In the dead of night on the fourteenth day of the sixth month, within a secret room in a hidden residence in Chang’an, a man and a woman were deep in discussion. The man was dressed in a set of black clothes that blended into the darkness and had a black cloak draped around his shoulders. All of his facial features were hidden under the muslin draped down from his bamboo hat. The woman’s appearance was mediocre, but her entire body emitted a swordlike aura, Wen Ziyan.
Under the dim lamplight, the two were silent for quite some time, until finally the man opened his mouth, “Please report to the Sect Master, we cannot act this time. With the present disposition of forces in Chang’an, the chance of defeating the Prince of Yong’s faction is fifty-fifty. The Prince of Qi’s forces can only be mobilized by him or by his own military tally.1 This time, it is impossible for his forces to participate in this struggle. Besides, His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, still has opportunities. If we are in a rush to make a move, it is likely that we will fall into a trap.”
Sighing, Wen Ziyan replied, “Sect Master also thinks this way. However, I will not be reconciled if we do not seize this opportunity to kill several of these thorns in our side.”
In a cruel voice, the man rebuked, “Who can we go kill? The Prince of Yong has Demonic Shadow Li Shun by his side. Unless the Sect Master goes personally, who else is able to succeed easily? Beside Jiang Zhe is Great Master True Compassion. As for the others, what is the point to kill them and groundlessly give them an excuse to retaliate? Wait … don’t tell me you intend to kill Princess Changle?”
Wei Ziyan smiled slightly and denied, “We do not dare to kill the Princess. But what about Ye Tianxiu? He is presently in Chang’an. Why not take this opportunity to kill him, chopping off one of the Prince of Qing’s assistants?”
Thoughtfully, the man responded, “This idea isn’t bad. It is only that Ye Tianxiu’s stay in Chang’an is perfectly legitimate. His position as the Supervisor of the Prince of Qing’s Imperial Bodyguard isn’t ordinary. If we are to kill, we can only do so secretly. The other option will be to have someone else to do the dirty work.”
With an icy expression on her face, Wen Ziyan stated, “It is very easy to kill Ye Tianxiu. Were it not for an unwillingness to infuriate the Prince of Qing, I would have acted long ago. Now, we will use this chaotic state of affairs to have him killed. Even if the Prince of Qing wishes to act against the perpetrator, he won’t be able to find who acted.”
“It is better if we do not act,” replied the man with an callous smile. “Have Xiahou Yuanfeng go. He is after all a disciple of the Freezing Moon branch of the Devil Sect. Ignoring the fact that he has learned so many different martial arts, he is not a simple man.”
Smiling, Wen Ziyan agreed, “Good, we’ll follow your plan. Master has always said that you are her most capable assistant. Truly possessing a well-deserved reputation.”
The man casually inquired, “What about being her most capable assistant? Do I not still have to listen to her commands?”
“When this matter succeeds,” answered Wen Ziyan sternly, “You will definitely be pleased with the Sect Master’s arrangements.”
After falling silent for a moment, the man spoke, “I’m going to leave. The hour is growing late.”
Wen Ziyan lightly nodded her head, bidding him farewell. “Be careful on the road.”
The man walked out of the secret room. Like a flying goose, his figure nimbly disappeared into the night. With this, a bloody slaughter was about to begin.
On the fifteenth day of the sixth month, Prince Li Zhi of Yong replaced the crown prince to offer sacrifices at the secondary altar. After Li Zhi had respectfully and cautiously completed the sacrificial ceremony to perfection, even the fussiest Confucian scholars could only speak words of praise. Taking this sacrificial ceremony opportunity, Li Zhi returned to the heart of Great Yong’s court authority and power. This fact caused many to loathe incessantly, and many others also to become overjoyed.
Ye Tianxiu was one of those who rejoiced. As the Supervisor of the Prince of Qing’s Imperial Bodyguard, he was extremely clear about the hostility between the Prince of Qing and the Fengyi Sect. But he was also clear that the Prince of Qing had fundamentally no chance for success. The only way for the Prince of Qing to succeed was to borrow another’s strength. However, only now did Ye Tianxiu finally become willing to admit that the Prince of Yong deserved to become the monarch.
