Long Tingfei sat fearfully on a mat, silently gazing at the flickering lamplight. It had already been seven days since the defeat at Zezhou. With the border defenses temporarily without any issues, Long Tingfei had been recalled by the King of Northern Han back to Jinyang. Long Tingfei was originally full of guilt, only knowing that he would be reprimanded. He couldn’t have guessed that after he had arrived back in Jinyang, he had been summoned into the Jinyang Palace. The one who met him was Northern Han’s State Mentor, Jing Wuji.
Although Long Tingfei was not a disciple of the Devil Sect, he had received many teachings from Jing Wuji. He had long considered the Sovereign of the Devil Sect as his teacher. Long Tingfei would probably feel a lot better if he was scolded several times by Jing Wuji. However, the Sovereign of the Devil Sect did not mention a word about the defeat, only having Long Tingfei face the wall in this empty room for seven days.
Over these seven days, Long Tingfei had carefully pondered his mistakes in this hard-to-come-by tranquility, meticulously going over the before and after of the battle. However, no matter how he contemplated, Long Tingfei felt that even if he was forewarned, he would have at best only be able to fight to a Pyrrhic victory.
Could it be that his illustrious reputation was because he had not met a capable opponent? If that was the case, then was Jiang Zhe, who he had never met, his bane? The more he thought about these questions, the more frightened Long Tingfei became.
After seven days had passed, Long Tingfei surprisingly felt his clothes gradually loosen. He could not help smile wryly. He felt the load on his chest lighten. Although he understood the power of his enemy, Long Tingfei actually felt his mind grow serene. He did not have any other choice. The Yong army was on the border of Qinzhou. At the latest, war will erupt next spring. This war would not only determine Northern Han’s fate; it would also determine whether Great Yong had the strength to continue to advance north.
At this moment, someone pushed open the door and walked in. Long Tingfei did not turn around, remaining silent and not speaking a word. The man heaved a sigh and said, “The Sovereign has summoned you to meet with him.”
Only then did Long Tingfei rise to his feet. Straightening his clothes, he turned around to face that tall, middle-aged man who had come in. After saluting respectfully, Long Tingfei said, “Tingfei pays his respects to senior apprentice brother Duan.”
This middle-aged man was the first disciple of the Devil Sect Sovereign, Duan Lingxiao. Although Long Tingfei was not a disciple of the Devil Sect, he had once received the teachings from the sovereign. Duan Lingxiao treated him with great kindness and caring, so Long Tingfei viewed him as his elder brother. Right now, he did not dare to be impolite.
The inheritance of the Devil Sect was extremely rigorous and the sect did not casually take in disciples. Although many of Northern Han’s officers and soldiers were trained by the Devil Sect, they were at most honorary disciples. And though Jing Wuji had spent many years in Northern Han, he only had four disciples to his name. When including the disciples taken by the elders of the Devil Sect, there were no more than fifty individuals.
Of Jing Wuji’s four great disciples, the most senior was Duan Lingxiao, a disciple who had followed and attended to the Devil Sect Sovereign for many years. Jing Wuji was frequently in seclusion, declining visitors. The matters of the Devil Sect were almost entirely handled by Duan Lingxiao. This man had a dignified bearing, and was calm and shrewd. His martial arts skills were also extremely outstanding and he was considered the best candidate as the next generation’s sovereign. Tan Ji’s dagger-axe martial arts were taught by him.
The Devil Sect Sovereign’s second disciple was Su Dingluan and was one of the four generals under Long Tingfei. That man’s character was candid, valiant, and fierce, and most beloved by Jing Wuji. Unfortunately, he had died in Great Yong, his life being cut off in his prime.
The Sovereign’s third disciple was Xiao Tong and served as Long Tingfei’s bodyguard, responsible for obtaining military intelligence. He had a fierce, vicious, and firm personality. It was rare for him to make any mistakes when investigating military intelligence. He was one of Long Tingfei’s most trusted subordinates and most important assistants.
