Prince Li Zhi of Yong’s thoughts surged. How could he not understand the motivations behind the Fengyi Sect Master’s expression of goodwill to him? This was also the last time she would lay all her cards on the table towards him. Although he understood what it meant to obtain the support of the Fengyi Sect Master, the heir apparent would be in the bag, however as he thought about this, he could not resign himself to become a puppet. If he were to compromise right now, then he would allow the Fengyi Sect’s people to permeate his forces. When the time came, it would be extremely difficult to make the necessary reforms. Furthermore, if the Fengyi Sect Master was proposing to take his daughter as disciple, he could naturally decline, but the Fengyi Sect Master wished to take Roulan as disciple. Although the Fengyi Sect Master was their most important enemy, it was impossible to deny that Fan Huiyao was one of the three grandmasters of the current age. Moreover, it was likely that she was the most capable of the three. For this kind of person to wish to take Roulan as disciple was Roulan’s honor and privilege. If he were to categorically decline, what would Jiang Zhe think? Thinking of this, he raised his gaze and looked at Jiang Zhe.
My own thoughts were in a complete mess. Allow Roulan to take her as master? Hell no. Roulan’s birth parents and I all wished for her to lead a happy life. I only wished that she would have no wants in her life, to marry an ideal husband and for them to spend the rest of their lives until death do them part. I had no intention of allowing Roulan to marry into a rich and powerful family to avoid the possibility of her husband having three to four concubines, and to prevent the dissolute descendant of aristocratic families to delay her. How would I allow her to learn the sword? In the future, it would be enough for me to have Xiaoshunzi teach Roulan some simple martial arts to protect herself. Of course, if she were truly interested in learning martial arts, I wouldn’t stop her. I would absolutely not allow her to become a disciple of a female tyrant. However, the Fengyi Sect Master was clearly here to sue for peace with His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong. If I were to resolutely decline, would the Prince of Yong become discontented?
Exchanging glances, I could see that both of us were filled with anxiety, and for once, had not reached a consensus. I smiled wryly on the inside. The Fengyi Sect Master’s actions were truly not ordinary. A short, simple sentence and she had left us unable decide to go on or retreat, and discord to be sown between liege and vassal.
At this moment, I suddenly heard Xiaoshunzi’s voice in my ear, “Must not …” He was cut off before he finished speaking. Raising my head, I glanced over. The Fengyi Sect Master’s eyes contained a faint look of derision, while from the corner of my eyes, I could see that Xiaoshunzi’s brow was beaded with sweat, his expression filled with shame and rage. I immediately knew that the Fengyi Sect Master had cut off Xiaoshunzi’s voice transmission. I was aware that Xiaoshunzi’s ability to see through other’s from his body language and his pragmatic thought process was greater than mine.
Thus enlightened, I had already understood the awkwardness and difficulty that the Prince of Yong faced and so raising my voice, I stated, “Sect Master’s profound affection should, by rights, be thanked by Zhe on behalf of my daughter. However, my daughter has suffered loneliness and hardship since childhood. We, father and daughter, rely upon one another for survival.1 I really cannot bear to part with her. What’s more, my daughter’s temperament is naughty and mischievous, and she cannot bear to study the sword. Zhe only wishes that she spends the entirety of her life safe and sound, and is unwilling to allow her to excel.”
Sure enough, as soon as I finished speaking, I could hear the Prince of Yong let out a breath.
A faintly sinister look flashed across the Fengyi Sect Master’s eyes, as she declared, “This seat has seen that Major Jiang’s verses have a unique and distinctive style. Who would have thought that your conduct s also so pedantic and unwilling to see women excel, right?”
I respectfully and cautiously replied, “Sect Master misunderstands. Zhe does not have these thoughts. It is only that increasing one’s stature and position in life, the mental and physical efforts that one must spend is inevitably a hundredfold that of a common person. Zhe only wishes for my children to have mediocre aptitude, not seeking to become prestigious and illustrious feudal vassals; only seeking happiness for my children, not seeking matchless meritorious service; only seeking that they be both farmer and scholar for generations. In times of need, I only ask that they spare no effort to help. In times of peace, I hope that they will be docile subjects of the country.”
A look of ridicule flashed in the eyes of the Fengyi Sect Master, as she retorted, “If everyone is like this, then who will support the ruler in governing the country? Major Jiang is too attentive to your own moral standing without sparing a thought for others.”
