At the start of the twenty-eighth year of Wuwei, the fifteenth year of the sixty-year cycle, Taizong ascended to the throne. Gaozu abdicated and was honored as the Emperor Emeritus. With Gaozu still alive, an edict was issued to continue the Wuwei era name.At the end of the year, the entire officialdom submitted memorials requesting a change to the era name. To manifest the Emperor’s virtue, Taizong allowed it.—Yong Dynastic Records, Biography of Taizong
On the seventh day of the first year of the Longsheng era, the sixteenth year of the sixty-year cycle, after the snow ceased, the weather was extremely cold. Before the fifteenth, everyone was on holiday due to the New Year and there were very few travelers on the road.
The banner of a wilderness inn on the side of the official road fluttered in the breeze. Shopkeeper Hu San added several pieces of charcoal to the stove, dispiritedly leaning next to the bar counter and dozing. This New Year had gone off extremely smoothly. Since the Prince of Qi had won a great victory at Zezhou, eliminating the threat of foreign aggression, there was an endless stream of returning refugees and travelers. Hu San’s business had been superb. Initially, he had thought to properly renovate this run-down inn when spring came. But who would have known that when he went to the casino to gamble on New Year’s Day, he didn’t have the blessing of the God of Gambling1 and the Buddha? He had lost more than half of the silver he had earned. His wife had returned to her parents in a fury. Hu San was filled with regrets, but did not have the face to go bring his wife back. He could only miserably reopen for business in advance, hoping to run into a few generous guests to earn a few extra taels and bring joy to his wife.
Just as he was falling asleep from the fire, he heard the sound of hoofbeats. Hu San immediately woke up. Ignoring the cold wind penetrating him to the bone, he pushed open the door to the inn and looked out. He saw twelve riders escorting a carriage, galloping down from the north, sending the accumulated snow flying. While Hu San had stared as if his life depended upon the travelers, the group had traveled several li. One of the riders went ahead, spurring on his horse. In a flash, the rider arrived at the entrance to the shop. Pointing his whip at Hu San, the rider asked, “Do you have good wine? Are there any idlers within?”
In a flattering voice, Hu San answered, “Honored guest, do not worry. This small inn’s wine is famous near and far for its strength, richness, and mellowness. There aren’t any other guests within. Even the waiters have all gone home to celebrate the New Year. The small inn is clean and warm. Since My Lord is traveling at the coldest time of the year, there is no harm in stopping by and having a few cups of wine. I guarantee it’ll make you comfortable.”
The rider had a black cloak draped around his shoulders. Removing his hood, he revealed a stalwart and doughty face. Dismounting from his horse, he did not pay any attention to Hu San as he walked inside the shop. Standing in the doorway, he could see that the interior was quite spacious. Although the tables and chairs were simple and crude, they were rather clean. The rider nodded his head with satisfaction, as he said, “My daren desires to stop here to have a meal. Be sure to serve him properly.”
Hu San’s eyes were sharp. Before the rider had even dismounted, Hu San had noticed that the rider wore a set of top-quality black riding clothes under his cloak, including an exquisite set of black light armor. At the rider’s waist was a saber. Although Hu San only saw the scabbard, he knew that it was not an ordinary weapon. In addition, by the rider’s army boots, Hu San immediately knew that the person before him was an officer from the military. When Hu San heard the rider speak of a daren, he was overjoyed. Since the arriving guest was a high-ranking dignitary, as long as his service was attentive and considerate, he would be able to earn plenty of money. Hu San nimbly replied, “My Lord, the stable behind the small inn is quite expansive. The fodder is of the best quality. This lowly one will go stoke the fire. I can guarantee that the horses won’t be affected by the cold.”
The rider waved his hand and ordered, “Hurry up. In a moment, bring out your best wine and meat.”
By this point, everyone else in the group had arrived. The first rider immediately walked quickly to the carriage and reported, “Daren, you can stop for a meal inside. Daren, what do you think?”
A clear and bright voice rang out from within the carriage. “Our travel has been exhausting. We will rest for two hours. However, everyone must not imbibe too much wine.”
