Volume 5, Chapter 34: Deciding Endgame (First Half)
After learning of the defeat at Qinzhou, the King of Northern Han amassed an enormous army to defend Jinyang. On the twenty-second day of the fourth month, the Princess of Jiaping led the remnants of the Northern Han main army back to Jinyang. Afraid of Yong’s reprisals, the entire population—including the young and elderly—began to flee north. Traveling only thirty li1 a day, the former trusted lieutenant of General Long renowned for his defensive abilities, Duan Wudi, volunteered to serve as the rearguard and escorted the populace north.
When Taizong entered Han domains and heard that the Northern Han King had retreated to defend Jinyang, he laughed and stated, “The first priority is to cut off all external support. Leave Jinyang alone for now. Take a detour to effortlessly take Loufan Pass2 before massing troops between Xinzhou3 and Daizhou.”—Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Three
Within an elegant chamber of the general’s residence in Qinyuan, I pointed at the black and white stones on the chessboard. I tirelessly taught, “A game of weiqi can roughly be divided into three phases. The opening, the midgame, and the endgame. If you use war terminology, the opening is akin to two sides amassing overt and covert strength, mutually probing and deploying troops. If there is an error in the opening, it is similar to affording your opponent the advantage. As a result, one must be cautious when opening. Just like this invasion of Northern Han, on the surface it was only our Yong’s Zezhou army battling Northern Han’s Qinzhou army. However, Northern Han externally possesses the support of Southern Chu and has also aroused internal strife in Great Yong. In addition, aside from the Qinzhou army, Northern Han also mobilized the Daizhou army to perform a lightning strike. It could be said that their opening was far-reaching and methods acutely savage.
“However, the Imperial Court was able to exploit Southern Chu’s internal disagreements to sever this external support. As for Yong’s internal turmoil, we have adopted certain methods to control its development. As a result, these two factors did not affect the situation. As for formal battle, aside from the Zezhou army, we also secretly dispatched General Zhangsun to support us. Regardless of both planning beforehand or the numbers of the army that were assembled, they surpassed Northern Han. These are foundations of our victory.
“As for the midgame, it is the process of backbreaking fighting between the two opponents. It could be said that the fate of most battles are determined in this phase. This time, it could be said that it was a gamble between our army and the Northern Han army. If rash, a crushing defeat will be suffered. Our army suffered three consecutive defeats at Anze, Qinyuan, and Qin River Valley. However, the combination of timely intelligence added to His Imperial Highness personally fighting hard at the head of the rearguard made it possible to lure the enemy troops into our trap. If this wasn’t the case, the ambush we set would likely have become the greatest joke in the world.
“As for the endgame, it is the process that sees the conclusion of the fighting. At present, our army controls the situation. However, if we do not consolidate at every step, there is the possibility of failure or of being dragged down along with the enemy.”
Presently, it was already the thirtieth day of the fourth month. Our army had captured Qinyuan. Though rather than saying captured, it was better perhaps to say that the Northern Han army had abandoned Qinyuan on their own initiative. On the twentieth day of the fourth month, the remainder of the Daizhou army had rendezvoused with the remnants of the Qinzhou army under Lin Bi’s leadership and returned to Qinyuan with Duan Wudi’s support. Based upon the intelligence gathered by our army’s scouts, the Northern Han King had already issued orders to recall Lin Bi back to Jinyang. He had no other choice in the matter.
At present, if Northern Han dispersed its troops, the only result would be to watch them be destroyed in turn. By massing troops at Jinyang, they could preserve their strength. In addition, Jinyang was the Northern Han capital and strategically located. If Jinyang did not fall, even if Great Yong besieged the city, it would be difficult to hold the other cities of Northern Han. As a result, retreat was the only choice. However, it was only natural that our army would not allow the enemy to retreat so easily. As a result, our army had begun to advance swiftly, sweeping all opposition before us.
There was naturally no need for me to accompany the military. As such, I had remained behind to oversee Qinyuan. Of course, I was not alone. Jing Chi had also remained behind in Qinyuan to recuperate. This time, the injury he had suffered was quite serious. Although his life had been preserved, if he did not convalescence for at least half a year, it would be absolutely impossible for him to return to the battlefield. As for military matters, I normally left them to others. Since I had nothing better to do, I dragged Jing Chi to play weiqi with me. Because of his coarse temperament, he was not interested in weiqi. However, I naturally had my ways of forcing him to obediently learn how to play and also seized the opportunity to teach him strategy to ensure that he knew more than just slaughter. If he wanted to have the responsibility of being a commander-in-chief, he was still quite far from the standards.
