In the twenty-seventh year of Great Yong’s Wuwei era, on the Northern Han frontier, through the whistling of the autumn breeze, on the road between the Yanmen Pass and Daizhou,1 a horse with a rider in red galloped quickly along, kicking up smoke and dust. One was barely able to discern that it was a sorrel horse with a hair coat the color of blood and with a mane like raging flames. Although the rider’s appearance was completely covered by a great cloak and hood, one could faintly discern that the rider was dressed completely in red. The rider’s cloak was of the same color. Across the rider’s back was an ebony sandalwood bow. By the saddle was a pouch filled with white-feathered arrows. At the rider’s waist was a saber with a handle gilded with gold and encrusted with jade. The saber, itself, was covered by the great cloak, hiding the scabbard style. However, from the handle, one could tell that this was a precious saber that was impossible to acquire.
Just as the rider in red was allowing her horse to gallop wildly, five horsemen suddenly charged out from both sides in front. All five of them were barbarian tribesmen. They galloped towards the rider in red. Just as the two sides were about to collide, the rider in red rapidly notched and shot three arrows in one go. Like meteorites, the white-feathered arrows shot out. Two of the barbarians were caught unprepared by this development, not expecting that the rider in red would shoot arrows at such a close distance. They flipped over and fell off their horses. However, firing three arrows at once was unavoidably a bit too much for the rider in red. As a result, the third arrow that was fired was weak and lacking, brushed away by its target using a saber. The remaining three horsemen shouted out simultaneously and ferociously attacked. Not having enough time to fire more arrows, the rider in red could only unsheathe the precious saber and meet their attack. All four were skilled at fighting on horseback. Although the rider in red’s saber was sharp, the rider’s horsemanship brilliant, all three barbarians were also brave and fierce fighters. Gradually, the rider in red began to lose ground. Suddenly, the rider in red let out a tender shout, yelling, “Eat my poison powder!”
The rider in red threw something out with her left hand, sending a wave of pink smoke towards two of the barbarian horsemen. The two urgently split up and tried to avoid the pink smoke, revealing a gap. The rider in red seized the opportunity. Spurring her horse, the rider escaped the encirclement, charging back the way that she had come. The barbarian horsemen turned their horses and gave chase. Just as they were about to surround the rider in red again, the rider suddenly pulled the reins of her mount. The sorrel horse reared onto its hind legs and turned around. Its head reared, the horse naturally and flowing, without the slightest reduction in speed, sped towards Daizhou. The barbarian horsemen did not expect that the rider in red would have such formidable riding abilities. Their reaction could not but be sluggish. When they had turned around to give chase again, they had fallen far behind.
Vexed, the rider in red turned around to glance at her pursuers. The barbarian horsemen still pursued her without letting up. The rider in red gritted her teeth. It wasn’t that she was worried about her safety. Twenty li ahead were the walls of Daizhou. These barbarian horsemen, somehow blundering in, would definitely not dare to chase her all the way to Daizhou. However, if others were to learn that she had been ambushed while traveling alone, then it would be impossible for her to remain so carefree and leisurely in the months to come.
At this moment, her eyes brightened, as she noticed a gray-clothed horseman up ahead going in the same direction as her. The horse that he was mounted upon was a fine steed that was the cream of the crop. The horseman also had a bow and arrows with him. In this prefecture, all of its denizens, regardless of gender, were skilled in horse archery. No matter how incompetent this oncoming horseman was, he should still be able to help out. With the two working together, they could probably kill those barbarians. Thinking of this, the rider in red shouted out, “Old chap! Quickly shoot arrows!”
Stunned, the gray-clothed horseman turned his head, a cold and murderous intent quickly flashing across his eyes. The horseman turned around, his palomino, spotted-white horse passing by the rider in red. The rider in red could hear the twanging sound of a bowstring. From the sound of the bowstring, the rider in red could tell that the bow’s draw weight wasn’t great. Usually, in Daizhou, such a bow would only be used by woman. However, when she heard the sound of the arrows whistling through the air, the rider in red could not help but be stunned. The man had shot five arrows in one go. The rider in red turned her horse around and caught sight of the five arrows splitting into two groups, three in front and two behind. One of the arrows pierced the throat of one of the barbarians. Just as the two other arrows of the first batch were fended off by the barbarians, the second group of arrows arrived. Although the two barbarians tried to dodge, they were only able to avoid death, instead grievously wounded. The two barbarians exchanged glances before turning their horses around and fleeing, bringing with them their dead compatriot and the master-less horse as they fled.
