Volume 6, Chapter 5: Withered Flowers by the River
After the Princess joined Yong, she stood guard over Yanmen for twenty years and repeatedly sallied forth to harass the barbarians in the steppe. Whenever the barbarians met her, they felt their souls detach from them and called her a Blood Rakshaka.
Ceremonial Consort Wang Ji was originally from Chu. An orphan, he was left wandering destitute in Jianye. Afterwards, he became a retainer to Jiang Zhe and became the head of the eight elites. On Jiang Zhe’s orders, he entered the barbarian lands to scout for military intelligence and became renowned on the frontier as “Divine Doctor Bo Le.” By chance, he met the Princess in Daizhou and fell in love in the Eastern Sea. Unfortunately, because they served different masters, they were torn apart. When Ji later learned that the Princess was embroiled in bloody battle at Yanmen, he sobbingly requested permission from Zhe to join his beloved in death in Daizhou. Zhe had no choice but to agree. Ji abandoned his future and traveled to Yanmen to help the Princess defend the pass. Just as Yanmen was about to fall, Yuanting was moved by Ji’s love and wed the Princess to Ji on the battlefield. After the Princess surrendered to Yong, Ji remained at Yanmen to assist the defenses on imperial order, serving as the Princess’s deputy.
At the beginning, the Princess did not become pregnant and there were those who advised Ji to take concubines to carry on his lineage. Ji refused, stating, “I have no relatives and have no worries about continuing my line.” When the Princess heard this, she wept. Ultimately, she could not bear to see Ji without an heir and personally selected daughters from good families. Ji irately departed and did not return for half a month. Only then did the Princess stop.—Yong Dynastic Records, Biography of the Crimson Clouds Princess
All of the passersby were heartbroken by the sight of the leaves of the willow being blown away like smoke. Even though the officials who had come to see off the travelers had already departed, Lin Bi continued to hold her younger sister’s hands in the pavilion while entrusting something to her in a low voice. After this parting, there was no telling when they would next be able to reunite. Lin Bi was well aware that she would never have the opportunity to return to her homeland in this lifetime and could no longer see the spring scenery of Yanmen. As a result, she was even more deeply worried about her younger sister who had inherited her mantle. Outside of the pavilion, Chiji was muttering with the Prince of Qi. They tacitly understood the need to leave some space for the Lin family sisters to say their goodbyes. As for Li Lin and the other boys, they stood solemnly to the side. This occasion left them no room to speak.
Lu Yun stood behind Li Lin, cautiously considering the famous figures he had often heard stories of. Lu Yun had met Lin Tong and Chiji before. Now seeing the Prince of Qi’s open-minded candidness and Lin Bi’s natural dignity, Lu Yun involuntarily felt great admiration. He naturally had no way of knowing that seven years ago, the Prince of Qi was a radiant, glinting sharp sword that was unable to sheathe his killing intent, harming both others and himself. As for today, the treasured sword had been hidden away. Although its keen edge had not been reduced in the slightest, it had become even more enigmatic.
In the pavilion, Lin Bi quietly stated, “Tong’er, you have to be careful. These last several years, you have repeatedly penetrated deep into barbarian lands. That is unavoidably too dangerous. You are Daizhou’s commander. If some mishap occurs, the effect will be enormous. You should allow the youngsters the opportunity to take command. I hear that you frequently quarrel with brother-in-law. That isn’t good. Although he is your deputy, he is also your husband and a trusted lieutenant of Marquis Jiang. You cannot have any animosity towards him. In addition, though you have been married for many years to brother-in-law, you have yet to produce an heir. Even the Empress has inquired about this matter. What are the two of you going to do about this? If you would listen to my advice, it is best if you help him find a concubine.”
Lin Tong shot a glance towards Chiji and softly replied, “Elder sister, it’s only a habit that husband and I quarrel. If we don’t quarrel after a few days, my entire body would feel uncomfortable. Don’t think that it’s because I am being shrewish. Rather, he’s used various methods out of fondness to provoke my anger. Coming to the capital this time, husband asked for the Marquis to check our health. The Marquis said that neither of us have any problems. It may be providence that we have yet to have a child. In fact, I also asked husband’s opinion. However, husband explained that he has long had no relatives and is unworried about being unfilial by having no heir. I, myself, am willing to be wronged and allow him to take a concubine. I’ve even prepared to help him take a concubine. However, he steadfastly refused and even ignored me for half a month.”
