After these imperial bodyguards departed, naturally there were people who would deliver the corpses to the crematory in the Western Palace. These dead did not have the qualifications to be buried and could only be shoved into the oven to be cremated. These matters were handled by coarse eunuchs. No one paid these corpses any attention. As a result, no one noticed that before the corpses were cremated, one body went missing. Even if anyone noticed, no one would make trouble for themselves.
On the thirteenth day of the sixth month, news of the Eastern Palace fire and the crown prince placed under house arrest spread throughout Chang’an. Ignoring potential suspicion, the Crown Prince’s Junior Mentor Lu Jingzhong, Princess Li Hanyou of Jingjiang, and Concubine Lan gathered to discuss countermeasures. However, they were helpless in the face of this crisis. For the crown prince to do such a thing, there was no way to immediately cool the emperor’s temper. Just as the three of them were anxiously worried, suddenly a voice could be heard to laugh and state, “What is it? Have you run into a difficult problem?”
All three raised their heads to look, catching sight of a plain-clothed woman standing in the doorway. Although her appearance was ordinary, her imposing and stern aura caused everyone to be unable to underestimate her. Xiao Lan and Li Hanyou were overjoyed, rising to their feet to greet the newcomer. “Eldest apprentice sister! It’s you!”
Wen Ziyan smiled and replied, “It’s not just me, Master, herself, has already arrived, as well. She is cultivating at Roosting Clouds Nunnery.”1
Xiao Lan and Li Hanyou were delighted and worried at the same time. They trembled with fear and trepidation as they gazed at Wen Ziyan. Summoning her courage, Xiao Lan pleaded, “We have handled things poorly. If the master blames us, I hope that senior apprentice sister puts in a good word for us.”
With a faint smile, Wen Ziyan replied, “All right. Master has not gotten angry. You should first go greet her. If there are any issues, allow Master to make the decisions, to prevent you from being so distressed. Junior Mentor Lu, you should come along as well. Master wishes to see you.”
Li Hanyou and company were ecstatic, quickly changing into civilian clothes. On horses, they galloped out of the city, not caring if their speed attracted attention, only slowing down when they arrived at a Buddhist nunnery located on the eastern outskirts of Chang’an. Lu Jingzhong’s horsemanship was poor, causing him to fall behind. Li Hanyou and Xiao Lan did not bother about him, dismounting from their horses and entering Roosting Clouds Nunnery. This nunnery was several mu in size and was the property of the Fengyi Sect. Every time, the Fengyi Sect master came to the capital, she would stay here. As the two walked inside, they noticed that all of the Buddhist nuns here had all disappeared without a trace. On both sides of the tree-shaded small path leading to the master’s dwelling stood countless numbers of azure-clothed women. All of them carried swords, while their faces were as cold as frost. When the two arrived before the door, they found four women standing on either side of the door. All of them wore snow-white dresses. Although they did not wear hairpins or brocade, their clothing was extremely gorgeous. The two promptly greeted the four. Although these four women looked no more than thirty years old, all of their actual ages were over forty. They were the trusted subordinates of the Fengyi Sect master. Serving as maids, they had accompanied Fan Huiyao battling throughout the world. As a result, their status was quite honored and respected.
The two entered the pavilion. Inside, everything was furnished elegantly, a snow-white felt rug on the floor. On the walls were pale azure curtains. At the center of the pavilion was a beaded curtain that split the room in half. Behind the beaded curtain, one could faintly see a bed. A woman in snow-white clothes was reclined on the bed. Separated by the beaded curtain, her expression and appearance could not be seen.
Before the beaded curtain, Xiao Lan and Li Hanyou dropped to their knees. Speaking together, they stated, “Disciple bows before Master. We were incompetent. Would Master please punish us?”
“You two cannot be blamed, as you have done your best,” replied the woman, opening her mouth. The voice was as rich as pearls and jade, and yet possessed a hint of pure and frosty rawness.