Sitting across from me on the soft mat, the expression on Jing Chi’s face appeared quite good though he looked at the chessboard with a pale complexion. As I was focused on my lecturing, I caught his furtive yawn and shot him a glare. He smiled awkwardly. Wanting to brush it off, he asked, “Sir, how is our army going to end this?”
I gently shook my head. This child was not worth teaching. It was better for me to speak of the current situation. As for how much he could absorb, it would be up to him.
Collecting the stones and tidying the game board, I ordered Huyan Shou to bring a map of Northern Han, placing it upon the game board. Afterwards, I placed several white stones at Jinyang’s location and said, “At present, the majority of Northern Han’s military strength is amassed at Jinyang. Aside from the original garrison of a hundred thousand troops, there are another fifty thousand garrison troops from other regions. While the combat potential of these troops is unbalanced, they can still fight. In addition, the defeated Qinzhou army still has thirty thousand troops remaining and Duan Wudi still has several tens of thousands of troops. Combined with the Princess of Jiaping’s Daizhou army, they should be able to bring at least another fifty thousand troops back to Jinyang. As a result, the entirety of Northern Han’s strength is concentrated in Jinyang. They hope to defend Jinyang. With this, Jinyang will have a million soldiers and civilians. In addition, Jinyang possesses high walls, a deep moat, and enough provisions to last a year. If defended by elite troops and capable generals, they will be able to delay our army within Northern Han for some time. Jinyang is a strategic battlefield. If we cannot capture it, even if we conquer the rest of Northern Han, we can’t hold it. As a result, this final battle will not be easy. If the Imperial Court wants to win a total victory and prevent us from losing to Northern Han, our first step in the endgame will be to compress the space in which the enemy army can exist and sever any external support.”
Hearing this, Jing Chi’s gaze immediately fell upon Daizhou. Pointing at Yanmen Pass, he inquired, “Sir, reports arrived several days ago that the barbarians have invaded? Could it be that the Daizhou army is still capable of relieving Jinyang?”
Smiling, I responded, “The situation in Daizhou is extraordinarily tense. At present, eight tribes of barbarians have already united to reestablish the Khanate, enthroning Wanyan Najin and furiously assaulting Yanmen Pass. Besides, since the core of the Daizhou army was taken away by Lin Bi, once Yanmen Pass falls, the barbarians will be able to penetrate deep into the territory to loot and pillage without limit, even going so far as to occupy Daizhou while eyeing Xinzhou and Jinyang covetously. If Daizhou could withstand the barbarians, that would be for the best. However, with the current situation, if Daizhou ultimately cannot be held, its populace and soldiers will retreat to Xinzhou. With Northern Han facing enemies from two fronts, the Daizhou army will group up with those defending Jinyang. When the time comes, not only will Jinyang be strengthened, it is our army that will be facing the barbarians’ invasion. If someone within the Northern Han Royal Family were to suggest negotiating with the barbarians, using gold and silk to entice the barbarians into becoming our enemy, then our army would definitely fall into a nasty predicament.
“In addition, the Princess of Jiaping’s tactics are not inferior to Long Tingfei’s. She has already been selected as Long Tingfei’s successor and led the survivors back to Jinyang. If she took charge of Jinyang’s military affairs, it could be said that capturing Jinyang would be more difficult than scaling the Heavens.”
After studying the map for some time, Jing Chi asked, “Once the Princess of Jiaping learns of the situation in Daizhou, won’t she travel day and night to rush back to Daizhou? How would she have the mind to defend Jinyang?”
“It’s not bad that you thought of this point,” I replied with a smile. “However, it is presently impossible for Lin Bi to return to Daizhou. After His Imperial Majesty marched forth from Tong Pass, he did not head directly for Jinyang and instead took a detour to Loufan Pass. Right now, Daizhou has already been cut off from Xinzhou and Jinyang. According to my original plan, as long as Loufan Pass is heavily garrisoned, we will be able to hold the barbarians off in Daizhou, watching both Daizhou and the barbarians suffer. Once Jinyang has been captured, we will be able to pick up the pieces4 at leisure. When the time comes, the barbarians will definitely try to seize Daizhou. We can take this opportunity to annihilate the core of the eight barbarian tribes. If this happens then it will be impossible for the barbarians to recover in less than a decade. In addition, it will be easier for us to govern Daizhou with its army having suffered serious losses.”
