Volume 5, Chapter 29: Cutting One’s Losses1
On the fifteenth day of the fourth month, Taizong marched forth from Tong Pass. Wherever his banner appeared, the mere sight was enough make the enemy flee pell-mell in retreat,2 advancing irresistibly.
On the same day, the Prince of Qing vowed before his troops to rise in revolt in Nanzheng, installing a posthumous son of the former King of Shu, Meng Xu, as King. The Prince pledged to restore the Kingdom of Shu. Sniveling and crying, hundreds of former Shu officials bowed and pledged their allegiance.
On the sixteenth day of the fourth month, the Prince of Qing captured San Pass, shaking the entire world.
—Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Three
Atop the battlements of San Pass, Li Kang, the Prince of Qing, gazed at the brightly armored and clothed soldiers within the pass. He could not help giving a genuine smile. Over these years of management, in addition to threats and promises, he had finally been able to exercise firm control over this Yong army. Combined with the fifty thousand private soldiers formed by the aristocratic families of Hanzhong, the one hundred fifty thousand troops in Hanzhong were more than sufficient to seize Great Yong’s foundation, Guanzhong.
In the past, Great Yong had decided to invade Shu because of Shu’s control over Hanzhong. From Yangping Pass, they only needed to seize San Pass to advance into Guanzhong. Like the Sword of Damocles, this kind of threat could not be allowed to hang over the Yong court’s head. Although the Shu royal family was only interested in survival, it was not enough to eliminate Great Yong’s wariness.
Now that he had seized San Pass, he could use it on the west and Jiameng Pass on the east to control the fertile lands of Hanzhong. If victorious, he could advance and capture Guanzhong, establishing his own imperial ambitions. If defeated, he could retreat to Hanzhong and watch the warlords vie for supremacy with the cool eye of a bystander. Compared with being an imperial prince who had no way of sitting on the Imperial Throne, this was what he yearned for day and night.
While Li Kang was letting his mind wander, a sweet and soft voice said, “Your Imperial Highness, the spring air is still chilly. Why haven’t you put on the cloak that your servant sent over?”
His heart warming, Li Kang turned his head. As expected, he caught sight of a young woman in unadorned clothes walking towards him. Although the woman was dressed simply, but elegantly because they were with the army, her lustrous black hair was coiled up into a spiral, held in place by a golden loop at the bottom. Her figure was graceful, as if she were a willow, and she had an elegant complexion like a lotus within a pond. Her natural beauty was more than enough to topple cities and nations.3 The young woman smiled sweetly and curtsied.
Reaching out, Li Kang helped her up. He spoke with a smile, “Dear is being too careful. This Prince’s body is sturdy. What need is there for a cloak for this mere spring chill?”
Displeased, the young woman replied, “Your Imperial Highness has been busy with military matters and has not slept a wink. Your servant can do nothing to help and naturally must do her best to tend to Your Imperial Highness’s health. Your Imperial Highness’s body is priceless. If you catch a chill, wouldn’t it affect this grand undertaking?”
Finished speaking, the young woman took a white brocade silk cloak from a maid behind her in close fitting clothes and personally fastened it around Li Kang’s shoulders. On the cloak was embroidered a realistic, golden pixiu.4 Li Kang smiled, allowing the woman to do as she pleased.
After the woman finished tying the cloak, she unintentionally raised her gaze and saw the tender sentiments in Li Kang’s eyes. Her exquisite mien suffused with a blush. Bowing her head, she said, “Your servant asks to be excused and asks that Your Imperial Highness take care of your health.”
Finished speaking, the woman turned and departed. Although Li Kang dearly wished to have her company, with urgent military matters at hand and since it was already improper by bringing a concubine on the campaign, and the effect upon morale if he were to be too affectionate, he ultimately decided to send off his beloved concubine with his eyes.