The rider in red exhaled a breath in relief. Nudging her horse over, she clasped her hands together and said, “Many thanks to brother for saving my life. Lin Tong is here to express my thanks.”
When the gray-clothed horseman turned his head around, his eyes brightened, seeing the rider in red’s hair was tied up into three buns. Her hair was further wrapped in a red handkerchief and held in place by a gold hairpin. The rider was no more than sixteen or seventeen years of age. Her skin was as pale as snow. She had a pair of curvaceous eyebrows and pitch-black eyes that were sparkling and limpid. The corners of her pink and lovely cherry lips were slightly raised, making her seem mischievous and pampered.
The rider in red also stared blankly at the gray-clothed horseman. The horseman was just over twenty years old. His appearance was delicate and handsome, almost as if he were a weak and feeble scholar. However, his brows carried a penetrating aura that seemed to be able to see through worldly affairs and yet also a frivolous, carefree feeling. Other than the brutes and stalwarts who the rider in red usually saw, the handsome men that she interacted with usually carried a martial aura about them. She had never seen such a delicate, handsome man. As a result, the rider in red could not help but blush. She asked, “Who are you? I can see that you are not someone from Northern Han. You aren’t a spy, right?”
The gray-clothed horseman calmed down. Smiling, he replied, “Young miss, this isn’t the proper way to repay a debt of gratitude. How can you consider your rescuer to be a spy?”
The red-clothed young woman’s face flushed, as she claimed, “It’s one thing that you rescued my life. It will be another if you are a spy. If you don’t answer the question, I will have to deliver you to the authorities.”
With deliberate exaggeration, the gray-clothed horseman declared, “Aiyah, the Princess of Red Clouds is truly outstanding. It seems that I saved the wrong person.”
The red-clothed young woman was instantly startled. She was the second daughter of General Lin Yuanting who was assigned to garrison Daizhou and Yanmen Pass. Lin Yuanting was the family head of an influential, aristocratic family from Daizhou and an important minister in the Northern Han court. His wife was the Princess of Anqing.2 As senior princess, she had given birth to four sons and two daughters. All four sons were generals famous for their bravery. The oldest daughter, Lin Bi, had been fostered by the King of Northern Han, Liu You, as an adopted daughter and was conferred the title of Princess of Jiaping.3 She was twenty-three years old this year.
Not only was Lin Bi was beautiful and intelligent, she was also skilled at martial arts and military strategy. She had once repeatedly repulsed the invasions of the barbarians, accruing impressive and outstanding military service. Marrying Lin Bi was the objective of the warriors of Northern Yong. As for Lin Bi, she vowed to only wed a like-minded inimitable hero, otherwise she would never marry. However, how many men deserved a woman like this? It was only two years ago, when the General Who Dominates Distant Lands, Long Tingfei’s wife passed away, that Lin Bi finally found a suitable home to call home. At the time, Long Tingfei was twenty-nine years old, handsome and formidable, possessing a high and important position, and had performed brilliantly in the military. Even though he was employed by the King of Northern Han, he was feared by Liu You. A marriage alliance was naturally the best method to ensure the loyalty of an important official. Endowed with both beauty and talents,4 and an adopted member of the royal family, Lin Bi was naturally the perfect candidate. Moreover, Long Tingfei was one of the few heroes who were a match for Lin Bi. As a result, this marriage very quickly became a subject that garnered the general public’s approval. However, because Long Tingfei’s wife had just passed away and he was busy battling Great Yong, the two had decided to temporarily postpone their wedding.
Coming from such illustrious origins, although the Lin Tong had been pampered and spoiled since childhood, she wasn’t a completely ignorant young miss. Everyone in Daizhou knew of the Princess of Red Clouds, and recognized her sorrel horse and her red clothes. However, this gray-clothed man was clearly not a native of these parts and yet with one look had identified her. Lin Tong could not help but grow suspicious. Her suspicions aroused, the severity and stubbornness of her tone increased, “Who are you really? If you don’t speak the truth, don’t blame my saber for being ruthless.” As she spoke, she gripped the handle of her saber.