Ye Tianxiu reluctantly watched the Prince of Yong’s carriage go off into the distance before he finally decided to return to his residence. In recent days, Marquis Jiang had sent a letter to His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qing. The little marquis’s poison had already temporarily been contained. Therefore, Marquis Jiang wished to deliver the little marquis as soon as possible to Chang’an. However, with the current complicated state of affairs in Chang’an, Marquis Jiang’s power and influence could not guarantee his beloved son’s safety. Therefore, Marquis Jiang had asked the Prince of Qing for help. But, the Prince of Qing also had his difficulties. The Prince of Qing’s strength in Chang’an was not stable. Although the Fengyi Sect Master could not overtly deal with the subordinates of the Prince of Qing, this did not mean that they were completely powerless, but rather that the Fengyi Sect was unwilling to give the Prince of Qing a pretext. If the little marquis were to arrive in Chang’an and was discovered by the Fengyi Sect, then they would have the excuse to openly eliminate the Prince of Qing’s subordinates. When the time came, not only would His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qing’s painstakingly built up strength in Chang’an would become nothing more than illusions, but the little marquis would also be in grave danger.
It was dusk when Ye Tianxiu returned to the Prince of Qing’s secret base in Chang’an. After instructing his subordinates to carefully keep vigil through the night, he went to his study to pen a reply to the Prince of Qing, explaining his own opinion. After he finished writing the letter, it was already the first watch of the evening.2 Inside, Ye Tianxiu was gloomy and could not sleep and remained in the study to flip through the recent intelligence reports.
At this very moment, a mysterious man was standing in the alleyway not far from this secret base, apathetically gazing towards the building. He wore a set of carbon-black robes. His waist was girded, his stature lanky, as if he was like a tree upright in the breeze. Although his face was covered by azure muslin and his appearance could not be seen, the exposed eyebrows were extremely exquisite and extraordinary. Looking at the color of the sky, he suddenly sprang forth towards that quiet residence. His floating figure, like a large swallow, very quickly leapt over the courtyard wall. The man’s tall figure dropping down into the middle of the courtyard had already completely alarmed Ye Tianxiu’s subordinates. Issuing secret signals to alert their superiors, they surrounded the man that had suddenly appeared. The man did not panic, only strolling towards the interior. The personal guards of the Prince of Qing could not tolerate this, moving forward to block him. To their surprise, an azure light suddenly flicked out as quick as lightning. Blood immediately spurted out, the guards all having had their throats cut by a sword.
By this moment, Ye Tianxiu had already dashed over. In a loud voice, he cried out, “Who are you to dare barge into another’s home?”
The man sighed softly. “This one is here under orders. Please forgive me, Brother Ye.” Finished speaking, he threw himself at those surrounding him. The bodyguards all had excellent martial arts, adept at attacking. Acting at the same time, the guards moved to block the man’s attacks. However, the man’s qinggong was superb. They could only see his figure soar into the air, glints of steel flashing through the air, sparkling all around the man in carbon-black clothing. The sword would occasionally rend through the air, occasionally slashing gaudily. Everywhere it went, blood gushed. Ye Tianxiu angrily cried out. Unsheathing his sword, he leapt forward and threw himself at the intruder. However, that man did not meet Ye Tianxiu head on, only focusing on killing the guards. Seeing the man’s actions, Ye Tianxiu became increasingly alarmed and angered. He cried out, “Everyone quickly withdraw.”
All of these guards were highly trained, immediately scattering. Ye Tianxiu took the opportunity to block the man. The swordsmanship of both men were extremely brilliant. Ye Tianxiu’s swordsmanship was sharp and pungent, fierce and malicious, and nimble. However, within, it was steady and unflustered. The masked man’s swordsmanship was quick and skillful, and also unpredictable, combining well with his divine qinggong and making it hard to resist. In an instant, the two had clashed seventy to eighty times, the exquisite sword techniques brilliant and varied, the energy of the swords surging up violently. It seemed like the two were on a small boat in the middle of the roiling waves of a tempest.
The Prince of Yong’s personal guards knew that if they joined in, they would cause inconveniences for Ye Tianxiu. At the same time, they were unwilling to disturb the authorities. As a result, they surrounded the courtyard, preparing concealed weapons to shoot at the masked man, only waiting for the two to separate.
