Volume 5, Chapter 35: Deciding Endgame (Second Half)
Taking advantage of the fortunate timing of night approaching and the chaos of the army returning to the camp after attacking Chencang, Shangguan Yan apprehensively returned to the tent he shared with Xiong Bao after meeting privately with Zhang Han. Although the two were hostages in practice, Huo Yi had not treated them unfairly, allowing them to live together and did not humiliate them in the slightest. Were it not for the Sword of Damocles dangling over their heads, Shangguan Yan would have mostly felt gratitude and respect for Huo Yi. However, Shangguan Yan knew that it would unfortunately only take one order for the youth who had been showing them consideration to kill the two of them without the slightest hesitation. As a result, Shangguan Yan had never dared to let his guard down. This was especially the case now after Zhang Han had informed him about the change in the situation requiring the immediate escape of Xiong Bao and himself, worrying him ever more deeply.
Although Huo Yi had not said it clearly, one of the two of them was required to await orders by his side and was not permitted to leave his sight. How could the two of them safely escape? thought Shangguan Yan with great effort. However, regardless of how, he needed to explain this matter to Xiong Bao right now.
The encampment was presently resting before dinner. Xiong Bao should have left Huo Yi’s side and returned to their shared tent, while he would have to go to Huo Yi’s side to await orders after dinner. Although there was only an hour’s time, Shangguan Yan believed that he could explain everything clearly to Xiong Bao in that time. In this way, if something were to change, Xiong Bao would not negligently fall into someone else’s trap.
Entering the tent, Shangguan Yan felt his mind quake, as he only glimpsed Huo Yi standing with his hands behind his back, and did not see Xiong Bao. Could it be that news of his adoptive father and company’s arrival has been discovered? thought Shangguan Yan. However, he had no choice but to salute and state, “This subordinate greets the young master. Why has the young master come here? Could it be that there is something urgent?”
A hint of an icy smile appeared on Huo Yi’s guileless face, as he replied, “The Union Head has issued an order. Tonight both of you are required to remain to await orders. If you violate this order, not only will you be seriously punished, your family will also be implicated.”
Finished speaking, Huo Yi began to play with a jade pendant with his right hand, showing a thick, menacing overtone in his eyes. Shangguan Yan looked carefully and felt his heart grow cold. He recognized that jade pendant; it belonged to Zhang Han with whom he had just separated from. This jade pendant was a congratulatory present Shangguan Yan had gifted Zhang Han on his fortieth birthday. Because Zhang Han had treated Shangguan Yan quite well, Shangguan Yan had specially purchased this piece of jade dating from the Han Dynasty which could ward off evil spirits to express his appreciation. Touched by Shangguan Yan’s piety, Zhang Han had practically always kept the jade pendant by his side. Earlier, Shangguan Yan had seen Zhang Han wearing the pendant at his waist. Now that the jade pendant had appeared in Huo Yi’s hands, could it be that Zhang Han had actually been caught in the short period of time since their parting? In addition, it could be assumed that Xiong Bao had already been taken into custody. Shangguan Yan could not help tightening his grip on the hilt of his sword, as a burst of fury flooded into him.
Almost as if he didn’t notice the changes in Shangguan Yan, Huo Yi remained smiling as he said, “Oh, that’s right, we have already found your honorable little brother. When all is said and done, he is too young, going so far as to head out alone to intercept spies from the Bright Inspection Department. In the end, he was captured. Fortunately, your honorable little brother was not executed by the Bright Inspection Department because they hoped to force some classified information out of him. This time, Luo Jianfei led people to destroy one of the secret bases of the Bright Inspection Department and was able to rescue your honorable little brother. Although he has suffered some harm, he is still quite vigorous. You can be at ease. In a few days, your entire family can be reunited.”
A bucket of ice water had been dumped over his head with these words. Shangguan Yan recovered his calm, feeling a surge of sorrow. Who would have thought that he and his brothers, when all was said and done, could not escape the control of the Embroidered Union? The determination he had strenuously these last few days finally crumbled. He feebly stated, “If the young master has any instructions, there is no harm in being frank. But the Union Head dealing with us Union members in this manner truly makes me sorely disappointed.”
Huo Yi cracked a grin, causing his seemingly guileless appearance to gain a bit of craftiness. To the indignant Shangguan Yan, he said, “In reality, it is because you have always been unwilling to follow orders. If you didn’t harbor hostility, there is no way that the Union Head and Vice Union Head would make things difficult for you. At present, your adoptive father and company are under our surveillance. It will only take one command and they will be easily captured. Oh, that’s right. They have abducted His Royal Majesty and the Queen Dowager. Even if we execute them through death by a thousand cuts,1 no one will cry foul.”