The youth was alarmed, promptly clasping his hands and stating, “Princess, please do not be angry. This commoner is surnamed Wang, and has the given name of Ji. I am not a spy.”
The tension on Lin Tong’s face eased a bit, as she sized up the young man. She asked, “From your appearance, you do not seem to be from Northern Han. Quickly explain your origins and ancestry to this Princess.”
Smiling wryly, the youth answered, “Princess, this commoner is from Southern Chu. Afterwards, I wandered the lands destitute. Last year, this commoner wandered to the northern lands. As I am a skilled veterinarian, adept at treating horses and livestock, I have frequently wandered about these lands. A few days ago, I heard that Daizhou was going to hold a market in the autumn, thus am journeying to Daizhou to see the bustling of the market. Unexpectedly, I ran into the Princess. I was able to identify Princess from your precious horse, famous throughout this region for its color. Princess, please understand that this commoner is speaking the truth.”
With astonishment, Lin Tong gazed at the youth for some time before speaking, “Wang Ji, you aren’t the ‘Divine Doctor Bo Le’ renowned amongst the barbarians? I have heard that you are not only adept at treating livestock, you are skilled at identifying great horses.”
The youth smiled again. “I deserve not the Princess’s praise. This commoner does possess a minor reputation in the barbarian lands. Surprisingly, the Princess has also heard of me.”
Lin Tong replied, “Of course. My Daizhou is close to the barbarian lands. Every day of every hour, we must keep an eye on the activity in the barbarian lands. It is a pity that the barbarian lands are vast but sparsely populated with vast distances between the various tribes. As a result, the information we receive is rough and incomplete. I originally thought that the man hailed as ‘Divine Doctor Bo Le’ would definitely be an elderly man of virtue and prestige. Who could have thought that he is actually so young? Wang Ji, this Princess wants to ask you … You originally hail from Southern Chu; did you learn your veterinarian skills and horse identification there? How did you come to wander into the barbarian lands?”
The youth smiled wryly again. He suggested, “Princess, we shouldn’t speak like this, right? It isn’t right for us to block the path.”
With a start, Lin Tong realized that there were other passersby on the road. She replied, “This Princess intends to go to Daizhou and visit the market. How about you follow me along and slowly explain your background to me? Be sure to be obedient and not escape, otherwise this Prince will have Daddy mobilize the army and hunt you down.”
The youth smiled and agreed, “This commoner does not dare. Princess, after you.”
The two spurred their horses towards Daizhou with excitement. For no real reason, the two did not allow their horses to gallop, simply trotting along. As they traveled, they talked.
Lin Tong said, “Wang Ji, you haven’t told me how you learned your skills.” Although it was the same question as before, the suspicion in her eyes had mostly dissipated and gained a bit of curiosity.
The young man seemed to lose himself in thought. It was only when Lin Tong asked him again that he returned to his senses and respond with a smile, “To speak of this commoner’s master, he is an extraordinary talent that is rarely seen in this world. The things that he has learned and studied are marvelous and wondrous. This commoner was originally a servant boy at his side. However, I was able to learn some of his teachings superficially. A few years ago, his elderly self dismissed many of his servants. This commoner was one of them. Although, this commoner received not a few monies, I could not live off of those savings. After thinking it over, since this commoner does not have any other abilities, I could only rely upon my skills as a veterinarian to earn a living. However, in Southern Chu and Great Yong, a veterinarian can barely make a living. This commoner was not reconciled to becoming a lowly individual. After much thought, I cannot be an ordinary individual living on this earth. Therefore, I came to these barbarian lands. Here, livestock is many. Moreover, there are all kinds of difficult cases.5 If I were to become famous there, my name would naturally resound throughout the world. In the future, I would need not have any worries about my livelihood. On the whole, this commoner’s luck was rather decent. After practicing medicine for several years, I did not make any mistakes. Although the barbarians are brave and strong, addicted to slaughter, they are deeply respectful towards veterinarians. As a result, this commoner was able to live a relatively carefree life there. As for being compared with Bo Le, it was only because this commoner was able to identify several rarely seen fine steeds. The news got increasingly distorted.6 When it reached Princess’s ear, it inevitably became somewhat exaggerated.”