The fourth disciple was Qiu Yufei and was originally a disciple of the Freezing Moon branch. His first master had died when Qiu Yufei was still young and had entrusted the young boy to Jing Wuji. Qiu Yufei was only twenty-six years old, holding senior positions in both the Scorching Sun and Freezing Moon branches. He was erudite and versatile, a master of music. He was capable of using music to injure others and had an excellent natural aptitude for martial arts. The man was not fond of restrictions, happiest when wandering the lands. Aside from direct orders from the Devil Sect Sovereign, he did not show an interest in being involved in anything. Although outsiders knew that the Devil Sect Sovereign had four disciples, almost no one knew Qiu Yufei’s appearance and abilities.
Duan Lingxiao smiled slightly, remarking, “Tingfei, there is no need for you to be so distressed. Since the Sovereign has summoned you, he surely has a way to help you.”
Calming down, Long Tingfei smiled wryly and said, “Tingfei has already racked his brains but has not been able to come up with anything … and only hopes that the State Mentor is able to save this desperate situation.”
“Even if the Sovereign has a stratagem,” replied Duan Lingxiao evenly, “Without you, the Grand General, commanding from the front, it would be useless. Come along now. Fourth brother has returned and is also waiting with the Sovereign for you.”
Still some distance from the palace courtyard that Jing Wuji resided in, the breeze carried the sound of a zither. From the near-perfection of the zither music, Long Tingfei knew that it was Qiu Yufei playing. Long Tingfei smiled slightly and said, “Yufei’s skill with the zither has improved greatly.”
Right after Long Tingfei spoke these words, the music changed, the Heavens and the Earth engulfed by the sounds of battle. Long Tingfei could not help stopping his footsteps. He had a sense of déjà vu, as if he had heard this melody before. Long Tingfei could be said to be well versed in both brush and sword. After listening for a few moments, he suddenly recalled the drumbeats that came from within the enemy formation during the decisive engagement at Qinze. The rhythm of the drumbeats was somehow transformed into a zither piece. Long Tingfei stood there with disappointment and frustration. How could he forget what had happened that day? It was this rhythm that had rallied the minds and morale of the Yong army, resisting his assault. Long Tingfei clearly remembered that, when he had gazed into the distance at the Yong army center, he had caught sight of the thin and weak silhouette that had been standing on a dais sparing no effort to beat the drums with the drum mallets in his hands. It was that weak and feeble scholar who had caused him to fail at the cusp of victory.
Thinking of this, Long Tingfei suddenly understood why a bugle horn had blared to help him during the battle. Presumably, Qiu Yufei had arrived at Qinze. Seeing Jiang Zhe inspiring the Yong army with drumbeat, Qiu Yufei had used a bugle call to help the Northern Han army. Unfortunately, it had not succeeded. These last few days, Qiu Yufei was probably trying to fathom how to combine the rhythm of the drumbeats into his zither melody. Presumably that day’s defeat was not only Qiu Yufei’s defeat, but also a great humiliation for that arrogant youth.
Sighing softly, Long Tingfei continued forward, walking up the jade steps. Ahead was where Northern Han State Mentor Jing Wuji cultivated in seclusion, the Orchid Terrace.
The Orchid Terrace was a three-story tower, and was richly ornamented and beautiful. The Jinyang Palace was originally a temporary imperial residence used by the Eastern Jin Dynasty. During its existence of more than one hundred years, it was repeatedly expanded and renovated, creating a grand and magnificent palace. Although neither of the two Northern Han Kings were fond of luxury, performing only necessary repairs and not expanding the palace, the Jinyang Palace still possessed beautiful landscapes and majestic palace halls.
Located on the western side of the palace, the Orchid Terrace was the crown jewel. This location was where the King of Northern Han was fondest of lingering around. However, after Jing Wuji had been named the State Mentor, in order to display respect and affection, the King had specially bestowed the Orchid Terrace upon Jing Wuji to serve as his residence. From that point on, unless invited by Jing Wuji, no one, not even the king, was allowed to enter without permission.
They followed the Devil Sect Sovereign’s attendant up the Orchid Terrace. The third story of the Orchid Terrace was an open courtyard exposed to the elements. Up there was a yurt providing shade, the terraces held up by jade pillars and metal beams. The floor was carpeted with rich and beautiful felt rugs, cordoned off with jade railings. Beaded and muslin curtains hung from the entrance of the yurt, hiding the interior. It was a sumptuous dwelling that did not seem to belong to this world. Long Tingfei took the jade steps up the Orchid Terrace.