Hearing this, Lin Bi could not help but laugh. Glancing at Chiji from the corners of her eyes, she said, “Brother-in-law is a passionate individual. It is no wonder that he was willing to meet death with you back then. Fine, I will not meddle in your affairs. As long as your relationship is harmonious, I can rest easy.”
In comparison, Lin Tong somewhat worriedly spoke, “Elder sister, coming to Chang’an this time, I’ve seen that Marquis Jiang always seems to be trembling with fear in your presence. Have you been making things difficult for him? Isn’t this bad? Marquis Jiang is husband’s patron. That man is quite terrifying. Husband only spent a few years at his side and is already quite hard to deal with. Do you still harbor a grudge against him for creating the plan that harmed brother-in-law, er, General Long?”
Lin Bi smiled faintly, her eyes serene and gentle. She softly whispered, “The two countries were at war, there aren’t that many grudges and resentment. Even though Li Xian personally forced Tingfei’s death, I’ve no longer held a grudge, let alone one against Marquis Jiang. If you are saying that he’s afraid of me, then you have misunderstood. He was fearless when facing the Fengyi Sect Master and the Devil Sect Sovereign, what is so frightening about a defeated general like me? That is simply his nature. He is fondest of bullying and teasing those closest to him. You’ve seen him constantly tease Roulan, Lin’er, and the other children. Could it be that Marquis Jiang seriously dislikes them? In my presence, since he can’t tease me, he naturally can only fear me. That man is so awkward and eccentric, not knowing how to interact with those he values most. I’m afraid that in this world, only Princess Changle and Demonic Shadow Li Shun are the ones who are capable of seeing his truest face.”
Hearing this, Lin Tong’s eyes brightened as she remembered Wang Ji speak of how he would always suffer in Jiang Zhe’s care. She could not help chuckling softly. Her sister truly had an eye for detail. With one glance, Lin Bi had been able to judge that unpredictable man as simply a shy boy who was not good at revealing his true emotions.
As the two sisters muttered to one another while holding hands, smoke and dust began to be kicked up in the distance, and the thundering of hoofbeats resounded. A dozen or so fine horses galloped over. Everyone turned their attention and saw that, of the two individuals at the head of the group, one wore azure, while the second wore yellow. It was Huo Cong and Roulan with their bodyguards come to see off the Lin sisters.
Lin Tong gave a slight smile. Like everyone else, she was extremely fond of Roulan. Earlier, she had been grumbling about this girl’s lack of regard for failing to come see her off. With a hearty laugh, Lin Tong walked out of the pavilion. Waving, she yelled, “Roulan, did you finally remember me?”
Reining her horse to a halt, Roulan dismounted and ran over. Wrapping her arms around Lin Tong’s neck, she declared, “Auntie Tong, you’re truly heartless. I was summoned by the Empress to accompany her. If I hadn’t remembered that you were departing today and asked Her Imperial Majesty to allow me to leave the palace to see you off, I would still be watching a performance in the Hall of Everlasting Happiness.”1
Reaching out with two fingers to pinch Roulan’s snow-white, tender cheek, Lin Tong giggled, “You can always justify yourself. Do you think that I don’t know that your mother, Her Imperial Highness, has been accompanying the Empress Dowager in the palace these last several days? How come your father hasn’t come? This time, husband surprisingly wasn’t able to see your daddy when he went to say his goodbyes. Why did he disappear after His Imperial Majesty’s birthday banquet?”
Roulan struggled free from Lin Tong’s fingers. Sticking her sweet tongue out a little, she answered, “I don’t know anything about that. To me, it’s wonderful that Daddy isn’t home. Big brother Huo, surely you must know. Daddy treats you better than both Shen’er and me.”
