Maintaining a calm expression on his face, Wang Ji declared, “This commoner has wandered the four lands. Although it cannot be said that this commoner’s knowledge and experience are extensive, I have learned all kinds of information in my travels. Although the Great Yong court has claimed that the Princess lives in seclusion in the depths of the palace because of the fright she endured during the Hunting Palace coup d’état, all kinds of rumors have abounded among the common people. Each and every one of those rumors have been vivid and seemingly realistic, filled with comprehensive details. When the coup occurred, this subject was in Great Yong and also heard many different rumors. As a result, my understanding is a comparatively a bit more detailed. This commoner is not a spy. Princess, please understand.”
Lin Bi’s gaze swept past him, as she replied, “Sir Wang is being overly anxious. Sir is proficient at identifying and treating horses, and has such extensive knowledge and experience. You are truly a talent that my Northern Han greatly desires! If Sir is willing to consent, We will honor Sir as an honored guest.”
After hesitating momentarily, Wang Ji declined, “For the Princess to regard me so highly, this commoner should by rights obey. It is only that this commoner is on my way to Penglai on the Eastern Sea. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to comply.”
Lin Bi was a bit startled, as she asked, “Why are you going to the Eastern Sea?”
“Recently, this commoner met an old friend who reported that my former honored master is in good health,” answered Wang Ji respectfully and cautiously. “And he has recently had a boy. As a result, this commoner is of mind to go congratulate my former master.”
With curiosity, Lin Tong asked, “Isn’t your former master an elderly individual? How could he have a son?”
Wang Ji was startled before he smiled and responded, “Presumably Princess has misunderstood. This commoner’s former master is still in the prime of his life. Previously, aside from a young miss, he had no other children. Only recently has he added a son. Next month is the young master’s first birthday. Hearing of this news, this commoner is intent on proceeding to join the celebrations.”
Lin Bi’s expression stirred. Although Wang Ji was young, his words and bearing were both far from normal. His former master must undoubtedly not be an ordinary individual either. Moreover, wasn’t she on her way to the Eastern Sea as well? If she were to have the opportunity to meet Wang Ji’s former master, it may be possible for Northern Han to gain another pillar of the state. Thinking of this, she smiled and stated, “What a coincidence! We have also the need to travel to the Eastern Sea. Is Sir Wang willing to journey together with Us?”
Surprised, Wang Ji returned, “Princess is an important subject of Northern Han. Why would you go to the Eastern Sea? Although the Eastern Sea is within the sphere of influence of the Marquis of the Eastern Sea, although the Marquis of the Eastern Sea stands alone,1 who doesn’t know that in recent years, the Marquis of the Eastern Sea has already begun to reconcile with Great Yong? As a result, the Marquis has frequent dealings with Great Yong. If the Princess were to go to the Eastern Sea, it would likely be quite dangerous.”
Smiling, Lin Bi replied, “There is no harm. Sir presumably does not know that the beloved son of the Marquis of the Eastern Sea is getting married. The invitations have been sent throughout the world. We are on our way to offer Northern Han’s congratulations on the express orders of our King. Moreover, the rare treasures exhibition is also a grand occasion. We wish to see the rare treasures of exotic and foreign lands.”
Hearing this, Lin Tong beamed from ear to ear. Anxiously, she stated, “Elder sister, I also want to go take a look at the rare treasures exhibit.”
Lin Bi smiled softly, stretching out her hand to pat her younger sister in placation, preventing her from interrupting.
Wang Ji clapped his hands. “Oh! This commoner has also heard of the rare treasures exhibition. In the last two years, rich merchant Hai Wuya of the Eastern Sea has built massive ships that travel the seas to Korea, Japan, and the various lands of the Southern Seas, using the porcelain and silk manufactured in the Central Plains and Jiangnan to exchange for gold, silver, precious stones, and all kinds of regional specialties. Reportedly, the profits are over a hundred, no a thousandfold. Presumably this exhibition is being hosted by Hai Wuya, correct?”
