded. Afterwards, she pledged her services to the Prince of Yong, voluntarily requesting a post in Northern Han as a spy. In a few years, she had become the head agent there. Regardless of ability or loyalty, she was second to none within Great Yong’s entire intelligence network. This time, even though she had performed great service, she still did not express any hint of delight and instead concerned about disobeying orders. As expected, the Emei Qingshan was not ordinary.
Su Qing wasn’t as calm as she showed. In fact, she was quite apprehensive. Although Jiang daren’s words and expressions were cultured and courteous, as the head agent of Great Yong’s intelligence network in Northern Han, she naturally knew quite a lot of inside information about the Yong court. She was well aware of this man’s methods. Were it not for the entanglement between her and Duan Wudi, and for Shi Ying to coincidentally fall in love with her, she would never have dared to alter the plan without permission. However, after the plan had succeeded, she actually became quite worried about her fate. Those with deep intelligence and wisdom were the ones who most frequently hated things getting out of control. Her actions had likely violated this man’s bottom line. He didn’t need to fish for a criminal charge. Just the loss of half of her elite subordinates by Qiu Yufei would be enough to find her guilty.
I would never have thought that she had such a mindset. As far as I was concerned, it was wonderful news that my subordinates were pragmatic and adaptable to the situation. However, since someone had the nerve to change the plan, that person must also be willing to accept all the consequences and the aftermath. If the plan happened to be unsuccessful, they would have to be severely punished. If successful, then they deserved to be rewarded. Since the gains from Su Qing’s alterations outweighed the losses, I would naturally reward her. Sighing softly, I said, “This isn’t your responsibility. Although you changed the plan without permission, the results were far greater than my expectations. In addition, you have also sacrificed much. How can this Marquis blame you? As for Qiu Yufei’s pursuit, it was unexpected. Ultimately, the benefits outweighed the losses this time. There is no need to excessively blame yourself. Have you taken the medicine that I had Xiaoshunzi deliver?”
A look of gratitude flickered across Su Qing’s eyes, as she answered, “Subordinate greatly thanks daren for the kindness of not blaming me. The medicine was quite efficacious.”
Xiaoshunzi interjected, “Head Agent Su, once you have recovered, I want to fight you so that I can see how much Qiu Yufei has improved.”
Su Qing candidly replied, “Subordinate only lasted a hundred exchanges with Qiu Yufei before being defeated and wounded. Subordinate is incompetent. Daren and Lord Li, please forgive me.”
I took a deep breath. After Xiaoshunzi guessed that Qiu Yufei had reached the Xiantian realm, I had become quite uneasy. However, since a woman like Su Qing could withstand a hundred exchanges with an expert of the Xiantian realm, her martial arts were definitely not ordinary. She was truly a hero amongst women. However, her being single and alone was truly a pity. Although I pondered whether it would be possible to help arrange a marriage for her, I refused to reveal such thoughts to prevent her from thinking that I was frivolous. I only stated, “Head Agent Su, Northern Han should be completely focused on eliminating our spies right now. In addition, since war is imminent, there is no need for you to return. When our army invades Northern Han, you only need to accompany the army on the march. At that time, you will take command of our agents in Northern Han and be responsible for gathering intelligence. Our army’s scouts will also be under your supervision. Are you willing to take up these responsibilities?”
Su Qing was overjoyed. Being placed in such an important position had completely exceeded all of her expectations. She promptly lowered her head to the ground and replied, “Many thanks to daren for your deep affection. Subordinate will be sure to do her utmost.”
After she retreated, I breathed a sigh of relief and said to Xiaoshunzi, “All the preparations are nearly complete. We are on the eve of the decisive battle. Go invite the Prince of Qi and Generals Xuan and Jing over. We need to discuss the invasion of Northern Han. In addition, when is Chiji arriving? Have the reports arrived about Hanzhong and Southern Chu?”
