After he had sat down, with an even more unhurried and calm expression, Lu Jingzhong smiled and spoke, “Sect Master probably knows that the Devil Sect’s inheritance is divided into three branches.”
“That’s right,” replied the woman behind the beaded curtain, “From what this seat knows, the Devil Sect is divided into three branches: Scorching Sun, Freezing Moon, and Concealed Star. The current Sovereign of the Devil Sect comes from the Scorching Sun branch, while Lu daren is an elder of the Freezing Moon branch. The disciples of the Scorching Sun branch possess superlative martial arts, while the disciples of the Freezing Moon branch are adept at scheming and planning. It is only the inheritance of the Concealed Star branch that has disappeared.”
Lu Jingzhong properly confirmed, “Sect Master’s information is indeed comprehensive. Our Devil Sect has passed down four phrases since ancient times, ‘the universe in disorder, the Scorching Sun appears, the Freezing Moon supports, the Concealed Star protects.’ Does Sect Master know the meaning of these words?”
That woman had sat up long ago. Hearing these words, she rose to her feet and paced back and forth behind the beaded curtain. Tranquilly, she answered, “Presumably they mean that if the world falls into chaos, then the disciples of the Scorching Sun branch will have to appear to revolt, while you disciples of the Freezing Moon branch will serve as strategists for the Scorching Sun branch. However, as for ‘the Concealed Star protects,’ what does that mean? Does it mean the Concealed Star branch will protect the Scorching Sun branch? No, that’s not right. The Scorching Sun branch’s martial arts are outstanding; why would they need anyone else’s protection? Does it mean that the Dim Star remains in seclusion and does not come out? No, that’s not right either. I have only heard the name of the Concealed Star branch and never seen any of their members. This seat has become confused. Would Sir Lu please explain the truth to me?”
With admiration, Lu Jingzhong explained, “Sect Master’s guess is very close to the truth, however there are still some differences from the truth. The objective of my Devil Sect is to act on behalf of the common people of the world. If the Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating all things as straw dogs; if the sages are heartless, treating the common people as straw dogs.1, 2 My Devil Sect’s purpose for existing is to challenge authority. Therefore, whenever a dynasty becomes undermined by corruption, my Devil Sect will inevitably appear to make this chaotic world even more chaotic, cleansing all of those influential officials and aristocrats. The Scorching Sun branch is naturally the spearhead and the generals, while the disciples of my Freezing Moon branch serve as their strategists. Frequently, we would support different monarchs to ensure that they slaughter one another. The survivor will be covered in wounds, allowing the common people to recover. This was our Ancestral Master’s instructions. As for the Concealed Star branch, they are the most secretive of the branches. Their affairs are unknown to the two other branches. Therefore, I cannot explain their function to the Sect Master.
“However, something unexpected has occurred with the present situation. Originally, when the disciple of the Scorching Sun branch, Jing Wuji, became the Sovereign of the Devil Sect, he wholeheartedly supported Yang Laosheng and suffered a crushing defeat. At the same time, our Freezing Moon branch did things our own way. As a result, our strength is still present. Now that Jing Wuji is in far off Northern Han, he desires to continue to make things difficult for Great Yong, in order to consume Great Yong’s strength. However, there is no one free from selfish thoughts. The members of the Freezing Moon branch who remained in Great Yong hate to part with the power, riches, and honor from our positions, and are unwilling to see the Scorching Sun branch suppress us from above. We are willing to enjoy the riches and honor together with the Sect Master, assisting the Crown Prince to ascend to the throne. When the time comes, wouldn’t that fulfill the desires of both sides?”
After considering this offer, the woman replied, “What you say makes sense. With your existence, although the Crown Prince will be afraid of us, he will be willing to allow us to do as we please. Although our two sides seem to be opposed, there are benefits. Fine, I will not expose your identities. Today’s matter will be considered to never have happened.”
Grimly, Lu Jingzhong asked, “Presumably at present, the Sect Master is of mind to abandon the Crown Prince?”
The woman was silent for some time before she tranquilly responded, “This seat is unwilling to conceal this matter from you. The Crown Prince running amok, if we are to continue to support him, it is likely that his conduct will harm our reputation. Your Devil Sect can do as you please, but we cannot.”