“That’s correct. Hai Wuya has taken advantage of the wedding of the beloved son of the Marquis of the Eastern Sea to host the exhibition,” affirmed Lin Bi with a smile. “In addition, at present, there is no one in this world who doesn’t want to cooperate with Hai Wuya and take a piece of the profits from the ocean trade monopoly? This exhibition is naturally the perfect opportunity for those individuals.”
With misgivings, Wang Ji asked, “But who doesn’t know that behind this Hai Wuya is definitely the Marquis of the Eastern Sea? It won’t be an easy task to want a share of those profits. Further, every state has rich, huge merchants who are already working in cooperation with Hai Wuya, resulting in today’s balanced situation. If the Princess desires to monopolize the profits, it is likely that neither Great Yong nor Southern Chu will be willing to allow that to happen.”
Lin Bi gazed deeply at Wang Ji and replied, “As expected, Sir Wang clearly understands the affairs of the world. Hai Wuya has been in business in the Eastern Sea for five years now. During the first two years, he was no more than minor businessman operating a sea shipping operation. The most recent two to three years, he has undertaken three convoys out into the open ocean. The ships that he used include dozens of massive ships that he personally designed with high cargo capacity, fast speed, and armed with newly designed weaponry. There were nearly a hundred merchant ships from other businesses accompanying Hai Wuya’s ships and also escorted by the Marquis of Eastern Sea’s warships. If Hai Wuya wasn’t so capable, all of this would have been impossible. Just think, all of the major merchants from Great Yong, Southern Chu, and my Northern Han cooperated with him, allowing all three to derive benefits, ensuring that none of the three can make things difficult for him. We greatly admire this kind of scheming, courage, and insight. However, when there’s a gain, there’s a loss. For Hai Wuya to curry favor on all sides, although effective to this day, in recent years, the flames of war have increasingly wreaked havoc. Great Yong and Northern Han cannot coexist. As a result, Hai Wuya must reassess the situation. Rather than remaining neutral, would it not be better for him to choose a single master?”
The more Wang Ji listened, the more worried he became. Her telling him this kind of classified information made it highly impossible for him to disengage himself. From the corners of his eyes, he could see that the mixed gender bodyguards all had their hands on the handles of their sabers. Wang Ji could only feign ignorance, smiling and answering, “Princess speaks the truth. However, allow this commoner to speak disrespectfully. Hai Wuya can cease cooperating with any of the three countries, but he cannot cast aside the Marquis of the Eastern Sea. Without the Marquis’s escort, it would be impossible for long distance seafaring merchant ships to arrive at their destination and return safe and sound. In addition, if one were to consider production capability, Great Yong and Southern Chu occupies the most populous and affluent parts of the Middle Kingdom. With the fall of Shu, Sichuan’s resources and production were divided by the two countries. If Hai Wuya were to cooperate with only one country, it would not be surprising if he chose either Great Yong or Southern Chu. However, Northern Han is at a significant disadvantage. If the three countries are balanced, Northern Han would be able to get a share of the profits,2 but if Northern Han desires to monopolize the oceangoing trade, it is likely that your gains will not make up for your losses.”
Disdain flashed across Lin Bi’s eyes. She replied, “Sir speaks the truth. We also share the same thoughts. My Northern Han has been a disadvantage in the oceangoing trade. Sir has also misunderstood Our intentions. The one trying to monopolize those profits won’t be my Northern Han, but Southern Chu. In the near future, Southern Chu will dispatch an envoy seeking to cooperate with Northern Han to threaten the Marquis of the Eastern Sea to reach an agreement, allowing the three parties to control the oceangoing trade, excluding Great Yong. The Northern Han court has dispatched Us to the Eastern Sea with the intentions of seizing this opportunity. If the Marquis of the Eastern Sea agrees, when the time comes, we can completely sever the profits that Great Yong makes from the oceangoing trade. This will only benefit us without doing us harm. If this is impossible, we will do our utmost to seize as big a share of the profits as we can.”
Listening to her words, Wang Ji continuously nodded his head. He stated, “This commoner is from Southern Chu. Although I have been away from my homeland for years, I am aware that my homeland attaches enormous importance to commerce. Such intentions are inevitable and reasonable. I wonder who is responsible for these negotiations from my homeland?”