Lin Tong glanced at Huo Cong. Although this youth looked normal, Lin Tong did not know why but always felt that she did not dare to be presumptuous before him. It was probably because his gentle and serene temperament made her not want to be rude to him. Smiling, she asked, “Young master Huo, do you know where Sir has gone? Husband originally wanted to bid farewell personally. Leaving today, no one can know when we will be able to return to Chang’an.”
“After Sir returned the day before yesterday from a banquet in the palace, he went to the manor in Nanshan,” answered Huo Cong, saluting. “Apparently, there are some things he needs to handle. He asked me to see off the Princess and Senior Apprentice Brother Chiji.”
Lin Tong heaved a disappointed sigh and did not question further. Hidden amidst the bodyguards, Lu Yun, who could not stop gazing at Roulan, felt his mind race. Nanshan Manor. Jiang Zhe had gone to Nanshan Manor. This meant that he was not within the Imperial City. Could the number of bodyguards at Jiang Zhe’s side be reduced? If so, is there an opportunity for me to perform the assassination? But where is Nanshan Manor? In addition, will I have the free time to search? Besides, that man will definitely be protected by bodyguards and have the Demonic Shadow Li Shun by his side. It’s likely to be difficult to succeed.
At this moment, Chiji walked to Huo Cong’s side and softly said, “Junior apprentice brother, there is a matter I ask you inform Master of. I’ve seen the face of the new bodyguard the Prince of Jia sheltered, and he looks somewhat like someone. Although the likelihood isn’t high, Master must still be informed of this matter.”
Without changing his expression, Huo Cong smiled as he listened attentively, almost as if the two of them were discussing some trivial matter. However, he replied, “Sir is already aware of this matter. Senior apprentice brother, there is no need for you to be troubled. Sir has said that before senior apprentice brother departs, you can inform Princess Bi about General Duan. The Princess presumably also wishes to see General Duan again.”
Hearing this, Chiji’s heart raced. He did not find it strange that Jiang Zhe already knew about the Southern Chu teen. The young man’s appearance was some forty to fifty percent similar to that of Lu Can; he possessed expert archery skills and extraordinary strength2 in his two arms. If even he, Chiji, had become suspicious, then Jiang Zhe would undoubtedly suspect something. However, by informing Lin Bi about Duan Wudi’s return, Chiji was worried that Jiang Zhe was once again setting a trap. If it were someone else, Chiji would have simply helped with the trap. However, Lin Bi was Lin Tong’s elder sister. Because of this, Chiji was a bit worried about the consequences.
Seeing this, Huo Cong laughed softly and stated, “Senior apprentice brother, do not worry. Sir has good intentions and only hopes that the Princess can convince General Duan to serve the court.”
Chiji found himself relaxing and replied, “I understand. Junior apprentice brother, coming back this time, I’ve seen that Sir favors you greatly, making me with quite envious. Since you have the fortune to remain at Sir’s side, you have to serve him unstintingly on behalf of all us unworthy disciples.”
Huo Cong nodded his head and voiced his agreement. However, a sliver of melancholy rose within him. Even though Master treated him with great kindness, he had no choice but to conceal something from his master. If this secret were to be revealed one day, what could he do? Unless his blood were splattered about the Cold Courtyard, what joy would be there in continuing to live?
Even though they were reluctant to separate, Lin Bi and Chiji ultimately began their journey. Gazing at the departing figures, Li Xian walked to the side of his tearing, beloved wife. He said, “Bi’er, let’s go back. Within two years, they can return to the capital to report in.”
Lin Bi sadly replied, “It’s nothing. There is no need for you to worry. The two of us separating is something that will happen sooner rather than later. I am only sad that I can’t go back to take a look.”
Li Xian fell silent. There was nothing he could do to help with this matter. This was something in which no alternatives existed. Just like how he had exchanged his military authority for marrying Lin Bi. If Lin Bi wanted the Liu and Lin families to be safe, she had no choice but to abandon all hope of returning to Daizhou.
Seeing him like this, Lin Bi actually smiled. “In reality, there’s nothing to this. Chang’an is also very good. Besides, with you and the children, anywhere can be home. In comparison, you have sacrificed much in order to marry me.”
