I gazed at Gao Yan sitting opposite me. Smiling, I said, “Is brother willing to allow me to take an appraising look at your zither?”
Gao Yan smiled and replied, “Of course. Daren’s poetry is renowned throughout the world and once participated in the establishment of the Palace of Sublime Culture. Presumably, daren is adept at appraising. It would be wonderful for this lowly commoner’s zither to receive daren’s appraisal.” Finished speaking, he took the zither out of its case. This seven-stringed guqin was three chi and six cun2 in length and had thirteen mother-of-pearl dots marking the harmonic positions. It was made of wood that was not wood, metal that was not metal, with intricate and flowing etched patterns that were in the shape of plum blossoms. Its elegant exterior was made from an aged wood, and was simple and unadorned. The strings of the zither were manufactured from combining silk and gold. The zither was easily over a hundred years old and was priceless. This Gao Yan’s identity was truly not ordinary to be able to own such a zither.
After I carefully studied the zither, my eyes fell upon the etchings at the end of the zither. After running my fingers over it, I sighed softly and said, “What a good zither! This was a zither manufactured in the early years of the Eastern Jin Dynasty by the Cai family. This zither was named ‘Welcoming a Guest from Afar.’ The previous dynasty gifted this zither to the Goryeo royal family. Since young master Gao is in possession of this zither and is surnamed Gao, they you must be a nobleman from the Goryeo royal family. Just now, Zhe was a bit rude, please forgive me. I wonder what is the young master’s real identity?”
A radiant light shone in Gao Yan’s eyes, as he explained, “Although this zither is sacred object amongst zithers, it was hidden in the depths of the treasury and covered in dust for many years. Unexpectedly, the daren was still able to recognize it. It seems like the daren is also a divine zither musician. I am full of admiration. This one is the sixth son of the King of Goryeo. It is only that, with the intensifying competition over succession between my eldest and third brothers, this one was unwilling to become involved, so I brought my attendants and traveled here to the Central Plains. Daren, please forgive me. Please do not make my identity public.”
I thought to myself, This man has the mannerisms of a king. Why does he not seek the throne for himself and come to these distant lands? Could it be that there are truly royal family members who do not love power and influence? Although I had many questions, since he had spoken, I could only believe him for now. Thus, I smiled and replied, “Young master Gao states the truth. Since that is the case, there is no need to address each other using our noble titles to avoid incurring attention.”
Glancing at the zither several times, I continued, “Just now, when I heard the young master’s zither music, I was filled with genuine admiration. At this moment, snow is falling outside the window and there is no one in the area. I wonder if Zhe has the fortune of listening to the young master’s performance?”
Gao Yan’s expression was calm as he replied, “Daren’s appraisal was exquisite. You must also have your own mastery of music. This one will perform a piece. Daren, please correct any mistakes.”
Finished speaking, his expression grew solemn and his ten fingers began to lightly brush against the strings. In the beginning, ethereal music was produced. The zither music was misty, solitary, and pure. Listening to it left all intoxicated.
When the piece ended, I could not help acclaim, “Wonderful! Borrowing the present fluttering snow to show the loneliness between the Heavens and the Earth. Young master’s zither skill is truly unequalled in this era.”
There was not a hint of joy on Gao Yan’s face as he serenely replied, “This one does not have any hobbies and am only fond of music. I practiced assiduously in fear of failure. I wonder if daren is willing to advise this one with a piece.”
I slightly sensed that his words suddenly gained a bit of hostility from nowhere. Although I found it strange, my spirit was aroused. “Zhe once studied the zither, but because of Zhe’s indolent temperament, the music that I produce is extremely coarse. I hope that my poor performance does not garner the young master’s ridicule.” So speaking, I took the proffered zither. Concentrating, I placed my ten fingers on the zither.
With the zither music stopped, Huyan Shou became anxious and worried. Although the zither music was exquisitely beautiful, he was not in the mood to pay attention. He was extremely restless not knowing the identities of the three individuals who had joined their party. Surprisingly, the daren was sharing a carriage with Gao Yan. If Gao Yan were an assassin, no matter how exceptional the martial arts of Li Shun, Lord Li, it would be difficult to ensure that the daren was unharmed. If something were to happen, the Prince of Qi and the emperor would not let him off lightly. Although Huyan Shou wanted to make inquiries about their origins, he was unable to do so as the only person left outside was the elderly servant who did not speak Chinese. Just as he was pondering, the music of the zither once again sounded from within.