At the rear of the Orchid Terrace, in the center, stood a cozy couch. A middle-aged man in blue robes was lying down upon the couch. His eyes were closed, as if taking a nap. In front of the couch on the right was a young man in black robes sitting on the ground. Before the young man was a jade zither, which he was focused on playing. To the left of the couch was an incense burner emitting a faint fragrance, making this yurt seem like a paradise.
After taking a look, Long Tingfei walked to the mat at the center of the yurt and kneeled down. As for Duan Lingxiao, he advanced and saluted the man in blue, Jing Wuji, before sitting down.
Just then, with a “zheng” sound, a string of the zither broke. Crackling, the music from the zither abruptly stopped. The young man in black raised his head. His handsome features revealed a hint of grief. Jing Wuji sat up. Sighing, he said, “Yufei, your mind is disorderly … It seems that these last several days of recovery and practice were not enough to raise your spirits from that day’s mental shock.”
Shame appearing on his face, the young man in black kowtowed and replied, “Master, this disciple does not have any hobbies in this life aside from music. I am confident that I do not have any opponents in this world, but that Jiang Zhe with only a drum and coarse preparations was able to defeat this disciple. This disciple cannot accept this fact. However, this disciple does not know how to incorporate that rhythm into zither music. That Jiang Zhe is no more than thirty years old and is frequently bedridden. This disciple does not believe that his musical aptitude is superior to the painstaking practice of this disciple. Could it be that there is truly an individual with such outstanding innate skills?”
Jing Wuji glanced at Long Tingfei’s tall and straight body. Smiling, he asked, “Tingfei, do you believe that Yufei’s musical talent is inferior to that of Jiang Zhe’s?”
Hesitating, Long Tingfei answered, “This disciple is not familiar with music … but I feel that Yufei is superior to Jiang Zhe.”
“Yufei, these last few days, you have been splitting hairs over victory and defeat in music,” spoke Jing Wuji with a smile. “And have forgotten that you and that man had met on the battlefield. Your drumbeats and bugle call were able to influence the hearts and minds of the soldiers. However, the morale of the soldiers also affected your music. Right now, if that Jiang Zhe was allowed to beat the drums again, he would not likely be able to repeat the rhythm he performed that day. Yufei, while your musical ability is matchless in the world, our Northern Han army was unable to defeat the roused Great Yong army. As a result, your crushing defeat was not suffered in music. As for Jiang Zhe, he is adept at creating momentum from emotions and emotions from momentum. If you are able to grasp what it means for a man to be an integral part of nature, your martial arts will definitely advance by leaps and bounds.1 You cannot relax.”
A look of comprehension shone in Qiu Yufei’s eyes. Bowing again, he replied, “This disciple bows in thanks for master’s instructions.”
Hearing this, Long Tingfei felt his handsome face burn with shame. Seeing him like this, Jing Wuji smiled slightly and asked, “Tingfei, are you feeling shame because of your defeat?”
Prostrating, Long Tingfei answered, “Tingfei was incompetent, betraying the deep affection of His Royal Majesty and the State Mentor.”
Jing Wuji rose to his feet, walking forward to personally help Long Tingfei up. He said, “Tingfei, you’re mistaken. Who, aside from you, is able to lead two hundred thousand troops and halt the Yong advance for so many years? It has been a full fourteen years. At their peak, Great Yong deployed five hundred thousand troops at Zezhou. They attacked Qinzhou four times and even reached the walls of Jinyang on one occasion. However, since you took over command of the defenses at Qinzhou, it has been impossible for the Yong army to step foot into Northern Han territories. The King, the entire court, this Sovereign, and the people and soldiers of Northern Han, all know well of your meritorious service.