All of the riders loudly declared their agreement and dismounted in succession. One of the riders threw down several wild game dripping with blood. He stated, “Shopkeeper, we can take care of our horses. Take these pheasants and hares and carefully make a few dishes for our daren.” Hu San repeatedly voiced his consent and went to do as ordered.
Just then, the youth in azure clothes driving the carriage jumped down. Then he lifted the carriage screen and helped a scholar in azure robes out of the carriage. Under Hu San’s attentive lead, the two of them were brought into the dining area of the inn. Selecting a table that was far from the wind and quite warm, the two sat down. The riders quickly unhooked the horses from the carriage, and with the other mounts, brought them to the stable. Without needing Hu San to get involved, they used the fodder they had brought. After leaving a rider to guard the stable, everyone else entered the shop. After saluting the scholar in azure robes, they dispersed and sat down.
Hu San was very fast. In this short period of time, he had set the tables with smoked meat, flat bread, and wine. Hu San was so busy that his forehead was dripping with sweat. However, seeing the looks of satisfaction on the faces of those guards and officers, he could not help becoming happy. After a short while, Hu San prepared a few dishes using the wild game that the guests had brought, setting them at the scholar’s table. Taking a furtive glance, he saw that the scholar’s face was slightly red, probably from having a few cups of wine. However, the scholar had not touched the smoked meat that Hu San had served. In addition, it seemed like the scholar was not drinking the inn’s wine. Without Hu San being aware, a blue and white porcelain bottle had appeared on the table alongside a simple and unadorned jade goblet that seemed to be made from jade, but wasn’t. Within the goblet was a limpid, fine wine. Apart from this was a small food box holding some light refreshments. The box had been wrapped in thick fur and the pastries seemed to still be exuding steam.
After placing the dishes made from wild game on the table, the azure-clothed youth sitting beside the scholar took out another box, a silver bowl, and chopsticks, placing them before the scholar. After tasting each of the dishes, the youth said, “Young master, please.”
Only then did the azure-robed scholar began to eat. Seeing all this, Hu San was flabbergasted. Although he could be considered experienced and knowledgeable,2 he was after all only a mere shopkeeper. He had never seen such ostentation before.
After busying himself for more than an hour, Hu San was finally able to relax. The riders had already completely consumed all of the wine and meat, like a whirlwind sweeping away the scattered clouds.3 Afterwards, they leisurely sipped the wine as they chatted idly. As for the scholar, he began to read a book with fascination after dining. Hu San knew that they were probably going to rest for close to an hour more, and so promptly brought over two more jars of wine. The rider who seemed to be the leader shook his head and said, “There’s no need. If we get drunk, we won’t be able to hurry on our way. Just fill our wineskins.” After this rider spoke, he placed a wineskin on the table. All of the other horsemen followed his example, untying the wineskins from their waists and placing them on the tables.
As Hu San filled the wineskins, he calculated that each wineskin could carry at least two catties of wine. The food and drink sold today was already an extremely profitable business. After he had finished filling the wineskins, Hu San realized there were only eleven wineskins. One was missing. Finding this strange, he could not help but glance over furtively. In the corner of the shop was a rider sitting by himself. Hu San had seemed to overlook his existence. After paying close attention, Hu San discovered that this lone individual was only seventeen or eighteen years old. He had not touched the drink on the table and seemed to be a teetotaler. Hu San found this quite odd. The northern lands were known for their bitter winters and everyone was fond of drinking strong spirits to ward off the cold. How could this young rider not drink? After Hu San had glanced over several times furtively, the young rider noticed. The young rider glanced coldly at Hu San. Hu San felt his mind quake and convulse. This young man’s expression was icy and his eyes carried a threatening bloodlust. Although Hu San was not a soldier, he had struggled through the years of war. Hu San had seen that kind of look before. Those eyes belonged to men who were filled with deep-rooted hatred and mad killing desire.
I slowly drank the fine, light wine. Excessively rich and mellow wine wasn’t something that I could handle. Speaking of which, it was a bit of a shame. A few days ago, I had realized that the anniversary of my father’s death was approaching and had decided to visit the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery to offer sacrifices. Who knew that before I could depart, a messenger from the court had arrived to bestow rewards upon the army. As an army supervisor, I naturally could not leave. It was only after the New Year had passed that I finally had the free time. Not caring that the fifteenth had yet to arrive, I brought along Xiaoshunzi and several trusted guards, traveling towards the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. Originally, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, intended to accompany me, but I tactfully declined.
