Morning of the second day, while I was still half-asleep, I could faintly sense that someone was helping cover me with a blanket. The person’s movements were extremely unfamiliar. I suddenly woke up. To tell the truth, after gaining a new lease on life, I was no longer so indifferent about the affairs around me. I opened my eyes slightly, catching sight of the Prince Li Xian of Qi sitting beside the bed, a fearful look in his eyes. Xiaoshunzi was nearby, glaring at him like a tiger watching his prey. My heart was moved. From what the Prince of Yong told me, while I was struggling on the border between life and death, when the Prince of Qi learned that I needed a bear gallbladder to prolong my life, disregarding suspicions that could be engendered and delivered the bear gallbladder in his possession. Princess Changle sending Ningpo figwort and bear gallbladder was already outside my expectations. The Prince of Qi’s actions were even more shocking. Why would he do this, knowing that it would anger the crown prince? However, I did not fully open my eyes. What could I say? I had already made my choice. Even if I did not serve the Prince of Yong, it was unlikely that I would follow the Prince of Qi. This being the case, it was foreordained that our relationship will never be between a liege and vassal, why should I provoke something additional to worry about?
The Prince of Qi heaved a sigh, turning to leave. When he walked out, he stopped after walking out the door. Xiaoshunzi followed him out, closing the door behind him. Pricking my ears, I heard the Prince of Qi faintly speak to Xiaoshunzi, “I know that you are not an ordinary individual. Remember to ask your master what’s the point of getting mixed up in this situation? He is someone who does not cherish fame and money. The Fengyi Sect cannot be provoked lightly. Even if they don’t act, do you think that the crown prince does not have experts by his side? Suiyun is only a weak scholar. He was able to luckily preserve his life this time, but what about next time? Urge him to leave Chang’an.”
I could hear Xiaoshunzi’s cold and indifferent reply, “Your Highness lectures correctly. This servant will naturally pass this message on to the young master.”
After a while, Xiaoshunzi pushed open the door and walked in. His expression was filled with ice-cold killing aura. I looked at him strangely and asked, “What’s going on? Do you greatly dislike the Prince of Qi?”
Xiaoshunzi angrily answered, “Who wanted him to come cry crocodile tears?1 Don’t tell me that he believes that we aren’t unaware of the role that he plays?”
I raised my eyebrows, signaling my lack of understanding. Xiaoshunzi calmed down and stated, “These days, His Highness, the Prince of Yong, and I have both been occupied with young master’s recovery. Responsibility for interrogating and investigating of this residence was assigned to General Sima. General Sima discovered that the bow and arrows abandoned by the assassin came from the army. However, it is easier said than done to bring a bow and arrows into this residence. The security screening of guests for the banquet on the sixteenth day was extremely tight. On that day, there was absolutely no way for anyone to bring in a bow and arrows. The only possibility is if there was a traitor inside the prince’s household who hid the bow and arrows. However, General Sima’s investigation did not turn up any clues. Afterwards, we remembered that the Princess of Qi had come to pay a visit to the Princess of Yong on the fifteenth. We definitely could not carefully search the Princess of Qi’s carriage. Therefore, General Sima suspects that the bow and arrows were brought in by the Princess of Qi to be used by the assassin.”
I indifferently replied, “This kind of thing cannot be confirmed. The only thing that can be done is to reorganize the defenses of the prince’s residence. Although His Highness previously repeatedly suffered dangers, at the time, the Fengyi Sect had not yet formally supported the crown prince. Therefore, the defenses were sufficient. However, these defenses were naturally unsuitable faced with assassins from the Fengyi Sect.
Xiaoshunzi coldly inquired, “Young master, can you confirm that the assassin was from the Fengyi Sect?”
Seeing the fire in his eyes, I was afraid that he would recklessly go out to kill if I answered affirmative. Thus, I could only shake my head and respond, “I only say that the assassin’s level should not be below that of the Fengyi Sect. However, I did say that this was perpetrated by the Fengyi Sect. That day, I only caught a glimpse of the assassin. If I were to see that person again, I would be able to recognize the assassin. It is sufficient as long as I can affirm that Qin Qing was not involved.”
Xiaoshunzi frowned and replied, “Apart from him, there is only Xiahou Yuanfeng and Li Hanyou. General Pei was by young master’s side. The Duke of Wei’s identity should preclude him from committing such a deed.”