Although one could not see clearly her facial expressions, once this woman opened her mouth, a faint awe-inspiring aura completely enveloped the entire room. Xiao Lan and Li Hanyou did not dare to be remiss. Exchanging a glance, Xiao Lan spoke up, “This is all because of the incompetence of disciples. Disciples already knew about the affair between His Imperial Highness and Concubine Chun, and tried to devise methods to force the Crown Prince to sever his dealings with that woman. However, His Imperial Highness became extremely enraged, refusing to comply. Because of this, he even became hostile towards us. Disciples could only search for another path and didn’t expect that a problem would arise at this moment.”
The woman heaved a deep sigh and inquired, “If His Imperial Highness would not comply, then why didn’t you have Ji Xia think of a method to murder Concubine Chun?” Although her tone was gentle and soft, it carried a biting solemnity within.
Frightened, Xiao Lan broke out into a cold sweat and could not utter a single word. Li Hanyou promptly answered, “Concubine Chun’s death was being planned. We absolutely did not expect that the Crown Prince would have a private engagement with Concubine Chun during the fasting period. Originally, we had planned to make our move after the sacrificial ceremony.”
“Fine. Since matters have reached this point, it is meaningless to assign blame,” replied the woman serenely before asking, “Does Hanyou understand the current situation?”
Advancing one step forward on her knees, Li Hanyou respectfully responded, “The Emperor executed everyone connected to this matter. Concubine Chun has already committed suicide by hanging herself. The Crown Prince has been placed under house arrest. The Emperor has not taken any other steps. In addition, the Emperor has already called Prime Minister Wei Guan, Palace Attendant Zheng Xia, Grand General Who Suppresses Distant Lands Qin Yi, and Duke Cheng Shu of Wei into the palace for discussion. It is likely that within the day, the Crown Prince’s punishment will be handed down. This disciple has already requested the Emperor’s son-in-law to ask his father to plead leniency on the Crown Prince’s behalf. However, according to Qin Qing, Qin Yi was noncommittal.”
The woman sighed. “This matter is not normal. Regardless of who pleads for leniency, the Emperor’s anger will not be quelled. The only thing that we can do is to temporarily preserve the Crown Prince’s position as heir apparent. Perhaps there may be leeway to redeem this situation. Otherwise, it will certainly and gratuitously allow the Prince of Yong to get his way. This seat2 has just now issued an order, mobilizing our entire strength to suppress all those who wish to undermine the Crown Prince’s position as heir apparent. As for the Prince of Yong, this seat will have to go personally.”
With misgivings, Li Hanyou replied, “Master, the Prince of Yong has coveted the Crown Prince’s position as heir apparent for many days now. Why would he be willing to forbear at this moment?”
“If this were normal times, he naturally would be unwilling,” remarked the woman indifferently. “However, this time, he will have no alternative but to obey. The Embroidered Union affair is his fatal weakness.”
Li Hanyou stared back at her master blankly, inquiring, “Master, how is the Prince of Yong connected to the Embroidered Union affair?”
The woman sternly reprimanded, “Hanyou, you are still too young. Let me ask you. If the Crown Prince colluded with the Embroidered Union to smuggle military equipment, do you really believe that the Prince of Yong won’t be able to find out? In Great Yong, more than half of its military strength rests in the hands of the Prince of Yong. If he was not deliberately allowing the smuggling to go on, how would the Crown Prince have succeeded?”
“But at the time, Jiang Zhe was seriously injured,” argued Li Hanyou. “Because of this, the Prince of Yong was deeply concerned. How would he have the energy to worry about these matters?”
The woman smiled. “Do you not understand the meaning of the words, ‘a small mind makes not a gentleman, a real man lacks not in venom’?3 If the Prince of Yong would truly forget about the world for a single Jiang Zhe, then he is unfit to be this seat’s opponent. What’s more, the Embroidered Union was originally a rebel group in Southern Chu. How would they have the ability to do business with the Southern Chu government? Although that Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets is a mystery, it wouldn’t be incorrect to identify it as a faction in Southern Chu. If not for the Prince of Yong, who else would be able to make an agreement between the Embroidered Union, originally suppressed by the Great Yong military, and a faction in Southern Chu? This seat believes that even if the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets is not subordinate to the Prince of Yong, then it still has strong links to the Prince of Yong. Although that Jiang Zhe’s position in Southern Chu was not high, that man’s use of strategies is completely unpredictable.4 I had you assassinate him at the time to take precautions in advance. Alas, it failed through lack of final effort.”