Hearing this, Jing Chi felt a chill as he remarked, “Isn’t Sir being too callous? If this happens then wouldn’t the warriors of Daizhou be wiped clean out? Although your elder pissed my pants in terror from their pursuit, I still greatly admire the Princess of Jiaping and the Daizhou army.”
Because of his discontent, his tone had become a bit peculiar. If in the past, he would definitely not have dared to speak in such a way. Glaring at him, I asked, “If the enemy’s strength is not weakened, are you telling me that we should face the enemy head on?”
Jing Chi hemmed and hawed, afraid to retort. However, there was clear opposition in his eyes. Seeing this, I smiled and said, “There is no need for you to have such a look on your face. His Imperial Majesty has already rejected my plan. Upon further contemplation, His Imperial Majesty believes that it will be impossible to annihilate the barbarians in one stroke. Daizhou is still needed in the future to defend against the barbarians. If Daizhou suffers heavily, its ability to resist the barbarians in the future will be severely impacted. In addition, the Lin family has stood guard over Daizhou for generations, never valuing power, riches, or honor. Although the Lin family’s position in Northern Han is celebrated, their family reportedly does not have surplus wealth. All of their government salaries and rewards are used on military expenditures and financial support. In addition, they have not completely adhered to Jinyang’s commands.
“Although the Northern Han King is an in-law of the Lin family, aside from this war that determines Northern Han’s survival, the Daizhou army has never left its homeland to campaign. That they have embarked on this campaign was not a result of their relationship as in-laws, but rather because of the weighty support of Northern Han for Daizhou. From this, the Lin family is not wholly loyal to Northern Han. Their fealty is to the entire Central Plains and the common people, not to any dynasty. This Lin family are simple subjects. As a result, His Imperial Majesty not only does not want to annihilate the Lin family, he also wants to preserve the Lin family’s strength.
“His Imperial Majesty has stated that the Lin family has benefited Daizhou’s people. As the northern frontier’s iron wall, they cannot be moved lightly. If my stratagem were adhered to, not only would it be unfortunate for the Lin family, resulting in the destruction of our defenses, it would also result in the deep loathing of Great Yong by the populace of Daizhou. This would be harmful to our future administration of the north. That is why His Imperial Majesty has decided to try to recruit the Lin family. Even of the Northern Han Royal Family His Imperial Majesty has no wish to exterminate them.”
Hearing this, Jing Chi was overjoyed, blurting, “I was about to say that His Imperial Majesty would definitely not employ such a sinister strategy. Throughout his life, His Imperial Majesty has always been fond of talent, treating the loyal and righteous with courtesy and respect. If it were on the battlefield, it would not be unusual for the entirety of the Lin family to be destroyed. However, using the barbarians against the Lin family is not something that His Imperial Majesty can do.”
When he finished speaking, Jing Chi felt the hairs on his neck stand, immediately realizing that he had just spiritedly rebuked Jiang Zhe. Jing Chi could not help taking a furtive glimpse. He saw the smile that was not a smile on Jiang Zhe’s face, almost as if Jiang Zhe did not mind as he played with the stones in his hand. However, no matter how Jing Chi looked, he felt as if that smile swarmed with killing intent. Somewhat out of fear, Jing Chi shifted backwards and mumbled, “Err, Sir. I wasn’t reproaching you.”
“I wasn’t blaming you,” I spoke smiling. “Look. At present, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, and General Zhangsun have already split apart in the attack. His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, is pursuing the Qinzhou army while General Zhangsun is responsible for pacifying the conquered lands. Before our army converges at Jinyang, our army must annihilate and subjugate all resistance or drive them towards Jinyang. However, you cannot participate. Who let you be so gullible and allow a spy from the Devil Sect to serve at your side? Not only were you seriously injured, you also allowed fifty to sixty thousand Northern Han troops escape.
“When it comes to evaluating contributions after the war has ended, because of the massive slaughter you committed during your long-range penetrating strike after breaking through Hu Pass, you will still be heavily punished even if His Imperial Majesty does not mind. First, popular sentiment must be stabilized. Second, this serves as a warning to others.5 From Qinyuan to Jishi, although you fought hard in the rearguard, it was still a defeat. At most, it could be considered making up for your earlier mistakes. Oh, truly pitiful. Even with such a great deed as surrounding and annihilating the Northern Han army, due to your near assassination leading to dereliction of duty, it looks like you will only have toil and no credit.”