The music this time was different from before. The earlier zither melody was magnificent and ornate, coming from a skilled musician. Even Huyan Shou knew that it was the product of a master. In the beginning, the music this time was a bit rough and coarse, the fingering a bit chaotic. However, in the next moment, the zither music seemed to dissolve between the Heavens and the Earth. Even Huyan Shou could tell that the earlier music was mimicking the fluttering snow. However, this time, Huyan Shou felt as if the zither was the fluttering snow and the fluttering snow was the zither. After a while, the music and the fluttering snow seemed to have harmonized. Huyan Shou did not know if he was listening to the zither or the barely audible sound of fluttering snow falling upon the ground. Huyan Shou did not know when the piece ended, but he had forgotten that he was driving the carriage. Fortunately, the horse pulling the carriage was a good horse accustomed to following the road, and did not require Huyan Shou’s focus. It was only because of this that nothing problematic had occurred.
Gao Yan listened in a daze. His eyes grew hazy, seemingly admiring and envious. A short while after the music had ended, he exclaimed in admiration, “Although daren’s fingerings are out of practice, your piece’s artistry is superior to this one’s by a hundredfold. I wonder if daren is willing to give this one a few instructions.”
Accepting the fragrant tea handed me by Xiaoshunzi, I lightly took a sip. I replied, “Young master is praising me too much. In reality, young master’s fingering and performance skill have both reached perfection. Zhe is inferior to the extreme. There is only one difference between the young master and me. The young master is fond of music, thus you focus on skills and improving your performance of the pieces. Zhe does not share such a focus. For me, the four arts of a scholar are merely a means of bringing pleasure to my heart. As a result, I do not seek exquisiteness and skill. As long as I am able to express my intention, I couldn’t care less about the magnificence of the melody and orderliness of the fingering. But with such thoughts, no matter how many decades of practice, my skills will not improve. As for the young master, as long as your comprehension reaches a higher state, you will be able to advance by leaps and bounds.”
Gao Yan stared at me fixedly before saluting me deeply. He said, “I have only now just comprehended such an obvious principle. It is no wonder that my zither skills have not improved an inch in the last several years. Receiving daren’s instructions today, this one cannot be thankful enough.”
I promptly reached out with my hands to raise him up, replying, “I am used to being indolent and lazy, happiest listening, not performing. I hope that I will be able to listen to the young master’s elegant performance. However, one must not overly play the zither. We have played enough today. How about the two of us have a small drinking party?”
“I dare not disobey,” uttered Gao Yan with a smile. “When this one departed from Goryeo, aside from my zither, I only brought along a dozen or so jars of fine wine. Unfortunately, I have finished all of them except for a jar of Pear Ginger Liqueur. I have always begrudged drinking it. Meeting an intimate friend today, this one cannot be stingy. Jin Zhi, get the wine and bring it here.”
When he turned his head to speak to his maid, Gao Yan did not notice the slight change on Jiang Zhe’s face and the slight cold light that suddenly flashed across the scholar’s eyes. However, everything was swiftly replaced with a smile.
Jin Zhi voiced her compliance in a sharp and clear voice before jumping off the carriage. It wasn’t long before she returned with a jar capable of holding five catties of wine. From the secret cabinet in the rear compartment, Xiaoshunzi took out two goblets and set them on the table. Gao Yan took off the seal of the jar, filling the goblets with gold-colored alcohol. Raising one of the goblets, I took a deep sniff. I said, “Your distinguished country’s Pear Ginger Liqueur is brewed using pear juice and fresh ginger. Its scent is quite mellow and leaves a rich aftertaste.1 I once had the fortune of having a taste during my stay in Binzhou. But that jar was newly brewed. I can see that the alcohol in this jar is at least ten years old. Zhe’s fortune is truly not little.”
Gao Yan lifted his goblet. He smiled and replied, “There is no one in my country who is not fond of drinking. Although it is probably inferior to the drinking culture of the Central Plains, the flavor of the Pear Ginger Liqueur is quite unique and also serves the function of nourishing one’s life. I am deeply fond of it. Daren, please.” Finished speaking, Gao Yan took a drink.
I knew that although the people of Goryeo were fond of drinking, they were not fond of gulping. This liqueur needed to be drunk slowly. Since I was not fond of drinking hard, I only took a shallow sip.