“It is a common saying that gilding the lily3 cannot be compared to providing help in the hour of need,”4 quipped Lu Jingzhong with a smile. “To speak something inappropriate, the Prince of Yong does not need you or your help.”
The woman sighed. “I must try. Whatever the case, the Prince of Yong has the disposition to become a virtuous sovereign. If he is willing to treat my sect with courtesy, then this seat will be willing to abandon the Crown Prince.”
Lu Jingzhong smiled faintly., “In comparison, we are determined to continue our support of the Crown Prince. If the Sect Master also firmly resolves to support the Crown Prince, this lowly one has a method to preserve the Crown Prince’s position.”
With a sneer, the woman inquired, “What is it? To vilify those who are secretly harming the Crown Prince?”
Lu Jingzhong did not blush, responding, “That is indeed the case. I had already placed people amongst the Imperial Palace Guard that the Emperor dispatched to investigate this matter. They will say that someone had laced the ginseng tea drunk by the Crown Prince with an aphrodisiac. As a result, the Crown Prince’s consciousness became muddled, while Concubine Chun, worried about her future desolate state, would constantly seduce the Crown Prince, bribing the Imperial Palace Guard by the Crown Prince’s side to deliver the love letter embroidered on the handkerchief. Therefore, after the Crown Prince’s consciousness became muddled, he went to the Cherishing Fragrance Palace Hall. With this, the Emperor will investigate who laced the Crown Prince’s tea with an aphrodisiac and would not blame and punish the Crown Prince.”
The woman laughed grimly. “You intend to push the blame onto the Prince of Yong? It won’t be that easy.”
“Regardless of who the Emperor suspects,” replied Lu Jingzhong with his own bleak laugh, “At the very least, he will temporarily not depose the Crown Prince. As time passes, everyone will naturally forget this matter. What’s more, the Emperor is already old and won’t last long. It will be enough as long as we drag this matter out.”
After falling silent for a moment, the woman said, “When this seat has made up my mind, you will be informed. For now, do your utmost.”
Lu Jingzhong rose to his feet and bade his farewell, “There is no need for Sect Master to overthink this matter. The Prince of Yong possesses great skill and strategy, how would he permit someone to impede5 him? Sect Master takes pity on the common people of the world and wishes to borrow the hand of a new monarch to govern the country. However, in their view, you are seeking to wrest away control of the Li family’s country.”
The Fengyi Sect master smiled slightly and did not utter a single word. After Lu Jingzhong had departed, Wen Ziyan advanced and asked, “Master, do you really trust them? All of the people of the Devil Sect are treacherous and devious.”
The woman callously stated, “Although they are treacherous and devious, they have their uses. What isn’t good about allowing them to bear the bad reputation? Once we have succeeded, we’ll only have to say that they were the ones instigating the Crown Prince, massacring all of them. This way, everything will be perfectly legitimate. When the time comes, who will be able to vie with us over the world? These junior apprentice sisters of yours are all arrogant, willful, and headstrong. They are unable to do anything right.6 This time, this seat will personally oversee this situation. I want to see who is capable of flipping the Heavens.”
Wen Ziyan replied in a sincere and heartfelt tone, “With Sect Master’s amazing prestige, the situation will inevitably be met with success.”
The woman serenely observed, “We cannot be careless. With the Prince of Yong, we have slipped up several times. This time, we cannot fail. After I meet with him, if he is unwilling to adapt to the circumstances, then don’t blame this seat for being ruthless. Ziyan, this seat does not care about power and authority, but I am truly not at ease leaving this world to anyone, regardless of their surname or dynasty, since ‘a country falls as abruptly and rapidly as it rises.’7 I only desire that the Fengyi Sect can secretly control the government from generation to generation, allowing the common people to be at peace and no longer have to experience the hardships of war and chaos. You are my beloved disciple. Unfortunately, you lack resourcefulness, otherwise I would inevitably pass on my position as Sect Master to you and have you inherit my grand ambitions.”
Wen Ziyan solemnly replied, “Master, regardless of who you pass the sect to, this disciple will comply with Master’s commands, monitor their conduct. If any of them dare to violate Master’s instructions, this disciple will definitely take their life.”