Seeing her ease up, Li Xian smiled back and returned, “This Prince would rather have a beautiful woman by his side than the Empire. What’s wrong with that?”
Lin Bi’s face flushed scarlet. Just as she was about to turn and leave, Li Xian embraced her around the waist, not wishing to let her go. A sweet feeling blossomed in her, as she no longer felt any remorse about the decision to set aside the grudges she held against this man who had moved her heart. Recalling the news that Chiji had furtively told her, Lin Bi seriously considered going to see Duan Wudi. The past was best left in the past and should no longer trouble one’s mind. Even if she were to fall into Jiang Zhe’s trap once again, it was worth it to ensure that a loyal and righteous individual who harbored the common people and the country was not reduced to a life in the jianghu.
As Li Xian and Lin Bi exchanged affectionate gestures, the Prince of Qi’s sons found themselves in an awkward situation. All of them dropped their heads and did not speak. Aside from Li Lin, none of the other princes had personalities similar to Li Xian. In the past, when Li Xian ignored them, they only felt dread towards their father. It was only when Lin Bi entered the Prince of Qi’s household and family regulations were reestablished that these children born of concubines were taken care of. As a result, these youths were all naturally extremely respectful of Lin Bi and so didn’t watch Li Xian flirt with her. As for Li Lin, he was more courageous, only turning his head to the side and coughing several times.
Startled, Lin Bi promptly pushed Li Xian aside. Li Xian was forced to release her. Gazing at his sons, he declared, “You should return on your own.” Afterwards, he ferociously glared at Li Lin before pulling Lin Bi into their carriage and departing.
Li Lin scowled miserably. Even though he had only coughed with good intentions, he had ultimately offended his father. After his father returned, he would probably be dragged to the drill grounds on some pretext. Thinking of how his entire body would be sore later that evening and how he’d be unable to sleep, Li Lin’s mood of course would not improve. His brothers gave him looks of sympathy3 before mounting their horses and departing respectively.
At this moment, Huo Cong smiled. “Your Imperial Highness, Sir and the Princess won’t be at the residence these next few days. How about coming over to stay for a few days?”
Hearing this, Li Lin celebrated at this unexpected good news as he promptly answered, “Yes, great! Many thanks, elder brother Huo.”
Joy flitted across Lu Yun’s eyes. Who would have thought that he would be able to enter Jiang Zhe’s residence so quickly? Although Jiang Zhe wasn’t present, there would yet be a harvest. He completely missed, that as Li Lin was being invited, Huo Cong’s eyes had briefly paused on him. He naturally also did not know that the investigatory document about his past had been forged by Huo Cong before being handed over to the Intelligence Management Section to be handed to Li Lin. Otherwise, such a coincidence, a second son named Yun existing in this world, would be impossible.
The next morning, when Lu Yun opened his eyes, the sky had already brightened. He was greatly baffled. Yesterday, when he had accompanied Li Lin and arrived at Jiang Zhe’s residence, he could only follow and live with Li Lin at the Phoenix Perch Pavilion as Li Lin’s bodyguard. It was said that Jiang Zhe’s residence was formerly the Prince of Yong’s residence. However, in Lu Yun’s eyes, although the residence was rich, beautiful, and secluded, it was much smaller than the Prince of Qi’s residence and did not have as many pavilions and gazebos. In the home of his enemy, Lu Yun originally thought that he would find it difficult to sleep. Instead, he was actually able to sleep untroubled through the night, leaving him puzzled.
Walking out of his room, he immediately caught sight of Li Lin practicing with a sword in the courtyard accompanied by several of the bodyguards. Lu Yun blushed as he stepped to the side. Once Li Lin had finished, he advanced to apologize, “This subordinate accidentally overslept. Your Imperial Highness, please forgive me.”
Smiling, Li Lin replied, “This is the first time you’ve come here. It’s not strange that you would be unaccustomed. This Prince occasionally lives here for short periods. In the future, you will grow accustomed. All right. Follow me to the Cold Courtyard. Big brother Huo has invited us to breakfast there.”