Just as the young woman was about to walk down from the battlements, an ordinary looking youth began walking up. Seeing the young woman, the youth stepped to the side and saluted. The young woman smiled and nodded her head, leading her maid and walking down. Only then did the youth climb to the battlement and arrive before the Prince of Qing. He reported, “Your Imperial Highness, the entirety of San Pass has fallen under our army’s control. All of the captured Yong troops have been locked up. However, after interrogation, this general learned that San Pass’s garrison commander, Li Zongxun, escaped before the pass fell. We also didn’t discover any traces of the Bright Inspection Department. Your Imperial Highness, should we send troops to pursue? The deputy garrison commander of San Pass has contributed by handing the pass over and is waiting for Your Imperial Highness’s summons.”
A hint of regret flashed past Li Kang’s eyes as he replied, “Li Zongxun is a capable general and knows San Pass like the back of his hand. If he is intercepted and killed, it will save us a lot of trouble. The Bright Inspection Department is most adept at avoiding unfavorable situations and it isn’t strange that they’ve escaped. However, because you were able to bribe and acquire a mole to capture San Pass from within and without, the Bright Inspection Department will definitely be reprimanded. That is enough.”
Li Kang was extremely pleased with the Embroidered Union’s accomplishments. They had first severed communications between San Pass and Hanzhong, allowing him to stably control Hanzhong. Later, by using threats and promises, they had bribed San Pass’s deputy general, allowing him to obtain San Pass effortlessly. This kind of worthy service finally made Li Kang let go of the last of his vigilance against the Embroidered Union.
At this moment, Ye Tianxiu hurriedly rushed over. As one of Li Kang’s trusted subordinates, Ye Tianxiu had been assigned to hunt for traitors, focusing on supervising the officers of the army. At present, the Prince of Qing’s army was composed of the private troops of the former Shu aristocrats and Great Yong troops. The army abounded with contradictions and morale was rather shaky. As a result, Ye Tianxiu was extremely busy. All of his former agents and spies had almost entirely been assigned to this task.
On the one hand, when all was said and done, Li Kang was more trusting of the personnel he had selected. On the other, this could also show Li Kang’s sincerity towards the Embroidered Union so that they could be even more focused. Moreover, the Embroidered Union was most proficient at collecting external intelligence. Of course, Li Kang retained an intelligence network that targeted Chang’an. Apart from this, Li Kang was well aware that, in these chaotic times, his position would only be as steady as Mount Tai as long as he controlled the military. As a result, he focused on controlling the army. As long as his control was firm, there would be no worries that the former Shu factions and the Embroidered Union would do anything inappropriate.
After listening to the report about the state of the army from Ye Tianxiu, Li Kang satisfactorily replied, “Tianxiu, it’s been hard on you. At present, news of our rebellion has likely already reached Chang’an. Although Li Zhi has departed on a personal campaign, and though Imperial Father no longer pays attention to matters of the court, there is still Li Jun present to supervise, Shi Yu to administer, and also the presence of veteran generals like Qin Yi and Cheng Shu in Chang’an. Our army can only advance steadily and surely. I have already decided to personally lead the army to attack Chencang.5 At present, the war with Northern Han is unfavorable for Great Yong. I want to see how the Great Yong court will handle enemies on two fronts.”
Hearing Li Kang call the Yong court the Great Yong court, Ye Tianxiu knew that the prince had completely severed all ties with Yong. In reality, Ye Tianxiu did not want Li Kang to do this. As an imperial prince of Great Yong, the power, riches, and honor that he possessed were already rarely seen in this world. Surely there was no need to rebel? However, having received Li Kang’s patronage in no small measure, Ye Tianxiu could only ignore righteousness. When Li Kang finished speaking, Ye Tianxiu said, “Chencang’s garrison commander, Ying Ling, is one of Li Zhi’s trusted generals. He is known for his caution and is skilled at defending fortifications. Chencang likely won’t be easy to capture.”