With the alcohol to liven the mood, the two of us began to discuss poetry, literature, and music. Gao Yan was truly a genius of the present age. Were it not for my extensive knowledge, I likely would have been stumped by his questions. As we were discussing happily and leisurely, we forgot the passage of time.
Not knowing how long it had been, I heard Huyan Shou report, “Daren, we have arrived at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. The Abbot, Great Master Compassionate Distance, is up ahead welcoming us.”
Although my interest had not yet waned, I could only reply, “Xuzhi, let’s first settle down. There is no harm in holding a comprehensive conversation after I have offered sacrifices.” Xuzhi4 was Gao Yan’s style. Our conversation had been quite congenial and we were already addressing each other using our styles.
Gao Yan nodded his head and replied, “Suiyun makes a good point. It is more important to offer sacrifices to your esteemed father.”
Climbing out of the carriage, I instantly recognized Great Master Compassionate Distance. When I was injured by an assassin in the Prince of Yong’s residence, he had once been invited there through Pei Yun to take charge of the protection of the Cold Courtyard. After I had recovered, I had specifically gone to pay my respects. He was a senior monk of the Shaolin Temple skilled in the study of dharma. Surprisingly, he had been sent here to serve as the abbot. It was likely that the Shaolin Temple was intentionally establishing a foothold in Zezhou. However, this had nothing to do with me. As such, I advanced and saluted, inquiring politely, “We have not met for many years. Has the Great Master been well?”
Great Master Compassionate Distance did not slight me, greeting me with his hands joined in prayer, as he replied, “For My Lord to arrive at my humble monastery, this old cassock cannot bear the honor and favor. Everything has already been prepared for My Lord’s ceremony tomorrow.”
Smiling, I said, “Great Master, there is no need to be so courteous. My son is now a disciple of your honored sect. There is no need to refer to me as a marquis or as a daren. Great Master need only address me by my name. It is already quite late today and Zhe is exhausted from the journey, hoping to go and rest. Great Master, please forgive Zhe for being rude.”
“This old cassock knows of Benefactor Jiang’s poor health,” noted Great Master Compassionate Distance with a smile. “This old cassock has already prepared a peaceful and quiet courtyard.”
After he finished speaking, he personally led us to a side courtyard within the monastery, while Gao Yan was arranged to stay in a guest courtyard. After bathing, changing, and eating dinner, I sat at the window, peering out at the increasingly heavy snow, deep in thought.
Just then, Xiaoshunzi, having completed all arrangements, spoke up, “Young master, the Great Master Abbot has already made arrangements for all of the Stalwart Tiger Guard who have been dispatched here in advance. The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery is already under our control. However, the young master took excessive risks today. Gao Yan’s origins have yet to be investigated clearly, and yet the young master shared a carriage and drink with him. What’s to be done if, by chance, his identity is faked and he is here with the intent of performing an assassination?”
Smiling lightly, I explained, “You are overthinking matters. If that kind of refined and elegant individual wishes to perform an assassination, he will not do so recklessly. He will not act without absolute certainty that he will succeed and escape safely. You will naturally be responsible for investigating whether his identity is genuine or falsified. However, whatever the case, that kind of talent and character is truly tempting, giving me the feeling that he is an old friend. How could I bear to allow this kind of seldom seen intimate friend and gifted scholar to slip away? Once we have waited until you have investigated everything, if the man is really an assassin, it will be impossible for him to do as he pleases henceforth. That is why I chose to take the risks, sharing a carriage and drinks with him. Of course, I knew that he had some issues that needed to be addressed and would not act on the road. All right … have Huyan Shou remind the bodyguards to be careful. Oh, that’s right. Temporarily ensure that there is no opportunity for Ling Duan to escape. We’ll revisit that matter tomorrow.”
Through the endless night, Gao Yan, no, Qiu Yufei, found it difficult to sleep the entire night, tossing and turning without stop. His mind turned, wondering why the intimate friend of his heart was the one who he needed to assassinate, Jiang Zhe. Remembering that man’s talent and bearing, Qiu Yufei only had admiration and appreciation within him. However, in several days, he would have to assassinate Jiang Zhe. If successful, he would naturally mourn the painful loss of an intimate friend. If unsuccessful, then he would never have the opportunity to discuss the four arts of the scholar with this man in the future, truly and extremely regretful.