I faintly replied, “Xiahou Yuanfeng stated that he went out to relieve himself. Li Hanyou said that she did not like the raucous noise of the banquet, therefore after extending her congratulations, she went to the inner residence to see the Princess of Yong. These two individuals are both possible. However, we cannot eliminate the possibility that someone else snuck in. We all know that those skilled enough to directly head towards the Cold Courtyard to assassinate has to either be that day’s guests or traitors within the prince’s household. However, this cannot be used as proof. Therefore, although those two are the most suspicious, the Prince of Yong cannot have them arrested.” I could not say that the act was perpetrated by Li Hanyou. After all, I have never even seen her before. It was better to not utter such a guess without proof.
Xiaoshunzi coldly replied, “Matters that the Prince of Yong cannot handle, I can handle. As long as young master permits it, I will go immediately to kill them.”
I smiled and replied, “Don’t cause trouble. How can we not be reasonable? If this was perpetrated by them, they will make things difficult for us in the future. Do you believe that you won’t have the opportunity to deal with them? All right, it’s better if you go chase and kill Venomous Hand Evil Heart. Whatever happens, we cannot allow him to get away and leave trouble for the future.”
Xiaoshunzi indifferently replied, “Do not worry, young master. I have already rearranged the defenses of the Cold Courtyard. Previously, young master did not like having the guards to be too close. This time, we cannot do as young master wishes.”
I awkwardly replied, “This … I won’t drive them off.”
Seeing that I was this way, Xiaoshunzi said, “Once I have returned, we will act do as you wish. If I am not present, young master cannot have no one waiting upon your side.”
I repeatedly nodded my head. Because of this assassination, Xiaoshunzi felt extremely guilty, always feeling that he had not properly protected me. However, he was not an individual filled with remorse. Therefore, from now on, he would absolutely not allow me to do as I pleased. Although I was fond of being free and unrestrained, I valued my life more. Previously, they did not know of my importance and yet I had almost lost my life. Now, it was likely that every step I took from now on was dangerous. How would I dare to act willfully? In any case, it was only more guards around me. I only needed to ignore them.
Xiaoshunzi hurriedly departed. I knew that he was chasing after Venomous Hand Evil Heart to kill him. Reportedly, this was because Venomous Hand Evil Heart had escaped several attempts to capture him. If Xiaoshunzi did not chase after him, it was likely that he would escape back to Southern Chu. If he could not personally participate in killing the assassin, then Xiaoshunzi could not forgive himself.
I comfortably laid out. My most important mission right now was to recover. Thinking of Sang Chen’s warnings, I did not wish to live only ten more years. I needed to start practicing the abandoned nourishing methods again. Life was so richly colorful; wouldn’t it be a pity if I were to die before my time? Narrowly escaping death this time, I viewed many things indifferently. Even when thinking of Piaoxiang, my heart no longer dwelled on the pain and suffering, instead remembering her beauty and the happiness we once shared.
Leaving the Prince of Yong’s residence, Prince Li Xian of Qi indifferently return to his own residence. When he arrived at the entrance of the Golden Valley Courtyard that only he could enter, Li Xian saw Qin Zheng waiting with several maids. The Golden Valley Courtyard was Li Xian’s own chambers. Without permission, no one was permitted to enter. Even the Princess of Qi, Qin Zheng, was not permitted entry. Therefore, she waited by the entrance.
Seeing Qin Zheng, Li Xian revealed a mocking smile as he said, “Aiya! The Princess is pregnant, why are you standing here? This Prince cannot afford to take responsibility if something untoward were to happen. I wonder if the Princess has any admonishments?”
Qin Zheng’s body shook before she replied, “Your Highness, I, your servant, does not understand why Your Highness so treats this servant’s good intentions. The crown prince and you are in the same boat. However, days earlier you not only sent precious medicines, but also made inquiries, causing the crown prince to feel unhappy. Doesn’t your visit just now completely disregard the existence of the crown prince? I, your servant, is only giving consideration to Your Highness. Why does Your Highness …”
“Shut your mouth,” cried Li Xian coldly, his expression become grim and heartless, “Princess, do I need to speak of what you have done? Why did the Fengyi Sect suddenly think to assassinate Jiang Zhe? How was that bow and arrows brought into my brother’s residence? Do you really think this Prince is an idiot? Jiang Zhe once saved this Prince’s life. Although this Prince did not have the fortune to attain his service, who allowed you to exceed your place and meddle in these affairs,2 inviting your sect to kill him?”