Li Kang smiled. “There’s no harm. Assassins from the Embroidered Union have already infiltrated Chencang. After the defenders of Chencang have been exhausted by our siege, they can find the opportunity to assassinate Ying Ling. When the time comes, Chencang will definitely fall into chaos, allowing us to capture it. Besides, the Yong court’s intentions are likely primarily focused on Northern Han and they probably don’t have the ability to worry about us. Only after we’ve captured Chencang and we advance on Weinan6 is it likely that the hundred thousands of troops protecting the Three Qins7 will close on us.”
“Duke of Xin, Elder General Qin, will likely accompany that army,” stated Ye Tianxiu. “Elder General Qin is a seasoned general and has the army’s support. It will be difficult for us to win.”
With a sneer, Li Kang returned, “Qin Yi is already old. Since Qin Qing died, his spirit has completely disappeared. There is no need to worry about him. Besides, Long Tingfei employs soldiers ingeniously and will be able to defeat Li Xian easily. Even if Li Zhi goes personally, could it be that he can save the desperate situation? We only need to delay for several days. Then we’ll definitely reap a bountiful harvest. Even if we have no choice but to retreat from Chencang, we will have plenty to be reassured about.”
After listening to Shangguan Yan’s secret report, Huo Yi felt a bit of ridicule. Li Kang was counting his chickens before they were hatched, acting like the mantis stalking the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind, completely unsuspecting that the Embroidered Union had already thoroughly infiltrated his forces. In the north, the Bright Inspection Department’s achievements had been outstanding, utterly severing communications from Jinyang to Hanzhong. Even if the occasional report arrived, based upon Embroidered Union’s forces by Li Kang’s side, Huo Yi had the confidence that he would be able to intercept it. As for the Prince of Qing’s intelligence network in Chang’an, it was already under the control of the Bright Inspection Department. As a result, the continuous stream of misinformation that reached the Prince of Qing’s hands had already caused him to lose his head from success,8 completely forgetting that his enemy was the most terrifying individual.
Shangguan Yan gazed at the smile on Huo Yi’s face that had a hint of a sneer, feeling his heart grow ice cold. Days earlier, he had learned from his adoptive father that his adoptive younger brother, Gu Ying, had suddenly disappeared without a trace. After racking their brains, he and Xiong Bao both felt it likely that their adoptive younger brother had fallen into the hands of Chen Zhen and company. The so-called disappearance was a way of increasing the already tight control over Gu Ning’s faction. Shangguan Yan had once indirectly asked Huo Yi and only received a meaningful smile in response. Helpless, he was even more afraid of defying Huo Yi’s orders. His adoptive father only had this single biological son. If anything happened to him, how could Shangguan Yan not worry? As a result, even though Huo Yi’s orders were strange, neither he nor Xiong Bao dared to disobey, even if they were ordered to monitor the Prince of Qing while serving as the prince’s bodyguards.
Gazing at Huo Yi’s thoughtful face, Shangguan Yan only felt his heart gradually sink with grief. When could he finally extricate himself from the hands of this terrifying individual? When could he resume a tranquil life? Why did he have to sacrifice everything for the unrealistic goal of restoring Shu? At present, the so-called goal of restoring their country was bound to Great Yong’s chariot that was facing internal strife. Shangguan Yan could not understand the rationale behind this.
After sending Shangguan Yan away, Huo Yi’s face became grim. Although everything was progressing smoothly, when he thought of the news he received from Chen Zhen, he could not help feeling the need to kill arise in his mind. For what reason had Xiahou Yuanfeng made those demands? Without the Embroidered Union, would the Bright Inspection Department be able to proceed so smoothly in Hanzhong? Now, he actually wanted to go so far as destroying the bridge after crossing the river. If Huo Yi had not known the young master’s intentions, he would have long ago become hostile towards Xiahou Yuanfeng.
Forcibly suppressing the rage he felt, Huo Yi once again focused his mind on the Prince of Qing. Unintentionally, as his eyes flitted about, he caught sight of an unadorned figure walking towards the battlements. Presumably, it was the Lady Song going to invite the Prince of Qing to come down and eat.