“If the Embroidered Union is acting under the instructions of the Prince of Yong,” asked Li Hanyou cautiously, “Then why did the master launch a manhunt for Huo Jicheng?”
“If this seat truly wished to pursue Huo Jicheng, it would be best to keep an eye on the Prince of Yong’s residence,” answered the woman, heaving a sigh. “Hanyou, you must know that there are many factions in jianghu unwilling to submit to the authority of my Fengyi Sect. However, as a leader of the orthodox sects, the Fengyi Sect cannot casually suppress those factions. Without this excuse, I will have to find another opportunity to eradicate all those ambitious and scheming factions. They wished for Huo Jicheng to incite trouble, undermining the Crown Prince’s reputation, while this seat used this opportunity to eradicate all dissidents. What’s more, what does the Crown Prince’s reputation have to do with us? The worse his reputation, the more he will have to rely upon our help. It is only that this Crown Prince has gone overboard, giving someone a hold on him.5 If we do not act, it is likely that his position as heir apparent will not be preserved.”
Li Hanyou’s eyes brightened. “Master, if we seize this opportunity to negotiate with the Prince of Yong, if he is willing to obey, we can allow him to ascend to the throne, so that we no longer need to support this milksop.”6
Angrily, the woman rebuked, “Muddleheaded! If the Prince of Yong were willing to be obedient, why would I select the Crown Prince to serve as our puppet?”
Frightened, Li Hanyou dropped her head to the ground, not daring to make a single sound. After a while, the woman spoke up again, her voice tranquil and calm. “All right. Lan’er, go back first to placate the Crown Princess and everyone in the Crown Prince’s household. Simply explain that this seat will preserve the Crown Prince’s position as heir apparent.”
Although she was filled with hesitation, Xiao Lan did not dare to question further, bowing down, stating, “This disciple obeys,” before quietly withdrawing.
After a short while had passed, the woman spoke again, “Fine … Hanyou, you speak with reason. For the Crown Prince to so lack in virtue, our support for him will be a matter of derision. We will speak of this after I have met with the Prince of Yong. However, you cannot go out and speak nonsense. This matter is of grave importance and cannot be spread.”
Only after hearing her master’s words did Li Hanyou relax. She replied, “This disciple is reckless and asks Master to forgive me.”
The woman sighed and asked, “Hanyou, do you know who the man that has been enticing the Crown Prince, Xia Jinyi, is?”
Startled, Li Hanyou replied, “This disciple only knows that he is an expelled disciple from the Kongtong Sect and a villainous wastrel. Why has Master inquired about him? Isn’t he already dead?”
After falling silent for some time, the woman said, “Although he is dead, there is one matter that you must know. His original name was Xia Quan.”
Li Hanyou muttered this name to herself several times, the look in her eyes transforming from puzzlement to dread. Her complexion becoming gray, she inquired, “Master, how is he still alive? Didn’t you promise this disciple that no troubles would be left behind?”
The woman austerely asked, “Are you reproaching this seat?”
Sobering up, Li Hanyou hurriedly bowed down and apologized, “This disciple does not dare. This disciple was momentarily anxious. Master, please forgive me.”
The woman let out a faint sigh and told the story. “Child, that day, the Princess Consort of Jingjiang asked me to search for the whereabouts of the beloved daughter that she had with the Prince of Jingjiang. The year that the Princess Consort gave birth, a traitorous army invaded the borders, causing the Princess Consort to lose contact with her daughter, breaking her heart. Unfortunately, after I had investigated, I discovered that the baby had died in the chaos of war long ago. Initially, I planned to leave this matter be. However, that day, Huiqiu passed through your home. Seeing your outstanding aptitude, I could not bear to have your abilities to be abandoned amongst the common folk, and thus brought you back to the Fengyi Sect. At the time, I had no intention of having you pretend to be the Princess of Jingjiang. Therefore, we only killed your parents-in-law to prevent them from proclaiming this matter everywhere. After all, you were already their daughter-in-law. Surprisingly, once I saw you, I discovered that you resembled the Princess Consort of Jingjiang. Only then, did I decide to substitute you for the dead princess. Originally, I only believed that this family background would be of benefit to you and sure enough, it has become extremely useful.