“Great Yong holds the fertile lands of the Central Plains and has countless famous generals. The current Yong emperor, Li Zhi, is Great Yong’s military deity. At present, the current commander stationed at Zezhou, the Prince of Qi, Li Xian, is one of the top generals of the present age, even without the foresight2 of his elder brother. Although the Yong troops stationed at Zezhou only number three hundred thousand, it has abundant resources. Any losses suffered will be rapidly replenished. As for our Northern Han, although it nominally has four hundred troops, aside from the two hundred thousand elite troops under your command, none of the other armies can be mobilized and transferred to help you. Although there are a hundred thousand troops at Daizhou, they are composed of regulars and militia. They are more than enough to handle barbarian incursions. But it is impossible to mobilize them to battle the Yong army. Jinyang also has a hundred thousand troops, but they are responsible for defending the various parts of Northern Han. As such, your two hundred thousand troops exhaust the entire country. Each loss suffered is difficult to replace.
“Under these circumstances, if not for your almighty leadership, preventing Great Yong from having the strength to invade, our Northern Han would likely have been conquered long ago. Although you have lost this battle, it is difficult to blame you without sufficient backing.”
With a distressed expression on his face, Long Tingfei replied, “This is all because this general did not see through their schemes. A pity that Tan Ji and all those soldiers perished …”
Forcing a smile onto his face, Jing Wuji stated, “This cannot be blamed upon you. Let alone yourself, even this Sovereign did not expect that Jiang Zhe would have such courage, using an ordinary commander to confront you. In addition, the Prince of Qi placing such trust upon Jiang Zhe is also something that could not have been known in advance. The meticulously arranged rumors have also been curbed by Great Yong’s Imperial Household. Who could have known that the delicate Princess Changle could stabilize the minds of so many local officials? Now that the Prince of Qi and Jiang Zhe have won this victory, if we are to seek to sow discord again in the future, it will be more difficult than soaring to the Heavens.”
“State Mentor, although Southern Chu has advanced upon the Hanzhong region,” declared Long Tingfei bitterly, “General Lu has stated clearly. It won’t be easy to have Southern Chu truly attack. Right now, the entire Southern Chu court is full of fear. Although General Lu is eager for battle, he knows that it’s impossible.”
Taking Long Tingfei’s hand, Jing Wuji led him to the couch. Gesturing for Long Tingfei to sit down, Jing Wuji leisurely said, “There are some things that this Sovereign has been managing for a long time now. Now is the right time to inform you of these matters. This Sovereign has long known of Northern Han’s disadvantages. If we cannot catch Great Yong in troubles within and without, it is impossible for our Northern Han to conquer the world. As a result, these years, this Sovereign has made arrangements in both Southern Chu and the Kingdom of Shu. Do you think that Lu Can’s advance upon the Hanzhong region was a decision that he made alone? At present, a junior apprentice brother of the Freezing Moon branch is currently a ranking general within the Southern Chu military. Although we serve different masters, neither side will let such a mutually beneficial opportunity to slip by. Several years ago, I had already set up communications with him. Lu Can’s advance upon the Hanzhong region was his suggestion. Although this step will not be able to change anything, it will ensure that Great Yong will be unable to brazenly transfer troops to Zezhou. With this, you should be able to defend Qinzhou.”
Hearing this secret information, Long Tingfei was greatly astonished. However, he did not reveal his shock, only stating, “If that is the case, this disciple can defend Qinzhou. It is just that the Southern Chu army can only provide support from a distance. If Great Yong sets its heart on it, it is possible for them to mobilize five hundred thousand troops at Zezhou.”
Jing Wuji smilingly replied, “This is only natural. Although the Southern Chu military cannot send troops for the time being, once the situation has stabilized, even if the Southern Chu court does not allow it, Lu Can will not let such a golden opportunity slip by. In any case, there is no need to speak further of this. The thorn that this Sovereign planted into the side of Great Yong has already begun to act. When the Prince of Qing, Li Kang, returned this time to the Hanzhong region, he immediately purged the civil and military officials, placing all of the trusted subordinates of Yong Emperor Li Zhi under house arrest. If not for Li Kang’s unwillingness to reveal his rebellious intentions, they would likely have already been executed. Although the Yong court is currently still in the dark, it won’t be long before Li Kang’s rebellious intentions are discovered.”
Amazed, Long Tingfei voiced, “Disciple once heard Princess Bi speak of the discord between the Princes of Qing and Qi. However, he shouldn’t be on bad terms with Li Zhi … Now that the new monarch of Yong has settled onto the throne, it is a bit strange for a rebellion to happen right now.”
