Huo Cong, Marquis of Wen of the fourth rank, came from humble origins. In the twenty-fifth year of Gaozu’s Wuwei era, he was rescued and taken in by Major Jiang Zhe of the Prince of Yong’s residence. At the time, Huo Cong was employed as a servant in the Cold Courtyard. Afterwards, Emperor Taizong bestowed Zhe’s former residence upon Princess Changle of Ning. Cong remained in the Cold Courtyard as a servant. He would frequently sneak peeks at the manuscripts and documents that Zhe had left behind, and was discovered by the Princess of Zhaohua. Taking pity on him, the Princess wrote a letter to the Marquis of Chu about this matter. Hearing of it, Zhe was moved and sent a letter to Princess Changle, having her find a teacher to instruct Cong. Afterwards, when Zhe returned from the army, he read Cong’s writings and was overjoyed, taking Cong as his disciple.Although Zhe was renowned as a talented scholar of the age with beautiful literary works that were known throughout the world, he only dipped cursorily into these subjects. Cong was meticulous by nature, reading only the classics and histories, surpassing the master. Throughout his life, Cong was known as the ancestor who developed the art of calligraphy. Cong treated Zhe as his father …—Yong Dynastic Records, The Biography of the Marquis of Wen
At the end of the twelfth month of the twenty-eighth year of Great Yong’s Wuwei era, the Zezhou main army encampment was filled with jubilation. After years of deadlock, they had finally won a great victory. All of the soldiers and officers of the army beamed with happiness at this victory and the hefty rewards that the emperor had bestowed. The purses of the entire army overflowed with money. Victory and rewards filled everyone present with elation.
After Long Tingfei had retreated from Zezhou, Li Xian, the Prince of Qi, had taken advantage of the clear weather and lack of snowfall to set up camp on the border of Qinzhou. After undergoing the month-long struggle, the three hundred thousand Yong soldiers and two hundred thousand commoners serving as porters had constructed a camp that was a hundred li wide.1 This time, the Yong army was not going to permit any Northern Han raiders from entering Zezhou.
With the new year approaching, the soldiers and officers were allowed to take turns coming and going, yet Zezhou’s main encampment still maintained a tight defense. Although there weren’t any towns or villages nearby, merchants in pursuit of profit had long ago established a temporary market nearby. And though the buildings of the market were simple and crude, they were very hospitable, possessing restaurants, brothels, and casinos, among other entertainment. In addition, there were all kinds of goods and commodities being sold.
The Prince of Qi did not oppose the existence of the market. After all, without their existence, it would be difficult to endure the winter. However, for security purposes, the Prince of Qi ordered the army to control the market, preventing Northern Han spies from infiltrating and gathering military intelligence. Even though no orders had been issued, everyone knew that an invasion of Northern Han would be launched in the spring.
In the main tent of the army’s center, I reclined on a soft couch, reading letters which I had received from home. This time, the emperor had dispatched an imperial envoy to issue his rewards, and the envoy had brought along letters from home.
Both Princess Changle and Roulan had written me. Although I was deeply curious as to what Roulan had written, I was completely filled with longing for Changle. As a result, I opened her letter first. Princess Changle’s letter was very long, filling seven pages. From the ink marks that were old and new, it was clearly not written in one sitting.
It was probably written as things came to her mind with several lines jotted down every day before being handed to the imperial envoy.
This servant’s journey went smoothly. Only because Shen’er was under the care of Great Master True Compassion was this servant unable to see him many times. Shen’er is already able to walk, but cannot stand for long. When husband returns, you will be able to see Shen’er walk on his own.
Third brother treats Lin’er coldly. Although this servant is dissatisfied since the two of us have not met in many years, third brother was on orders from the emperor to escort this servant back to the capital, so it was inconvenient for this servant to intervene. I could only ensure that Lin’er and Roulan did not leave my side. This servant worries heavily. At present, third brother’s power reaches the Heavens and yet his rancor towards sixth brother still remains. This servant is afraid that the internal struggle between brothers will happen again.