Lin Bi smiled faintly and answered, “We have heard that the envoy dispatched by Southern Chu to celebrate the wedding of the only son of the Marquis of Eastern Sea is the son of Lu Xin, the Duke Who Suppresses Distant Lands, Grand General Lu Can. Great Yong’s envoy is the Prince of Qing, Li Kang, and the Vice Minister of Rites, Gou Lian. Since both sides are striving their utmost, my Northern Han cannot randomly send someone. We can only go and take this difficult job reluctantly. Sir Wang, since you are also going to the Eastern Sea, what harm is there for you to journey together with Us? Maybe there are things that We will be forced to rely upon your help.”
Wang Ji respectfully consented, “This commoner was able to ride on several coattails to success. How dare I refuse?”
Lin Tong hastily exclaimed, “Elder sister, I want to go as well!”
Lin Bi glanced down, seeing the hopes and desires in her younger sister’s eyes, excitedly bouncing up and down in the saddle, determined to go alone if she was refused. With a pampering and indulgent smile, Lin Bi allowed, “Fine. As long as you are obedient, I will bring you along.”
Overjoyed, Lin Tong clasped her hands together into a prayer and swore to the Heavens that she wouldn’t act willfully and cause trouble.
Lin Bi smiled shallowly without speaking. Inconveniences would naturally be unavoidable, however this trip isn’t a matter of life and death. On the surface, Southern Chu seems to be on the level, but when it comes to sharing profits, I have no intentions of relying upon them. This Wang Ji is a talent and isn’t like other Southern Chu citizens who love leisure and hate labor. If this person has no problems, no effort must be spared to ensure that he remains and serves Northern Han.
Wang Ji had different thoughts. Was it better to remain in Northern Han as an undercover agent or return to his master’s side? It was difficult for him to decide. After thinking it over, he decided it was best to ask his former master’s opinion. Recalling the letter that he had read yesterday and the implied jubilation3 between the lines,4 it could be assumed that his former master was in an excellent mood. This wasn’t surprising. Accompanied by his beloved, completely unfettered,5 and recently becoming a father of a son, presumably his former master had no intention of leaving his life of seclusion. However, over these last several years, Great Yong and Northern Han had been locked in a stalemate. It was difficult to tell how long his former master would be able to enjoy a life of leisure.
After staying a few days in Daizhou, Wang Ji followed Lin Bi and Lin Tong, beginning the journey to the Eastern Sea. Although they could cross over Mount Wutai and take a ship from Shandong, Lin Bi instead took a vast detour, first going to Jinyang.6
Jinyang was where Long Tingfei was stationed and was an important strategic city for Northern Han, easily defended and difficult to attack. It was further protected by the Shiling7 and Chitang8 Passes, keeping the Yong armies out. Over these last few years, when the time came for the fall harvest, Long Tingfei would marshal an army and attack Zezhou.9 and Zhenzhou, harassing the Great Yong borders as they were focused on the fall harvest. After learning the lesson from the Northern Han invasion in the twenty-fifth year of Wuwei, the Prince of Qi, Li Xian, adopted a scorched earth policy,10 dispatching an army to strictly garrison the defenses and implementing the baojia system.11 On the borders, the Prince of Qi set up a string of fire beacons, monitoring the movements of the Northern Han army. If the Northern Han army were to invade, they would immediately turn out the entire force to meet the enemy. Who would have known that Long Tingfei would dramatically change the tune? Relying upon the Northern Han’s ability to stage long distance raids, able to come and go as the wind, he used guerrilla tactics to harass Great Yong’s northern frontier. Great Yong’s military clearly had more troops than Northern Han, but was completely stifled by Long Tingfei’s tactics. Ultimately, the Prince of Qi decided to stick to the defenses and not sally forth, moving all of the border residents behind the defensive line, leaving behind a hundred li of open space. With this, based upon Great Yong’s massive military and the scattered forts and strongholds, the Prince of Qi was finally able to ensure a stalemate.
Some thirty li from Jinyang, Wang Ji could see dust and smoke being kicked up in the distance. After careful observation, he could see the concentrated dust did not dissipate, knowing an elite unit of horsemen was approaching. However, being within Northern Han’s borders and with Great Yong’s cavalry strictly staying within its borders, he could tell that these horsemen were friendly. Presumably, they were dispatched from Jinyang to welcome and escort the Princess of Jiaping.