Thinking it over, Lin Tong spoke, “It seems that although you are young, you have been to many places. This Princess has some things to ask you.”
Wang Ji bowed while remaining mounted. He replied, “Princess, ask away. If this commoner knows the answer, I will definitely not hide it or refuse.”
Lin Tong asked, “Since you know of this Princess, then have you heard of my elder sister, Princess Jiaping, Lin Bi?”
Wang Ji nodded and responded, “This commoner has naturally heard that the Princess of Jiaping is a heroine amongst women and has repeatedly commanded troops to repulse the invasions of the barbarian tribes. Who within the entire Northern Han does not know of her illustrious name? I have heard that the Princess has already been engaged to General Long. They are truly an exceptional couple. Who would not envy them in this world?”
Lin Tong proudly exclaimed, “That’s right! My elder brother-in-law is a great hero. In this entire world, he is the only one worthy of being matched with my older sister. However, I have heard that others state the name of Princess Changle side by side with my elder sister. Don’t tell me that within this world, there is a woman capable of being compared with my elder sister? I don’t believe it. But, no one has spoken to me of Princess Changle’s affairs. Don’t tell me that you don’t know of her either.”
Seeing Lin Tong’s large, almond eyes, Wang Ji helplessly chuckled. Only when he saw Lin Tong’s expression become increasingly annoyed was he able to stifle his laughter. He replied, “You can’t blame them for speaking of her to you. This Princess Changle has experienced a bumpy road. In addition, she is from Great Yong. That is why no one has spoken of it to you.”
With excitement, Lin Tong blurted out, “So you know! Quickly tell me!”
After collecting his thoughts, Wang Ji explained, “This Princess Changle’s actual title is the Princess Changle of Ning. She is the eldest daughter of Li Yuan, Yong’s Emperor Emeritus. Her birth mother was the original Noble Consort who was advanced to the position of Empress three years ago. At present, she is the Empress Dowager. The Princess has a virtuous, chaste, and calm temperament. At the age of sixteen, she was married to Southern Chu’s Crown Prince, becoming his wife. After the Crown Prince succeeded, Princess Changle became the Queen. Simply for her status, she is incomparably respectable and honored.”
With misgivings, Lin Tong asked, “She is compared to my sister because of this reason?”
Shaking his head, Wang Ji grinned. “That is naturally not the case. Although the Princess was of a respectable status, unfortunately Great Yong and Southern Chu were enemies. Although no one in Southern Chu dared to mistreat her, the Princess likely did not feel a hint of joy while in Southern Chu, spending years living in seclusion in the depths of the palace. Later, in the twenty-second year of Southern Chu’s Xiande era, the King of Southern Chu changed the era name to Zhihua, though that has since been abandoned. In the twenty-third year of Xiande, the nineteenth year of your honored state’s Rongsheng7 era, that year, Prince Li Zhi of Yong led an army and captured the Southern Chu capital, bringing Princess Changle back to Great Yong.”
Delight appearing on her face, Lin Tong replied, “This is for the best, since the Princess was not happy in Southern Chu. Although I dislike people from Great Yong, this action taken by the Yong Emperor was right and proper.”
Wang Ji smiled once more. “Not long after the Princess returned to Great Yong, the King of Southern Chu was allowed to return to Southern Chu, dying on the journey back. As a result, the then Yong Emperor wanted to select another husband for the Princess. At the time, the then Yong Emperor had chosen three candidates. One was the son of Qin Yi, the General Who Suppresses Distant Lands, Qin Qing. One was the son of Prime Minister Wei Guan, Wei Ying. The last candidate was the Vice Supervisor of the Imperial Palace Guard, Xiahou Yuanfeng. Of these three, one was a general, one was a civil official, and Xiahou Yuanfeng was skilled with both brush and sword, having the reputation as the handsomest man in Great Yong. It is reasonable to say that regardless of how high the Princess’s eyes, she should have taken a fancy to one of them.”