Thinking of this Lady Song, a jittery feeling appeared in Huo Yi’s mind. Truthfully speaking, Lady Song was virtuous and gentle, possessing outstanding skill in embroidery. The Prince of Qing doted on her greatly. Although Lady Song had borne no children and had not been advanced to secondary wife, the Prince of Qing always brought Lady Song with him, even when campaigning. From this, it was evident how deep the prince’s loving favor towards her was. In addition, this Lady Song did not have any pretensions like other women, treating the Prince of Qing’s subordinates with courtesy and consideration, acting natural and unrestrained.
However, Huo Yi always felt the heavy pressure that this woman brought him. Whenever that pair of beautiful eyes like limpid autumn waters gazed at him, it was filled with trust and entreaty, seemingly hoping that he would do his utmost to assist the Prince of Qing. Every single one of her words and laughs were lovely and moving, making Huo Yi feel danger for no reason. When the time came to act and he needed to kill Lady Song, Huo Yi had determined and continuously felt that Lady Song would be his biggest obstacle.
Song Ying raised her head and looked up at the battlements. Seeing Li Kang glowing with health and vigor, she could not help halting her footsteps. Although he was nearly forty years old, Li Kang appeared in his early thirties because of the years he had spent practicing martial arts. The only thing that marked him as different was his depth and reservation. His handsome appearance was especially enough to make others adore him. Never had Song Ying ever thought she would fall so deeply in love with a man.
A faint smile appeared at the corners of Song Ying’s mouth. When she reached marriageable age at fifteen, she had been selected to enter the Shu royal palace to serve as a seamstress due to her embroidery skills. At the time, the Shu King doted on Lady Golden Lotus and did not show Song Ying the slightest interest. As for Song Ying, she held the lethargic Shu King in contempt. In this manner, her youth passed fleetingly. Initially, she had believed that she would spend her entire life like this. Who would have expected that Shu would be destroyed and that the Prince of Yong would order all of the palace maids in the Shu royal palace dismissed? In this manner, Song Ying had returned home.
Having passed the age when women usually married and unwilling to be married to a common individual, Song Ying had opted to be alone. However, during a feast held by her maternal aunt, she had met the Prince of Qing, Li Kang. To this day, she still remembered their first meeting and Li Kang’s luminous eyes. Afterwards, Li Kang had looked for countless ways to meet her in the hopes of gaining her consent for marriage. Song Ying was ultimately moved when she saw how he cherished her and had fallen in love. Although, Li Kang could not personally set her as his secondary wife due to his position to prevent the pretext for gossip at allying with Hanzhong’s aristocratic families. However, the way that Li Kang poured out his inner feelings when they shared a pillow caused Song Ying to become increasingly intoxicated.
Gazing at that tall and straight figure, Song Ying thought to herself, This kind of man originally should be above everyone. Even if the road ahead is dangerous and difficult, I have to accompany him, never leaving him. Sensing that he was being observed, Li Kang raised his head to look. Seeing Li Kang turn his head and smile lightly towards her, Song Yan also gave a sweet smile, walking towards her beloved husband. The two stood there, holding hands and not separating.
At this moment, within Chencang, the atmosphere was strained and yet also enflamed. After the officers and soldiers here had heard of the Prince of Qing’s rebellion, sincere fury raged forth from their hearts. Who was the Prince of Qing? He was a member of the imperial family and someone who controlled the administration and army of Hanzhong, possessing a hundred thousand troops. But he actually rebelled at this time. By now, rumors of the unfavorable state of the war with Northern Han had already reached Chencang. With the emperor taking the field personally and Chang’an’s garrison empty, the Prince of Qing’s rebellion was making an already bad situation worse. This filled every single member of the Chencang garrison with unbridled hatred. Drawing on the support of Chencang’s solid walls, they were determined to prevent the traitor from taking a single step eastward. This was the wish of every single officer and soldier.