Jing Chi felt choked with resentment, hearing those seemingly regretful but actually mocking words. Although he became increasingly gloomy, he did not refuse to listen. Fortunately, Jiang Zhe very quickly ceased his mockery and began to point at the map to continue to lecture. Jing Chi relaxed. He was somewhat aware of Jiang Zhe’s disposition. Since he was subjected to Jiang Zhe’s mockery, then Jiang Zhe would not bear a grudge. As a result, Jing Chi felt reassured as he listened to Jiang Zhe explain how to deal with the endgame.
Using weiqi stones to indicate the positions between the armies, I pointed to Qinzhou and stated, “Qinzhou is the capital of the province and the location of Long Tingfei’s marshal residence. At present, the Northern Han army is reorganizing its army and preparing to retreat. In order to force the enemy troops to further split their troops, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, has disseminated rumors the entire journey stating that the Yong army would massacre each city we came across. At present, the masses along our army’s advance have all fled towards Qinzhou proper. As the population of Qinzhou has fought against us for years under Long Tingfei’s command, they have always been very anxious. In addition, with Long Tingfei’s death, they have lost all confidence. That is why they have taken everyone, young and old, to flee to the north.
“The influx of refugees reaching Qinzhou proper has made it basically impossible to defend unless Lin Bi and company can steel their hearts and expel all refugees from the city. However, even if the Northern Han generals can do such a thing, it will be impossible to placate the Qinzhou army who are linked in countless ways to the Qinzhou commoners. As a result, regardless of royal orders or survival, the Northern Han army has only one choice—to retreat north to Jinyang.
“Originally, I only wanted the Northern Han army to lose popular support. Who would have thought that there are still foolishly sentimental individuals? Duan Wudi has already volunteered to serve as the rearguard. At present, the refugees can only travel a few dozen li every day. With Duan Wudi leading his own troops numbering less than twenty thousand to slowly cover the rear, His Imperial Highness has already almost caught up. Oh, that’s right. Do you know why Northern Han would believe the rumors that we would massacre everyone in the cities we capture? The Prince of Qi has raised your banner in the advance guard, stating that you only suffered a minor injury and can go into battle even though injured. You want to slaughter in retaliation.”
This time, Jing Chi’s eyes widened. Feeling wronged, he gazed at me. In comparison, I chuckled heartily. With this, I had completely taken out my anger on him. After a while, Jing Chi murmured, “In any case, I’m completely out of luck. It would’ve been fine if I were the one being sent to slaughter, but now I have to bear the false reputation.”
Although the expression on my face did not change, I was finding it difficult to resist a smile. Though he had spoken softly, I heard every word clearly. Seeing that Jing Chi was already beginning to tire, I had him retire and rest while I returned to my study. This study originally belonged to Duan Wudi, containing many of the scrolls and manuscripts that Duan Wudi did not have the time to bring with him. Although he was a military leader, he was quite conversant with the classics and the histories. Looking at the notes and manuscripts he had left behind, although the writing was a bit shallow, their comprehension was quite profound. Picking up the notes I had not finished reading yesterday, I began to thumb through the text. The majority of its contents were composed of his insights he had garnered during his studies, literary annotations, and also some notes to himself. This was the best way of understanding someone, especially when he was going to play a key part in the endgame. To Jing Chi, I only explained some of the military situation. There were other matters he had no need to understand.
Responsible for the rearguard, Duan Wudi had a key hostage in his hands—Xuan Song. I had already received news from Xiaoshunzi and Su Qing, learning that Xuan Song was still alive, having only been injured and detained. Although he had been found, it was impossible to rescue Xuan Song from so many enemy soldiers no matter how formidable Xiaoshunzi was. Although Su Qing had tried to employ every possible means to bring about the rescue, Qinyuan was impenetrable under Duan Wudi’s control. Let alone the rescue, it was already tremendously difficult to contact Xuan Song, especially after Lin Bi had reached Qinyuan and made it increasingly impossible to rescue Xuan Song.