Jing Wuji revealed a meaningful smile, as he explained, “There is something that you do not know. In the past, the Prince of Qing, Li Kang, received martial arts and military training. He has a deep hatred for Great Yong. The man is prejudiced, cruel, and untamed, already difficult to be broken and made obedient. Although he is nominally under only one man, the Prince of Qing views his position as a lot higher than what the Yong Emperor thinks. Were this not the case, it is possible that this man would endure for several more years. However, now that the Prince of Qi is about to regain his position, it is difficult for Li Kang to continue to feign civility.3 However, the man’s schemes are truly quite deep. He has deliberately formed ties with the former aristocratic families of Shu in the Hanzhong region, winning over rebels who desire to restore the Kingdom of Shu. Although he is a member of the Yong Imperial Family, based upon his family background, he was actually able to convince those individuals of the depth of his enmity towards Great Yong.
“The incident in the Yong harem was a result of that fellow’s crafty schemes. He incited the Sima family to deliver a daughter to the harem, who then committed a grievous crime. Afterwards, he forced the Yong Imperial Household to have her beaten to death, while proclaiming that she had died suddenly to protect the Prince of Qing’s face. This gives the Prince of Qing an opportunity to exploit, telling the Sima family that the Yong Imperial Household was unwilling to accept a woman of a destroyed state as a concubine and deliberately had her harmed. With this, the former aristocratic families of Shu will be filled with hatred. Li Kang’s control of the situation in Hanzhong was partly a result of the help these families gave him. At present, even if Yong Emperor Li Zhi were to learn of this matter, he would not dare to act carelessly to try and prevent those arrested from being harmed and to ensure that Li Kang is not forced to collaborate with Southern Chu. Because of this, with external enemies in Southern Chu and Northern Han and internal problems in the Prince of Qing, the situation that Great Yong faces is not encouraging.”
Long Tingfei could not help asking, “Who was it that taught the Prince of Qing martial arts? Is there any way to use him to influence the Prince of Qing and have the Prince act?”
Jing Wuji broke out into laughter and answered, “This is easy! Go ask Lingxiao.”
Glancing at Duan Lingxiao and seeing him smile faintly, excitement flashed in Long Tingfei’s eyes. However, he said, distressed, “State Mentor is farsighted as expected, making arrangements years ago for this very day. However, the most pressing matter at the moment is that the Yong army will likely attack Qinzhou next spring. At present, Southern Chu is taking a wait-and-see attitude, while the Prince of Qing has yet to raise his banner in rebellion. If we are to bear the brunt of the Yong military, our losses will likely be disastrous. Even if we win, it will be difficult for us to gain any advantages.”
Jing Wuji sighed. “There is nothing we can do about this. Although the Prince of Qing is under our influence, it is also because his ambitions are truly enormous. If we were to have him rebel right now, it is akin to having him throw his life away, as it will be difficult for him to succeed. Although we have someone in Southern Chu, they are below the King and Prime Minister. In addition, the authority held by the Lu family is above his. It is impossible for him to do more than he has already done. Moreover, Southern Chu’s interests are the focus of his mind. However, this is the last opportunity to check Great Yong. If Great Yong is able to escape its encirclement, they will be able to unify the world in the near future.”
Duan Lingxiao interrupted, “There is a method, which we can use if we wish, to prevent the Yong army from attacking next spring. Right now, the commander-in-chief of Yong’s northern army is the Prince of Qi. However, the one ensuring that the northern frontier is firm like a rock is the Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe. If he is killed then Yong’s northern army will certainly fall into disarray. In addition, there will be no one to reconcile the Yong Emperor and the Prince of Qi. The offensive next spring would then definitely appear strong while in actuality be weak.4 If master permits it, disciple is willing to infiltrate the Yong army and assassinate Jiang Zhe.”