The two battled to the drinking room. The masked man suddenly let out a soft cry, sword and man flying towards Ye Tianxiu. This strike was incomparably quick. Extremely steady, Ye Tianxiu, brought his sword up to parry the strike. The two swords met and were knocked back. Ye Tianxiu discovered that the masked man seemed to tremble. Ye Tianxiu could not help but be overjoyed, immediately reaching the conclusion that the masked man’s martial arts were below his. Jumping, arcing through the air, he stabbed at the masked man’s back. He had calculated that the location that he attacked would be difficult for the masked man to turn and defend. The masked man’s internal energy was indeed not as strong, his figure becoming sluggish. Ye Tianxiu’s sword pierced towards the right side of the back. Just as he was about to succeed, the masked man suddenly struck back. The sword was like thunder and lightning. Luckily, Ye Tianxiu’s mind was meticulous and he had held back a tenth of his strength. Even then, however, there was only time for him to avoid the counter. Crying out in pain, Ye Tianxiu covered his wound with his hand and shouted, “Everyone escape.” Finished speaking, he charged out, disregarding his injury.
The masked man originally intended to pursue Ye Tianxiu, but he suddenly stopped in his tracks, turning and throwing himself at the personal guards who had charged forward to block him to allow Ye Tianxiu to help. The masked man leaped high into the air and chopped down, his figure like a diving falcon, his sword falling like torrential rain. In no more than a dozen strikes, the masked man killed all of the personal guards who had stayed behind to serve as the rearguard. Finally, the masked man gazed upon the blood-covered ground. Releasing a light sigh, the masked man took out a snow-white silk handkerchief from his bosom, wiping the blood from his sword. Afterwards, he sheathed his sword into the scabbard masquerading as his belt. The sharp handle was actually a soft, flexible sword.
At this moment, flames suddenly burst out all around the residence. The masked man frowned slightly, immediately understanding that the Prince of Qing’s subordinates had set the residence on fire to destroy any evidence. The masked man did not get angry, only returning to the darkness before the alarm was raised.
However, this bloody battle was only the start of the nightmare. Just as the patrolling imperial guards arrived on the scene and not long after they had extinguished the flame, two major incidences occurred in Chang’an. The first was Zheng Xia being attacked by an assassin. The second was an incident had occurred in Chang’an’s city marketplace.
Zheng Xia was attacked by an assassin at the beginning of the second watch.3 After completing the sacrificial ceremony and with work winding down, Zheng Xia traveled through the night and returned to his residence. Although he was a civil official, because of the importance that Great Yong weighed upon its military, he did not like to ride a palanquin, instead slowing trotting along on a horse. On his left and right, he was accompanied and escorted by his attendants, frequently watching their surroundings. Zheng Xia was known for his honesty and uprightness, his daring to remonstrate forthrightly known throughout the world. Although he was honest and upright, his character openhearted, he had still made many enemies. As a result, he had several good martial artists by his side protecting him. Some had received great kindness from Zheng Xia and were repaying the kindness. Some admired and respected Zheng Xia’s moral character. There were also those who were imperial bodyguards dispatched by the Yong emperor. Although there were some matters that Li Yuan was somewhat confused about, he was not an ruler incapable of listening to remonstration. He was extremely respectful towards Zheng Xia. Thus, after Zheng Xia was attacked by an assassin, Li Yuan dispatched four palace guardsmen to protect Zheng Xia. Afterwards, Li Yuan had bestowed honorary third-ranked titles upon three of Zheng Xia’s guards with jianghu backgrounds. The glory and favor granted Zheng Xia was above all the ministers. Because of this, Zheng Xia was even more wholeheartedly loyal to Li Yuan.
Not long after Zheng Xia had greeted the guards on duty and passed through the Vermillion Bird Gate, a dark shadow creeped along the roofs of the buildings on the roadside. At this moment, Zheng Xia’s guards were complacent due to the presence of numerous imperial guardsmen. No one could have expected that this moment, a dark shadow would suddenly jump down from the roof, a sword lunging towards Zheng Xia. This sword was meteoric and as fast as lighting. Originally, there was no chance that Zheng Xia would have survived. He was fortunate, though.