“It is said that ‘a hero is nothing but a product of his time,’” I countered with a slight smile. “There are countless wildly ambitions individuals in the world. However, without the ordinary, common people, who will be able to control the universe? If everyone wishes to become heroes, then wouldn’t the entire world be in chaos? Although I am unfortunate to live in these troubled times and deeply bound by ropes, I absolutely refuse to permit my children to also shed their blood, sweat, and tears.”
Falling silent for some time, the Fengyi Sect Master replied, “There is no way for those who walk different paths to make plans together.2 Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, what are your intentions?”
By this point, everyone understood the meaning and intentions behind her words. With a peaceful smile, the Prince of Yong replied, “This lowly prince also feels that Roulan is ill-suited to learn martial arts. If Sect Master is able to see His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, please extend this lowly prince’s regards, stating that this lowly prince will be sure to submit a memorial to protect him. Please also invite His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, to keep calm and take good care of himself.”
The Fengyi Sect Master faintly heaved a deep sigh. All of us were greatly troubled, identifying the mercy and regret in her sigh. However, neither Li Zhi nor I were moved. Seeing the situation, the Fengyi Sect Master drily stated, “Your Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince is your eldest brother. Now that he has been imprisoned, I do not know if Your Imperial Highness intends to hit a person when he’s down or bide your time.”
Hearing her ask this question, the Prince of Yong could not help but laugh bitterly in his head. Although his relationship with the crown prince had reached the point where one of them had to die, how could he reveal this in front of everyone? Once spoken, the words would be spread on the breeze. Whatever the case, the crown prince was his liege, was his eldest brother. In private, he could naturally consider the crown prince to be his mortal enemy. However, in front of so many people, if he were to reveal their enmity, it was likely that the words would swiftly reach Imperial Father’s ears. Even if his own household had no one who would bite the hand that feeds them,3 there was no way that the Fengyi Sect Master would keep this secret. However, if he were to say that he would bide his time, then no matter what, he would be unable to launch written attacks with great fanfare against the crown prince.
While he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, the Fengyi Sect Master smiled slightly and continued, “Because of the cases involving the Ministry of Revenue and the Embroidered Union, the Crown Prince has lost the affection of His Imperial Majesty. What does Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, have to say about these matters? Presumably Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, is clear about what really happened.”
Li Zhi’s brows rose. Although he hadn’t been fully briefed about those two incidents, he was clear as to the identity of their prime mover. He had no wish for these affairs to continue to remain secret. However, if the Fengyi Sect Master was speaking without any evidence, then he could not be blamed for being impolite. And so, he casually remarked, “Who in the world does not know about that these two affairs? It is only because they are hindered by abuse of authority and so no one dares to lay matters bare.”
The Fengyi Sect Master laughed callously, a hint of ridicule in her laughter. Deliberately, she stated, “This seat does not have any that can be revealed if we speak of evidence. However, Your Imperial Highness must understand that if this matter were to be leaked, it is likely that the evidence would appear.”
Li Zhi frowned. He naturally knew that if Li Yuan became suspicious and were to investigate thoroughly, although no practical evidence could be found, some circumstantial evidence could possibly be found. If this were to happen then it would be greatly detrimental to him. But he was unwilling to bend his head like this. The rage in his heart grew increasingly fierce. Like a sharp sword, he honed his focus on the Fengyi Sect Master.
At this moment, having planned in advance, I spoke up, “Do not worry, Sect Master. The Imperial Highness is only unwilling to show off his accomplishments. In reality, His Imperial Highness is already prepared to submit a memorial to protect the Crown Prince. The years of brotherly feelings, the years of relationship as liege and vassal, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, is an honest individual. Meticulously adhering to his duty, he will not casually take up arms.”
Hearing Jiang Zhe’s words akin to an iron fist in a velvet glove,4 the Fengyi Sect Master paid it no mind. With a smile, she stated, “If that is the case, then this seat will thank Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, on behalf of the Crown Prince. It is getting late. This seat must still visit a couple of old friends and thus will take my leave. If there is the opportunity, we will naturally meet again.”
Finished speaking, she looked off into the distance towards a location where a Buddhist monk had appeared without warning. Using her gaze to send her regards, she did not see the monk make any movements. In the blink of an eye, she disappeared, her figure like smoke. Only at this moment did we all truly relax.
With a wry smile, Li Zhi said, “This Prince suddenly feels my pressure has redoubled. For the Fengyi Sect Master to come personally, it seems like it is truly hopeless this time.”
“Do not worry, Your Imperial Highness. There is no need for us to achieve our objective this time,” I replied calmly before turning to gaze upon Xiaoshunzi. Deeply concerned, I asked, “Are you okay?”
A look of shame and rage in his eyes, Xiaoshunzi wondered, “Am I not her match?”