Xiaoshunzi and Su Qing had been ready to give up, but who could have imagined that Lin Bi would lead the army north to Jinyang the second day after the Northern Han army had retreated to Qinzhou city, and Duan Wudi would volunteer to command the rearguard, secretly keeping Xuan Song with him. Coincidentally, there wasn’t many who knew that Xuan Song had been captured. Of those aside from Lin Bi, Xiao Tong, and Duan Wudi, the majority had already died at Jishi. As a result, after receiving Lin Bi’s tacit acceptance, Xuan Song had kept by Duan Wudi as hostage. Learning this news, I naturally could guess at Duan Wudi’s intentions—merely hoping to exchange Xuan Song for some conditions. However, it could be assumed that Duan Wudi would not be excessive in his demands. Besides, I had already made all of the proper arrangements and would not let Duan Wudi off lightly. This time, it was foreordained that Duan Wudi would not have the opportunity of returning to Jinyang.
With the general situation here in Northern Han decided, the so-called endgame was not limited to just this place. Several days ago, I had sent a letter to the Eastern Sea, having them release Qiu Yufei. Once Qiu Yufei had returned to Northern Han and the situation decided, I could use him to negotiate with the Devil Sect. How could I not use his kind of excellent intermediary? Otherwise, why did I rack my brains to preserve his life? I would definitely not place myself in danger out of cherishing a person’s talents. If he weren’t of some use, how could I have allowed myself to open up and become friends with him?
Furthermore, Hanzhong also needed to be pacified. Thinking of this, I strode over to the unfinished weiqi game below the window. Setting a stone on the southwest corner of the board, settling the Heavens and the Earth in one move. Henceforth, there would be no more problems from the southwest. Snickering maliciously, I wondered what it would feel like to fall from one’s peak.
Standing on guard outside of the study, Huyan Shou felt himself shiver without knowing why. He thought, I wonder who else will be out of luck.
At this moment within Nanzheng, in the former secondary palace of the King of Shu and the residence of the Prince of Qing—the recently turned royal palace of the newly reestablished Shu—the toddler Shu King, Meng Xu, was frolicking under the supervision of his mother and a group of maids. The current Shu Queen Dowager, Lady Qi, was a young woman just over twenty years old. Formerly, she was a maid of Lady Golden Lotus. As a result, she had the opportunity to have intercourse with the former Shu King. After she had been impregnated, she was not given a concubine title. If Shu had not fallen, she would have been an ordinary concubine in the royal harem and her child would have been no more than a young prince with a low position. However, at present, she had become a rallying point for the former Shu officials who wished to restore their fallen country.
Regardless of whether this was fortunate or misfortunate for her and her son, she was a puppet who could not make any decisions. As a result, although she was honored as the queen dowager, she was still melancholic. Only after watching the naïve and innocent look on her son did a smile appear on her face.
With the help of the maids, Meng Xu finally plucked a peach blossom. Holding the peach blossom, he jumped and ran into his mother’s arms. He raised the peach blossom up high, wanting his mother to take it. An intense feeling of happiness welling up from her heart, Lady Qi held her beloved son tightly to her, thinking, Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I can spend the rest of my life with my beloved son without care or worry in the world?
Right at this moment, Lady Qi heard several stifled groans. Lifting her head, Lady Qi by chance caught sight of a palace attendant being knocked unconscious to the ground. As for the assailant, he was a middle-aged man in the uniform of a royal bodyguard. The man had a refined appearance with a somewhat gloomy expression. In shock, Lady Qi cried out, “Royal Bodyguard Gu!”
In a panic, Lady Qi scanned her surroundings, only seeing that the two royal bodyguards to her left and right had completely corralled all of the other bodyguards and all of the palace maids. Of these two bodyguards, one was heavily whiskered with a bold and powerful appearance. The other had the eyes of a falcon and thin lips, his appearance seeming stern and grave. Lady Qi did not recognize him. Stifling the urge to cry for help, Lady Qi forcefully adopted a calm demeanor as she gazed at the three middle-aged men who possessed evil intentions.
Ever since Shu had fallen and she had escaped from the royal palace on the orders of the Shu King and Lady Golden Lotus before being sold out by her attendants to the Prince of Qing—and even though they had not been harmed by the Prince of Qing because they were of use—Lady Qi had long since no longer been an ignorant woman after experiencing these multiple calamities. She knew that if she were to carelessly cry for help, these three would likely kill both her and her child. As a result, she not only did not dare to cry for help, she also held Meng Xu tightly in her embrace and covered her son’s mouth, not letting him cry out in fear.