My eyes flitted to the lone silhouette sitting in the corner. I could not help feeling pained. It was a pity that I had no recourse but to use the occasion of offering sacrifices to my father as a scheme. This time, I had intentionally brought along Ling Duan to give him the opportunity to escape.
Ling Duan had become like this after the dramatic changes several days ago when Li Hu had been forcibly taken away by the Prince of Qi’s subordinates. He turned taciturn, cold, and utterly hostile. However, we had no alternative with this matter. It was impossible for me to allow him the chance to look at the intelligence that I had available. With this, even a fool would know that something was off. Only in this way could I allow Ling Duan to learn that Shi Ying’s former subordinates had already been silenced. This way, once he had returned to Northern Han, and combined with other matters, Ling Duan would realize the possibility that Shi Ying was “betraying” Northern Han. This was an important chess piece in my plan. In order to eliminate Shi Ying, this was an absolute necessity.
Of Long Tingfei’s subordinate generals, Su Dingluan and Tan Ji were already dead. He only had Shi Ying and Duan Wudi left. The reason that I had selected Shi Ying as my target was because Duan Wudi was adroit at defense and was cautious. He was definitely a shrewd individual. The one in the highest seat could rely heavily upon such individuals, but would never fully trust them. In addition, based upon the intelligence that I had acquired, Shi Ying was indeed Long Tingfei’s trusted subordinate. As such, handling Shi Ying would not only sow discord between Long Tingfei and one of his trusted subordinates, but the betrayal of such an individual would deal an even more severe blow to Long Tingfei’s confidence. Because of this reason, I did not have the time to worry about Ling Duan’s frame of mind.
Observing Ling Duan, I suddenly thought of Tan Ji. The Prince of Qi had at one point copied down the requiem that Tan Ji had chanted before he had died. I recited it to myself several times. Remembering Tan Ji’s life, I involuntarily sighed keenly. Although Tan Ji’s requiem was far too depressing and sorrowful, it was composed using painstaking care and effort. After again reciting in my head, I suddenly rose to my feet and walked towards the outside.
Huyan Shou, commanding the guards responsible for protecting Jiang Zhe, got to his feet in surprise. When he was about to question, Xiaoshunzi, who was following Jiang Zhe out, gestured with his hand and spoke, “Young master is only heading out to take a breath of fresh air. There is no need for you to follow.”
Although Xiaoshunzi had said this, Huyan Shou still ordered one of the bodyguards to follow Jiang Zhe out. Ling Duan’s heart raced, as he rose to his feet and followed them out. Ling Duan knew that although Jiang Zhe was generous and amiable to him, those bodyguards were completely on their guard against him. As a result, he stood some distance away, looking at Jiang Zhe standing amidst the snow. Jiang Zhe’s hands were clasped behind his back, as he gazed up at the sky. Not knowing what he was thinking, Ling Duan touched the short dagger-axe at his waist, his resentment and hatred deepening. However, he could only endure silently and wait.
Just then, Jiang Zhe suddenly burst into song:“The Heavens were not humane, sending down rebellion and chaos,The Earth was not humane, bringing me forth in this era.Shields and lances were daily seen with roads unsafe,Common people fled, sharing grief and laments.Far away, sweet wormwood’s branches withered and leaves dry,Innumerable white bones marred with sword marks and arrow scars.The falling snow fills the sky, causing kindness to grow cold,Heroes justly shed blood, calm and steady like the deep rivers.A dreary sun, a doleful wind, horses neighing on the frontier rise from all around,Mountains and clouds as far as the eye can see, yet not my homeland.Ten thousand li sway involuntarily,No day, no night goes by without longing for my native lands.If the lands are not at peace, the common people will all hate,Though I live in peace, I often hear the sounds of sobbing.The unjust sages bring self-destruction,Many are the remnants of other countries who blame us;While alive seeking not the wild geese returning south,Bury me on the riverbanks in Chu when I die.”4
Ling Duan was entranced by the song. Although there were some lyrics that he did not understand, he could feel the pain and suffering that was within the song. Hearing the two lyrics, “the unjust sages bring self-destruction, / Many are the remnants of other countries who blame us,” Ling Duan could not refrain from crying, remembering the general and his former comrades, and thinking of the straightforward and foolish Li Hu. The hatred in his heart was unable to tolerate the existence of that meager figure standing before him. He reached out and touched his short dagger-axe, towering killing intent in his eyes. Perhaps he should sacrifice himself. Even if he were to die, it was better than continuing to suffer in this way.