Xiaoshunzi responded, “On young master’s orders, Chiji has gone to Southern Chu to reorganize the intelligence network there. He discovered that the reason why we had no information about the Fengyi Sect’s movements was because Wei Ying hid them quite well. It was also unsuitable for the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets to meddle excessively. Chiji has already made all necessary arrangements for the monitoring of the Fengyi Sect. Presumably, there should not be such oversights again. In addition, Supervisor Han has not shown any disloyalty over what is happening in Hanzhong. As a result, Chiji has already rushed back to Zezhou. I estimate that he will arrive in two to three days. Dong Que has already arrived in Hanzhong. Chen Zhen was grateful for young master’s grace. He also does not trust in the promises made by the Prince of Qing. In addition, he is not like Han Wuji. He doesn’t have much affection for the old Kingdom of Shu. As a result, the situation in Hanzhong is already stabilized. Right now, an agreement has been reached with the Prince of Qing. I believe they will very quickly be able to enter the core of the Prince of Qing’s force. However, if the Prince of Qing moves too quickly, they likely won’t have enough time to completely control the Prince of Qing’s vital points.”
I placidly spoke, “There is no need to worry about this. Xiahou Yuanfeng is not to be trifled with. He has already begun to act against the Prince of Qing. Have Dong Que get in touch with him. The more the forces the Prince of Qing relies upon suffer, the more likely he will rely upon the Embroidered Union. If the Prince of Qing wishes to meet Huo Jicheng, simply say that it is inconvenient for Huo Jicheng to appear personally. Huo Jicheng will only appear when the Prince of Qing has raised his flag in rebellion. In any case, the Prince of Qing should know that he would not be completely trusted by the former forces of the Kingdom of Shu.”
Xiaoshunzi chuckled. “Not only is Xiahou Yuanfeng not to be trifled with, even the Emperor is like that. The letter that he had Shi daren write practically wanted you to come up with a plan.”
I smiled wryly and replied, “I wonder if it’s possible that I owed those two brothers in my previous lifetime. I am confident in my intelligence and yet those two brothers are easily able to see through me.”
At this moment, a clear and bright laugh rang from outside, and a voice said, “If the Emperor could see through you, he would not always be forced to yield. How many monarchs in the world are like the Emperor who lets you to do as you please? As long as you don’t reveal it, the Emperor won’t ask it. This kind of trust makes even me jealous.” Afterwards, the Prince of Qi walked in with large strides. His eyes twinkling, he continued, “Suiyun, you seem to feel tenderness for Su Qing. How about it? Do you want me to help? Changle is quite virtuous and won’t blame you.”
I sternly retorted, “Your Imperial Highness, do not talk nonsense. If Miss Su were to hear this, wouldn’t she be downhearted? She is not a lustful individual.”
Having been rebuked by me, Li Xian blushed and claimed, “I only have good intentions. To this day, Su Qing is single. This Prince cannot stand idly by and watch such a woman be so lonely. Since she has such scheming ability, if it isn’t someone like you, who would bear with her?”
I coldly reproached, “I’m not Your Imperial Highness’s opponent, let alone her. I might as well ask Changle to report this to the Emperor and have her betrothed as Your Imperial Highness’s consort. How about it?”
Frightened, Li Xian flapped, “Don’t, don’t. I’m only joking. Su Qing is quite frightening. I dare not offend her. Further, she has a rank equivalent to a third-rated general. We shouldn’t be using her to joke.”
I glared at him. Wasn’t he the one who started joking? However, I asked questioningly, “I was just about to have Xiaoshunzi send someone to invite Your Imperial Highness, Xuan Song, and Jing Chi, but Your Imperial Highness has already come. Has something come up?”
The Prince of Qi unflinchingly answered, “It isn’t anything, only that I want to discuss our advance.”
Smiling, I said, “This one also had such thoughts. How about we start discussing once the two generals have arrived? However, Your Imperial Highness will have to handle this matter. I can only listen in.”
“Before I came, I had sent people to invite them over,” replied the Prince of Qi. “They will arrive fairly soon.”
Just then, a bodyguard on duty outside reported, “Generals Jing and Xuan request an audience.” The Prince of Qi and I exchanged smiles.
The large-scale invasion of Northern Han was imminent and the battle to determine Great Yong’s destiny was about to begin. If we were able to resolve this war in the shortest time possible, then no one in the world would be able to stop Great Yong’s march towards the unification of the world. If caught in a prolonged quagmire, then Great Yong will be assailed from all sides. This coming battle was extremely important.