Pleased, the Fengyi Sect master nodded her head. “I have yet to make my decision, but regardless of whom I choose, your position will be detached as the Investigating Commissioner. The martial forces that our sect has painstakingly cultivated over these years will be handed to you. You must perform your duties well. Accomplishing this great ambition is only the first step.”
Wen Ziyan cheerfully acknowledged, “This disciple solemnly obeys your instructions.” ***
When Xia Jinyi woke up from the coma, he was truly filled with gratitude. He really survived. Jiang Zhe did not kill him to silence him. He had truly escaped from mortal danger. Moaning, he sat up, glancing at the bowl of clear water and towel on the chair beside the bed. Jumping out of bed, he was surprised to discover that his body had no problems. Could it be that the medicine was that efficacious? He rapidly washed his face, changing into the garment prepared and left beside the bed. Afterwards, he glanced at the door, unable to decide if he was to go out by himself. Because of what had happened, his present status was quite awkward. He could no longer serve as an undercover agent. Moreover, he was already “dead.” The most convenient way to handle him was to kill him. But since they had expended great effort to save him, they probably would not silence him. Just as he was allowing his imagination run wild, Chiji, who he had met twice before, entered the room.
Seeing that Xia Jinyi was sitting there with a blank expression on his face, a look of surprise flashed across Chiji’s face as he spoke, “Brother Xia truly has a good foundation. Receiving such a serious injury and even poisoning, yet you are surprisingly still able to be so vigorous and lively.”8
Reacting, Xia Jinyi uttered, “What? This isn’t because of daren’s medicine?”
Glancing at him, Chiji replied, “The young master didn’t say anything about this. The young master stated that with the currently unsteady situation, it is best if Brother Xia stays here for a period of time. The young master will meet with you once the situation has been stabilized.”
Xia Jinyi calmly stated, “I will completely listen to the young master’s instructions. Can I move freely about?”
“Within this courtyard, young master can walk around as you please,” returned Chiji. “However, you cannot leave this courtyard. Once the situation has stabilized, young master can decide for yourself your future movements. I do not know if you have any hobbies, but Chiji will prepare everything for you so that you will not stay here with nothing to do.”
“I can’t ask for more than this kind of carefree life,” declared Xia Jinyi with a smile. “If there are no obstructions, please help me collect some musical scores and a flute.”
“It is all prepared in this courtyard,” Chiji replied. “The study next door has all kinds of books that you can read. This manor is remote and located on the outskirts. No one will disturb you. As long as young master does not go out, you will not have to worried about your safety.”
“I am already a dead man,” responded Xia Jinyi peacefully, “Who would be mindful of me? Would little brother please inform daren that I, Xia Jinyi, is willing to bend my head and obey his commands, and will absolutely not be disloyal.”
With a solemn look on his face, Chiji replied, “The young master also has words for you. He will not treat young master Xia unfairly.”
Xia Jinyi smiled slightly. Having experienced great changes in his life, he had already seen through everything. As long as his cherished desire came to fruition, he would have no regrets if he died, let alone worry about recompense.
At this very moment, a storm had suddenly arrived at the Prince of Yong’s residence. For something to happen suddenly to the crown prince, the Prince of Yong would naturally gather all of his subordinates to discuss the situation. This matter was of grave importance. The conference was held in the reception pavilion. Guan Xiu, Dong Zhi, and Gou Lian, the three top advisers of the Prince of Yong were all present. Sima Xiong had gone to command the personal guard. Jing Chi and Zhangsun Ji were both seated. All of the other retainers and the Prince of Yong’s trusted generals all stood on the left and right. Even Jiang Zhe, who normally did not participate in these conferences, had made an exception and was present, leisurely sitting in a seat just below the Prince of Yong, drinking tea.
