Translator: Nyoi-Bo Studio Editor: Nyoi-Bo Studio
It was autumn, in the fifth year of Tianbao. The young Emperor, via a secret letter, made a promise to Shang Shanhu. "I will return Xiao En home to our country." And so the famous general, Shang Shanhu, left behind the northern fortress he had commanded for over a decade. With a band of soldiers and Tan Wu, he departed and made way to the capital Shangjing, for he believed the Emperor was never one for deception.
Upon Xiao En’s capture in the capital, the Emperor had no desire to let him go, for he longed to know the secrets he harbored.
During this time, Empress Dowager wanted Xiao En dead, for Ku He did not desire for anyone else to know of Xiao En’s secrets.
Because the Brocade Guard’s monitoring of Shang Shanhu was too restrictive, he did not have much help in Shangjing. He was only able to rely on his reputation within the army, something even the Emperor and Empress Dowager had to respect. It was for his military influence that they chose not to humiliate or be too harsh on him. This entire, precarious situation regarding Xiao En and Shang Shanhu was something the Northern Qi Palace would prefer cloaking their eyes to. Therefore, if the opportunity to weaken Shang Shanhu’s power or stance amongst the populace ever arose, they would not squander it.
Shen Zhong looked at Tan Wu, who was standing near the beaten carriage. Knowing everything that had transpired, and knowing that he would be unable to charge Shang Shanhu with treason, he believed that by capturing his men and his most trusted ally, Shang Shanhu’s reputation would be dealt a significant blow amongst the army. Colluding with the Qing Kingdom was a crime no soldier would be able to bear.
Tan Wu shook his head and muttered an insult at Shen Zhong beneath his breath: "You southern dog."
Shen Zhong, with a smile, responded, "I garnered a good look at the explosion from earlier. Who else but the southern Overwatch Council's Third Bureau could create such a contraption? The southern people were aiding General Tan Wu in a prison break; it doesn’t get any clearer than that."
Tan Wu paid no attention to Shen Zhong’s attempt at riling him up. He simply turned around and looked at the nine men standing behind him. These elite troops had been trained extensively by Shang Shanhu himself, and tonight, many of them had died. If it wasn’t for the betrayal of the Southerners, Tan Wu believed he could have brought each and every soldier out of the battle alive.
Tan Wu turned around once more and stared back at Shen Zhong. He bowed and said, "Could you please deliver a message on my behalf?"
"What would that be?" replied Shen Zhong, with a mannerism that suggested a lack of true concern. Shen Zhong assumed that even if anything were to happen to Tan Wu, the capture and interrogation of others would yield the results he desired.
"The one who killed me is Fan Xian."
Tan Wu, the most trusted aide of General Shang Shanhu, was undoubtedly in the know of who exactly was involved in the planning of this entire ordeal. Fan Xian, Commissioner of the southern Overwatch Council, was conveniently in the capital at this time; therefore it was obvious what role he had in this plan. Tan Wu was fuming, and felt an overwhelming sense of betrayal. Tan Wu could not help but yell Fan Xian’s name as it rolled off his tongue. Hundreds within the capital must have heard that name be called out.
Fan Xian maintained his composure, as he continued to watch the unfolding events from the boughs of that tall tree as though he had not heard his named called. In his heart, he believed that Shang Shanhu would understand hi
s dishonorable actions throughout this entire ordeal. Especially since Tan Wu shouted like that.
Following Tan Wu’s outburst, he unsheathed his sword and within seconds, slashed his own face before decapitating himself outright.
Immediately after, the drawing of nine more swords rang out, complete with the dropping of nine more heads. On the slanted road, nine heads rolled alongside Tan Wu’s all together, leaving a trail of blood as they went. Tan Wu’s now frozen expression was one of pure anger.
Strangely, Shen Zhong did not seek to stop this mass act of suicide and instead watched coldly, with nary an expression. He remained motionless for a while, until speaking once more beneath his breath. With genuine sincerity and quiet admiration, he said, "These are the brave and revered warriors of their nation? It is unfortunate to see them become victims of this conspiracy. May your spirits sleep softly."
Before Tan Wu ended his own life, Fan Xian, still up in the tree, felt his heart stop for a moment. With his exceptional hearing capabilities, Fan Xian was able to overhear what Shen Zhong whispered to himself. Upon hearing this, he realized that Shen Zhong wasn’t a simple man, either.
Everyone involved with the prison break died that night. Only the lonely carriage that had been used to transport Xiao En had the company of the Brocade Guard to encircle it. Everyone knew that the founder of the Brocade Guard, Xiao En, who was still inside, was far past his prime.
Without any indication, the carriage suddenly burst into flames.
The fire was fierce and the flames engulfed the entire cart. The horses were still tied to the carriage, but their mouths were banded and were unable to make a sound. All they could do was run, and so they did. But before they could get anywhere, the ringing of a drawn blade sounded once more, followed by several "thuds" - the legs of each horse was hewn off! Shortly after, lakes of blood encompassed the horse heads.
Shen Zhong watched the carriage burn, callously. His lack of emotion made it difficult to imagine what he was thinking. Vice-provost Xiao looked at him anxiously and said, "Sir, put the fire out! The Emperor does not want Xiao En dead!"