Qin Zheng’s expression became frenetic. Although Li Xian was temperamental in the past, he was never in such a violent rage as today. She could not help but try to justify herself, “This wasn’t your servant’s idea. I, your servant, only mentioned that both Your Highness and the Prince of Yong both greatly valued Jiang Zhe. The order was issued by the Inner Hall. Your servant was only following orders.”
When she finished speaking, Qin Zheng’s complexion paled. She only realized that she had just admitted to keeping a close eye on Li Xian. Moreover, she had admitted to participating in the assassination attempt on the major of the household of the Marshal of Heavenly Strategies.
Li Xian coldly shot a glance at Qin Zheng, indifferently replying, “If you weren’t my wife, why would I go to the trouble of trying to remedying this situation? Zheng’er, you are truly stupid, not knowing who really treats you well. Fine … Go and rest well. For the time being, you must not go out, properly nourish the baby at home.”
Finished speaking, Li Xian turned and entered the Golden Valley Courtyard. Watching his departing icily cold figure, Qin Zheng wanted to catch up, but she could only watch as that painted black door close. Qin Zheng felt her heart grow increasingly cold. She did not know why, but she felt faint and her vision blurry, weakly collapsing into the arms of her maids.
Under the heavy moon and the faint stars, the black robed Venomous Hand Evil Heart stood on the riverbank, looking at the cluster of reeds on the opposite bank under the misty moonlight. His heart was filled with joy. This place was on the outskirts of Yongning county in Qizhou Prefecture3 and the Tian Family Town of Guangji county seat.4 Although the small ferry crossing here was obscure, this was someplace he was quite familiar with. This place was located on the remote boundaries of three counties. The surging Yangtze River flowed between the two shores here. The layers of unbroken chains of peaks served as obstacles. The vegetation was verdant and lush. The river here was also very narrow. This was ferry crossing most frequently used by spies from Southern Chu and Great Yong. He looked at the precipice on the shore, espying the four large characters, “Jiang nan Strategic Place.” However, there wasn’t the slightest hint of relaxation in his heart. Although this place was only known to certain individuals as the optimal location to steal across the river, those chasing after him weren’t only just operatives from the army, but also experts from wulin. They would definitely set an ambush here. Although he would be safe after crossing over that narrow strip of water, this was easier said than done.
Over the course of the entire journey, he had felt that he was skating on thin ice. The Prince of Yong’s order had spread to all the checkpoints within the borders of Great Yong. Although he had disguised himself and moved in secret, his trail had been discovered several times. Fortunately, his martial arts were outstanding and he was adept at moving in secret, and thus was luckily able to escape. Most hatefully, even the members of Great Yong’s jianghu, unconstrained by the authorities, had set him as their target. One reason was because the Prince of Yong had a majestic status in their minds. The other reason caused him to not know whether to laugh or cry. The only reason why Xiahou Yuanfeng was acknowledged as the number one young experts of Great Yong was because he was able to defeat the commander of the imperial guard, Pei Yun, in the competition. However, many believed that if the fight had continued, the outcome of the battle was still in doubt. Therefore, when those youthful experts of jianghu learned that he had fought Pei Yun to a draw, they believed that as long as they were able to defeat Venomous Hand Evil Heart, they would have the qualifications to challenge Xiahou Yuanfeng. Therefore, these various youthful experts began to also chase after Venomous Hand Evil Heart. After he had broken through several encirclements and obstacles, these youthful experts felt that had lost face. Unexpectedly, rumors spread that if Venomous Hand Evil Heart were to successfully escape back to Southern Chu, then the experts of Great Yong’s jianghu would be thoroughly discredited.5 When this happened, Venomous Hand Evil Heart truly found himself surrounded by enemies on all sides. Although he had luckily able to reach this location, it was extremely likely that there were enemies waiting ahead for him. Venomous Hand Evil Heart smiled slightly, putting his clothes in order, before walking towards the river bank.
When he was about a hundred paces from the river bank, Venomous Hand Evil Heart heard the twang of a bowstring. Like lightning, a silver arrow flew past his face, disappearing into the night. Venomous Hand Evil Heart immediately stood still, unhurriedly turning his head. Under the dim light of night, he caught sight of a white robed youth carrying a silver bow proudly gazing at him. By the youth’s side was a red robed woman, smiling sweetly. Venomous Hand Evil Heart’s expression changed. Indifferently, he inquired, “Good. So it is the Silver Bowed Wastrel Duanmu Qiu and the Flame Luocha Qiao Yan’er. That day, if it weren’t for your assassination attempt, how could the Prince of De been wounded? If I can kill you two today, then this journey to Great Yong will not have been in vain.”