Everyone was jubilant. Over these years, under the suppression of the crown prince, the Prince of Yong had always endured matters silently. Although everyone knew that they had no alternatives, it inevitably caused everyone to become gloomy and depressed. Now that the crown prince was under house arrest, if they could add fuel to the fire and have him deposed, then wouldn’t their objective be successful? Therefore, everyone was discussing how to worsen the situation.9 I sat on the side, smiling, listening to the discussion, not expressing my opinions. Several times, Li Zhi had used his eyes to hint at me, but I pretended to not notice. If I did not allow them vent their feelings, then wouldn’t I be inviting trouble for myself?
Although Li Zhi believed this was an opportunity, he could also feel that something was not right, sensing that if he were to continue like this, then problems would arise. Therefore, he wished for Jiang Zhe to speak his views of the situation. After everyone had debated for some time, the discussion entirely revolved around how to impeach the crown prince for misconduct. As the discussion was getting lively, suddenly a loud shout came from outside: “Who is it‽”
Everyone was startled. How could there be someone barging in here? Zhangsun Ji and Jing Chi exchanged glances. Jing Chi rose and walked to the entrance of the pavilion. Opening the door, he went out and caught sight of a plain-clothed woman carrying a sword, standing nearby with a tranquil and calm expression on her face. It was almost as if she was leisurely waiting on her own territory. Although she had been surrounded by the imperial bodyguards, there was not a trace of fear on her face. Seeing this woman, Jing Chi was greatly startled. Advancing, he saluted and inquired, “So it is Fairy Wen who has arrived. Why has Fairy Wen barged into the Prince of Yong’s residence?”
The woman cast a callous glance at Jing Chi and replied, “The Sect Master is chatting with the Princess of Yong in the rear. If His Imperial Highness is interested, the Sect Master invites His Imperial Highness to meet in person in the inner courtyard.”
Jing Chi was at a loss for words, turning his head to look back. By this time, everyone in the hall had heard his conversation with Wen Ziyan. They all exchanged looks of dismay. With a solemn expression on his face, Li Zhi walked out of the hall and proclaimed, “This Prince will go immediately to pay my respects to the Sect Master.”
Shooting a glance at Jiang Zhe, a hint of hesitation flashed across his eyes. I placidly suggested, “Please allow this subject to accompany you, Your Imperial Highness. An opportunity to meet the Fengyi Sect Master is truly quite fortunate.”
At this moment, Xiaoshunzi had already appeared nearby, eyeing Wen Ziyan like a tiger stalked its prey. Without showing any weakness, Wen Ziyan gazed back at him. The two stared unblinking, disdain radiating out.
Saluting the Prince of Yong, I stated, “Your Imperial Highness, please allow Xiaoshunzi to attend to us. In addition, Jing Chi, quickly proceed to the Cold Courtyard and invite Great Master True Compassion to go and meet the Sect Master.”
An indescribable chill flashed across Wen Ziyan’s eyes. She knew that Great Master True Compassion had arrived in Chang’an, but did not know that the Buddhist monk was staying in the Prince of Yong’s residence. This wasn’t surprising, as how could Great Master True Compassion’s movements be tracked by ordinary people? ***
Within the pavilion frequented by the womenfolk of the Prince of Yong’s household, a woman with her face covered by a light muslin and snow-white clothes stood with her hands behind her back. Gazing out, there was a small lake with shimmering waters everywhere. The Princess of Yong, Lady Gao, had led the Prince of Yong’s two concubines, and stood respectfully at attention off to the side. Not far away, under the tree, the Prince of Yong’s two daughters and Jiang Roulan were frolicking about. The princess had originally intended to send the children away, but had been prevented from doing so by that woman, and as a result, did not dare disobey. The princess knew full well this woman’s background. Even if her husband, the Prince of Yong, were to come, he would have to use the etiquette of a younger generation to pay his respects to this woman.
After all, the Prince of Yong’s two daughters were members of the imperial clan and could feel that something was off. As a result, they could not help but restrain themselves. In comparison, Roulan was usually pampered and had no restrictions, happily running back and forth chasing after the ball used for cuju.10 Originally, cuju was a competition to see who could keep the ball in the air most beautifully. However, due to Roulan’s young age, as a result, there was no way for her to keep the ball in the air, and could only kick it back and forth.
The woman in snow white watched all this with amusement. With a smile, she inquired, “Whose daughter is this girl?”