Received a secret edict from the Emperor stating that rumors have spread throughout the capital of the grave defeat at Zezhou. Knowing that husband is at Zezhou, this servant knew that it would be impossible. But wherever the rumors spread, the common people panic. This servant had no choice but to slow her journey and receive the families of the local officials of the lands which she passed.
We were welcomed at the outskirts of the city by the Crown Prince. This servant was a bit embarrassed by the gravity of the ceremony. Although the Crown Prince is young, he is intelligent and kindhearted. Roulan and the Crown Prince were childhood friends. Their reunion showed that they both retained their affection from the olden days. Although Lin’er is proud and aloof, the Crown Prince treated him with sincerity. Lin’er treats the Crown Prince as his elder brother. Imperial Brother has ordered Lin’er to accompany the Crown Prince in his studies, leading to critical murmurings within the capital.
There is a matter that has left this servant uneasy. Lady Sima of Decorated Beauty, a daughter of a former aristocratic family of Shu, tried to poison a pregnant Talented Lady. Although stopped by the empress, the Talented Lady died after giving birth. The Second Prince is piteous. His mother’s status was petty and low, innocent and yet murdered. Fortunately, Imperial Concubine Cheng upheld justice and reached out to save them. Imperial Sister-in-Law has already ordered that the Second Prince take Concubine Cheng as his mother. Since Concubine Sima tried to murder a prince and murdered his mother, her crimes are not light. According to national law and palace regulations, she should be beaten to death.Who could have expected that third brother would personally come to plea for leniency? He claimed that he requires the aristocratic families of Shu to defend the Hanzhong region. “The Sima family’s contributions have been outstanding. If a daughter of that family is killed, the Hanzhong region will likely fall into chaos.” Imperial Sister-in-Law had no choice but to commute Concubine Sima’s death sentence. But the Mother Empress and everyone in the harem was filled with hate. Imperial Brother has few children. If this matter is handled in such an overly conciliatory manner, additional, similar incidences will likely occur. When this servant arrived in the capital, Mother Empress entrusted the handling of this matter to this servant. Imperial Sister-in-Law passed on a secret edict from the emperor. That very night, this servant had Concubine Sima beaten to death within the Cold Palace. Although this servant was only following the Emperor’s command, it is difficult for this servant to be at ease, fearing that third brother will bear grudges against this servant over this matter. Under Imperial Brother’s protection, this servant is in good health and is only afraid that this affair will implicate husband. This servant hopes that husband will make a note of this.
This servant has learned that the Southern Chu army has advanced upon Jiameng Pass. Imperial Brother has dispatched third brother back to the Hanzhong region. This servant is uneasy. Husband’s previous letter mentioned the heartlessness of Lu Can. That child hails from a family that has served in the military for generations, and was personally taught the art of war by husband. This servant is afraid that the Hanzhong region cannot be defended. In addition, the schism between third brother and the imperial household still exists. This servant feels that third brother’s mind is ominous and fears that a rebellion will occur in the Hanzhong region. It is normally inappropriate for this servant to show an interest in these matters of state. However, if the Hanzhong region falls into chaos and the war with Northern Han has not ceased, this servant cannot bear to have husband be away for so long. It makes this servant apprehensive.
Today, Hai Zhongying secretly entered the capital, requesting an audience with this servant, asking to take Head Maid Zhou as his wife. This servant has long known of the deep affection between the two. It is only that Head Maid Zhou’s name was within the palace registry. Merchant Hai frequently sails the high seas, and merchants do not part lightly from profit, so this servant had some reservations and did not raise the subject. Seeing Merchant Hai’s sincerity, this servant has agreed. The day before last, I asked for Mother Empress to issue an edict, removing Duanniang’s name from the palace registry, planning the wedding for the end of the year. Although the household affairs are handled by Supervisor Dong and Xiaoliuzi, the inner residence requires women. The Empress has selected a lady-in-waiting from within the palace to promote into service in the inner residence. Although this is a special grace, this servant does not know husband’s intentions and so was not willing to permit it.