Hearing this, I laughed and replied, “What nonsense are you speaking? How old are you to compare yourself with a grandmaster-level expert? What’s more, Great Master True Compassion has stated that your future is boundless. Why are feeling sad that you slipped up this time?”
Xiaoshunzi’s complexion eased up greatly, though he was still silent and not speaking. I only stopped worrying after seeing that he had returned to normal. By this point, Great Master True Compassion had already disappeared. An extraordinary person was truly eccentric. With a smile on his face, Li Zhi glanced at me and stated, “All right, Suiyun, stop keeping things concealed. Speak your intentions.”
Just as I was about to reply, Eunuch Supervisor Chang En hurriedly rushed over and reported, “Your Imperial Highness, an edict has been issued from the palace.”
With this, we no longer had any mind to continue speaking, first escorting the Prince of Yong to the vestibule. A red-clothed emissary, holding a yellow damask Imperial edict, declared in a loud voice, “We command the Prince of Yong, Li Zhi, to substitute for the Crown Prince to make sacrifices at the secondary altar in Chang’an. By the command of the Emperor!”
The Prince of Yong was filled with ecstasy, but did not show his feelings or intentions, advancing to accept the Imperial edict. After he had voiced his thanks to the emperor, Li Zhi asked, “May I ask Imperial Envoy if this Prince can enter the palace to thank the Emperor for his favor?”
Sharply, the eunuch replied, “The Emperor has already begun his journey to the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in advance, and commands Your Imperial Highness to discuss the sacrificial ceremony with Prime Minister Wei and Palace Attendant Zheng. But from what I know, although the timing is a bit urgent, the fasting cannot be avoided. His Imperial Majesty has already issued an edict to have Your Imperial Highness to immediately go to the Fasting Palace. This servant believes that Palace Attendant Zheng should arrive soon.”
Before the eunuch had finished speaking, a servant came to report, “Your Imperial Highness, Palace Attendant Zheng has come under the command of an Imperial edict to invite Your Imperial Highness to enter the Fasting Palace.”
In a heavy voice, Li Zhi spoke, “Invite Palace Attendant Zheng to wait for a moment. This Prince will go with him and enter the palace after I have changed.” After seeing off the eunuch, Li Zhi turned to me and asked, his voice containing a bit of anxiety, “Suiyun, could this be a trap?”
Light dancing in my eyes, I replied, “Your Imperial Highness, although reasonably speaking, there shouldn’t be any problems, but this subject and others cannot but worry if Your Imperial Highness were to enter the palace by yourself. Xiaoshunzi’s martial arts are pretty good. Let him accompany Your Imperial Highness into the palace. Presumably, Palace Attendant Zheng won’t say anything.”
Xiaoshunzi’s complexion changed and he blurted out, “Young master, your safety …”
I completely snapped closed the folding fan in my hands and stoically replied, “Your Imperial Highness, please issue the order. Until Your Imperial Highness returns, Zhe will manage all of the matters of this household.”
Li Zhi immediately said, “The gold pendant is in your hands. Even if this Prince were present, who would dare to disobey your commands? You have the authority to punish anyone. Xiaoshunzi, this time, this Prince will have to rely on your support. Don’t worry. Great Master True Compassion is within this household and will ensure Suiyun’s safety.”
Glancing at me, Xiaoshunzi acknowledged, “Li Shun obeys. Your Imperial Highness and young master, do not worry. Even if the Fengyi Sect Master were to come personally, Xiaoshunzi would risk my life to protect Your Imperial Highness’s safety.”
Seeing the solemn and grave expressions on everyone’s faces, I laughed lightly. “There is no need for everyone to worry. We are not making any rebellious moves and only need to take precautions against our opponent from being driven to desperate action.5 Moreover, since the Fengyi Sect Master has just visited us, she will not take action at this time. After all, the Emperor and the imperial clan are still present in Great Yong.”
My words helped relieve everyone’s anxiety. When Li Zhi went to greet Palace Attendant Zheng, sure enough, as expected, Zheng Xia did not have any misgivings about Xiaoshunzi accompanying the Prince of Yong. For the Prince of Yong to be so cautious was expected. Very quickly, the Prince of Yong was brought to the Fasting Palace. Fasting, bathing, and learning proper etiquette, the Prince of Yong did not have a moment of leisure. While he was busy, the members of the crown prince’s faction were filled with worry. Everyone knew that the crown prince and the Prince of Yong were archenemies. Everything had changed. At the beginning of last year, the crown prince had substituted for the emperor to offer sacrifices at the Imperial Ancestral Shrine. Henceforth afterwards, the Prince of Yong had ceased his activities, so much so that he was occupied with consolidating his authority and power in Youzhou. Now that the Prince of Yong had replaced the crown prince to offer sacrifices at the secondary altar, what this symbolized needed no explanation. The members of the crown prince’s faction were naturally discussing this matter spiritedly. The core members, as anticipated, refused to give up.