Just as Ling Duan’s resolution wavered, the barely audible sound of a zither floated along in the wilderness. The twang of the zither was clever and wonderful. The impassioned melody carried a faint hint of anxiety and sorrow, full of hatred and regret. Although the zither music was weak, it was continuous and unending. Everyone could hear it clearly. No one knew when, but snow began to fall again. The music of the zither gradually ended, the increasingly sorrowful tune causing the entire sky and earth to be seemingly filled with a bleak and desolate atmosphere.
The zither’s sounds swelled with enticement, making everyone feel hatred and feverish killing intent. By this moment, the other bodyguards had walked out of the inn, vigilantly gazing in the direction where the zither music was coming from. However, everyone had iron hearts forged on the battlefield and naturally would not be affected by the zither music, instead becoming increasingly wary.
Xiaoshunzi frowned. He could tell that the zither music contained an intense internal energy. The musician was not only a master of music; he was also an expert with strong internal energy. Xiaoshunzi would naturally not be moved by the music, but rather look with worry at Jiang Zhe. Jiang Zhe did not know martial arts. However, after casting a glance, Xiaoshunzi breathed a sigh of relief. Although Jiang Zhe did not know martial arts, he was only listening appreciatively and would not be affected by the music.
I listened with rapt attention and could not help sighing. I also knew how to play the zither, but was not a master of the instrument. If I were playing this melody,I would be unable to play the multiple difficult parts. However, that man seemed to have an exquisite touch and was indeed able to play it successfully. Although I was not a master musician, my high standards and mediocre ability could be explained away by my understanding of melody. I could tell that the musician was truly a divine musician of the present age. However, the music of the zither emphasised pleasurable yet was not obscene,5 mournful yet not distressing.6 The man’s zither music brimmed with far too much agony, showing the demon within his heart. This made everything seem a bit off.
Everyone else, aside from Ling Duan, was unaffected. His entire life was filled with misery. His close elder brothers and the general whom he deeply respected had all died upon the battlefield. The new friend he had made had been executed. He had been forced to bow his head to the enemy and serve as an attendant. He was already melancholic and resentful. Just now, the demons within had been aroused. At this moment, hypnotized by the zither music, his mind gradually grew confused. His eyes reddened, his character turned savage. Suddenly, Ling Duan brandished his short dagger-axe at the thin and weak figure in azure robes.
His movements had long since been noticed by Huyan Shou. With no difficulty, Huyan Shou stopped Ling Duan. Like a rabid tiger, Ling Duan seemed to ignore everything, staking his life on the kill. However, Huyan Shou was top-level expert of the Stalwart Tiger Guard. How could Ling Duan be his match? Were it not for Ling Duan risking his life, he would likely have lost long ago.
Hearing the sound of weapons clashing, I was no longer in the mood to listen to the zither. I turned my head and looked. I could tell immediately that Ling Duan’s mind had been taken by the zither music. This was not within my expectations. I frowned slightly and gave the order, “Xiaoshunzi, restrain Ling Duan. Have two bodyguards go take a look at who is playing the zither to cause this incident, and have him brought here.”
Xiaoshunzi’s figure disappeared like an illusion, taking the several zhang of distance in a single step. Xiaoshunzi relieved Huyan Shou and took Ling Duan’s offensive, stabbing a finger towards Ling Duan’s forehead, sending his icy qi into Ling Duan’s body. Ling Duan staggered back in retreat, tumbling to the ground. His eyes gradually cleared, looking at the short dagger-axe in his hands and Huyan Shou, gazing at him coldly and wielding a saber, in shock. Ling Duan immediately understood what had happened. Although there was murder in his heart, he was not a fool who feigned strength. He had long ago known that it was an unrealistic notion to attempt to assassinate Jiang Zhe. The only intent he had was to seek the opportunity to escape. Seeing the current situation, he could not help being aghast.