Just as the shadow dropped down to assassinate Zheng Xia, Zheng Xia suddenly remembered that although the proper arrangements had been made for the ceremony welcoming the emperor back to the capital, according to proper ceremony, he needed to report these arrangements to the Prince of Yong. After all, the emperor had appointed the Prince of Yong to make sacrifices at the secondary altar, basically allowing the Prince of Yong to take charge of matters in Chang’an. Although the Prince of Yong had basically been under house arrest in the Fasting Palace, Zheng Xia needed to strictly adhere by proper protocol. Zheng Xia had always been someone who strictly adhered to etiquette. As a result, Zheng Xia had stooped down from his horse and softly spoke one of his guards, instructing him to deliver a message to the Prince of Yong’s residence that explained the reason why he could not pay a visit to the prince tonight. When he stooped his body, the assassin was already in the air, lunging towards Zheng Xia. Zheng Xia only felt a sharp pain. The sword had stabbed through the back of his shoulder.
After the assassin jumped down, his figure was completely revealed by the moonlight. Although the guards were unable to block the sword strike, their belated action was pretty good. The guard that Zheng Xia had been speaking with pulled Zheng Xia off the horse. The other guards drew their weapons, surrounding the assassin. However, this assassin was not ordinary. Seeing the strike not take Zheng Xia’s life, the assassin swiftly fled and disappeared without a trace.
Enduring the pain, Zheng Xia ordered, “Immediately dispatch someone to inform His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, Prime Minister Wei, and Commander Qin Qing of the Imperial Guard.” Finished speaking, he lost consciousness. These guards swiftly brought Zheng Xia to the nearby Imperial Medical Institute for medical treatment. News of the assassination quickly spread to all of the factions in Chang’an.
While the factions were suspecting one another, on the fifteenth day of the sixth month, a grave incident occurred that caused Chang’an to be turned on its head.
The most prosperous markets in Chang’an were the city marketplace, in the east, and the people’s marketplace in the west. The adjacent Peaceful Abundance Neighborhood was a place that did not stop with night. According to convention, the curfews of the two markets were pushed back by four hours. In addition, the Peaceful Abundance Neighborhood was a location where the curfew did not intrude. As a result, even at third watch,4 it was still brightly lit. Abundant lust filled the never-ending night. At midnight, flames burst out everywhere. Everyone in the eastern marketplace rushed to put out the fires. However, in the chaos, shouts came, crying, “People of Shu vow to fight to the death and refuse to surrender to Great Yong,” as they plundered. Because the market did not have a gate, its residents and businessmen fled. In a short moment, chaos engulfed the market. Simultaneously, the closest gate to the eastern marketplace, the Bright Spring Gate, also caught on fire. Shouts could be heard vowing to turn Chang’an into rivers of blood. Since the founding of Great Yong, Chang’an had always been prosperous and peaceful.5 The officials administering the eastern marketplace were caught unprepared and had no alternative but to report the matter to Qin Qing.
Were it not for Qin Qing already being disturbed by the assassination attempt on Zheng Xia, it was likely that the response to the chaos would have been delayed. When he left the Qin residence accompanied by Qin Yong, Qin Qing immediately caught sight of fire erupting in the direction of the eastern marketplace. Qin Qing and Qin Yong were experienced battlefield commanders, immediately issuing orders to mobilize and dispatch the entirety of the Imperial Guard. Qin Qing dispatched imperial guardsmen to protect all of Chang’an’s important government offices and residences. Then he issued the command to seal the city gates, while he himself led a unit of Imperial Guard and surrounded the eastern marketplace. All of this only took slightly over an hour. At the same time, Qin Yong began to thoroughly investigate the entire city. Throughout the city, the Imperial Guard issued military orders in loud voices, declaring that martial law was being imposed on Chang’an. All of the city residents were required to stay in their homes and prohibited from taking a step out onto the street. Any who dared to violate martial law would be executed. These methods were extremely effective.
When Qin Qing and Qin Yong rendezvoused at the eastern marketplace, the entirety of Chang’an had become tranquil, aside from this single location. Because the merchants within the eastern marketplace all had warriors guarding them, the fires were quickly extinguished. However, an internecine slaughter began within. Although Qin Qing and Qin Yong had dispatched imperial guards to suppress the slaughter, the eastern marketplace was one of the most prosperous parts of Chang’an. If the Imperial Guard were to forcibly suppress the chaos, it would inevitably lead to the destruction of the eastern marketplace. The two could not make the decision. At present, the only one left in Chang’an who could make decisions were the Prince of Yong and Prime Minister Wei Guan. As Wei Guan was a civil official, the two could only dispatch a messenger to ask for instructions from the Prince of Yong.