Happiness appeared on Long Tingfei’s face. However, after thinking it over, he helplessly remarked, “That’s likely out of the question. Princess Bi has spoken of the expert by Jiang Zhe’s side, Demonic Shadow Li Shun. Although senior apprentice brother Duan’s martial arts are outstanding, that man will have the support of the Yong army, making it difficult for senior apprentice brother to succeed. If unsuccessful, then we will not have another opportunity. Moreover, General Su passed away in the Yong capital, causing me severe grief. If senior apprentice brother Duan is injured, it will be difficult for Tingfei to redeem this sin even if I die ten thousand times.”
At this moment, Qiu Yufei suddenly rose to his feet and said, “If General Long believes in this one, Yufei is willing to bear this heavy burden.”
Duan Lingxiao and Long Tingfei were both greatly surprised. Qiu Yufei was enthralled with music. Although his martial arts were remarkable, they were inferior to Duan Lingxiao’s, and also inferior to the frequently battling, now-deceased Su Dingluan’s and to the martial arts of Xiao Tong, who was currently serving in the army. In addition, Qiu Yufei was a proud and aloof individual. Not just anyone could serve as the assassin.
Jing Wuji remained calm and composed, inquiring, “Yufei, do you already have a plan?”
“Disciple has thought it over,” responded Qiu Yufei. “If to assassinate him openly, disciple is not a good candidate. When disciple competed with Jiang Zhe using music and my horn broken, disciple naturally understood that my internal energy is insufficient. However, that Jiang Zhe relied upon another’s internal energy to fiercely compete with me. It is clear that man’s internal energy is greater than disciple’s. Even if senior apprentice brother were to go, there may not necessarily be the chance for success. Moreover, that man is within the army and has as many guards as there are clouds in the sky. To assassinate him is easier said than done. After careful contemplation, the only chance to assassinate him is to infiltrate to his side. From what I understand, that Jiang Zhe is a gifted scholar from Southern Chu with superb talents. Disciple is confident in his own scholarship. In addition, I have also heard that the man is fond of talent. The officer who confronted General Long was someone he had recommended. If I am able to enter the Yong army, based upon disciple’s scholarship, it will be easy to receive that man’s recognition. After some time has passed, once his vigilance has declined, disciple will be able to languidly kill him. At present, the weather is so cold the ground is frozen,5 preventing the Yong army from moving from its camps in Zezhou. This is the best timing. Disciple should be able to complete this task in several months. Master, please approve this plan.”
Completely focused, Jing Wuji pondered it for some time before consenting, “Fine. Right now, your defeat at Jiang Zhe’s hands gnaws at your mind. If you can kill him, you should be able to restore your mental state. However, it will not be easy to get close to Jiang Zhe. Both the Yong Emperor and the Prince of Qi are extremely affectionate to him. Ignoring Demonic Shadow Li Shun, all of his guards were specially selected and personally sent by the Yong Emperor. You must have a suitable identity to approach him. Although few people know of your appearance and identity, it will not be easy to get close to Jiang Zhe. Three months will fly by in the blink of an eye and cannot be wasted.”
Qiu Yufei frowned slightly. He could not make such assurances. Just then, Duan Lingxiao said, “Master, please allow disciple to arrange this matter. Disciple coincidentally has an identity suitable for junior apprentice brother to employ.”
Jing Wuji knew that his senior disciple was steady and earnest, and did not question further. Smiling, he replied, “Since that is the case, this matter will be handed to the two of you to handle. Although assassination cannot be considered as a great stratagem, Jiang Zhe is a son-in-law of the Yong Imperial Family and is a trusted strategist of the Yong Emperor. Killing that man is a task that provides enormous returns. You must be very careful.”
Qiu Yufei unflinchingly declared, “With senior apprentice brother’s help, disciple will definitely succeed. If not, disciple is willing to die for the cause.”
Jing Wuji, Duan Lingxiao, and Long Tingfei all frowned. All of them detected ominous signals from Qiu Yufei’s words. Duan Lingxiao and Long Tingfei simultaneously looked at Jing Wuji, showing looks of inquiry in their eyes. After thinking it over for some time, Jing Wuji finally spoke, “You have to be careful in your execution and must not lightly sacrifice your life.” Finished speaking, he turned and walked to the railing. With his hands behind his back, he gazed at the winter clouds gathering on the horizon. He thought, This is his destiny … If he cannot free himself from the demon in his heart, it will be impossible for him to advance any further. It would then be better to die …
Long Tingfei suddenly remembered something else, as he said, “State Mentor, disciple has a matter requiring State Mentor’s directions.” Afterwards, he explained the situation regarding the secret letter. Returning to Jinyang, he had specially ordered Xiao Tong to keep an eye on the activities of his subordinates. However, after thinking about it these last several days, he felt that the letter’s contents were specious and groundless.6 As a result, he finally decided to ask Jing Wuji for guidance.