Compared to the tension and ire of the Chencang garrison, there was an air of calm within the rear of the Chencang governor’s residence. This part of the residence had long since been requisitioned by the Bright Inspection Department, becoming Xiahou Yuanfeng’s headquarters.
Within a hall, Xiahou Yuanfeng stood before a window, smiling and considering the budding, still green peaches. Behind him was a scholar in gray robes who was writing at tremendous speed and dealing with paperwork. The room had an atmosphere of paradoxical tension and calm. After some time, the gray-robed scholar walked over carrying a pile of documents and scrolls. He said, “Daren, please look over these.”
Accepting the documents, Xiahou Yuanfeng skimmed them over before returning to his desk to add his signature and affix his seal. The gray-robed scholar picked up the documents and left to assign them. When he returned to the hall and saw that Xiahou Yuanfeng’s mind was still elsewhere, the scholar could not help asking, “Daren, this subordinate has one matter that I cannot understand. Is it possible to ask questions?”
Xiahou Yuanfeng smiled slightly and replied, “Ziyue, please speak.”
This gray-robed scholar was one of Xiahou Yuanfeng’s trusted retainers and naturally did not have any qualms, as he calmly asked, “Daren, the Embroidered Union is a force in Marquis Jiang’s hands. From the information that we have at present, this organization’s strength is quite formidable and controls significant territory. Whatever the case, Marquis Jiang will definitely attach great importance to it. By seizing this opportunity to demand control over the Embroidered Union, isn’t daren greatly offending Marquis Jiang? In His Imperial Majesty’s mind, the Marquis’s importance is greater than yours. Could it be that daren isn’t worried that Marquis Jiang will raise difficult questions because of this?”
Smiling, Xiahou Yuanfeng answered, “Ziyue, there are some things that you are unaware of. The Emperor’s Brother-in-law’s methods are expert at taking advantage of opportunities. This is clear from his activities with the Embroidered Union. He ordered his trusted lieutenants to control the core of the Embroidered Union, but the majority of the Union’s forces are still composed of those who have rebellious intentions. I cannot but admire his methods at exploiting this kind of Embroidered Union for his own purposes. However, there is also a detriment. Once this secret is exposed, the Embroidered Union will definitely be impossible to control. Admittedly, Marquis Jiang could destroy it, however, indiscriminate destruction will lead to a situation where neither side wins. This will not be of benefit to anyone. As a result, in order to completely control this organization, the formidable and strong Bright Inspection Department is more suitable than Marquis Jiang. He will be well aware of this fact.
“In addition, by cooperating with us in pacifying the Hanzhong rebellion, the Embroidered Union will only have two results. First, news that the Embroidered Union has fallen under our control will be leaked. Either they will be destroyed or they will submit to Great Yong. Second, the Embroidered Union withdraws from Yong lands. However, after this incident, the Embroidered Union’s defiance will be known through the world. From that point on, they can only resist Great Yong until the end. I believe that Marquis Jiang’s intentions are to continue to control the Embroidered Union, having them remain in opposition to attract all citizens of Shu who resent Great Yong to control them, using them to control communication channels between Southern Chu and Western Sichuan.
“Originally, this would be a good idea. To catch a big fish, one must cast a long line.9 Unfortunately, Marquis Jiang has neglected one matter. Before, His Imperial Majesty would naturally not mind the Embroidered Union’s existence with Hanzhong under the control of the Prince of Qing. After all, this would allow His Imperial Majesty to better control the situation in Hanzhong. However, once Hanzhong completely falls under His Imperial Majesty’s control, the continued existence of this rebel organization will be detrimental to Great Yong’s governance of Hanzhong and will likely arouse the Emperor’s suspicions.
“In addition, though it is possible to use trickery in warfare, when it comes to governance, one can only abide by the proper path. That is why the Embroidered Union must disappear along with the Prince of Qing. Of course, Marquis Jiang’s people can naturally withdraw, but everyone else can only fall into our hands. It is preferable to trouble ourselves to rebuild the covert strength that we control to infiltrate Western Sichuan than allow the defiant Embroidered Union to continue to exist and become the heroes of the common people of Shu.”