Seeing the woman’s gaze fall upon her, Lady Gao bowed and replied, “Reporting to the Sect Master, this child is the adopted daughter of Major Jiang of the household. The Prince instructed your servant to help take care of her.”
A look flickered across the eyes of the woman in snow white, as she said, “What a clever, alert, and elegant little girl. Truly rare and precious.”
The Princess of Yong smiled., “Sect Master speaks the truth. All of the honored mistresses in the palace are fond of this child. Although she is young, she is innocent and thoughtful, able to resolve others’ worries. However, she is a bit mischievous, frequently forcing her daddy to serve as a horse.” Speaking of this, she could not help but smile without end.
The woman in snow white also could not help curving her lips. Her long eyebrows reaching her temples originally carried a faint murderous intent. However, with this smile, traces of gentleness could be seen on her face. A hint of gentleness could also be seen from her pair of eyes that could see through worldly affairs, like a pair of resplendent stars.
Then she looked off into the distance, catching sight of the Prince of Yong walking over. Behind him was a man in azure robes, walking evenly. If it were not for Li Zhi’s deliberately slowing down his pace, it was likely that the man would have been unable to keep up. Although this was the case, sweat could be seen on that man’s forehead. Behind him was an azure-clothed youth walking meanderingly. Although they were still quite distant, due to the woman in snow white’s cultivation she could see everything clearly. Although only a few years had passed, Prince Li Zhi of Yong’s expression had acquired more calmness, losing a bit of aggressiveness and domineering. However, his auras of heroic air and spirit were not reduced in the slightest. As for the azure-robed man, his features were delicate and refined. However, his graceful and calm bearing could not be hidden and eclipsed even if he were in the middle of thousands or tens of thousands of people. Lastly, the azure-clothed youth, although wearing the clothing of a servant, had icy eyes and his each and every movement carried with them a faint magnificent bearing that was quite unusual.
The woman in snow white sighed softly. Were it not for the Prince of Yong’s skill and strategy, he would truly be an excellent candidate. If the Prince of Yong was willing to make concessions, there was really no harm for her to change her mind.
It wasn’t long before the Prince of Yong arrived before the woman in snow white. Saluting, he stated, “Zhi pays my respect to the Sect Master. We have not seen each other for many years. Is Sect Master well?”
The woman in snow white clasped a hand over a fist and replied, “Is Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, well? By coincidence, this seat has come to the capital. Recalling the help that this seat rendered on the battlefield during the olden days, I have come specifically to visit.”
“Zhi cannot thank the Sect Master enough for your great kindness,” acknowledged the Prince of Yong respectfully. “Has Sect Master met with Imperial Father? These years, Imperial Father has frequently had the Sect Master on his mind, always speaking that without the Sect Master’s help, then there would not be Great Yong’s present circumstances.”
The woman in snow white smiled slightly. Glancing at Jiang Zhe, she inquired, “This must be Major Jiang, I presume? This seat has long heard of your name. Meeting you today, this seat can see that your bearing is indeed out of ordinary.”
Stepping forward, I greeted her. “This youngster pays my respects to the Sect Master. To be able to meet the Sect Master today is truly a blessing of three lifetimes.” As I spoke, I took the measure of the sect master of the Fengyi Sect. Although her appearance was concealed by light muslin, the disdain with which she gazed upon the world out of the corner of her eyes could not be concealed. Her shining and starlike, lustrous eyes were as tranquil as the cold river in autumn, completely devoid of any emotion. And yet, they carried with them a faint hint of mercy.
Gazing at Xiaoshunzi, the Fengyi Sect Master stated, “This must be the Demonic Shadow, Li Shun. I have heard that your martial arts aren’t bad.”
Xiaoshunzi drily remarked, “This one is only a servant and does not deserve the Sect Master’s praise.”
In a meaningful tone, the Fengyi Sect Master replied, “It is likely that there aren’t many people in this world who would employ a servant like you.”
Finished speaking, the Fengyi Sect Master smiled slightly before continuing, “Prince of Yong, Major Jiang, this seat is extremely fond of that little girl. If you do not object, please allow her to become my disciple.” As she spoke, she pointed towards Roulan.
The Prince of Yong and I were both immediately left speechless.