After hesitating for a moment and remaining silent, Jing Wuji replied, “This Sovereign is incapable of answering. However, there is no harm in this Sovereign speaking bluntly. ‘Friends till the head turns hoary, yet still keeping one hand on the sword.’7 This Sovereign does not trust anyone easily. However, you are a general in command of troops. If you are too suspicious, you will likely wound the hearts of your subordinates. If you trust them too easily, this Sovereign is worried that you will be betrayed by your subordinates. It is best for you to discuss this matter with His Royal Majesty.…”
Hearing these words, Long Tingfei was bewildered. He did not have any idea on how to proceed.
Departing from the Orchid Terrace, Long Tingfei recalled that during his return to Jinyang, he had only hurriedly met the king briefly. As such, he proceeded to the king’s residence. After his arrival was reported by an inner attendant, he was summoned to an audience at the study by the Later Ruler of Northern Han, Liu You.
When he entered the study and saw Liu You, Long Tingfei felt sorrowful. Even though he was not yet fifty, Liu You’s hair was already grizzled. Were it not for the health and vigor radiating from his features, he would not have had his youthful, awe-inspiring, heroic appearance. Long Tingfei advanced and kowtowed. Choked with emotion, he said, “This general has failed Your Royal Majesty’s deep affection. Your Royal Majesty, please punish me severely.”
The Later Ruler sighed lightly, reaching out with his hands to help Long Tingfei to his feet. Liu You replied, “General Long is the pillar of my Northern Han. How can We casually punish you? Victory and defeat are commonplace in war. There is no need for you to take it to heart. After the New Year, you will have to return to defend Qinzhou. We hope that you won’t have any misgivings and only focus on fighting to the best of your ability. My Northern Han has existed for twenty-three years since its founding. However, my Liu family has held this fief for close to seventy years. Searching my soul, I can safely say that We have not failed the common people. In reality, how can We not know of the decline of the state? However, We cannot stand idly by while my Liu family’s State falls into the hands of another and so can only strain you, causing you to shed your blood, sweat, and tears.
General Long, please accept a bow from Us. Right now, we are on the border of survival and destruction. We entrust the whole nation’s forces into your hands. If you meet with adversity and are defeated, We will commit suicide to apologize to Our subjects.”
Tears falling like rain down his face, Long Tingfei dropped to his knees. Unable to hide the sounds of his grief, he no longer worried about betrayal by his subordinates. With the king already anguished to such a state over the survival of Northern Han, he could not bear to raise the subject. However, he came to a decision: even if he had to wrongfully execute one thousand, he would not allow a single traitor to live.
After the two of them discussed a few things, when Long Tingfei was about to bid his farewell, the Later Ruler smiled and said, “There is another matter. The marriage between you and Bi’er has dragged on for far too long. How about holding the wedding before the New Year?”
Falling silent for some time, Long Tingfei replied, “At present, the enemy army is right on our doorstep. This subject is unwilling to be the subject of gossip. It is best if this matter is held off until the State is at peace.”
Gazing at Long Tingfei’s departing figure, Liu You could not help sighing. He spoke, “General Long is rather too demanding of perfection.8 Fine. It is inappropriate for Us to get involved in such matters between man and woman. Bi’er, what do you say?”
Lin Bi’s image appeared from behind the screen. She dejectedly said, “Tingfei’s heart is focused on important matters of state. Bi can only esteem him in her heart and hope that he can achieve a great victory, no longer brooding9 over the defeat in Zezhou.”
Continuing to sigh, Liu You gazed at his haggard-looking niece-cum-daughter. An thought suddenly appeared in his mind. He was struggling so strenuously in order to protect his family’s inheritance, causing this child such suffering. Was this too selfish?