However, after all, Li Yuan was a generational hegemon. How could he have not thought of this issue? Departing the capital this time, he handed over the capital’s Imperial Guard to Qin Qing. Li Hanyou was a member of the crown prince’s faction and naturally would not permit the Prince of Yong to take action and harm the crown prince. And although Qin Qing was young and reckless, Grand General Qin was cautious, leaving behind his trusted subordinate, Qin Yong, to supervise Qin Qing. With this, the crown prince would not have the opportunity to injure the Prince of Yong. Further, Prime Minister Wei and Palace Attendant Zheng were the leaders of the civil officials. With their presence, there would be nothing to worry about. For security purposes, Palace Attendant Zheng personally oversaw and supervised the Fasting Palace that the Prince of Yong was fasting in, while Prime Minister Wei had dispatched his son, Wei Ying, to oversee the crown prince’s house arrest within the Brocade Peace Palace Hall. Although Wei Ying was presently the Vice Minister of Personnel, he was the perfect son-in-law in the emperor’s heart and was neutral, so with him overseeing the crown prince, no one needed to worry that he would secretly harm the crown prince or that the crown prince would be able to secretly communicate with the outside world. As for Palace Attendant Zheng Xia, everyone knew his impartiality and incorruptibility. With this, it was tantamount to placing both the crown prince and the Prince of Yong under house arrest. Instead, it was the Prince of Qi who was comparatively free, accompanying the emperor to offer sacrifices at Qiaoshan, not needing to become involved in the political maelstrom.
Under these circumstances, the arrangements on both sides were extremely important. One could not only not disturb the officials and generals left behind by the emperor to protect Chang’an, one also had to preserve the current situation and ensure that one’s prince was not capsized. Therefore, both the crown prince’s and the Prince of Yong’s household requested that Chang’an be placed under martial law. Wei Guan could only agree. After this, Qin Qing rapidly arrested or drove away all of the suspicious individuals in the city. The Prince of Yong’s household did not show any weakness. Of the three advisers under the Prince of Yong, Guan Xiu managed the internal affairs of the prince’s household; Gou Lian took responsibility for coordinating with Wei Guan and company; while Dong Zhi led Jing Chi and returned to the prince’s personal troop encampments outside of Chang’an. The entire army was prepared for war. At the same time, Sima Xiong took charge of all of the imperial bodyguards protecting the residence and readied to move at a moment’s notice. As for the one directing all of this, Jiang Zhe, Jiang Suiyun, did not take a step out of the Cold Courtyard, while Great Master True Compassion did not leave his side for even a moment. Although he had lost absolute control over the Northern Barracks of the Imperial Guard, Pei Yun still controlled the majority of its strength. With him present, Xiahou Yuanfeng could not casually mobilize this unit of Imperial Guard and could only rely only the Imperial Palace Guard. With this, both sides were prepared for conflict and no one dared to make the first move. Additionally, everyone knew that the Fengyi Sect Master had arrived in Chang’an.
However, amidst this storm, there was one person who was at leisure and carefree. That person was me. Although I remained in the Cold Courtyard, careful to not leave, there were no important matters that required my handling. Every day, I would read and file away the intelligence reports. All of the contingencies, I had the prince’s subordinates plan themselves. I was only responsible for issuing orders. What was strange was that my seemingly irresponsible behavior seemed to cause everyone to calm down. It appeared that the impression I usually gave to the members of the Prince of Yong’s faction had been quite impressive, causing to unconsciously trust me.
In reality, there was no need to worry. As far as I was concerned, our sole current objective was to examine the strength of the crown prince’s faction. I was very clear that this was not an opportunity to get things done once and for all. If the Yong emperor had truly and completely lost faith in the crown prince, the crown prince would have been deposed long ago, not placed under house arrest. The purpose of the Yong emperor’s moves was to probe the Prince of Yong. If we burned with anxiety to eliminate the crown prince, it would inevitably cause the Yong emperor to feel that the Prince of Yong’s intentions were vicious and malicious. If we were completely unprepared, it would also cause the Yong emperor to feel that we were excessively dissembling. Therefore, the way in which I organized the Prince of Yong’s household to display as externally tight and internally relaxed was to not only intimidate the crown prince’s faction and prevent them from daring to seize the opportunity to cause havoc, but also to allow the Yong emperor to understand that the His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, did not have any rebellious intentions.