Lu Yun’s brows jumped and could not help remarking, “This subordinate has heard in Southern Chu that the Cold Courtyard is where the Marquis of Chu planned his strategies. Who would have thought that young master Huo would reside there?”
Li Lin suddenly smiled furtively and replied, “You’re wrong. To this day, the Cold Courtyard is Uncle’s dwelling. Although Uncle now lives in the inner residence, Uncle still stays a dozen or more days in the Cold Courtyard. In addition, Uncle’s study is located there. Who knows how many strategies were drawn up there? Even when Uncle Emperor wishes to ask for advice from Uncle, he comes to the Cold Courtyard.”
Lu Yun was rather puzzled. It was obvious that Huo Cong lived at the Cold Courtyard. He had already learned that the azure-robed youth was Jiang Zhe’s disciple and thus had the status as one of the young masters of the residence. As such, how could Huo Cong not have his own residence? With these serious doubts, Lu Yun followed Li Lin and walked towards the Cold Courtyard. He paid careful attention the entire journey. As expected, the bodyguards within Jiang Zhe’s residence were all far from ordinary. The defense was much tighter than at the Prince of Qi’s residence. Assassinating Jiang Zhe here would be extremely difficult.
Arriving at the entrance to the Cold Courtyard, Li Lin had all of the other bodyguards go and rest, while he tugged Lu Yun aside and said, “You are different from the rest of them. This Prince considers you a friend. Come inside with me.”
Lu Yun felt his heart warm. He naturally understood that Li Lin treated him differently—more as a friend than as a subordinate. However, seeing as he was about to enter the place where Jiang Zhe frequently stayed, Lu Yun could not help feeling extremely tense and had no opportunity to reflect upon Li Lin’s kindly intentions.
Upon entering the Cold Courtyard, Lu Yun was stupefied. The quiet, secluded isolation made him remember that his father’s study was also that cold and lonely. Even the bright and beautiful spring radiance was seemingly somewhat reduced here. The contrast between the exterior’s tight security and the interior’s bleak desolation was quite stark. However, what greatly baffled Lu Yun was that under the rising sun, Huo Cong was dressed in commoner’s garb, trimming the plants as if conscientiously and seriously performing his duty, not even noticing their arrival.
Stepping forward, Li Lin called out, “Big brother Huo, have you not yet finished? Has breakfast not yet been prepared? This is Yun Lu, does big brother Huo remember him? I’ve brought him along this time so that Roulan can also see him. Know that I haven’t humiliated him.”
Hearing Li Lin speak, Huo Cong lifted his head and showed a faint smile. Setting down the pruning shears and patting off the soil upon it, he addressed Lu Yun, “I’ve heard from His Imperial Highness that you’ve already taken up service by his side. Although His Imperial Highness probably forced you, you should not blame him. He did so out of good intentions.”
Lu Yun promptly replied, “His Imperial Highness did not force me. This unimportant person wandered about destitute in Chang’an. Unable to find my relative, I had to find a solution. Being able to serve at His Imperial Highness’s side is a not bad solution.”
Li Lin frowned and interjected, “Yun Lu, so that is your intention? It’s no wonder I was able to so easily retain you that day. This Prince even became suspicious because of this.”
Lu Yun relaxed. He had anticipated that Li Lin would become suspicious. After all, that day on the post road he had displayed clear unruliness. But it had been child’s play to make him so easily yield. That was why he had taken advantage of the situation today to make amends. As expected, he had been able to eliminate Li Lin’s suspicions.
A hint of a smile flashing across Huo Cong’s eyes, he remarked, “So that’s why. All right. Roulan will come over shortly. Go to the reception hall first and wait for me while I change.” Huo Cong then turned and walked off.
Pulling Lu Yun along, Li Lin walked towards the reception hall, mumbling to himself, “The Cold Courtyard only has this lone shortcoming, not permitting any servants to wait upon you. Fortunately, there is no need to grab breakfast ourselves.”
Puzzled, Lu Yun could not help but question, “Is young master Huo fond of tending to the plants? Why does he live here? Isn’t this an important location full of military secrets?”