It wasn’t long before everyone could see that the horsemen were dressed in crimson armor. At their head was a man wearing a battle gown the color of flames. As he wore the mask part of his helmet, it was impossible to see his features. However, from his vigorous body and his unstoppable,12 imposing manner, one could not help but be entranced. A look of happiness appeared in Lin Bi’s eyes, and she spurred her horse forward. Her personal guards who usually never left her side oddly halted and did not follow. Just as Lin Bi’s lone horse galloped forward, the leader of that elite unit of horsemen, the red-armored general, also came rushing out. When the two were less than ten meters apart, the two simultaneously leapt off the horses, holding out their hands and catching each other in midair. The two landed on the ground gently. Then the fiery red man embraced the woman in emerald green. That kind of strong, deep love and the intense joy after reuniting from a long separation infected everyone. All stayed silent, calmly watching the two.
After a while, the two figures separated. Holding hands, they walked over towards Wang Ji and company. Wang Ji and company all dismounted from their horses, standing at attention. When the couple approached, everyone could see the jubilation on Lin Bi’s face, making her exceptionally beautiful beyond description. The red-armored general had removed his face mask, revealing a perfect and unblemished face. Combined with his tall, slim, and elegant build, his imposing height of six feet, his pair of eyes as dark as the night sky with a hint of bluish green, and his refined and formidable natural elegance, it caused everyone, including Wang Ji, to willingly kneel to pay their respects. In unison, they hailed, “Subordinates pays our respects to the Grand General.”
Of course, Lin Tong did not kneel, instead gaily rushing forward and hugging the red-armored general’s right arm. Excitedly, she called out, “Brother-in-law! Tong’er has missed you every day! When are you going to marry my elder sister?”
Although Wang Ji had long ago guessed that this red-armored general was Northern Han’s Heaven-propping jade pillar, Long Tingfei, he could still not help but feel a burst of excitement. Meeting such a heroic individual was truly his great fortune. Recalling the heroes that he had met in his youth, he surprisingly discovered that none of them could match Long Tingfei. Even Prince Li Zhi of Yong and Prince Li Xian of Qi, although carrying the lofty auras of members of the imperial clan, were inferior when compared to Long Tingfei. Possibly the only one capable of comparing with this man was his former master who had bestowed him with everything. Recalling that scholarly, feeble, and delicate youth, Wang Ji could not help feel his heart heat up with passion. His unique characteristics, no matter who he was in company with, would cause everyone to subconsciously turn their gazes upon him.
Hearing Lin Tong’s questions, Long Tingfei’s face could not but become somewhat embarrassed. He had been engaged with Lin Bi for two years now and yet they had still not wed. The fact of the matter was that there were plenty of reasons. To begin with, his first wife had died not long ago. Long Tingfei was unwilling to remarry so quickly. Second, in the last few years, Long Tingfei had been busy campaigning against Great Yong, exhausting himself. Naturally, his mind was not on marriage. The most important reason was that although Lin Bi was a woman, she was a master of strategy and tactics, outshining all of her brothers. In the last several years, because of Lin Yuanting’s poor health, Daizhou’s defenses and governance had all fallen into Lin Bi’s hands. In order to prevent the northern barbarians from seizing the opportunity to conquer Northern Han, it was impossible for Lin Bi to take off her battle gown and become another’s wife. As a result, the wedding had been delayed until now. However, these reasons could not be spoken aloud. As he was thinking of how to respond, Long Tingfei’s eyes fell upon Wang Ji. Smiling, he walked over and greeted, “This must be ‘Divine Doctor Bo Le,’ Sir Wang, correct? I have heard Sister Bi say that Sir has arrived within my Northern Han’s army. I am exceedingly pleased at your arrival! I have heard that Sir Wang is skilled at identifying and treating horses. Presumably, your skill at raising horses must be outstanding as well. If able to receive Sir’s help, my army’s horses will surely increase in quality!”