Ling Duan naturally understood, that with the current situation, he likely would immediately be executed. Although his stubborn and unyielding nature made him unwilling to plead for his life, there was no one who was truly completely unafraid of death. Distressed, Ling Duan knelt down on the ground in obeisance. In a low voice, he said, “Sinner has offended the daren. Daren, please forgive me.” Afterwards, he did not say another word.
I knew Ling Duan’s temperament quite well. It was already quite difficult for him to say such words. Besides, I did not have any intentions to have him killed. It was only that I could not allow him to come to this realization. As a result, I deliberately pretended to be filled with hesitancy.
Ling Duan could see the expression on Jiang Zhe’s face. However, it was not as if he could beg piteously. As a result, he simply decided to bow his head, waiting for that man to give the order to have him executed. Then, he heard a long, drawn out sigh. Afterwards, Ling Duan heard a gentle voice say, “Ling Duan, you have followed General Tan for many years. You have heavy inner demons. I know that you have more than enough hatred for me and were confused by the zither. I will not blame you. However, you may not repeat this offense. If you continue to act in such a manner, I must have you executed.”
Ling Duan relaxed, thinking, Don’t tell me that this is an opportunity to depart the Yong army encampment? If I can escape, I will naturally not repeat the offense. As a result, he respectfully acknowledged, “Ling Duan obeys and dares not repeat the offense.” Only then did he rise to his feet. He lifted his eyes up, seeing the even sterner looks of the Stalwart Tiger Guard. Ling Duan did not take their expressions to heart and simply withdrew to the side.
Just then, a carriage arrived. The lingering sound of the zither came to a stop. On both sides of the carriage were the bodyguards who had been sent to seek the zither musician, escorting the carriage over. Ling Duan was also quite curious, watching attentively. He wanted to know what kind of individual was able to play such music.
That carriage was relatively commonplace and seemed to be used by an ordinary traveler. The driver was an elderly man who was roughly fifty years old. His appearance was thin, but his eyes were electric. With one look, everyone knew that his martial arts weren’t weak. As the carriage stopped, the elderly man stepped off the carriage and respectfully stood to the side. The screen of the carriage was raised up and a maiden neatly attired in purple robes and a sword jumped out. Afterwards, she outstretched her hands, helping a handsome youth out of the carriage. This youth had bladelike eyebrows and radiant eyes. He wore a black sable fur coat. At his waist hung a precious sword. His graceful and gentle bearing carried an air of nobility. He looked calm and composed. With one look, everyone could tell that he was not the typical traveler.
One of the bodyguards led the three over slowly, while the other bodyguard rushed over to relay, “Reporting to the daren, the musician has been brought over.”
Neither servile nor overbearing, the youth walked over with his hands clasped, saying, “This lowly commoner, Gao Yan, pays my respects to the daren. I wonder why this lowly commoner has been summoned?”
I considered with appreciation the young man. His appearance was handsome and he had a lanky, tall, and straight figure. His bearing was noble and cultured. His considerate manners also carried a slightly reserved aura. This young man was definitely a descendant from an influential family. With no intention of slighting him, I smiled and greeted, “This one is Jiang Zhe. In this wilderness, I heard young master Gao play the zither, feeling as though the zither music was like the sounds of nature, making me feel carefree and relaxed. As a result, I have invited the young master to come over. The bodyguards were impulsive, causing the young master to be startled. Zhe will apologize to the young master on their behalf. I wonder why the young master has come to Zezhou? If there are any difficulties, Zhe has the honor of being the Army Supervisor of the main army encampment at Zezhou, though is unworthy of it. I might be able to offer my services.”
A difficult to detect radiance flashed in his eyes. He replied, “This lowly commoner is terrified. I did not know that it was the husband of Princess Changle of Ning, the Marquis of Chu, who was present. Marquis Jiang’s name is renowned throughout the world. This lowly commoner is from Goryeo.7 By chance, I came to the Central Plains. This lowly commoner once read the Marquis’s compositions and has found them matchlessly magnificent. This lowly commoner is utterly respectful. Who would have thought that we would have had the fortune of meeting today? I rejoice at the good fortune.”