Finished reading the letter, I sighed softly. Changle was overthinking things, worried that the emperor would arrange for someone by my side to monitor me. In fact, the total number of household troops and servants in the princess’s residence numbered at least several hundred. In addition, all of them had been personally arranged by the empress. Planting a few spies would have been easy. What need was there to employ such a convoluted method? Further, the lady-in-waiting selected by the empress would definitely be capable and efficient. She would definitely be able to relieve the heavy responsibilities on Changle’s shoulders. Allowing her to stay could only be of benefit. It did not matter even if she were responsible for monitoring the princess’s residence. I didn’t have anything that needed to be concealed or hidden. Besides, from the handling of Concubine Sima’s situation, the emperor and the empress considered Changle as a capable assistant. With this, there would definitely be some secrets that needed to be transmitted. With this lady-in-waiting, we would have a more than suitable communications channel, which was exactly what was needed.
Picking up the brush, I wrote a response, having Changle preside over the wedding between Hai Zhongying and Head Maid Zhou. In addition, I told her that we needed to accept the empress’s kind intentions. I did not make any mention of the matters relating to the Prince of Qing. I did not want Changle to be bothered by matters of state. The emperor would naturally be the one to worry about these things. In addition, I had no intention of going to the Hanzhong region. What a joke! My reputation there was probably extremely poor. I did not forget the situation relating to the King of Shu. However, the Embroidered Union had developed quite well in the Hanzhong region and in Sichuan. However, I had not received any particular intelligence regarding those territories in recent days. It seemed that I needed to give Chen Zhen a nudge.
After finishing my response to Changle, I picked up Roulan’s letter. After opening it and reading only a few lines, I was infuriated. The little girl actually proudly stated that she had complained to the empress about my ban on writing letters to the crown prince. The empress had gone so far as to agree to lecture me when I returned to the capital.
Fortunately, the latter part of the letter was filled with her bragging about being taken out in disguise by the emperor emeritus to have some fun. It seemed like the emperor emeritus’s doting upon Roulan wasn’t normal. Roulan’s gleeful narrative made it feel like I was enjoying the scenery of Chang’an along with her. Apart from this, the letter was filled with descriptions of the games that she played with Li Jun and Li Lin after the crown prince had finished his studies in the Southern Study of the palace. I felt my heart sour. This little girl seemed able to be jovial and joyful everywhere she went and seemed to restrain me by nature. Playing so happily yet still remembering to tell on me.
At the end was written a strange matter. Roulan mentioned what she experienced when she slipped into the Cold Courtyard to play. Because that was my former residence, within were preserved many documents and precious books. As a result, even after so many years, there were still individuals assigned to protect and clean it. Since she had been ridiculed by Li Lin for not understanding poetry and literature after he had spent several days studying with Li Jun, Roulan thought of going to my former study to find a rare book to make things difficult for Li Lin. Because I had not yet returned to the capital, the ban on entry into the Cold Courtyard remained. Roulan had snuck inside. After all, it was impossible for the guard around the Cold Courtyard to be as strict and tight as before. However, Roulan had discovered something interesting. There was a little boy who took advantage of being alone to sneak peeks at my collected works and library. Roulan had originally wanted to deliver this young servant boy to Princess Changle. However, after some investigation, Roulan discovered that the boy’s name was Huo Cong and was someone whom I had brought into the prince’s residence. These last several years, he had remained in the Cold Courtyard tidying the plants. Roulan thought it over. If this matter were to be discovered, Huo Cong would definitely be driven from the princess’s residence. Although she was naughty and mischievous, Roulan was soft-hearted and was unwilling to tattle on the little boy. She forced Huo Cong to explain poetry and literature to her. From Roulan’s words, Huo Cong explained it better than I ever did, because she could understand.