Wang Ji once again kowtowed, replying, “This commoner does not deserve such praise. The nickname of ‘Divine Doctor Bo Le’ is no more than a false reputation. Although this commoner hails from Southern Chu, I am in love with the lifestyle of Mobei.13 If General does not scorn me, once Ji has paid a visit to my family, this commoner will return to serve General, doing my utmost until my dying day.”
Long Tingfei smiled slightly. Using both hands, he helped Wang Ji to his feet, stating, “It would be our King’s fortune if Sir Wang is willing to serve my Northern Han. Having wandered for many years, presumably you are accustomed to traveling. This time, accompanying the Princess to the Eastern Sea, I hope that you will do your utmost.”
Saluting, Wang Ji acknowledged, “This one obeys and will definitely not fail this trust.”
Long Tingfei smiled softly again, gratification and joy filling his expression. Wang Ji could not help but feel his heart warm. Were it not for the plans that he had made earlier, he would likely serve this general to the death without any regrets.
The group continued onwards to Jinyang. As Lin Bi was a royal princess and Long Tingfei’s fiancée—and even though Long Tingfei did not want to make public her whereabouts, only holding a banquet with his trusted generals—his residence could not help but bustle with activity. At the liveliest moment of the banquet, Long Tingfei and Lin Bi disappeared without a trace. Everyone assumed that the two had gone off to chat privately after some time apart, only going so far as to share knowing looks and winks.
As everyone thought, Long Tingfei and Lin Bi were having a private discussion in an elegant study. However, the subject of their conversation was different from everyone’s expectations. They did not discuss their relationship. Instead, they were discussing military secrets.
Upon returning to his residence, Long Tingfei had changed into a set of robes sky blue in color. With a radiant smile, he gazed upon Lin Bi, stating, “Sister Bi, there is no need for you to worry excessively. You need only serve as a spectator. If Southern Chu, as expected, has the ability to persuade the Marquis of the Eastern Sea to exclude Great Yong, then we will naturally be able to get a part of the profits. Moreover, we can seize the opportunity to invade Great Yong. If Southern Chu fails, there is no need for you to intervene, so that you don’t get caught in the crossfire.14 However, I do hope that you will seize the opportunity to form an alliance with the Marquis of the Eastern Sea. If we can attain the Marquis’s cooperation, Great Yong will become completely surrounded.”
Lin Bi’s long, shapely eyebrows furrowed slightly, as she replied, “Tingfei, you are clear about this … Great Yong has the most formidable military. Although you currently hold the advantage, as long as you are unable to inflict a crushing defeat upon the Prince of Qi, it will be impossible for you to threaten Great Yong. Do you have any plans? This stalemate is not to our benefit. Although the people of our Northern Han are brave and strong, compared to Great Yong’s power and Southern Chu’s affluence, we do not have the ability to unify the world.”
Long Tingfei rose to his feet. Walking to the wall and pointing at the map, he said, “Sister Bi, look. At present, the Prince of Qi is enduring silently and not sallying forth. Although our armies are without equal, we have not been able to damage Great Yong’s strength in the slightest. Although our armies are brave and fierce, exhausting their abilities, we only have two hundred thousand troops. Although there are another hundred thousand troops in the area around Daizhou, they have to remain there to defend against the barbarian tribes and cannot be moved lightly. As a result, we cannot continue like this. At present, the reason why Great Yong has been able to hold us to a stalemate is because of the Prince of Qi’s seasoned and experienced command. It may be assumed that after overcoming so many obstacles, Li Xian has already greatly improved. If we can eliminate Li Xian, when the time comes, I have full confidence that I will have no other opponent within Great Yong. As long as we are able to acquire Zezhou and Zhenzhou, Great Yong will be powerless to check our country.”
Frowning, Lin Bi replied, “It would be best if that were the case. If we are able to eliminate Li Xian, unless Li Zhi, as Emperor, personally leads troops into battle, Great Yong has no one capable of blocking your armies. However, if Li Zhi were to take the field himself, Southern Chu can seize the opportunity to attack as well. When the time comes, Great Yong will face a war on two fronts, causing them to fall into dire straits. However, Li Xian is still an imperial clansman and is trusted by Li Zhi. It will be difficult to eliminate him.”