“Do you know of big brother Huo’s background?” asked Li Lin with a smile.
Lu Yun answered, “This subordinate has heard that young master Huo is the Marquis’s personal disciple.”
Raising his forefinger, Li Lin stated, “There is one matter that you do not know. Big brother Huo is also a servant assigned to the Cold Courtyard, responsible for the plants here.”
Lu Yun was stunned. It was some time before he finally inquired, “But, isn’t young master Huo the Marquis’s disciple? Why does the Marquis continue allowing him to serve as a servant? Isn’t this a bit too irregular?”
Smiling, Li Lin responded, “My uncle is exactly that strange. That is why big brother Huo lives in the Cold Courtyard yet is not its master.”
Lu Yun, however, was still at a loss. At this moment, a gentle voice drifted over. “This is because of Sir’s earnest consideration. Sir has always stated that everyone should have their own place. The Jiang family does not employ any useless persons. If Cong wishes to remain here, I have to use my labor in exchange for room and board. That is why although Cong is Sir’s disciple, I remain a servant. However, there are benefits to being Sir’s disciple. The work here in the Cold Courtyard isn’t burdensome. All of the time-consuming tasks are left to others. I am only responsible for the plants.”
Lu Yun turned to look and saw Huo Cong standing in the doorway after changing into a clean set of azure robes. The early morning sunlight shone behind Huo Cong, making Lu Yun feel that Huo Cong’s face looked a bit fuzzy. However, Lu Yun could still see the tranquil and serene expression upon Huo Cong’s face.
He heard Huo Cong continue, “There are some who consider lightly tossing aside power and influence as an anecdote for approval. There are some with low status who are prouder and more contented with living as a commoner than as an aristocrat. Sir disapproves of these views. Instead, he frequently observes that riches, honor, and power are not only a privilege and a pleasure, they are also an unavoidable responsibility. Since you possess great power and authority, you should be loyal and responsible, and not fail the Heavens’ deep love and affection. If one hails from humble origins and performs menial tasks, one should not feel shame because of it. As long as one has a clear conscience, one will not fail to experience life.”
Lu Yun felt his heart tremble. What kind of person was capable of uttering such words? How could this kind of person betray his country for personal gain and betray his lord? The entire reception hall fell silent. Even Li Lin pondered Huo Cong’s words.
At this moment, the sweet-sounding and melodious voice of a young girl chimed, “Elder brother Huo, little brother Lin, I’ve come! Little brother Lin, I heard that you’ve brought Yun Lu along. Yun Lu, younger brother Lin hasn’t forced you to do anything, right?”
Hearing the voice, Lu Yun felt the land before him brighten as a young girl in a light-yellow dress appeared in the doorway. Her skin glistened, her appearance elegant, especially those shining black, limpid eyes, constantly flickering about without end. All those who saw those eyes would consider the young girl to be naughty and pampered. She was not overdressed, with just a golden-ringed headband on. The golden headband had flower blossoms attached. A winter plum blossom was placed where the band joined. This kind of appearance, young though she still was, made her look like a fairy.
Lu Yun felt his heart shudder. Seeing the Princess of Zhaohua for the first time in feminine clothing, he felt his heart race yet also felt a faint, painful lamentation. For the moment, his mood was at an all-time low.
As for Huo Cong and Li Lin, the two of them frequently saw Roulan’s beautiful appearance and had grown accustomed to it. Li Lin grumbled, “Why do you never believe me? When did I become an evil person who compels others? Yun Lu voluntarily stayed at my side.”
With her bright, exquisite eyes, Roulan looked over and asked, “Yun Lu, is this the case?”
By now, Lu Yun had regained his senses. Bowing, he answered, “This subordinate was able to attain His Imperial Highness’s regard and unquestionably remained at His Imperial Highness’s side voluntarily.”
Smiling sweetly, Roulan replied, “That’s great then. Big brother Huo, since today is one of those rare days when Daddy isn’t present, can we play together after we’ve eaten?”
Li Lin happily responded, “Of course! The Crown Prince won’t summon me today. We can take the opportunity to go out and enjoy the spring.”