“However, at the time, when I dispatched subordinates to completely eliminate all your previous connections, something happened. After your husband returned to the Kongtong Sect, he reported this matter to his master and sect elders. Although he had no evidence that this deed was perpetrated by the Fengyi Sect, however, there was already suspicion. If your husband ended up being killed then, then it was likely that traces would be left behind. Therefore, although I agreed to your request, I could not do as you asked. At first, I intended to cause him to die an unnatural death after he left the Kongtong Sect. However, he was quickly expelled from the Kongtong Sect. From this, I believed that the Kongtong Sect did not have any intentions to become enemies with the Fengyi Sect because of this matter. As a result, I was even more unwilling to have him killed. Otherwise, although it didn’t matter if his lowly life was snuffed out, it would prove irrevocably that the Fengyi Sect killed innocents to silence them.
“Later, the people I had dispatched to monitor Xia Quan reported back that this man was unwilling to better himself and he did not pose any danger. Seeing that you were already a member of the imperial clan, how would he have the opportunity to meet you again? Therefore, I no longer paid any attention to him. Who could have thought that you would be reunited at the Crown Prince’s residence?”
Her mind elsewhere, Li Hanyou asked, “Master, tell me, did he recognize me?”
The woman smiled and answered, “Regardless of whether he recognized you or not, at present, he has already died at the hands of Leng Chuan and his corpse cremated. What do you have to fear? However, it is unclear if he revealed his discovery to anyone else. Do you know if he has been intimate with anyone?”
After thinking it over, Li Hanyou replied, “There are only two people who may know. One is the Crown Princess’s maid, Xiu Chun. The other is his senior apprentice brother, Zhang Jinxiong.”
The woman sneered. “Then I don’t need to spell out what needs to be done, right?”
Hesitating, Li Hanyou responded, “Zhang Jinxiong is still the disciple of the master of the Kongtong Sect. It is likely that he can’t be killed.”
“We’ll leave him alive for now,” agreed the woman after thinking it over. “This seat expects that the Kongtong Sect will not dare to make things difficult. We only need to monitor him closely. He cannot be permitted to spread this information. Your identity is already of utmost importance and absolutely cannot be leaked to anyone.”
Fuming with rage between gritted teeth, Li Hanyou ground out, “Do not worry, master. This matter concerns this disciple’s honor and disgrace. This disciple will not permit anyone to destroy my hard work.”
“All right, you can go,” dismissed the woman offhandedly. “Lu Jingzhong has arrived. Let me meet with this junior mentor.”
As she departed from Roosting Clouds Nunnery, Li Hanyou saw Lu Jingzhong walk in, led by Wen Ziyan. Gritting her teeth, Li Hanyou turned and mounted her horse, galloping back towards Chang’an. She had only one thought—she absolutely would not allow that man to destroy her work. Under the hazy rising moon, it was almost as if she had returned to her childhood. She obviously was naturally beautiful and surpassingly intelligent, and yet had not dared to reveal it. This was because she had frequently heard her father-in-law state that a talentless woman was a virtuous woman. If it weren’t for Xia Quan helping her cover things up, it was likely that she would never have had the opportunity to receive the few years of education. Because she was female, the school’s teacher did not teach her the classics and the histories. After teaching her how to read, the teacher left her on her own to read his collection of books. This was only because of her cleverness and charisma, causing him to be fond of her. But the more she read, the more she yearned for the outside world. When she read the verses about famous scenic locations, she wished that she could leave to see touching landscapes different from the remote village. When she read the verses describing glory, splendor, wealth, and rank, she wanted to have a taste of that life. The more she read, the more she hated her present situation. However, she knew that as a mere woman, it was impossible for her to leave the place. Powerless to defend herself, she would only become a servant or a prostitute. Therefore, with her heart completely filled with grievances, she had married Xia Quan, that tolerant and obedient, yet unarousing, youth.