The identity that Qiu Yufei used was not fabricated. Gao Yan really existed and had departed Goryeo because he did not want to be involved in the struggle over the throne. Too weak and not having the strength to struggle, he had been forced into exile to the Central Plains. However, his elder brothers had sent assassins in pursuit. Fortunately, he had been rescued by Duan Lingxiao, preserving his life. Seeing Qiu Yufei focused on assassinating Jiang Zhe, Duan Lingxiao naturally understood the risks involved. Although the Devil Sect had plenty of experts, most of them were known to Great Yong after decades of war. As a result, Qiu Yufei could only go alone. But approaching Jiang Zhe was easier said than done. The Great Yong emperor had personally selected and dispatched imperial bodyguards to protect him. In addition, that man also had the assistance of the Prince of Qi. As a result, the number of experts by Jiang Zhe’s side numbered as many as the clouds in the sky, ensuring that he was heavily guarded. It was impossible for anyone unrelated to approach. As a result, Duan Lingxiao had borrowed two servants from Gao Yan, allowing Qiu Yufei utilize the moniker of Gao Yan to approach Jiang Zhe. With Gao Yan’s identity as a prince of a foreign country, it would definitely cause Jiang Zhe to lose part of his vigilance. Duan Lingxiao believed that Qiu Yufei had the ability to attain Jiang Zhe’s recognition and appreciation. As long as the preparations were properly made, it would not be difficult for the opportunity of assassinating him to present itself. In fact, Qiu Yufei looked quite similar to Gao Yan and they frequently drank together. It was effortless for Qiu Yufei to disguise himself as Gao Yan. However, Qiu Yufei had never thought that he would get to know Jiang Zhe under these circumstances. Moreover, the two of them were like old friends from the start, mutually admiring one another.
According to the original plan, Qiu Yufei was to be suspected and detained by the Great Yong military. As long as he identified as Gao Yan, the officers and officials would naturally not dare to handle him casually. As Zezhou was under the military governance of the Prince of Qi, Qiu Yufei would surely be escorted to the Prince of Qi’s encampment. Due to his special identity, during the interrogation, Army Supervisor Jiang Zhe would definitely become involved. Moreover, in order to thoroughly investigate the veracity of his identity, Qiu Yufei would certainly be detained within the Yong army encampment for some time. Based upon Qiu Yufei’s talents, he would ipso facto obtain Jiang Zhe’s fondness. Who could have expected that before Qiu Yufei had been interrogated by the Yong army, he would run into Jiang Zhe on his way to offer sacrifices at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery? Qiu Yufei was naturally not someone who rigidly adhered to a plan, immediately interacting with Jiang Zhe using the Gao Yan identity.
In the process, what was completely unexpected was that Qiu Yufei was completely undeserving of his original rancor and dubiousness towards Jiang Zhe. Jiang Zhe was actually a hard-to-come-by intimate and good friend. Alas, the Heavens toyed with people, especially in this instance.
The next day, I changed into plain and unadorned clothing, paying my respects and offering sacrifices to my late father in the main hall of the monastery. Inside, aside from the monks, I was accompanied by Xiaoshunzi, Gao Yan, and Huyan Shou. After burning incense and praying, and ordering the monks retire, I asked, “Xuzhi is probably puzzled over why you have been invited, correct?”
Long since perplexed, Gao Yan answered, “Indeed, this one is a bit puzzled. However, since I am acquainted with Suiyun, your esteemed father is also my elder. Paying my respects is something proper.”
I smiled and stated, “Though that is the case, Zhe is not someone arrogant and proud. Today, I invited Xuzhi to accompany me because I have a matter that I would like to entrust to you.”
Finished speaking, I reached out with my hand to take the yellow damask-covered book handed me by Xiaoshunzi. Extremely carefully, I used both hands to proffer it unto Gao Yan. Gao Yan accepted it and unconsciously glanced down. Upon the cover were written the four words, Elegant, Remote Zither Scores. By nature, he deeply loved the zither arts and could not help flipping through its contents. Unexpectedly, the more he looked, the more astonished he became. The pieces within were mostly ancient zither pieces that had been lost. There were also several that weren’t as famous, but were equally elegant and magnificent. For someone who loved the zither, this book was priceless.
Gao Yan felt his hands shake, as he excitedly said, “Suiyun, this collection … who made this collection? Even if this one lost ten years of my life, it will have been worth it to be able to look at this book.”