Reaching this point, I could not help sinking into contemplation. That year when I ran into the subordinates of the Eastern Sea and the Prince of Qing, I had rescued this orphan. The boy had a good pair of stubborn and unyielding eyes. However, at the time, I was focused on the struggle over succession and didn’t have the time to pay attention to the child. From what I remembered, that child had become a servant in the Prince of Yong’s residence. Because I once witnessed his skill at tending to flora, I had arranged for him to come and serve in the Cold Courtyard. However, I had not paid any attention to the boy. Who would have known that he was still at the Cold Courtyard? Moreover, from Roulan’s words, he seemed to be a studious child eager to better himself.
I thought of how even though I, Jiang Zhe, had a reputation as a gifted scholar, all of my disciples were military commanders. There was no need to even mention Roulan. If she was interested in studying, of course I’d teach her. As for Shen’er, although he was young, it did not seem like he had the potential to be a scholar. Now that he was a student of Great Master True Compassion, he shouldn’t have any problems becoming a martial arts expert. As for literary ability, I did not have any excessive expectations. After thinking it over, I realized that my political astuteness and political wisdom2 actually did not have an inheritor. Thinking of this, I was touched. Taking out the letter that I had penned to the princess, I asked her to arrange for a teacher who could educate Huo Cong. I believed that if Huo Cong was as decent as expected, I would take him as a disciple. Even if I was not impressed, it was still a good thing to nurture talent.
Setting down the letters from home, I once again took out the emperor’s secret letter. Upon it was written the current situation. There had been no signs of Southern Chu mobilizing and dispatching troops. Because of the emperor’s plundering of Jianye, although the Southern Chu officials deeply feared Great Yong, that fear was not more than hatred. In reality, the current individual in control of the Southern Chu government was Shang Weijun. That man probably itched to use money and valuables to purchase peace. Over these last several years, Southern Chu not only routinely paid reparations totaling five hundred thousand taels of silver, but also had to send all kinds of precious items as tribute—women, gold, silk, among others. Of my businesses in Southern Chu, the taxes levied by the Southern Chu government were three times the original figure.
Although Southern Chu still had Lu Can and Rong Yuan, their military strength did not increase in the slightest. There was nothing that Southern Chu could do about this. Armies relied upon enormous quantities of equipment and provisions. Without money, it would be impossible for Southern Chu to train and sustain troops. However, I still admired Lu Can. These last several years, he had implemented the tuntian3 policy in Sichuan. In addition, with the enormous sums acquired from the waterborne smuggling on the Yangtze River and the ocean, Lu Can not only trained an army of elite troops in Sichuan, but also provided assistance to Rong Yuan in the Jingxiang region. Of course, not many people knew of the illicit activities that Lu Can was involved in. Even Southern Chu’s Prime Minister Shang Weijun did not truly understand Lu Can’s activities. After all, it could be said that Southern Chu’s military was completely under the Lu family’s control. If Shang Weijun pressed too closely, it was likely that even before the Yong army had descended south, internal chaos would have consumed Southern Chu.
As for how I learned of this matter, it was because both the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets and the Embroidered Union were involved in the smuggling. However, I had no intention of stopping this matter. Besides, the smuggling provided me with a hundred thousand taels of silver on an annual basis. Having control over the Southern Chu army’s financial resources was enough to make me pleased with myself. If necessary, I could cut off Southern Chu’s smuggling routes at any time. If that were to happen, the destitute Southern Chu army would be unable to make ends meet. However, this kind of sharp tool could naturally only be used at the critical moment. Even with the Southern Chu army marching on Jiameng Pass, I had no intention of using it. After all, it was impossible for Great Yong to fight on two fronts. Before Northern Han was conquered, Southern Chu’s hopes and dreams could not be severed.