But suddenly, her opportunity came. Those women armed with swords, each and every one of them glowing with health and vigor, appeared in her village. They had a very different life. Therefore, Li Hanyou had approached them at all costs. Although she did not know what the result would be, she was unwilling to give up on this only opportunity. Very quickly, those women took note of her. With surprise, one of them exclaimed, “Such a talent! How can it be allowed to waste away in this remote location?” Afterwards, they were determined to bring her away by force. However, her parents-in-law were naturally unwilling. Those women did not think twice. Leaving behind some money, they took her away. On the road, when Li Hanyou heard them say, “Future troubles have already been eliminated,” she understood what they meant. However, she was not the least bit sympathetic. Any and all who obstructed her happiness deserved to die. Subsequently, her life was like a dream. She became the last disciple of the Fengyi Sect master and the daughter of the Prince of Jingjiang. She had seized every moment to enrich herself. She absolutely would not allow herself to lose this kind of life. At long last, she became a beautiful phoenix. This was the recompense that she deserved and she absolutely could not permit anyone to wreck it.
Li Hanyou did not take the main entrance. Instead, she fully employed her qinggong and jumped into the inner residence. The Crown Princess, Lady Cui, was in the prayer room, chanting sutras and praying, while her maid was, as expected, waiting outside. Seeing that there was no one present, Li Hanyou advanced and lightly sealed Xiu Chun’s acupoints before bringing her into a remote location in the garden. Releasing her acupoints, Li Hanyou asked cold-heartedly, “Did Xia Jinyi mention anything concerning Us and him?”
Her face devoid of color, Xiu Chun cried out, “This servant does not understand what Princess is saying.”
Li Hanyou heartlessly pressed, “Did he ever bring me up?”
As she shook her head, a look of suspicion flashed across Xiu Chun’s eyes. Feeling somewhat calmed, Li Hanyou stroked the handle of her sword and stated, “Xia Jinyi is already dead. Since he was your paramour, then you should sacrifice yourself for love and die with him.”
Panic appeared on Xiu Chun’s face, as she repeatedly kowtowed and begged, “Princess, spare my life … Princess, spare my life.”
Li Hanyou callously declared, “What? You don’t want to die with him? It seems like you’re a fickle woman.”
Weeping, Xiu Chun sobbed, “Princess, spare my life … This servant is pregnant and does not dare to take my life. If Princess is determined for this servant to die, then would Princess please allow this servant to give birth before dying. Jinyi only has this flesh and blood. For generations, his family has only had one male child. Princess, please allow Xiu Chun to remain alive for a few days. If by chance, I can give birth to a boy, even if Xiu Chun were to die, I could die in peace.”
Li Hanyou’s hand quivered, as she suddenly remembered the gentle words spoken to her by her mother-in-law on the day of her wedding to Xia Quan, “Child, the Xia family has had only one descendant for generations. Now, everything rests upon you.” Li Hanyou softened. Just as she was about to stay her hand, she suddenly also remembered all of the difficulties that she had experienced to attain her present glory. In order to study etiquette, she had practiced day and night, until she reached the point where her bearing never changed no matter the circumstance. In addition, she had trained martial arts and for ten years she had studied the classics and histories to become the current Princess of Jingjiang. Although this woman did not know anything, after today’s interrogation, Li Hanyou knew that she had revealed some suspicious evidence. Thinking of this, Li Hanyou steeled her heart and ruthlessly sealed Xiu Chun’s death acupoint. Xiu Chun was weeping and begging, and was completely unprepared. She died, soundlessly. The distress and terror on her face still clearly visible.
Stepping forward, Li Hanyou picked Xiu Chun up. She had learned the location of this woman’s quarters long ago, learned while she was monitoring the crown princess. Li Hanyou brought Xiu Chun back to her room, disguising her death as suicide by hanging. However, Li Hanyou did not dare to look at this woman’s ashen face, quickly turning and departing. In her mind, Li Hanyou considered Zhang Jinxiong, another one who could possibly know of her real identity. She absolutely could not allow him to tell anyone else this information. Although she couldn’t kill him now, she also could not allow him to communicate this information to anyone. Oh, that’s right! After accusing Xia Jinyi for enticing the crown prince, as Xia Jinyi’s senior apprentice brother, Zhang Jinxiong would also be suspicious. Thus, it would be simple to have him confined to the residence. Thinking of this, a pleased look appeared on Li Hanyou’s face.