At this moment, someone lightly laughed from behind him and stated, “Aiya! Duanmu, your glorious achievement is still remembered by others. A pity, it would have been better if you were successful that day.”
Following that clear and bright laughter, a small boat floated over from the center of the river. On it stood a thin, young Daoist priest. His two arms were longer than an ordinary person, matching his distinctly strange appearance, seemingly appearing to be like an immortal. However, his eyes were nimble and lively. It could be clearly seen that his temperament was cheerful.
When Duanmu Qiu heard this priest’s words, he could not help but flash a slight wry smile, as he replied, “Priest Bitter Bamboo,6 truly no good words are to be expected from a scoundrel.”7
At this moment, several individuals walked out from the left and right. On the left were two young women who were as beautiful as immortals – one looked like an elegant immortal, while the other looked innocent and pure. On the right were three young men with exactly the same appearances. The two young women had swords tied to their waists. The three young men each carried different weapons, a sword, a blade, and a soft whip.
Venomous Hand Evil Heart smiled slightly and stated, “As expected, it is only you lot that have been able to catch up. Isn’t it strange that even though the Prince of Yong’s household isn’t anxious, the crown prince, the Prince of Qi, and the Fengyi are actually quite anxious?”
These words were like a sharp sword penetrating into the hearts of these individuals. Aside from the youth on the boat, the complexion of everyone present changed. In passing, Venomous Hand Evil Heart took a leather canteen from his waist, slowly taking a drink of the fine liquor within. He said, “Everything is good about Great Yong. The only blemish is that its wine cannot compare with that of Southern Chu. Alas, I can only endure it for now. Once I’ve crossed the river, I’ll go to a wine shop to drink some fine liquor. Which of you will come first today? Is it the Silver Bow and Luocha in the service of the Prince of Qi? Or the Three Stalwarts from the crown prince’s household? Or the Third and Seventh Misses from the Fengyi Sect? Or is it possible that you are waiting for the Dragon Roaming the Waves, Daoist Priest Bitter Bamboo to make the first move?”
The three young men advanced one step. The sword carrying youth coldly said, “Venomous Hand Evil Heart, it’s enough that you ran amok in the Prince of Yong’s residence. And yet, you also caused the crown prince to be implicated. His Highness has ordered that you be brought back to the Prince of Yong’s residence to be punished for your crimes. It will be fine if you are willing to surrender. If you are unwilling, then don’t blame us for being merciless.”
Venomous Hand Evil Heart smiled indifferently and replied, “That’s fine. Let me first experience your combined moves. I have heard that you three are born of the same parents, sharing a connection. Our fight, the day before yesterday, was rushed and I did not have the opportunity to experience your skills. Since we have the opportunity today, let’s begin.”
The three young men moved forward as one. Although they stepped simultaneously, there was slight differences in their strides. The sword carrying young man took the lead, while the other two were half a step behind him. The three advanced like this. The jagged and yet harmonious cadence caused people’s hearts to become gloomy for no reason. After they had taken several steps, the three youth’s figures flashed and surrounded Venomous Hand Evil Heart. The sword shadows and blade lights combined with the flood dragon like soft whip to encircle Venomous Hand Evil Heart. These three were connected mentally, their combination was flawless. Venomous Hand Evil Heart had long ago experienced their ferociousness. In order to handle these three, he had already thought of a method long ago. Just as their formation was about to completely surround him, he used his full strength to throw himself at the whip user. He knew that of the triplets, the whip user had wisdom surpassing others. Intelligence people were often the most likely to show timidity. Sure enough, that youth involuntarily retreated half a step. If the formation was fully formed, then his two brothers would have seized the opportunity to attack from both sides. However, right now, his two brothers were slightly off. This slight difference was the difference between life and death. When Venomous Hand Evil Heart’s body swept past the whip using youth, blood flashed from the youth’s throat. However, Venomous Hand Evil Heart’s was also not having an easy time. The sword and blade flashed across his back, blood spraying forth. The two youths did not chase after the Southern Chu assassin, gazing at the corpse of their deceased brother. They were left dumbfounded.