“We can go out and enjoy the spring anytime,” observed Huo Cong with a smile. “Since Sir isn’t present, how about playing here? Wouldn’t that be better?”
Hearing this, both Li Lin and Roulan nodded their heads. Roulan replied, “Big brother Huo is smart. How about going to the Overlooking Wave Pavilion? Although there is no snow, Overlooking Wave Pavilion is an excellent place to appreciate the beauty of the spring blossoms, since it is inappropriate for Yun Lu to go into the inner residence.”
Huo Cong nodded his head and replied, “The Overlooking Wave Pavilion is quite good. You probably don’t know that the Pavilion was where Sir appreciated the beauty of snow and composed poetry, overwhelming all of the retainers of the Prince of Yong’s household. In a while, after we’ve gone over, I’ll copy all of the poetry composed that day for you to read through.”
Although Roulan and Li Lin were both young and playful, they were not completely ignorant of poetry and song. Besides, since Huo Cong was going to recite poetry from Jiang Zhe’s past, he would definitely also speak of what happened that day. Jiang Zhe never spoke of these matters to these children whereas he never concealed them from Huo Cong. With the opportunity to learn of Jiang Zhe’s past, the both of them repeatedly nodded their heads. Even Lu Yun looked forward to the tale. At this moment, his rancor towards Jiang Zhe had unwittingly waned greatly and he wished to learn more about Jiang Zhe’s past. After all, within Southern Chu, there were few rumors about Jiang Zhe aside from cursing.
The four hurriedly ate breakfast before walking as a group to the Overlooking Wave Pavilion. Sure enough, Huo Cong had copied those poems composed that day and explained their deeper meanings to the three youngsters, as well as explaining what happened on that day. While they were intoxicated by the discussion, a bodyguard suddenly came to report, “Your Imperial Highness, His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, is urgently summoning you to the palace.”
Both Roulan’s and Li Lin’s faces expressed disappointment. Grudgingly, Li Lin declared, “It seems that we have to stop halfway today. Yun Lu, you can’t follow me and enter the palace. Big brother Huo, have him accompany you for now. Can you continue once I’ve come back this evening?”
“Run along,” replied Huo Cong with a smile. “One can’t say for sure that the Crown Prince doesn’t have an urgent matter. I’ll continue once you come back. In any case, Sir won’t return until the day after tomorrow.”
After seeing Li Lin off, Roulan listlessly sat on the bannister of the pavilion, gazing blankly at the pond. As for Huo Cong, he had retrieved a weiqi board and began to go over some qipu.4 The atmosphere within the pavilion grew somewhat heavy. Though he wanted to take his leave and depart, Lu Yun found that he was somewhat reluctant to do so. Seeing that Lu Yun was bored senseless, Huo Cong smiled and said, “His Imperial Highness treats this place like his own home. There is no need for you to be uncomfortable. In fact, you are still young and it is best that you study. Have you studied books on the art of war?”
Lu Yun thought, It would be a bit inconsistent with my identity if I say that I’ve studied such books. As such, he answered, “I’ve not.”
“Since you are following His Imperial Highness, you will inevitably go into battle in the future,” stated Huo Cong. “If you want to become a general, you must study the art of war. How about this? I’ll go to the back and retrieve a book for you to study.” Finished speaking, he stood and departed, leaving Roulan and Lu Yun alone in the pavilion. All of the nearby maids and bodyguards had all been sent away by Huo Cong. The pavilion was dead silent.
Gazing at Roulan’s back, a sudden, malicious thought appeared in Lu Yun’s head. This was a golden opportunity for him to take the life of Jiang Zhe’s beloved daughter. Since Jiang Zhe had caused his father to suffer bitterly, if he killed Roulan, Jiang Zhe would definitely be so grieved as to wish for death. Rather than waiting for an assassination opportunity that might never appear, the young girl before him was the perfect alternative.