After flipping through the emperor’s secret letter and the report from the Ministry of War, I suddenly felt something was off. How could all of this be so coincidental? Northern Han had just been defeated and Southern Chu dispatched troops? In addition, the Prince of Qing’s behavior was very strange. To the best of my knowledge, the Prince of Qing had the ability to manage the Hanzhong region for so many years. Not even the Fengyi Sect was able to touch him at the height of their power. How could that kind of man reveal his differences with the imperial household? It was unimportant that he hated the Prince of Qi, but he should not be causing trouble when the Prince of Qi was battling Northern Han. Although Concubine Sima hailed from an aristocratic family in Shu, the state of Shu, after all, had been conquered. Her blunder made it reasonable to condemn the Sima family, to say nothing of executing Concubine Sima. If the Prince of Qing ensured that the Sima family was not implicated, it would have been more than enough. A single daughter should not have been enough to cause a rupture between the Sima family and the Yong court. Why did it feel like the Prince of Qing’s behavior was too excessive and unbridled? These three matters must definitely be linked. However, I could not see the connection at the moment.
After thinking for some time, I could not make heads or tails of it. Setting down the documents, I walked out of my tent. It was close to nightfall. The air outside was extremely frigid. Feeling the cold air hit my face, I shivered. The weather up here in the north was truly difficult to endure. Although I had left Southern Chu for many years, I was still not used to the cold of the north. The cold air greatly cleared my head. I decided that I might as well stop thinking about it. I began to wander about the camp aimlessly.
After strolling about for a bit, I suddenly saw Xiaoshunzi walk into a small tent with his head bowed. Curiosity stirred within me. He would frequently disappear these last several days. I originally had assumed that he was learning some new techniques. Who would have thought that he was here? After checking my surroundings, I discovered that I had stumbled upon the holding area for important prisoners. However, why was Xiaoshunzi here?
Although I knew that I could not perform any rude actions, I was truly curious. I deliberately walked over to a location near the small tent. Although it was still quite far from the small tent, at the very least it would prevent my bodyguards from hearing what was said, while I could hear everything clearly. I adopted a look of deep contemplation, as if thinking over some tactics. In reality, I was concentrating my hearing, carefully listening to what was going on inside.
Ling Duan lay in bed, a frigid and mournful look in his eyes. He was the only survivor of Ghost-Faced General Tan Ji’s Ghost Cavalry. Even now, he remembered that at the very last moment, having lost their horses, the last few remaining Ghost Cavalry bodyguards protected General Tan from countless lances and sabers. After his comrades had fallen one by one, the only ones left were him and the general. In fact, Ling Duan hardly believed he was still alive at that moment. While shouting loudly, “capture Tan Ji alive,” the Yong army had swarmed over. The whole time, the general had protected him. Although he could at times watch the general’s back, it was clear that the general was bearing the brunt of the attacks. At that moment, Ling Duan realized that the general was risking his own life to protect his. Filled with gratitude and shame, Ling Duan could only defend at all costs. Only over my dead body will I allow you to attack the general’s rear! This was Ling Duan’s only thought. In the end, a Yong officer had seen that Ling Duan was General Tan’s weakness, focusing his attacks upon Ling Duan. Just when the officer’s lance was about to pierce through Ling Duan’s throat, General Tang used his arm to block the strike. However, with this, the situation became even more dangerous. Surrounded by tens of thousands of troops, badly injured and horseless, what hope was there for survival?
It wasn’t long before Ling Duan had been injured, falling to the ground. General Tan stood there immovable, his dagger-axe forming an impenetrable defense, protecting Ling Duan and preventing the bloodthirsty Yong soldiers from killing him. Even when General Tan was killed, he still protected Ling Duan with his body. Unable to move an inch, Ling Duan watched as the general’s dagger-axe danced in the air, taking countless lives. As he watched General Tan be surrounded and killed, the general did not say a single word at any point. However, Ling Duan could see the encouragement in the general’s eyes, encouraging him to take care of himself and stay alive. When Tan Ji finally fell, Ling Duan fainted.