The gray-robed scholar frowned but agreed, “Daren speaks the truth. It is only that, although Marquis Jiang will understand daren’s painstaking efforts, this subordinate has observed him employing stratagems, using layers upon layers and trapping people without them knowing. However, malicious plots serve as the base, sinister and vicious. If he nurses a hatred towards daren because of this matter, what then?”
“You’re overthinking,” answered Xiahou Yuanfeng with a smile. “Although that man’s strategies are vicious, he is not someone who is meddlesome. In addition, his natural disposition is one of understanding. As long as he is aware of my demands, he will understand the deeper meaning behind them. That man’s conduct is extremely decisive. Once he has perceived that the Embroidered Union has become a hidden danger to him, his methods will be even fiercer than mine. If he acts personally, the Embroidered Union will probably disappear like yesterday’s smoke. That is why I asked to take over. Of course, it is also because I cannot bear to see the intelligence network which the Embroidered Union controls disappearing. If there weren’t any benefits, what need would there be for me to stick my neck out? You only need to watch. In the next two days, Liu Hua will come to see me to convey Marquis Jiang’s decision.”
Ever since Xiahou Yuanfeng had made his demand to take over the Embroidered Union, Liu Hua had avoided meeting Xiahou Yuanfeng. Even when San Pass was abandoned and a retreat was feigned, Liu Hua had only dispatched one of his subordinates to discuss the matter.
The gray-robed scholar nodded his head. Just as he was about to speak, someone knocked on the door from outside. The scholar pushed the door open and went out to see. It wasn’t long before he returned. Full of admiration, he reported, “Daren, Liu daren requests a meeting.”
Walking into the hall, Hualiu felt faint discontent. However, since the young master had already made the decision, then he had no choice but to come see this Xiahou daren. Resisting with great difficulty the anger he felt, Hualiu performed the proper salute of a subordinate meeting a superior. Xiahou Yuanfeng’s face did not have a hint of satisfaction. Rather, he followed proper etiquette, making Hualiu utterly unable to have any complaints. Composing himself, Hualiu indifferently stated, “Xiahou daren, this is a list of the Embroidered Union’s members and assets. On the list, there are a number of individuals who have been specially marked that can be recruited. Young master has ordered me to convey to daren that once the Prince of Qing’s rebellion is resolved, daren can handle the Embroidered Union as you wish.”
Xiahou Yuanfeng’s pupils suddenly shrank, as he sensed the hint of a chill from the bottom of his heart. Although he had earlier said that if Jiang Zhe’s execution would be extremely decisive, he only felt that Jiang Zhe would merely hand over a list containing the Embroidered Union’s members, while retaining the Union’s assets. Xiahou Yuanfeng had long decided to not show any interest in this matter, not only because this was Jiang Zhe’s proper compensation but also for another reason—if Jiang Zhe continued to control these assets, then based on the statements made by the members of the Embroidered Union, Xiahou Yuanfeng was fully confident in discovering the majority of the Union’s assets, and by monitoring these assets he could monitor the actual strength Jiang Zhe had. This was not because Xiahou Yuanfeng deliberately wanted to make trouble for Jiang Zhe, but rather because he felt that he might need this information in the future. Xiahou Yuanfeng did not want there to be any force to exist that was capable of escaping his sight.
Through all this, Xiahou Yuanfeng had never expected that Jiang Zhe would even give up all of the assets belonging to the Union. A scorpion wasp eats its host alive. When a viper bites the arm of a warrior, the warrior should cut his arm off. Jiang Zhe had actually gone so far as to remove all gaps that he could infiltrate. This kind of absolute decisiveness was enough to make Xiahou Yuanfeng somewhat regret his earlier decision. Could it be that Jiang Zhe had already seen through his selfish motives and not seen his kind intentions? If that were the case, then he had freely formed a hatred with someone he could not oppose.