In Southern Chu, Lu Can indignantly hurled the royal edict to the ground. He had already made plans upon Great Yong’s invasion of Northern Han. He would hand over the defenses of Sichuan to his subordinates, while he personally would lead an army across the Yangtze River and attack Great Yong. This was Southern Chu’s only chance to seize the world. If this opportunity were missed, Southern Chu would at most only be able to control the territory south of the Yangtze River without Northern Han’s elite cavalry pinning down Great Yong’s troops. However, Great Yong’s envoy, Gou Lian, had used hefty bribes and threats to easily intimidate the court officials. Glowering at the royal edict blocking him from sallying forth, Lu Can felt his entire body become powerless.
Suddenly, someone came to report, “General, the Head of the North Star Hall requests an audience.”
Lu Can frowned and thought, Why would Wei Ying come? He has not yet recovered from his injuries. In addition, because of the disastrous defeat in the Eastern Sea, a lot of his authority and power have been seized by the Fengwu and Yihuang Halls. At present, he should be biding his time. Why would he come to meet me? However, although he scorned Wei Ying’s character, Lu Can still regarded his talent as important. Lu Can gave the order to allow Wei Ying to come in.
Wei Ying had a haggard appearance. After all, it wasn’t easy to escape from a sea of fire. In addition, during his escape, he had been pursued the entire way by Great Yong. His safe return to Southern Chu was already quite astonishing. He calmly bowed at Lu Can, as he spoke with a smile, “General Lu presumably has an enormous headache. I wonder if this one is able to give some advice?”
Lu Can uncaringly cracked, “What wise ideas does Head Wei have? The court has already issued an edict. Don’t tell me that this general can defy the edict?”
Smiling, Wei Ying answered, “General is being too literal. What’s so significant about defying the royal edict? Your esteemed father ceased paying attention to military matters long ago. Of Southern Chu’s military authority, you control two-thirds of it. The commander of the Jingxiang defenses, Rong Yuan, does not have General’s influence and often listens to General’s orders. If General desires it, I am willing to help General purge the traitorous Prime Minister who is harming the state. From then on, General will be able to embark upon a major undertaking while Ying can follow in your wake and avenge my deep hate. Wei Ying’s intentions, the Heavens can see clearly. What does the general think?”
Lu Can slapped his hand on the table and rose to his feet. He harshly scolded, “Wei Ying, how can you utter such words? At the time when you fell into dire straits, were it not for Prime Minister Shang and His Royal Majesty’s benevolence, how could you have established yourselves in Southern Chu? Now that you have just gained some authority, you wish to commit such disgraceful actions! Don’t blame me for becoming hostile and ruthless, having you bound and delivered to Prime Minister Shang so that he can see your Fengyi Sect’s true and ugly appearance.”
With Lu Can so enraged, the soldiers on duty outside the tent rushed in with their weapons. The commander of Lu Can’s bodyguards glanced at Wei Ying callously and asked, “General, has this man offended you? General, please give the order.”
With a mocking smile on his face, Wei Ying replied, “General Lu, if you wish to kill or bind me, you should wait until I have spoken the words from the bottom of my heart. Don’t tell me that the general does not dare listen to my nonsense?”
Lu Can’s complexion became grave, waving his hand to dismiss his bodyguards. He replied, “Wei Ying, Southern Chu is not Great Yong. This general hopes that you will behave yourself.”
Smiling faintly, Wei Ying asked, “Does the general wish to know the substance of the secret discussions between Gou Lian and Prime Minister Shang?”
Startled inwardly, Lu Can inquired, “How could you know of such secret matters?”
Wei Ying did not respond directly to the question, only mimicking Gou Lian’s voice to say, “My Lord Prime Minister, you are the maternal grandfather of the King and hail from a family influential for generations. Your sincerity need not be spoken. However, the state’s existence does not rest upon the civil officials, but upon the generals who command the army. At present, your distinguished country’s military is divided in three. Duke Lu and his son control two-thirds, while the defender of the Jingxiang region, Rong Yuan, commands the final third. The troops that My Lord Prime Minister possesses are only enough to exercise control over Jianye. Compared to Duke Lu Xin, General Lu Can, and General Rong Yuan, that force can be completely ignored. Although Duke Lu is faithful and loyal,2 he will definitely not make things difficult for his own son. As for General Rong, he often listens to General Lu’s orders. If General Lu wishes to rebel, then your distinguished country’s government will immediately be overthrown. Even if General Lu does not have any intention of rebelling, My Lord Prime Minister should take precautions beforehand.