I sighed and voiced, “So that’s the case. Although Goryeo is a foreign vassal state, it has never broken away. Even though the Central Plains have been consumed by war in recent years, it has consistently dispatched emissaries to visit the Celestial Empire. When Zhe was a Hanlin Academic in Southern Chu, I spent years arranging the documents of the Palace of Sublime Culture. In the third year of Tongyuan, which is the tenth year of Zhenyuan, an emissary came to the court from Goryeo. Unfortunately, they met with a storm and were forced to and disembark at Hangzhou, and were detained by King Wu of Southern Chu, Zhao She. In the sixth year of Great Yong’s Wuwei era, your distinguished country once dispatched an emissary to Chang’an to pay their respects. Unfortunately, the Central Plains were engulfed in war and the emissary, Jin Guimin, was harmed by warlords on the return journey. Because of this, the court dispatched troops to pacify the chaos, shedding so much blood as to float a shield as vengeance. It is a pity that from that point on, your distinguished country no longer dispatched emissaries to pay tribute.”
A look of admiration flashed across the young man’s eyes, as he responded, “My Lord truly possesses extensive knowledge of my country. Sir Jin was this lowly commoner’s maternal grandfather. When news of his death arrived in my country, our King personally went to attend the funeral. From that point on, with the pirates running rampant in the Eastern Sea, the maritime route between my country and the Central Plains was severed, preventing us from dispatching anyone to travel to our sovereign to offer tribute. It was only several years ago with the reopening of the maritime route that my country was once again able to reopen trade with the Central Plains.
“This lowly commoner has always admired the culture of the Central Plains. As a result, I traveled aboard a merchant vessel to Binzhou. I originally intended to follow my maternal grandfather’s footsteps and visit the famous mountains and great rivers of the Central Plains. Unfortunately, what I learned from the books was shallow and we took the wrong path, mistakenly entering Qinzhou. Because of the ongoing war, I was forced to stay through to the end of the year. Fortunately, your distinguished country won a great victory last month, making the Qinzhou troops suffer a calamitous defeat and forcing them to urgently need to expand and equip their army. Taking advantage of the chaos, this lowly commoner secretly left Qinzhou. After many days of exhausting and difficult journeying,8 we were finally able to arrive in Zezhou. Because this territory is under martial law and since this lowly commoner has come from Qinzhou, to prevent being suspected, we purchased a carriage for the journey to the Central Plains. Unexpectedly, we ran into the Marquis here. Although our situation is a bit difficult to explain, this commoner does not dare to conceal anything. My Lord, please recognize that I speak the truth.”
My heartfelt surprise was difficult to restrain. I carefully considered this young man. I could not see any hint of his Goryeon heritage from his features. However, the noble families of Goryeo were Sinicized through intermarriage and there was nothing strange about this fact. My gaze fell upon the elderly servant and maid standing behind him. If he truly was Goryeon, then I should be able to verify his genuineness from his servants. I raised my hand and beckoned the elderly servant and maid closer. In Goguryeo,9 I asked the maid, “Is what your master said the truth?”
When I was in Binzhou, I had once covered up my identity to discuss some business with a wealthy merchant from Goryeo. As a result, I knew some Goguryeo. It could be said that my enunciation was quite clear, causing the pretty maiden to reveal a look of astonishment. She blurted out, “It is indeed the truth” using Goguryeo. Only when she had spoken did she come to the realization. She switched over to Central Plains Mandarin and replied, “This servant’s master was detained in Qinzhou and had no other choice. My Lord, please forgive him.” Her words could be considered to be clear and coherent, just with a somewhat odd accent. Fortunately, her voice was crisp and pleasant to listen to, not jarring to the ear.
I smiled slightly and observed, “Young miss’s Chinese is quite good. How ought I address you?”
The maiden blushed and answered, “This servant is called Jin Zhi. Because the young master is fond of the ancient books and culture of the Central Plains, he had this servant speak Chinese for many years. It is only that this servant is clumsy and stupid, unable to change my accent, becoming ridiculed by My Lord.”