“Having made contributions to shake a monarch’s position, how many rulers are unsuspicious of their generals leading armies?” observed Long Tingfei, smiling. “No matter how skilled Li Zhi is, it will be inevitable that he becomes suspicious. Further, there’s still a sore point between Li Xian and Li Zhi that remains. That year when Li An colluded with the Fengyi Sect to stage a coup d’état, although Li Xian did not personally participate, the suspicions upon him were heavy. His consort committed suicide because of her participation. From the intelligence that we have attained, Li Xian was originally under house arrest. Due to my sudden invasion and without any alternatives, Li Zhi could only pardon Li Xian. Li Xian’s temperament is quite strange, making several mistakes since. First, he refused Li Zhi’s efforts to find him another wife. Last year, Li Zhi desired to find another consort for Li Xian, but was declined by Li Xian. Second, the son bore by the former Princess of Qi has lost his ability to inherit Li Xian’s principality. If Li Xian is intelligent, he should show no interest in this son of his. However, he actually brought his son to the army encampments. With this, the Prince of Yong would inevitably become resentful. Speaking of this Li Xian, he is truly obstinate. Surely, he must understand the limits of decorum and yet is unwilling to bow his head and give in. Seeing him reveal these flaws, there is no need for me to be polite. Since last year, I have disseminated rumors claiming that Li Xian’s steadfast defense is because he intends to use the army to establish his independence. If the target were someone else, with Li Zhi’s magnanimity and insight, it would not be important. However, if the target is the one once suspected of treasonous activity and with Li Xian’s lack of discretion, what do you think Li Zhi will do? In the last several months, Li Zhi has issued several edicts to Li Xian to soothe him.”
Thinking it over, Lin Bi stated, “If it were another general, these soothing edicts would cause him to become filled with gratitude. However, with Li Xian, he will feel that the Yong Emperor has become suspicious of him.”
“That is the indeed the case,” replied Long Tingfei. “In response, Li Xian has submitted several memorials explaining the military situation in order to explain his true intentions. However, it is impossible to argue these kinds of things. Right now, even the city of Chang’an abounds with rumors. Presumably, Li Zhi is in a difficult position. If he does not recall Li Xian, it is likely that as the rumors continue to spread, Li Xian will be filled with dread. Even if he originally had no intentions of rebelling, such thoughts will be born.”
“In reality, if Li Zhi is able to dispatch someone as a sufficiently suitable army supervisor,” responded Lin Bi, “Everything will be calmed down.”
Smiling, Long Tingfei explained, “How could it be so easy? This army supervisor must possess the ability to suppress the Prince of Qi and also cannot arouse the ire of the Prince of Qi’s subordinate commanders. Furthermore, he must also be Li Zhi’s trusted subordinate. At present, Great Yong does not have such a candidate. As long as this situation continues, regardless of whether to protect the Prince of Qi or to safeguard against the Prince of Qi from rebelling, Li Zhi will have no option but to recall him. When the time comes, without a capable commander-in-chief in command of Great Yong’s armies, there will inevitably be generals who cannot maintain the defenses and seek to attack. I can seize advantage of the opportunity and annihilate the Yong army.”
“I hope that you will succeed in one strike,” sighed Lin Bi. “Our Northern Han cannot sustain this kind of stalemate.”
Full of confidence, Long Tingfei declared, “Sister Bi do not worry. After I have captured Zezhou and Zhenzhou, our wedding cannot and should not be further delayed.”
Lin Bi’s beautiful face flushed scarlet, unable to utter a single word. Long Tingfei walked in front of her, grasping her delicate hands, stating, “I know that you cannot let go of the situation in Daizhou. It won’t be a problem. I’ve already thought things through. I, Long Tingfei, am not a short-sighted individual. As long as I am able to lead Northern Han to prosperity, what harm is there for us to be apart frequently?”
Lin Bi was touched. It was a while before she spoke, “Once you have annihilated the Yong army, let’s go report this to His Royal Majesty and my father.”
Overjoyed, Long Tingfei pulled this beloved, beautiful woman of his into his embrace. Under the wavering candlelight was the shadow of this couple. How could this feeling, this scenery, not leave one enraptured?