“Now that my Great Yong is busy with the northern frontier, General Lu in his carelessness could potentially overestimate himself and attempt the impossible,3 actually planning to cross the river and attack Great Yong. If General Lu is defeated, my Great Yong’s Emperor, in a rage, will definitely send a punitive force south after the northern frontier is pacified. When the time comes and the two states go to war, the rivers will run red with blood. The devastation of the past will assuredly reappear once again. Besides, your honored King has brothers who serve as hostages in my country. If the Emperor becomes furious and decides to install a new ruler, what position will your King and My Lord Prime Minister be in? If General Lu is victorious, it will force my Great Yong to fight a war on two fronts, making us retreat temporarily. However, Great Yong has a million men-at-arms and plentiful supplies. Even if briefly defeated, its vigor will not be harmed, while General Lu, based upon the prestige he has won from the victory, will have achievements that will shake even the King. Even if General Lu originally did not have any intent to rebel, it is hard to avoid having disloyal thoughts when that time comes.
“My Lord Prime Minister has repeatedly tried to impede General Lu. When the time comes and General Lu raises the banner to purge traitorous officials, the entirety of Southern Chu will likely support him and My Lord Prime Minister will inevitably meet a tragic end. Even your distinguished country’s royal family will probably be affected as well. From this, it can be seen that if our two countries go to war, regardless of victory or defeat, is not in My Lord Prime Minister’s best interests. My Lord Prime Minister is only serving for the sake of high position and wealth. Once war erupts, My Lord Prime Minister’s power and influence will become nothing more than an illusion.
“It is in My Lord Prime Minister’s best interests to negotiate a peace. In the bygone days, your distinguished country was defeated, and made an agreement to pay yearly reparations. To this day, your distinguished country’s military and civilians continue to be harmed by these reparations. If My Lord Prime Minister uses this condition to negotiate with my country, my country’s Emperor, because of the war on the northern frontier, will definitely reduce or waive the reparations. When the time comes, all levels of society will praise My Lord Prime Minister’s contributions. Isn’t this better than going to war? If My Lord Prime Minister agrees, our countries can once again be tied by the bonds of matrimony.4 My Imperial Majesty is willing to betroth his beloved daughter to His Royal Majesty. Once the Princess has reached marriageable age, our two countries will become in-laws.
“Northern Han’s military is quite strong. Without eight to ten years, it will be impossible to conquer it. His Imperial Majesty is completely focused on the war on the northern frontier and hopes to be on good terms with Southern Chu. What does My Lord Prime Minister think?”
In the beginning, Lu Can did not understand what Wei Ying was doing. However, after hearing a few lines, his complexion became grave. Once Wei Ying had finished, Lu Can sighed and asked rhetorically, “Prime Minister Shang has presumably agreed?”
Wei Ying coldly answered, “Gou Lian’s tongue is as glorious as a lotus flower. Formerly a captive of Great Yong, Prime Minister Shang has long lost his courage and trembled in fear, merely shirking responsibility. Further, Prime Minister Shang has long since been suspicious and jealous of General holding authority over the majority of Southern Chu’s military. With Duke Lu ill and confined to bed, now that an agreement has been reached, it will be impossible to retrieve the situation unless General uses your military authority to remonstrate.”
Stirred, Lu Can inquired, “Did you come here today on your own volition or on behalf of the Fengyi Sect?”
With a somewhat impatient expression, Wei Ying answered, “Those women fear the strength of Great Yong’s military. Do they dare fight Great Yong directly? They only seek to employ crafty plots and machinations, as they have long lost the courage to fight hand-to-hand on the battlefield. This time, I have come on my own volition. However, if the general is willing to rise in rebellion, I can guarantee that they will support General.”
Lu Can sighed heavily and replied, “Head Wei, I know that you have come today out of sincerity. However, as a subject of Southern Chu, I will absolutely not commit such a disgraceful and disloyal act. As a result, I will not rise in rebellion. I accept your kind intentions and will not reveal our conversation today to anyone. You can go.”
Disappointed, Wei Ying inquired, “You do realize if you compromise today there will never be another opportunity to seize Great Yong’s territory?”
Lu Can resolutely declared, “Regardless of what happens in the future, I cannot perform such a disloyal and unfilial act. If any official can defy an edict and use his military authority to remonstrate, then where is the court’s prestige? If I perform such an act, from that point on, Southern Chu’s legitimacy will be lost. Rather than allowing this to happen, I would rather fight bitterly against Great Yong and protect the vast swathe of territory of Jiangnan.”