Within the secret base of the Embroidered Union, Chen Zhen and Dong Que were leisurely having tea. Chen Zhen said, “Xiahou Yuanfeng will definitely be shocked by the young master’s decisiveness.”
“In the letter the young master sent, Xiahou Yuanfeng reminded him that it is truly inconvenient for him to continue to control the Embroidered Union,” replied Dong Que. “The young master wants us to remove all of the moveable assets. As for the Embroidered Union’s people, he wants us to leave them to Xiahou Yuanfeng to handle after being filtered. However, I am not reconciled to allowing Xiahou Yuanfeng to get off so lightly and want to cause him some problems to make up for our losses.”
Evenly, Chen Zhen stated, “Our people in the Embroidered Union naturally have to be withdrawn. Those obstinate members can abide by their loyalty. However, what about Gu Ning and company? Although they have rebellious intent, when all is said and done, they are relatively moderate. With their existence, we will be better able to control those in the former Kingdom of Shu who wish to rebel. In addition, his juniors all seem to want to abandon hopes of restoring Shu. If they are all killed, that’s almost certainly overreaching. If you want to leave some problems for Xiahou Yuanfeng, do you have any good ideas? Has the young master consented?”
Dong Que smiled and responded, “Why would the young master disagree? Although the young master seems serene, between the lines, he is dissatisfied and definitely wants to teach Xiahou Yuanfeng a lesson. Young master is not fond of being threatened by others. As for the retaliation method, I do have an idea.”
Reaching this point, Dong Que lowered his voice. Hearing his words, Chen Zhen felt pride radiate from his eyes. After a good while, he said, “Good plan. In this way, we can kill two birds with one stone, not only impeding those who wish to restore Shu and ensure that they dare not act, but also giving only Xiahou Yuanfeng some problems. In the future, these problems will all fall on his head.”
After finalizing the plan, Chen Zhen smiled. “Chencang requires my presence to oversee everything. I will depart tonight. As for Nanzheng, everything will depend on your methods.”
“You don’t have to worry,” returned Dong Que indifferently. “I will arrange everything.”
Just as Chen Zhen was about to reply, an icy voice came from outside and said, “Gu Ning requests an audience with the Union Head and Vice Union Head.”
Chen Zhen and Dong Que exchanged a look and smirked, revealing the same overtones in their eyes. Wasn’t this speaking of the devil?10
Swiftly, Dong Que picked up the ghost mask and put it on, only revealing his frigid eyes. Seeing that he was ready, Chen Zhen opened his mouth and asked, “Protector Gu, is something the matter?”
The stone door opened and Gu Ning walked in with large strides. His complexion was as pale as snow. Not bothering to salute, he gazed austerely at the two individuals and said, “I am all here. Regardless of how the two of you intend to punish me, I will not have any complaints and only ask that you leave a way for my children to survive.”
Dong Que understood what was going on. It seemed news of Gu Ying’s disappearance had finally reached Gu Ning’s ears. Honestly speaking, Gu Ning was ultimately deep-rooted within the Embroidered Union. Even though Chen Zhen had ordered that this matter be concealed, Gu Ning had still been able to learn the news. Dong Que’s and Chen Zhen’s eyes met, both feeling that this was the perfect coercion opportunity.
Pretending to not understand, Chen Zhen asked, “Why is Protector Gu saying such things? This seat also once ordered a search for your esteemed, disappeared son. It is only that there isn’t any news. Your nephew and Protector Gu’s adopted son are both at the side of Union Head’s adopted son, Huo Yi’, and are safe and sound. What is the meaning behind Protector Gu’s words?”