Animatedly, Lin Tong asked, “Then who did the Princess choose?”
Wang Ji answered, shaking his head, “The Princess did not take a liking to any of them.”
With astonishment, Lin Tong inquired, “She did not fancy any of them? Could it be that she would only fancy someone of my brother-in-law’s caliber?”
“How many individuals can be like General Long in this world?” asked Wang Ji rhetorically with a grin. “This commoner does not know whether the Princess was looking for a towering figure like General Long. However, the then Yong Emperor spoke, agreeing to marry the Princess to whomever she preferred, regardless of that individual’s identity.”
With curiosity, Lin Tong asked, “Then who did Princess Changle ultimately choose?”
“How could an emperor’s son-in-law be casually selected?” retorted Wang Ji, heaving a sigh. “Regardless of the dynasty, an imperial princess is a greatly honored existence. However, it would be extremely difficult for them to gain happiness. They would either be used as a tool to ensure the loyalty of a subject who has performed meritorious service or become a sacrificial victim in a marriage alliance. Princess Changle was sacrificed when she was sent to form a marriage alliance with Southern Chu. Although she had the good fortune of returning home, the candidates selected for her by the former Yong Emperor were all descendants from prestigious families. Although it was said that the Princess would be given the right to choose her husband, it is likely that if Princess Changle truly had someone in mind, he would either be executed by the Yong Emperor or would be stabbed in the back by the three candidates. Moreover, while marrying a princess would provide matchless glory and honor to a true, towering hero, it is likely a path for them to eventually be buried under kindness and tenderness. As a result, ultimately, Princess Changle did not say a single word, gritting her teeth and refusing to remarry. At the end, the former Yong Emperor issued an edict, betrothing Princess Changle to Wei Ying. However, Princess Changle would rather become a nun than marry again. Finally, the former Yong Emperor could only allow her to remain as a widow and not remarry. At the time, there were rumors that Princess Changle was grateful to the deep affection from her dead husband, the King of Southern Chu, and desired to be faithful to his memory.”
This time, Lin Tong did not speak, though disapproval showed in her eyes. Wang Ji understood that, with Northern Han existing on the northern frontier and the ease at which strong young men died, in order to maintain the population, it was not encouraged for widows to remain faithful to their deceased husbands. Wang Ji did not lay this bare, continuing, “Afterwards, people guessed that the Princess’s vision was like a torch, able to see through an individual’s loyalty or treachery, as well as future prospects. As a result, she was unwilling to be married to any of those candidates.”
Lin Tong could not help but ask, “How so?”
“Princess has probably forgotten what happened in the twenty-first year of Rongsheng,” replied Wang Ji with a smile. “In the twenty-fifth year of Wuwei, Great Yong once experienced internal strife. At the time, Crown Prince Li An committed treason and rebelled. Then he was forced to commit suicide.”
Lin Tong nodded her head. “I remember. That year, elder sister became engaged to brother-in-law. However, brother-in-law was busy attacking Great Yong, causing the wedding to be delayed even until today.”
“That son of the Prime Minister, Wei Ying, participated in the rebellion,” added Wang Ji, “Afterwards, he escaped with the remnants of the Fengyi Sect, his current whereabouts unknown. He implicated his father, causing Wei Guan to commit suicide out of guilt. If it weren’t for the former Yong Emperor keeping in mind Wei Guan’s contributions, the Wei family likely would have suffered the nine familial exterminations. As for that Qin Qing, General Qin, he married the wrong person. His wife, the Princess of Jingjiang, Li Hanyou, was a treasonous rebel. She even tried to assassinate Princess Changle, though unsuccessful. This General Qin was ultimately killed by his wife. In addition, it is said that the near success of the Fengyi Sect’s coup d’état is because that General Qin was tricked by his wife.”
Wang Ji paused. Picking up the waterskin hanging from the pommel of his saddle, he took a draw. Lin Tong seized this opportunity to ask, “Then what about that Xiahou Yuanfeng’s character?”