Heaving a sigh, Wei Ying said, “For you to be so stupidly loyal, how are you Jiang Zhe’s match? Fine. It was I who was blind, thinking that you were a liege worthy of serving. Since you have already decided, there is nothing more I can say. It is only that, from this point forward, I will have to offend you greatly. General, please understand.”
Killing intent appeared in Lu Can’s eyes. Then he allowed it to leak into his voice, as he said, “I know that you will now turn to control Prime Minister Shang. However, although he does not understand military matters, you may not be his match with regards to scheming and machinations. Regardless of what happens, if you go too far, don’t forget that I have an army in my hands.”
Wei Ying sighed lightly. “If I was able to control the Fengyi Sect, I would definitely be able to eliminate Shang Weijun and allow you to control the court. Unfortunately, I am powerless to do so. Fine. This is my fate, unable to help your army conquer Great Yong’s capital of Chang’an.” Finished speaking, Wei Ying turned and walked out.
Lu Can almost halted him. However, he ultimately could not bring himself to utter any words. Since he could not do such a disloyal and unfilial act, then it was inevitable that their relationship would rupture. Heaving a heavy sigh, Lu Can softly said, “Even if I must sacrifice my life, I will protect this picturesque country. It is only that I will not do this kind of traitorous act even if I have to die. If Sir Jiang were here, he would definitely mock me for being excessively pedantic. In the old days, when I studied under him, Sir once teased me because of this. Alas, I can never be as carefree and unfettered as Master.”
Walking out of Lu Can’s army camp, Wei Ying strolled around a long while, completely at his wits’ end. It was some time before he finally recovered from his disappointment and despair. As the son of a prime minister and a former high-ranking official of Great Yong, Wei Ying’s strategies and tactics were quite outstanding. In the current world, Great Yong had a well-trained and strong army, while neither Southern Chu nor Northern Han had the power to match. Now was the only opportunity to pincer Great Yong from the south and the north to weaken Great Yong’s strength. As long as Great Yong suffered heavy losses, even if Great Yong could not be completely destroyed, it would still no longer have the power to unify the world.
If Great Yong were to unify the world, then it would be impossible for Wei Ying to get revenge. Although Ling Yu, Ji Xia, and Yan Wushuang were familiar with the military and government, they were too shortsighted, content to have Southern Chu hold Jiangnan. They believed it would be impossible for Great Yong to conquer Northern Han without a dozen or more years. As for Southern Chu, although weak, it possessed vast swathes of territory. As long as the river was well-defended, there was no fear of Great Yong invading south. As a result, while they used whatever means necessary to delay Great Yong’s unification process, they did not dare to confront Great Yong directly, deeply afraid that Great Yong would first invade Southern Chu. In their minds, such a lengthy cushion of time would be enough to build up Southern Chu’s strength. At the very least, they would be able to ensure Southern Chu’s existence for several more decades to come. As for revenge for Fan Huiyao, in their eyes, it was already yesterday’s news. As long as they enjoyed lofty positions and wealth, they were unwilling to seek revenge. At present, what they sought most was a return to the glory years of the Fengyi Sect’s existence in Great Yong, secretly controlling the Southern Chu court. But if the two countries went to war, it would be in their best interests.
How did he end up embroiled with these stupid and shortsighted women? With rancor and bitterness welling up, Wei Ying returned to his senses. He resolutely discarded his useless dissatisfaction. Since he could not use Lu Can to attack Great Yong, he would have to borrow the Fengyi Sect’s power to use whatever means necessary to control the Southern Chu court. Then he would concentrate all of Southern Chu’s power to seek revenge on Great Yong, to seek revenge on Jiang Zhe. For these objectives, Wei Ying was willing to pay any price. As a look of unwavering determination flashed across Wei Ying’s face, he quickened his pace. He could not afford to waste any more time.
大厦将倾, dashajiangqing – idiom, lit. the great mansion is on the verge of collapse; fig. hopeless situation
忠君爱国, zhongjun’aiguo – idiom, lit. patriotic and loyal to the throne
螳臂当车, tangbidangche – idiom, lit. a mantis trying to stop a chariot; fig. to overestimate oneself and attempt something impossible
秦晋之好, Qin Jin zhihao – idiom, lit. the good ties between the states of Qin and Jin during the Spring and Autumn Period; fig. to form an alliance through marriage