Seeing the other two bodyguards had retreated to Bodyguard Gu’s side, Lady Qi knew that he was the leader of the three bodyguards. She hazily remembered that this man was named Gu Ning and had a high status. Although he had only recently entered the royal palace, he was highly regarded by many bodyguards within the palace. In addition, he was usually thoughtful and courteous, and had never held their statuses as puppets with contempt. But why had this man suddenly decided to commit murder?
With wariness in her gaze, Lady Qi stared at Gu Ning and asked, “Bodyguard Gu, what do you intend to do with Us and the King?”
Gu Ning sighed lightly. Holding the hilt of his saber, he slowly walked before Lady Qi and knelt to the ground. He answered, “This commoner has come with orders to take His Royal Majesty’s life.”
Under orders from Huo Jicheng’s orders, he had entered the Shu royal palace. In order to facilitate the execution of his orders, he had only brought his two sworn brothers, Zhang Han and He Yun. These two sworn brothers of his were both uninterested in the great undertaking of restoring Shu and had only operated in concert out of brotherhood.
With a pale face, Lady Qi inquired, “Are you here on the Prince of Qing’s orders? At present, he shouldn’t be trying to kill us.”
Hearing this, Gu Ning was stirred and he thought, Since even this woman understands this fact, then why wouldn’t the Union Head understand this? Why is forcing me to offend His Royal Majesty? Could it be that he has a crafty scheme? However, regardless of the reasons for Huo Jicheng’s orders, Gu Ning was well aware that he could not escape from his control. As a result, he sadly responded, “This subject has no other choice and asks that the Queen Dowager forgives me.”
Finished speaking, Gu Ning drew his saber and after hesitating, chopped down. Although Lady Qi was powerless to resist, out of maternal instincts, she tightly held her beloved son in her arms, while using her body to block the steel blade of the saber. Even if she had to die, she must die sooner than her beloved son. In addition, she held many hopes and dreams. From this man’s words and the weak killing intent he exuded, it seemed that he was being forced to act. If he killed her, it could be that his killing intent would vanish and allow her beloved son’s life to be preserved.
The saber suddenly came to a stop, only a hair’s breadth from Lady Qi. The veins on Gu Ning’s head bulged. Whatever the case, he could not chop down. He had always been a loyal individual. How could he kill a member of the royal family? Even if Lady Qi and her son did not have such statuses, how could he kill a woman and a child as a chivalrous man?
Seeing this, Lady Qi knelt on the ground. Tearfully, she requested, “Bodyguard Gu, I hope that you will stay your saber and spare the lives of me and my child. Your servant and her child could not be thankful enough for the rest of our lives.”
As Gu Ning’s gaze wavered and his face revealed his inner struggle, the eagle-eyed and thin-lipped middle-aged man coldly stated, “Big brother Gu, don’t forget that Yan’er and Bao’er are both in Huo Yi’s hands, while we do not know Ying’er’s fate. If you do not follow the Union Head’s orders, what’s to be done about the children? This mother and son duo are no more than the Prince of Qing’s puppets. Don’t tell me that you truly consider them to be His Royal Majesty and the Queen Dowager?”
Hearing this, Lady Qi promptly pleaded, “Bodyguard Gu, there is nothing spurious about your servant and Xu’er’s identities. However, your servant does not dare to unreasonably request that my life be spared based upon our identities, only asking that Bodyguard Gu spare our lives as orphan and widow. If inconvenient, as long as Xu’er’s life can be spared, even if your servant is chopped into mincemeat, your servant will have no complaints.”
Lady Qi could hear that Gu Ning was being blackmailed with the lives of his son and nephews to take the lives of her and her son. As a result, she indirectly tried to use the feelings between a mother and son in the hopes of changing his mind.
Hearing this, Gu Ning ultimately let out a deep sigh. Setting down the saber, he sadly stated, “For the time being, regardless of whether this child is the flesh and blood of the former King, when it comes to jianghu morality, could it be that I can kill another’s mother and child to save my own flesh and blood? Brothers, I have already decided to leave the Embroidered Union. The Union Head’s temperament is perverse and will definitely bring about our deaths sooner than later. If you are willing, accompany me in escorting this mother and son pair away. Both the Prince of Qing and the Union Head are vicious and merciless. I cannot bear to watch the former King’s posthumous child die in the hands of those individuals with wild ambitions.”