My gaze fell upon the elderly servant. Although that old man was a servant, his bearing was not normal. Clasping his hands, the servant replied, “This elderly servant is Cui Jiucheng. I can only understand Chinese, not speak it. My Lord, please forgive me.” He had used Goguryeo to respond. His tone was flowing and calm.
Although it wasn’t difficult to find two servants fluent in Goguryeo, these two were clearly not from the Central Plains. With this, I could tell that there weren’t that many questions about Gao Yan’s identity. However, although that was the case, I could not allow them to depart Zezhou like this. It was best to keep them within Zezhou for the time being, only allowing them to depart after everything had been investigated. Moreover, this Gao Yan’s bearing was not ordinary. If this individual could not be befriended, wouldn’t it be a great pity?
Thinking of this, I spoke with a hint of apology, “I am assisting His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, in defending Zezhou. I must be cautious regarding everything. Since young master Gao is a distinguished visitor from Goryeo and with Zezhou enduring the chaos of war, it is inappropriate for me to allow young master Gao to come and go as you please out of fear of the unexpected. If something were to happen, the Prince of Qi’s prestige would be harmed. If young master Gao does not mind, there is no harm in staying in Zezhou for a period of time. It won’t be too late to travel to the Central Plains when spring warmth has arrived, causing the flowers to blossom and the roads to clear. I can see that the young master’s character is outstanding. If you acquire His Imperial Highness’s recognition, the young master will be able to travel freely within the borders of Great Yong. Wouldn’t that be better than being suspected at every turn?”
An unusual look flashed across Gao Yan’s eyes. He warily lowered his head and avoided Jiang Zhe’s gaze. After some time, he said, “Gao Yan does not dare to disobey My Lord’s kind intentions.”
“By rights, I should invite young master Gao to the army encampment to rest,” I replied cheerfully. “However, I have the intent of visiting the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery to pay my respects to my late father. If young master Gao is willing, you can come with me. If the young master is in urgent need to rest, I will dispatch subordinates to escort the young master to the army encampment.”
“This lowly commoner has nothing to do,” stated Gao Yan. “Since the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery has such a name, there will definitely be numerous Buddhist statues that I can offer sacrifices to. This lowly commoner’s natural disposition is fond of excellent scenery and cultural relics. If My Lord does not find this troublesome, Gao Yan is willing to follow with the Marquis to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery.”
I smiled and responded, “That would be for the best. Zhe can see that young master’s carriage is simple and crude. Zhe’s carriage is wide and cozy, and would like to invite the young master to join me within.”
Gao Yan was somewhat astonished. It was some time before he said, “Many thanks to the Marquis for your kind intentions. Gao Yan will obey.”
The Stalwart Tiger Guard had by now prepared the carriage. I invited Gao Yan aboard. Gao Yan was astute. Not waiting for me to speak, he removed the sword from his waist and handed it to his maid. Soon after, I also boarded the carriage. However, this time, Xiaoshunzi did not drive the carriage. Instead, he followed me inside as well. With a stranger sitting with me, he of course would not be reassured. Huyan Shou personally took the whip, while the maid, Jin Zhi, brought over Gao Yan’s zither. Following my indication, she also boarded the carriage.
The original carriage that I had brought from Binzhou had long ago been destroyed by the fires of war. This carriage had only recently been delivered. It was more spacious than the previous carriage. Even with four individuals sitting within, it still felt quite cozy and spacious. The carriage was split into two compartments. In the back compartment was a soft couch. Underneath the couch was a cabinet filled with goods. The front compartment had two benches covered with embroidered silk. At its center was a table that was made from metal and was covered by a snow-white brocade silk cloth. The bottom of the plates and cups on the table were made from magnetic material, and would not move when the carriage was in motion. At this moment, aside from the tea set, there was only a scroll on the table.
In order to ward off the cold, blankets made from cashmere wool swathed the entire interior. Fur pelts tightly sealed the whole carriage. Aside from the two windows, which weren’t covered to let in the light, the entire interior was soft because of the pelts. However, the windows were made from semi-transparent glazed glass and would not allow the cold wind to intrude. Combined with the brass stove below the table, the carriage interior was comfortably warm. There wasn’t the slightest hint of chilliness. Yet Gao Yan did not seem to betray any hint of surprise. It appeared that his identity was truly remarkable.