When he had woken up within the Yong army encampment, aside from grief and humiliation, there was a hint of joy. He had not yet fully tasted the beauty of life. Death was not something he wished for. However, he did not know his fate after he was taken captive. He did not harbor any grudge against the soldiers and officers of Great Yong, because General Tan had long since stated that a murderer should always be prepared to be killed. At the time, he was a member of the Ghost Cavalry. Countless unfortunate souls had died to the blade of his dagger-axe. Today, although the general and his comrades had perished at the hands of the Yong army, even causing the deaths of his two elder brothers, Ling Duan did not resent the Yong army. He only hated the Heavens … Why did the world have to be consumed by the chaos of war, causing the lives of ordinary people like him to be worthless? Of course, although he did not hate the Yong army, he would not feel any gratitude at being rescued by the Yong army. If the opportunity arose, Ling Duan hoped to be able to return to the battlefield to attack his enemies. General Tan had proclaimed that any hatred and enmity should be resolved on the battlefield. However, it was not easy to escape. As a captive, even if he were not executed, he would be sent into penal servitude. How could he return to Northern Han?
Leaving aside Ling Duan and his inner turmoil, he was not the only one within this tent. All of the captives had been imprisoned within the army camp. Regardless of seniority, each tent housed twelve captives. None of the tents had beds or lamps. Only those with prestige had special treatment. Ling Duan’s special treatment was because he was one of the Ghost Cavalry by Tan Ji’s side. However, the status of the other captive in the tent was a bit strange. That man was a squad leader under Shi Ying’s command and was named Li Hu. Although the man was valiant and fierce, he was hotheaded and reckless, and had a lowly status. Why was he imprisoned under such special conditions?
However, since that man was a subordinate of Shi Ying, Ling Duan was unwilling to pay him any attention because of the acrimony between Tan Ji and Shi Ying. It was only when the man had proudly claimed that he had knocked Great Yong’s Army Supervisor, the Marquis of Chu, into the water that Ling Duan understood. Although Li Hu had not been able to kill the marquis, he remained quite pleased with himself. Ling Duan looked at the fool with sympathy. Although he did not know who the Marquis of Chu was, it was clear that this fellow had been rescued and given medical treatment in order to more easily torment him in the future. This was similar to the need to fatten a pig before the slaughter. However, after thinking it over, Ling Duan did not inform this dim-witted fellow of his perilous future. After all, their lives were already not in their own hands. Even if I learned about it, it would not be any use. It was better to allow him to spend a few days comfortably.
As Ling Duan’s mind was wandering, a man walked in. This man was a youth in azure robes. His features were exquisitely handsome, carrying hints of femininity. However, the expression on his face was austere like the snow blowing through the cold sky. After one glance, Ling Duan laid down again on his bed. That man was a frequent visitor these last several days. It was quite strange … every visit, the man only asked about the conditions of their injuries. Afterwards, he would only say a few idle words before departing. Although the man’s bearing was remote and uncaring, there was not a hint of contempt. Every single time he came, he would bring top quality medication and some finely prepared food.
Ling Duan discovered that after this man started to visit, the soldiers guarding them seemed to have increased. In addition, those soldiers were all respectful. From these signs, Ling Duan was able to realize that this visitor’s identity was not ordinary. However, when he asked the soldiers outside, Ling Duan saw each of them shiver in fear. None of them were willing to reveal the identity of the visitor. Nevertheless, even though this man was amiable, Ling Duan did not have any wish to approach him. Maybe because of the years that he had spent on the battlefield, Ling Duan was extremely sensitive to danger. He could feel that although this visitor had a refined and elegant appearance, with no hint of murder in his eyes, underneath the surface, Ling Duan could sense that he was someone who never took human life seriously.
As for Li Hu, he did not seem to be fond of seeing this man either. It wasn’t because Li Hu was that clever. Once, Ling Duan had heard Li Hu mumble, “sissy,” and other similar words. It seemed like Li Hu was once again blundering with his straightforward personality, not wishing to allow such feminine men to exist.
When the visitor arrived today, his behavior was very different from before. His hands were empty and had not brought anything with him. Although he did not speak, Ling Duan could sense the cold intent radiating from his body. Ling Duan could not help smile wryly inside. It seemed that this man intended to remove his civilized mask today. Ling Duan glanced sympathetically at Li Hu. He could sense that this man’s target was Li Hu.