The two middle-aged men exchanged looks of dismay. The whiskered man asked, “Big brother, what about those children?”
Gu Ning painfully answered, “Union Head’s methods are savage. I can only try to save them. You two should take His Royal Majesty and the Queen Dowager and leave first. I will go to San Pass to try to rescue Yan’er and Bao’er. As for Ying’er, it will likely be impossible to rescue him.”
The eagle-eyed and thin-lipped middle-aged man sighed, “I originally stayed behind in the Embroidered Union out of brotherly affection. Even if Huo Jicheng’s methods are formidable, he can do nothing to me. Since big brother has already decided to sever ties with the Embroidered Union, I naturally do not have any objections. Are you willing to leave with us?”
The question was directed at Lady Qi. Lady Qi felt apprehensive. Although these individuals originally wanted to kill her and her son, she could tell that they were not vile characters. In reality, she did not put much faith in the Prince of Qing. Besides, if she didn’t agree, it seemed that this vicious looking man would kill her and her son. As a result, Lady Qi quickly nodded her head and responded, “Your servant, mother and son, will have to rely upon the chivalrous men.”
The large, whiskered man replied, “Big brother, I will go with you to San Pass. Have Old Zhang take the mother and son pair and leave first.”
Gu Ning felt quite grateful. When it came to martial arts, the large, whiskered individual’s was the highest and was one of the top experts of the Embroidered Union. With him accompanying, the likelihood of rescuing those children would be increased.
The eagle-eyed, thin-lipped middle-aged man frowned and said, “Big brother, although third brother’s martial arts are impressive, his temper is coarse. The rescue will require scheming. It is better that I go. In addition, many of the Union’s brothers have received big brother’s favor. Big brother can have them first conceal the news. In this way, it will be highly possible that we will be able to rescue the several nephews.”
Gu Ning knew that, although his third brother Zhang Han was a bit vicious, his scheming was deep and he was quite resourceful. Were it not that Zhang Han only followed himself, Zhang Han would likely have gained Huo Jicheng’s recognition based on Zhang Han’s talents. The plan that Zhang Han would come up with would definitely have a high chance of success. As a result, Gu Ning saluted and said, “Many thanks to brother for helping me.”
Smiling, Zhang Han replied, “What need is there to thank me? At the time, if big brother had not saved my life, Zhang Han would probably no longer exist in this world. In addition, to speak the truth, I have also grown fed up with this life. Being able to retire in seclusion and live a pastoral lifestyle will be better than living continuously in such a precarious situation. Two years ago, I built a secret manor. This time, we can go there to farm and hunt. Wouldn’t it be great to live somewhere free and unfettered?”
Sighing, Gu Ning answered, “Based on the Prince of Qing’s conduct, we can tell that he is not someone who truly wants to restore our Kingdom of Shu. In addition, Union Head Huo is wildly ambitious. With no hope of restoring our country and yet being able to pluck the former King’s flesh and blood from danger—by ensuring that the former King’s line does not end, it can be said that we have adhered to loyalty and righteousness.”
Only when she heard this did Lady Qi finally relax. As a woman who knew when to advance and retreat, she was unwilling to become someone else’s puppet. She would be perfectly satisfied if she could live in seclusion with her beloved son in the countryside. However, she still had misgivings about these men before her and did not dare to reveal her innermost thoughts. Consequently, she remained silent and did not speak.
Once He Yun had taken Lady Qi and Meng Xu away, escaping with the help of several trusted disciples and several uninformed members of the Embroidered Union, Gu Ning and Zhang Han headed directly for San Pass. In reality, although the three brothers had tried to cover things up, how could such a major event be hidden from so many eyes and ears? However, after the three of them had departed, people naturally came to cover up all traces and hide the news. But this was not something the three could have known.
Footnotes:16.2 kilometers (about 10 miles) 楼烦关, Loufan Guan – located southwest of modern-day Ningwu County (宁武县), Xinzhou (忻州), Shanxi (山西) 忻州, Xinzhou – a prefecture in the north-central part of Shanxi Province 收拾残局, shoushicanju – idiom, lit. to pick up the pieces; fig. to clean up the mess 以儆效尤, yijingxiaoyou – idiom, lit. in order to warn against following bad examples; fig. as a warning to others