Before the fires had begun, Li Zhi was deep in discussion with me over what had happened today. In a cheerful expression, Li Zhi stated, “Suiyun, at present, it can be said that this Prince had already obtained the will of the people and the army. What do you think?”
I respectfully voiced my thoughts, “This time, Your Imperial Highness made sacrifices at the secondary altar, causing the entire world to see Your Imperial Highness’s elegance and graceful bearing. Although the Emperor is still of mind to shield the Crown Prince, who does not know that the Crown Prince has lost virtue? Therefore, this subject earnestly requests Your Imperial Highness to not be to rushed. Your Imperial Highness must adhere with the intentions of the Fengyi Sect Master and submit a memorial to protect the Crown Prince. If Your Imperial Highness were to attack the Crown Prince, it is likely that the entire world will blame Your Imperial Highness for ignoring brotherly sentiments. Moreover, it is clear that from the rush by the Emperor to kill all witnesses that the Emperor desires to only teach the Crown Prince a lesson. If Your Imperial Highness is too urgent, it will cause the Emperor to be unable to disentangle himself. It is likely that this will cause the Emperor’s anger to fall upon Your Imperial Highness.”
Frowning, Li Zhi replied, “You speak correctly. It is only that you understand that with the Fengyi Sect Master personally taking action, it is likely that the Crown Prince will not make further mistakes going forward. If a few years were to pass, I’m afraid that this Prince will not have any more chances.”
”Do not worry, Your Imperial Highness,” I comforted, smiling. “The Fengyi Sect is already staking everything on a single toss. No matter how powerful or strong they are, it is nothing compared to popular sentiment. His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, is not a puppet that will allow himself to be manipulated. His natural instincts are difficult to change. As such, he is capable of doing anything. Naturally, we can’t simply wait for him to make a mistake. This subject already has a plan. Unfortunately, the Prince of Qi is a hindrance. Although the Prince of Qi’s temperament is cruel and he is not too shrewd, there are some things that others have not detected, and yet the Prince of Qi, based upon his innate alertness and senses, has discovered. Therefore, Your Imperial Highness’s top priority is to send the Prince of Qi out of Chang’an.”
“That isn’t difficult,” said Li Zhi after thinking it over. “Recently, Northern Han has been making some moves. I had planned to recommend that the Prince of Qi be dispatched to inspect the northern frontier.”
I promptly responded, “There is no harm in Your Imperial Highness requesting permission to go perform those inspections yourself.”
Li Zhi stared at me confused for a moment before he understood my intentions. He inquired, “Are you suggesting that I loosen the reins in order to grasp them better?”
Clapping my hands, I confirmed, “That is indeed the case. If Your Imperial Highness were to return to the army, it would be similar to a flood dragon entering the sea. How can those people permit Your Imperial Highness to go forth? When the time comes, there is no one else with the qualifications aside from the Prince of Qi. Once the Prince of Qi departs, Your Imperial Highness can focus everything on the coming battle with the Crown Prince. When Your Imperial Highness has succeeded, with a single order, what do we have to fear from the Prince of Qi? He will have no alternative but to obey and return to the capital.”
Nodding his head, Li Zhi stated, “Good. Once Imperial Father returns, I will submit a memorial explaining the situation. Once sixth brother has gone, I will no longer have to worry. At present, the only man capable of commanding troops in the Crown Prince’s faction is sixth brother. If he leaves, I will be able to sleep peacefully.”
“That may not be the case,” I disagreed, shaking my head. “The Consort of the Imperial Princess of Jingjiang also has the favor of the Emperor. He is proficient in the art of war.”
With a smile on his face, Li Zhi quipped, “Suiyun, please tell me you haven’t made any moves against the Qin family.”
I smiled slightly, my mind turning to Hualiu, an elite from the Secret Camp and once my personal guard, presently serving at Qin Yong’s side. As we were chatting, an imperial bodyguard came in to report that Zheng Xia had been attacked by an assassin. While the Prince of Yong and I were deeply worried, it wasn’t long before another imperial bodyguard came to report that fires had broken out in the city. This was the second fire in Chang’an. Its position was the eastern marketplace. After exchanging looks of dismay, I hurriedly racked my brains. Why were so many things happening at once? It would be too excessive if this was a coincidence.