Raising his head to ensure that there was no one present nearby, Lu Yun ultimately could not contain the killing intent within. The resentment within him and the grievances from days of being unable to act independently had driven away the hazy love in his heart. Without restraint, even the kindest individual would have evil thoughts. Standing behind Roulan, Lu Yun softly removed the dagger hidden in his boots, preparing to backstab Roulan. Presently, he only needed to stab once to take her life. Afterwards, he could wait to ambush Huo Cong. It seemed that Huo Cong did not know any martial arts and Roulan’s martial arts were not great. He should be successful. When done, he could use his identity as a prince’s bodyguard to depart. As long as he made suitable arrangements, it was unlikely that anyone would discover the corpses before he had left the imperial city.
However, as Lu Yun stood behind Roulan, the delicate body of the young girl caused him to soften. He could not stab forward. His enemy was Jiang Zhe. It had nothing to do with this young girl. In addition, Huo Cong treated him kindly. How could he repay kindness in such a manner? As Lu Yun was hesitating, Roulan somehow lost her balance, and with a cry of fear, fell forward toward the water. Lu Yun was somewhat dumbfounded as he watched as Roulan fell into the pond, crying out for help while waving her arms about. Her voice traveled far and Lu Yun could see figures darting in the distance. The bodyguards had presumably heard Roulan’s cries for help and were rushing over.
Looking at the young girl crying for help and struggling in the water, Lu Yun trembled inside. With his clothes on, he jumped into the water. It wasn’t long before he climbed out of the water together with Roulan. By now, the bodyguards had all rushed over one after another. With practiced ease, Lu Yun helped Roulan spit out the freshwater she had drunk. When Roulan returned to her senses, she held Huo Cong, who had just rushed over, and began to wail loudly. Thanking Lu Yun, Huo Cong immediately held Roulan in his arms and strode towards the inner residence.
Looking at Roulan’s pale face and her disheveled appearance, Lu Yun did not know what to think. He had rescued Roulan not because he sought to fool people. He had jumped into the water without any remorse. Looking at the golden headband which had fallen to the ground, Lu Yun became increasingly frantic inside.
Lu Yun wasn’t privy to the fact that after Huo Cong carried Roulan into the inner residence, delivered her to her bedroom, and was about to call some maids over to attend to her, Roulan held onto Huo Cong’s sleeve and chillingly said, “Elder brother Huo, what are you trying to do? What’s with this Yun Lu? Why does he want to assassinate me?”
Without batting an eye, Huo Cong asked, “Did he want to kill you?”
Furiously, Roulan rebuffed, “I could see clearly from the reflection in the water that he wanted to kill me from behind with a dagger. I am well aware that I am not his match. That was why I pretended to lose my balance and fall in. That made it inconvenient for him to take action, while I could call for help. Don’t tell me that you are unaware. Why would elder brother Jun go back on his word and summon younger brother Lin to the palace? I don’t believe in the slightest that there is something urgent that involves younger brother Lin. You definitely are up to something and deliberately sent younger brother Lin away. Furthermore, why would you leave me alone with him at the Overlooking Wave Pavilion without a single bodyguard? That isn’t your style. Most importantly, who was it that sent maids to have me wear gold thread body armor? Are you concealing something from me? Is that Yun Lu a Southern Chu spy? If it weren’t for the fact that he would reveal a flaw by failing in the assassination and harming your plan, what need would there for me to pretend to fall into the water since it would have been impossible for his dagger to penetrate the gold thread armor?”
Huo Cong smiled faintly and answered, “There is no need for you to get involved with this matter. This is all Sir’s intentions. In fact, I can see that Yun Lu could not steel himself to perform the task. Besides, there were bodyguards secretly protecting you. He definitely wouldn’t have succeeded. Do not reveal what’s happened today.”
Roulan stared at him blankly. At this moment, the expression on her elder brother Huo’s face was the same as when her father teased her. Shivering, she decided to sincerely sympathize with that young man who had sought to murder her.
Footnotes:长乐, Changle – lit. everlasting happiness; these are the same characters as Princess Changle 力大无穷, lidawuqiong – idiom, lit. inexhaustible strength; fig. extraordinary strength, as strong as an ox 自求多福, ziqiuduofu – idiom, fig. sympathy, you’re on your own 棋谱, qipu – in Japanese, kifu; game record for weiqi