After collecting his thoughts, Wang Ji responded, “How should I put it? This man has already become highly favored by the new Emperor. Although he is still the Vice Supervisor of the Imperial Palace Guard, it is rumored that the Prince of Yong has established a new department within the palace called the Bright Inspection Department. Xiahou Yuanfeng has been assigned control of this new department. This commoner does not know what responsibilities the Bright Inspection Department has, but I have heard that the majority of Great Yong’s civil and military officials would scowl when hearing that department’s name. It may be assumed that regardless of what he actually does, Xiahou Yuanfeng is not a good candidate to be the Princess’s husband.”
Hearing this, Lin Tong expressed, “So that is the case … Princess Changle is truly intelligent. However, how can she be compared with my older sister just based upon this? I cannot accept it!”
Just as Wang Ji was about to respond, his expression suddenly changed. He stated, “Princess, behind, there are …”
Lin Tong was alarmed, intuitively looking back. A dozen or so meters away, she caught sight of a horsewoman dressed in an emerald-green attire with a yellow, embroidered phoenix cloak smiling at her. The horsewoman was probably over twenty years of age. Her appearance was extremely similar to that of Lin Tong’s. The differences were that her long eyebrows extended to her temples. Her eyes were like that of a phoenix’s and had a natural magnificent and graceful bearing that was far above that of Lin Tong’s. Some fifty to sixty meters behind the horsewoman were eight other riders, four men and four women. All of them did not move an inch as they stood sat in their saddles. Seeing that Lin Tong had discovered her, the leading female horsewoman laughingly asked, “Tong’er, did you sneak out again?”
Lin Tong cried out in fear and shouted, “Elder sister …” before jumping off of her horse, throwing herself into the embrace of the horsewoman. The horsewoman reached out with her hands, coincidentally grasping onto Lin Tong’s delicate hands. Borrowing her older sister’s strength, Lin Tong jumped and landed in the same saddle as Lin Bi, gracefully seating herself in Lin Bi’s embrace.
A brilliant and splendid grin on her face, Lin Tong said, “Elder sister, Tong’er only wishes to go see the crowds.”
The horsewoman in emerald-green smiled slightly, a look of doting flashing across her phoenix eyes. Afterwards, her eyes fell upon Wang Ji.
Frightened, Wang Ji promptly jumped off of his horse. Prostrating on the ground, he saluted, “This commoner, Wang Ji, pays my respects to Your Royal Highness, the Princess.”
The horsewoman in emerald-green, the Princess of Jiaping, Lin Bi, stretched her hands out and gestured for Wang Ji to get up. In an amiable tone, she asked, “The rites are excused. Presumably, it is Tong’er who is seeking to learn about Princess Changle from you? We have heard your elegant and refined words, as if you were personally familiar with this matter.8 It may be assumed that you are also who knows the inside story, correct?”
Pulling on her older sister’s arm, Lin Tong said, “Elder sister, he is the man whose stories abound amid the barbarians, Divine Doctor Bo Le. It was I who tangled him up with questions. Earlier, he even saved my life. Elder sister cannot blame him wrongly.”
Hearing Lin Tong’s words, Lin Bi’s eyes softened considerably, though still filled with some hesitation. Bowing slightly on her horse, she said, “So it is Divine Doctor Wang! I have heard that Divine Doctor Wang is skilled at treating horses. We have long heard of your famous name. As for those two barbarians who slipped through the net, We have already captured them. They were spies who originally planned on taking advantage of the bustling activity of the market to kill high-ranking military officers. Many thanks to Sir Wang for saving my younger sister.”
Wang Ji respectfully replied, “This commoner deserves not Your Royal Highness’s thanks. It was only the slightest of efforts and not worth mentioning. If there is nothing else, please permit this commoner to depart.”
Hearing this, Lin Tong somewhat anxiously pulled on her older sister’s sleeves. Without batting an eye, Lin Bi stated, “Sir Wang, just now, I heard you speak of the affairs of Princess Changle. We are also very interested. There is no harm for you to continue, allowing Us to also listen.”
Wang Ji smiled wryly. What identity did Lin Bi have? It was likely that she was well aware of Princess Changle’s story. However, since she had asked in such a manner, what could he do other than agree? Without any other options at the moment, he leapt back onto his horse. The retinue continued unhurriedly towards Daizhou.