“This book was personally composed by my late father,” I responded, somewhat sadly. “When my late father was alive, although never focused upon raising his position in life, his talent was rarely seen in this world. Although Suiyun flaunts my wide knowledge, it is in actuality rough and unrefined, and far less than that of my late father’s. Father was someone fond of music and was fondest of playing the zither. My late mother adored playing the long zither.5 My parents would frequently perform duets and were exceptionally affectionate. However, my late father chose to conceal his abilities and bide his time, and no one knew that my father could be considered a master of the zither. Helpless after my late mother unfortunately passed away, my father was mournful to the extreme, breaking his zither and cutting its strings, and no longer played. From that point on, he was no longer a musician. Zhe’s studies have been broad, but not fastidious. My father once said that I was not suitable to learn the zither and thus never imparted his skills to me. However, when he was ill, my father probably did not want his life’s work to not have an heir, and so composed this book. The majority of the pieces inside are arrangements of ancient pieces that my father made. There are others that my father composed himself. Over these years, Zhe has kept it well hidden and has not allowed it to see the light of day, because the world is filled with individuals who cling to position and wealth. I am unwilling to have my father’s life’s work be profaned and dishonored. I do not know if it is Heaven’s Will.… When Zhe decided to pay my respects to my late father, I intentionally brought along this book. I could never have imagined running into Xuzhi. I have already personally witnessed Xuzhi’s character and talent. I know well Xuzhi’s love of the zither. I believe that my father’s spirit in the Heavens has manifested, borrowing my hand to impart this zither collection upon you. However, this book is a relic from my father. I cannot bear to part with it and must ask that Xuzhi personally make a copy of it. I believe that Xuzhi won’t be troubled by this.”
Gao Yan was in a daze for a long time. He suddenly stepped forward and kneeled down on the ground. He said, “Elder brother Jiang’s grace will be forever engraved upon this one’s heart. I’m only afraid that this one is unable to requite elder brother’s deep kindness.” As he spoke, his eyes reddened, tears rolling down his face.
Helping him to his feet, I replied, “If you were not a master of the zither, I would not have bestowed this book upon you. There is no need for Xuzhi to be like this. Although we cannot know when we'll meet again in the future, as long as you are able to pass down the Elegant, Remote Zither Scores to future generations, my deceased father’s soul and spirit will definitely be very happy. Xuzhi, the last piece within the manual is the last piece composed by my late father and was composed to mourn my late mother. The techniques required are complicated and diverse. I am unable to perform it. Since my late father broke his zither, I have never had the chance to hear this piece again. Paying my respects to my father today, can I have you take a gander at it to comfort my heart?”
Clasping his hands together in a salute, Gao Yan replied, “It would be my honor.”
When that gorgeous and gentle music, carrying with it untold plaintiveness, sounded in the main hall, I once again got lost in my memories. At the beginning, the zither music was graceful and magnificent, akin to water permeating soil in the inextricable ways of the spring rains, like the dazzling and many positions of spring blossoms. Then the splendor turned prosaic. The gentleness carried sincere and deep affection. Suddenly, a discordant chord rang out. A cold frost began to expand on the ground as deep love fell into trouble and a pair of mandarin ducks broke their wings. Then the melody changed, becoming mournfully slow, a sort of deep-rooted sadness.
Tears brimming in my eyes, I recited in a low voice:“All things have changed; once more I pass Changmen,6You and I came a couple. Why can’t we leave together again!The plane trees nearly wilt after suffering the hoar-frost,My hair hoar now ’tis hard to endure a companion lost.On the plains grass grow anew,They thirst with drying dew,7
My father’s entire life was spent in bitterness. Although incredibly talented, he preferred to spend his entire life as a recluse because of the chaotic times. Although he was fortunate in marriage, my mother had left him halfway. In the end, he had abandoned me and passed away, making me an orphan.
When the zither music ended, Gao Yan apologized, “This piece is too deep. In such haste, I am only able to exhibit thirty to forty percent of its artistry. Elder brother Jiang, please excuse my lack of skill.”
I sighed and said, “Xuzhi, why do you say such things? Being able to sight-read this piece fills Zhe with great admiration. Although there are many individuals skilled with the zither, this piece was composed by my late father and I have been unwilling to let someone sullied by the mundane world to play it. The last time I heard this piece played was already a whole seventeen years ago. Many thanks for Xuzhi’s performance.”