Gu Ning was already completely disheartened. He disappointedly kneeled on the ground. Without any anger in his voice, he said, “Why is Vice Union Head continuing to speak in such a manner? I am well aware of what is going on. From the beginning, Union Head has always been with dissatisfied with me, merely bearing a grudge against me for trying to block the Union Head from assuming control over the Union. At the time, I did not have any selfish motives and only observed that the Union Head was too impetuous and extreme, harming the innocent common people. That was why I was repeatedly obstructive. Although the Union Head detained Gu Ning and prepared to execute me, Gu Ning had no complaints. Afterwards, ever since the Union Head returned from Great Yong, I was granted a favor and let off. My entire family and I can’t be thankful enough. Later, seeing that Union Head’s planning was appropriate and the Embroidered Union become increasingly prosperous, I was also filled with heartfelt joy. Although the Union Head left me idle due to our former grievances, I myself was most willing.
“Sometime earlier, I disapproved of cooperating with the Prince of Qing not out of any selfish motives. When Union Head gave the order to send away my children, I could only accept. However, my Ying’er lost his mother at a young age and was entirely raised by me. Since Union Head has acted against him this time, presumably Union Head will also not let off Yan’er and Bao’er. Gu Ning is willing to die in their place and only ask that the Union Head is benevolent enough to allow them to live and die as they will.”
Chen Zhen smiled softly, thinking, How can I say that Gu Ying heard information that he should not have heard? Were it not for my orders to have Luo Jianfei keep an eye on Gu Ying and not allow him to escape our control and not take his life, Luo Jianfei would definitely not have spared his life. Pleading for leniency right now is a bit too late. However, we can use this opportunity to force him to perform a task. Chen Zhen shot a glance at Dong Que, indicating for him to speak.
Understanding, Dong Que coldly replied, “Protector Gu, though you have caused trouble for this seat several times, this seat does not blame you. If you can perform a task, I will spare the lives of your children.”
A slight, wry smile appeared on Gu Ning’s face as he said, “Union Head, please command me.”
“You know that the Prince of Qing has honored the posthumous son of His Royal Majesty, Meng Xu, as his suzerain, while he serves as the regent,” explained Dong Que. “However, he is merely going through the motions. Only those pedantic scholars would believe in the Prince of Qing’s good faith. The Prince of Qing hopes to not see that puppet when he returns. So that he avoids committing regicide, I will arrange for you to get close to Meng Xu before killing him. I can promise you that your children will remain alive and well.”
Gu Ning was stunned, the expression on his face becoming gloomy. His veins bulged, as he appeared to experience inner turmoil. It was quite a while before he could speak up. “This subordinate obeys.”
Sending Gu Ning away, Chen Zhen smiled and asked, “Tell me, can someone loyally focused on restoring his country truly commit regicide?”
Dong Que uncaringly answered, “What’s the problem with that? Regardless of what he does, it has nothing to do with us.”
The two locked eyes and laughed, looking sinister.
Footnotes:壮士断腕, zhuangshiduanwan – idiom, lit. when bitten by a viper, a warrior would cut off a limb to prevent the poison from spreading; fig. cutting one’s losses 望风而遁, wangfengerdun – idiom, lit. flee at the mere sight of the oncoming force; fig. flee pell-mell at the mere sight 倾国倾城, qingguoqingcheng, idiom, lit. capable of causing the downfall of a city or country; fig. devastatingly beautiful 貔貅, pixiu – a mythical creature that brings luck and wards off evil, possessing the head of a dragon and a lion’s body, and often also possessing hoofs, wings, and tail 陈仓, Chencang – the ancient name for Baoji (宝鸡), Shaanxi 渭南, Weinan – a prefecture-level city in Shaanxi that is sixty kilometers east of Xi’an 三秦, sanqin – lit. three Qins; refers to the three kingdoms formed in Guanzhong in what was the former heartland of the Qin Dynasty after Qin fell 得意忘形, deyiwangxing – idiom, lit. forgetting himself from joy; fig. lose his head from success 放长线，钓大鱼, fangchangxian, diaodayu – idiom, lit. to catch a big fish, one must cast a long line; fig. adopt a long-term plan to secure big results 说曹操，曹操就到, shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao jiudao – lit. speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives; Cao Cao was the preeminent warlord of the Three Kingdoms Period; fig. speak of the devil (and he shall appear)