Shen Zhong, however, smiled and instead gestured with his hand for the men to not do that which was pleaded of them. He then signaled for the vice-provost to approach. After he did so, Shen Zhong whispered quietly to him, "But Empress Dowager wants Xiao En dead." The vice-provost’s face dropped. Knowing that which he said was done impulsively and without thought, it was only then that he took notice of Shen Zhong’s eyebrows. The farthest tip of the eyebrows gave off an uneasy aura. After seeing this, Shen Zhong began muttering to himself once more, saying: "Locked up all these years, unable to escape; perhaps death is the sweeter conclusion?"
As the flames continued to rage, smoke and ash clogged the air. The carriage was burnt completely, scenting the entire street with an awful smell.
After a while, though, the flames receded and petered out. Then the Brocade Guard’s forensic pathologists arrived to examine the scene and its charred corpse. It was not long before they were able to state: "This is Xiao En!"
Shen Zhong nodded and asked: "Are the wounds upon his leg new?"
"Yes, we can deduce that they were inflicted within the previous two months."
"The records obtained from Wuduhe suggest they are indeed the same; three missing teeth."
Shen Zhong`s expression was one of perplexity. He found it difficult to believe that Xiao En had just died right then and there. He was confused as to how he should express himself. His faint smile was strange and indifferent.
In General Shang Shanhu`s manor in the southern part of Shangjing, the famous Shang Shanhu was speaking with his wife. On the table beside them was a list of gifts. In the courtyard, one could faintly hear a curious noise. The wife`s eyebrows raised in wonder and she said, "My dear, Empress Dowager`s birthday is soon; yet for the next few days, you will be unable to leave the capital. What are we to do?" At this time of the night, the manor was supposed to be silent, but even Shang Shanhu`s wife was having trouble falling asleep.
Shang Shanhu`s expression did not change. In a deep voice, he said, "Of course we are not leaving."
"And about the birthday gift…," his wife looked down.
"Of course we won`t prepare a gift, my dear. You should instead prepare your luggage."
In the midst of their conversation, the wife witnessed a large man suddenly run to the back of their living room. The wife recognized him as Shang Shanhu`s bodyguard. Strangely, however, it was midnight and he appeared to be uninvited. She shrugged it off as a figment of her imagination and became a little flustered. She looked at Shang Shanhu and with a trembling voice, asked, "Did you really do it?"
Shang Shanhu maintained total composure, save for his eyebrows, which suddenly lifted like large blades. In a deep voice, he said, "I am loyal to this land. It`s just that with the government, there are instances where we don’t see eye to eye."
The wife did not speak again and instead quietly returned to the bedroom. She hadn’t the motivation to resolve the situation with Empress Dowager`s birthday at this hour.
"Marshall, the number of saboteurs outside the manor is growing."
Only the people closest to Shang Shanhu were allowed call him Marshall, instead of General. The person who spoke was his closest bodyguard, who was once a nameless orphan. Many years ago, he was rescued from a snowy forest by Shang Shanhu. He raised the boy and even named him Shangshan Po. Their relationship was similar to that which Shang Shanhu shared with Xiao En, but the greatest discernible difference was that Shangshan Po looked up to Shang Shanhu with tremendous awe.
"Wait for more information." Shang Shanhu reclined in his chair, with a calm expression.
After this, Shangshan Po returned outside to continue his patrol.
A long while later, Shangshan Po returned to the back of the room. He kneeled before Shang Shanhu and said, "They failed." His voice possessed no trembling pitch, but it did not hide the sadness he was trying to conceal.
Shang Shanhu put his arm to the arm of his seat and froze. He closed his eyes with extreme force, and the wrinkles near his eyes bloomed like sunflowers. At that moment, you could discern the famous general’s true age.
Shang Shanhu stood up and went to the bedroom. His wife, still restless, was sat upright at the side of the bed. He smiled and said, "It is very late. Why are you not yet asleep?"
His wife was visibly nervous, and had to force a smile upon her response, saying, "I cannot sleep."
Shang Shanhu, smiling, told her, "We are not leaving Shangjing, it would seem. Let us discuss the guest list for Empress Dowager’s birthday."
It was in the early hours of the morning, by now; at the darkest time before the dawn. The mess in the courtyard following the battle had almost been cleaned up. The carriage that had been burnt to ash and the bodies of the deceased had already been removed by the professionals of the Discipline Commission. It wasn’t long before the peace and tranquility returned to grace this place. In a kingdom as large as this, the ability to cover up and conceal the events that had transpired here was not a difficult task, however.
Those of the Brocade Guard who had sustained injuries were still on the ground, occasionally groaning in agony. The structural damage dealt from the explosion was still to be seen and the fatalities it had accumulated were many. Those who were lucky enough to survive the explosion were instead covered in blood and thick dust.
Whilst the injured were being delivered to the government office, the doctors were already pre-occupied with patients of their own. The queue of medical stretchers that had formed was not unlike a centipede, crawling forward ever so slowly.
Fan Xian, who was now precariously lying upon the thick branches and boughs of the tall tree, flexed the muscles in his legs and arms to prevent cramps and stiffness from settling in. He could not afford his reaction time being diminished at a time like this. He looked down upon the stretcher-bound wounded; they reminded him of when he watched Silence of the Lambs and The Professional in his past life. He breathed a sigh of relief, acknowledging that Xiao En, the old man, really did die in the fire and had not escaped.