Added to this, the crown prince’s position as heir apparent was already in grave danger. If we aggravated the situation, it was likely that it would have an opposite effect and cause the Yong emperor to become sympathetic and take pity. As long as we remained even-handed, the actions of the Fengyi Sect to help the crown prince would then be plainly visible. Favors done could not be used to suppress someone for an entire lifetime. This time, the Fengyi Sect Master could rely upon the favors that she had performed for Great Yong to convince the Yong emperor to reinstate the crown prince’s honor and glory. But what about the next time? What’s more, the crown prince had already lost the will of the people. Although his faction was still extremely strong, it was already akin to a paper tiger. As a result, my only objective this time was to survive the turmoil without mishap. The next step would be to genuinely plan the seizure of succession.
However, just as I was leisurely pleased with myself, I received some completely unexpected news. From a certain perspective, it was only a trifling matter, however, to me, it was too late for regrets. Today, the crown princess had arranged the funeral for her trusted maid, Xiu Chun. Xiu Chun had committed suicide by hanging herself. Reportedly, she was several months pregnant when she died. This news left me regretful and remorseful. Originally, I had not paid much attention to Xia Jinyi’s personal matters. However, this woman sacrificing herself for love and committing suicide caused me to sigh. Even though I did not kill her, she still died because of me.6 After I sighed, I was determined to pass this news on to Xia Jinyi, informing him of what a woman who loved him dearly would be willing to do for him. A pity that unborn child ...
At the same time, within the Fasting Palace, Li Zhi completely devoted his attention to the recitation of scriptures. Sitting in the corner of the room, silently meditating, Xiaoshunzi opened his eyes. A look of respect appeared in his eyes. Although he had followed Jiang Zhe in entering the service of the Prince of Yong, but until now, he still harbored a hint of animosity towards the Prince of Yong. One of the reasons was because of the Prince of Yong’s plan to poison Jiang Zhe. The other was because in order to serve the Prince of Yong, not only was Jiang Zhe nearly killed by an assassin, he was also propping up his ill body to help the prince plot and scheme. Therefore, although Xiaoshunzi was grateful to the Prince of Yong for his deep affection for Jiang Zhe, Xiaoshunzi was often unwilling to take notice of the prince. However, today, Xiaoshunzi truly respected this prince.
Xiaoshunzi was not an idiot. He understood well his position and abilities. He was perfectly happy serving as Jiang Zhe’s servant. However, this did not mean he did not understand his own worth. If he were to ask himself honestly, if he were the Prince of Yong, he would have been unable to help himself and would have recruited an expert such as himself. Even if he could not count on the expert’s complete loyalty, it would be worth it to receive the expert’s favorable impression. Xiaoshunzi had thought about what would happen during the time he spent alone with the Prince of Yong in the Fasting Palace, believing that it was likely that the Prince of Yong would use some methods to recruit him. However, completely beyond his expectations, the Prince of Yong wholeheartedly focused on learning the proper etiquette and ceremonies, immersing himself in the scriptures. Although the prince was courteous and polite, he had no intentions of enticing Xiaoshunzi. Having spent quite some time in the Prince of Yong’s residence, Xiaoshunzi had frequently borne witness to the way the prince treated his subordinates. Honestly speaking, if the Prince of Yong were to use these methods on him, Xiaoshunzi could not act as if nothing had happened. However, the entire time the Prince of Yong did not utter a single additional and unnecessary sentence.
Xiaoshunzi understood that this wasn’t because the Prince of Yong looked down upon him, but rather within the Prince of Yong’s mind, Xiaoshunzi was a man who scrupulously abided by the tenets of loyalty and righteousness. This kind of respect caused Xiaoshunzi to finally accept the Prince of Yong as Jiang Zhe’s liege lord.
To Li Zhi, it wasn’t that he didn’t think about enticing Xiaoshunzi. After all, this kind of martial arts expert would be worth it, if Xiaoshunzi could stay by his side. However, the Prince of Yong was not someone who required that all of the world’s elite be within his control. In his view, Xiaoshunzi was loyal to Jiang Zhe. As long as he was able to ensure Jiang Zhe’s loyalty, then there was no need for him to worry about Xiaoshunzi. Moreover, how could he use bribery to humiliate such a refined and magnanimous individual? At this moment, Li Zhi probably never expected that his conduct finally caused Xiaoshunzi to eliminate his hostility towards him.