At this moment, the two young women blocked Venomous Hand Evil Heart; they were the Flame Luocha and the Fengyi Sect’s Seventh Miss. Although the Flame Luocha was a woman, she was valiant and formidable looking. In comparison, the Seventh Miss’s face was childish and innocent, her appearance sweet. However, both women were vicious and fierce. Of the two swords, one was fierce and ruthless, while the other although gorgeous, had greater killing aura. Venomous Hand Evil Heart only exchanged several moves before he was drenched in sweat. At this moment, Duanmu Qiu notched an arrow to his bow. A silvery light shot towards Venomous Hand Evil Heart. Although he was able to dodge to the side, Qiao Yan’er took advantage of the distraction to use several sword moves to place him in an even more dangerous situation. The Seventh Miss’s sword techniques became increasingly gorgeous. The two women were becoming fiercer the longer they fought. At this time, the two remaining young men of the Three Stalwarts had already pounced on Venomous Hand Evil Heart from behind. The four combatants surrounded Venomous Hand Evil Heart, causing the Southern Chu assassin’s situation to become increasingly precarious.
To the side, the expression of the simple and yet elegant fairy, the Third Miss of the Fengyi Sect, was somewhat uneasy. In a loud voice, she called out, “Seventh sister, be careful! This man is crafty and cunning,8 defend yourself against his tricks.”
The four combatants became vigilant at the same time. They knew that not only did Venomous Hand Evil Heart have excellent martial arts, he was also extremely cunning. Otherwise, how would he have been able to escape to this place? But at this moment, Venomous Hand Evil Heart abruptly laughed heartily and said, “It’s too late! HAHAHAHA!”
Feeling dizzy, unexpectedly everyone weakly collapsed to the ground. Third Miss was baffled, wondering when she had fallen into the trap. Suddenly, she could feel the river breeze gently begin to puff. Looking towards Priest Bitter Bamboo, she sighed and said, “Who would have thought that Priest Bitter Bamboo, famous throughout all over China, is actually a Southern Chu spy. Truly unexpected.”
Priest Bitter Bamboo smiled slightly, putting away the silver cylinder in his hands. Both arms exerting strength, his boat swiftly reached the shore. With a smile, he said, “The Pavilion of Heavenly Strategies’ ‘Secret Floating Fragrance’ is good as expected, colorless and odorless. I only need to spread it using the breeze and yet its power is not diminished. Unfortunately, I can only use this silver cylinder once. To cost a thousand taels of gold is truly too expensive.”
Venomous Hand Evil Heart smiled and replied, “If I had not asked His Highness to purchase a cylinder, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to get your hands on it.” Turning to the collapsed experts, he continued, “Clearly you do not know that younger brother, Priest Bitter Bamboo, is a descendant of a prestigious family of Southern Chu. Although he became a priest at a young age, he has remained loyal to Southern Chu, surpassing those who sell their soul for gain.9 He should not blame for you lot suffering such a calamity.”
Finished speaking, he walked towards the remaining two brothers of the Three Stalwarts. He picked up and tested a sword. Just as he was about to stab down, a clear, cold, and sinister voice could be heard, “Wouldn’t it be a shame for you kill them so that there will be no spectators for the following performance?”
Venomous Hand Evil Heart trembled. Raising his head, he gazed over, catching sight of an azure robed young man standing not far. He was no more than twenty years of age, his appearance was delicate and handsome, and yet he carried with him a sinister aura. Under the dusky moonlight, he stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his expression as white as ice and snow.
Footnotes:猫哭耗子, maokuhaozi – idiom, lit. the cat weeps for dead mice; hypocritical pretense of condolences, crocodile tears越俎代庖, yuezudaipao – idiom, lit. to go beyond the sacrificial altar and take over the kitchen; fig. to exceed one’s place and meddle in other people’s affairs蕲州, Qizhou – a prefecture that centers on modern-day Qichun County (蕲春县) in Hubei Province广济县, Guangji Xian – Guangji County is now the modern-day county-level city of Wuxue (武穴)颜面扫地, yanmiansaodi – idiom, lit. for one’s face to reach rock bottom; fig. to be thoroughly discredited苦竹子, kuzhuzi – lit. priest/master bitter bamboo狗嘴里吐不出象牙, gouzuilitubuchuxiangya – idiom, lit. no ivory comes from the mouth of a dog; no good words are to be expected from a scoundrel诡计多端, guijiduoduan – idiom, lit. deceitful in many ways; wily and mischievous, full of craft and cunning见利忘义, jianliwangyi – idiom, lit. to see profit and forget morality; to act from mercenary considerations, to sell one’s soul for gain