A look of sadness flashed across Gao Yan’s eyes. This was likely the only thing that he would be able to do for Jiang Zhe. Thinking of having to reveal his identity when he sought to assassinate Jiang Zhe and the difficult scene thereafter, Gao Yan could not help feeling his heart become increasingly pained. Just then, he heard a question sound like a clap of thunder in his ears, “Xuzhi, in your view, who will win in the war between Great Yong and Northern Han?”
Gao Yan’s heart pounded, and he immediately came back to his senses. The man before him was not only an intimate friend who was deeply affectionate, but also Northern Han’s enemy and a strategist for Great Yong. Gao Yan lowered his head, and after getting control over his shaken state of mind, he answered, “This one is an outsider and is not especially understanding of this matter. However, Great Yong has a million men-at-arms and occupies the Central Plains, while Northern Han is confined to a corner of the empire and has limited troops. If this were to continue, Northern Han will definitely be defeated. However, Great Yong still faces danger from the south. If Great Yong is surrounded by enemies, Northern Han may still be able to struggle while at death’s door.”
The words that he spoke were the truth of the situation. He knew how disadvantageous the present situation was for Northern Han. Were this not the case, he would not have volunteered to come assassinate Jiang Zhe. This was not the legitimate path of a military commander. Moreover, he knew that the best way was to speak the truth in order to keep Jiang Zhe in the dark.
As expected, Jiang Zhe nodded his head and replied, “Although Xuzhi has not been in the Central Plains for long, you are aware of the situation. You speak the truth. Right now, Great Yong is at the most crucial juncture. If it can conquer Northern Han in one fell swoop, the reunification of the world will only be a matter of time. If the northern invasion were to fail, it would be a pity to the common people of the world. Who knows how long the chaos of war will last for?”
Gao Yan felt his heart pound enormously fast. Although he understood that war would erupt next year, he had not known that Jiang Zhe would take this matter so seriously and surprisingly wanted to succeed in one fell swoop. Although he was somewhat shocked, he did not reveal it on his face. He calmly said, “This one is not all that familiar with the important matters of state, while daren is an important minister of Great Yong. Your words must be correct.”
“Xiaoshunzi, bring another bundle of incense over,” I instructed with a smile. “I want to pay my respects to an old friend.”
Taking another bundle of incense from Xiaoshunzi, I lit it and bowed three times. Afterwards, Xiaoshunzi took the incense and stuck it into the burner. After praying silently, I asked, “Xuzhi, do you know who I am paying my respects to?”
Gao Yan was dumbstruck. How could he know? As such, he answered, “This one does not know. However, for the daren to specially pay your respects, he must definitely not be an ordinary character.”
I sighed softly and continued, “The late friend who I was paying my respects to just now was the Prince of De, Zhao Jue. Zhe once served under his command. By nature, the Prince of De’s temperament was lofty and unsullied, loyal and virtuous. Zhe admired and respected him deeply. Recalling past events today, I therefore offered my respects to him.”
When I uttered those words, Gao Yan trembled. If it was the real Gao Yan, he naturally would not know of the affairs between Jiang Zhe and the Prince of De. However, Qiu Yufei was aware of these matters. After hesitating for some time, he could not help asking, “This one once heard of the matters between daren and the Prince of De. Reportedly, daren was recognized by the Prince of De, accompanying him to conquer Shu and returning in triumph. After that, the Prince of De died in Xiangyang. Daren once traveled a thousand li to call upon him. However, after daren submitted a remonstration and was dismissed from office, daren was kidnapped by the present Yong Emperor to Chang’an. When daren pledged allegiance to Yong, I heard that a former subordinate of the Prince of De came on the dying command of the prince to assassinate daren, nearly taking daren’s life. Why does the daren still reminisce so sincerely about the Prince of De?”
Watching the incense smoke spiral upward, I answered, “His Imperial Highness, the Prince of De, was undoubtedly loyal and devoted, dying at Xiangyang. At the time, Jiang Zhe was at his side. From a young age, Zhe grew up in Southern Chu. If it was possible, I would of course hope that Southern Chu would be able to unify the world. Therefore, I supported the Prince of De in the conquest of Shu. Although I knew that these were only extravagant wishes, I still hoped to be able to strive my hardest for my country. Unfortunately, after the Prince of De died, Zhe was deeply discouraged, no longer having a shred of hope for Southern Chu. The day I was kidnapped by His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, to Great Yong, I was truly unwilling to surrender and therefore deliberately made things difficult for His Imperial Majesty. Regardless of how Southern Chu treats me, I still remember Southern Chu’s grace, after all. However, His Imperial Highness’s grace is as high as the Heavens and as deep as the Earth.8 How could I, as a common individual, not be moved to tears? As a result, I ultimately surrendered and pledged my allegiance to His Imperial Highness. Although that was the case, I felt remorseful towards the Prince of De. However, after that assassination attempt, I came to understand that, to the Prince of De, one’s country was more important than everything else, and I, Jiang Zhe, was no more than a chess piece. If I were of use to Southern Chu, I would naturally be treated properly. If I were of harm, I must be eliminated. However, although I felt immense grief, I also deeply respected his loyalty.”
Gao Yan was somewhat at a loss. He did not know why Jiang Zhe had suddenly changed the topic from Northern Han to Southern Chu.
At this moment, I took another bundle of incense and paid my respects again. I stated, “The Prince of De is my old friend, while I never had the opportunity to meet General Tan Ji. With this incense, I hope that General Tan can die with contentment in the underworld. On the day that the Prince of De died, I was completely helpless. Today, General Tan’s death was a result of my plans. General Tan’s loyalty to Northern Han is akin to the Prince of De’s loyalty to Southern Chu. Both of them were heroic and loyal individuals, people whom Zhe admires from the bottom of my heart. Although Zhe’s actions have of course garnered the two’s hatred, we serve different masters. I hope that the two of you are able to understand.”
Gao Yan felt his heart pound even harder. Who would have thought that Jiang Zhe would also pay his respects to Tan Ji? He could not help feeling at a loss. However, he suddenly saw Jiang Zhe pick up another bundle of incense and pray, saying, “This fourth bundle is to ask forgiveness of the Heavens. Zhe also knows that Northern Han’s General Long is a loyal and famous general, and should not collude with vile characters who conspire to harm him. However, once war begins, the wilderness will be covered with corpses. If a victory can be won effortlessly,9 Zhe is willing to bear that evil reputation.”
Listening to this point, Gao Yan almost cried out in shock. What was going on? Has this man’s gaze already fixed upon Long Tingfei? What did it mean colluding with vile characters? Could it be that the undiscovered rebellious traitor under Long Tingfei’s command was real? At this moment, his mind was filled with doubts, practically forgetting the appreciation and admiration that he originally had. However, his mind was sharp, as he wondered if it was possible that Jiang Zhe was using this opportunity to probe himself. As a result, he deliberately revealed a perplexed look, almost as if he didn’t understand the meaning behind Jiang Zhe’s words.
I waited until the incense had burned out before I said to Gao Yan, “I have already had someone prepare the four treasures of the study. I will begin the journey back to the army encampment tomorrow. Xuzhi will likely not have another opportunity to see this score. It is best if you go copy it now.”
Gao Yan’s gaze fell upon the score, and he almost forgot about the crisis Northern Han faced. He knew that even if he were to learn something, it would be impossible for him to warn Long Tingfei. It was best to copy the score first. As for everything else, it could be left for later.
Watching Gao Yan’s departing figure, Xiaoshunzi said in a low voice, “Young master, what are your intentions? We have yet to receive a report back from our investigations and yet the young master seems to utterly treat him as an innocent and not guilty, and as an intimate and close friend. However, just now, young master was also deliberately misleading him. This servant does not understand young master’s intentions.”
I sighed and replied, “There is no need to investigate. I can confirm that he is undoubtedly an assassin from Northern Han.”
Xiaoshunzi’s eyes shone, as he suddenly voiced, “Since young master can confirm, this servant believes that there is definitely evidence. If that is the case, is the young master not prepared to kill him?”
Standing to the side, Huyan Shou had become completely bewildered long ago. When he heard the words spoken by Jiang Zhe about the Prince of De, he was already extremely uneasy. The following offerings left him even more mystified. The only one who knew Jiang Zhe’s complete plan, aside from the Prince of Qi, was Xiaoshunzi. Huyan Shou only knew some parts of it. As a result, he did not know if the words spoken by Jiang Zhe were real or not. He definitely had to compose a secret memorial to report this matter to the emperor. However, if this resulted in the emperor’s suspicion towards the daren, what then? Huyan Shou sank into a predicament, caught between a rock and a hard place. Now hearing Jiang Zhe and Xiaoshunzi’s conversation, he finally understood that Jiang daren’s words just now were meant to mislead Gao Yan. But why was Jiang daren so certain that Gao Yan was an assassin?