Furiously, Shangguan Yan retorted, “If not for you forcing my adoptive father to commit regicide, why would my adoptive father have rescued His Royal Majesty and the Queen Dowager? If you want to kill us, do so. Why are you seeking to frame my adoptive father?”
Huo Yi chuckled, “So you met Zhang Han as expected. It seems that I did not guess wrong.”
Shangguan Yan was left dumbfounded. What was going on? Didn’t they already capture Second Uncle Zhuang? Suddenly, he understood and gazed at the jade pendant in Huo Yi’s hand. Huo Yi smiled and tossed the jade pendant over. Catching the jade pendant, Shangguan Yan examined it carefully. Sure enough, it was an imitation jade pendant. Even if its imitation was perfect, Shangguan Yan could still see from the slight differences that it wasn’t real. Earlier, he had been briefly agitated and thus had not noticed the differences.
After seeing through the trick, Shangguan Yan did not relax too much. From the imitation jade pendant, he could tell that Huo Yi, Chen Zhen, and even perhaps Huo Jicheng had long since been on their guard against him and his family. Once an attack was launched, it would be like lightning and leave nothing to chance. Were this not the case, why would they have gone so far as to create an imitation of the jade pendant that Shangguan Yan had gifted Zhang Han?
Now that Huo Yi was probing directly, then all of the proper arrangements would have been made. Reaching this thought, Shangguan Yan truly felt himself relax. He understood that Huo Yi would definitely not waste his time scheming against someone who was worthless. Since Huo Yi was going so far to deal with him, there was definitely some leeway to turn the situation around.
Shangguan Yan wasn’t someone unwilling to admit defeat. Sighing, he dejectedly stated, “Regardless of intelligence or martial force, we have to concede defeat. Young master Huo, please be frank. Whatever it is, as long as it is within Shangguan Yan’s capabilities, I will be sure to do my utmost. I only hope that the Union Head will be lenient and let off my adoptive father and two uncles.”
Seeing this, Huo Yi smiled slightly. As expected, Shangguan Yan was intelligent, but unfortunately wasn’t ruthless enough. This was also the reason why Huo Yi had chosen him. This kind of man was comparatively easy to control. Although the members of the Gu family needed to be indulged, they could not be permitted to leave control. As a result, they need to arrange a saboteur within the Gu family. Shangguan Yan was the most suitable candidate. Shangguan Yan was sufficiently astute and able to adapt to circumstances. As long as the lives of the entire Gu family were preserved, Shangguan Yan would bow his head and obey. Further, Shangguan Yan was the only one who had the ability if they wanted to keep Gu Ning and company in the dark. In comparison, Xiong Bao was rough, while Gu Ying was too impetuous and easily given to passion. Neither of these two were good candidates.
Pulling on Shangguan Yan and having him sit down, Huo Yi said, “In reality, the Union Head originally had no intention of making things difficult for you people of the Gu family. This time, after the matter at Chencang is concluded, the Embroidered Union will also disappear and your Gu family can retreat to live in seclusion without needing to worry about the earthly matters of the world. However, since the Gu family has taken away the surviving members of the Shu Royal Family, this will ultimately lead to no end of trouble in the future. That is why the Union Head wants you to temporarily keep an eye on them. As long as your Gu family don’t intend to use the remains of the Royal Family to revive Shu, then this one can guarantee on the Union Head’s behalf that no one in your Gu family will be harmed.”
Hearing this, Shangguan Yan was mentally shaken. Although he had always had veiled criticisms of Huo Jicheng and company, he had never expected that Huo Jicheng and company would collaborate with Great Yong. However, the words Huo Yi had spoken faintly revealed information that Shangguan Yan found it difficult to believe. Stunned, he stared at Huo Yi, not knowing what to say.
Huo Yi smiled softly and continued, “There is no need for you to overthink this. If we wanted to completely eradicate the remnants of the former Kingdom of Shu, we would not have left Meng Xu alone. As long as your Gu family knows your place from now on, your safety will be guaranteed. I will give you the particulars on how to get in contact soon. Right now, you will follow orders and perform a major task. Once this matter is completed, you can take Xiong Bao with you and escape. As for Gu Ying, I will tell you where to rescue him. If you do not follow my orders, your entire family will die. If you follow my orders, you will be able to live a few years longer in the worst case scenario. Don’t worry, I won’t have you do anything unnecessary and will not use you to lure those who wish to restore your country. Our master has already issued orders and from henceforth we will cease to involve ourselves in the affairs of the Embroidered Union. Leaving you as a thread is only an emergency measure. As for the specifics, you can go ask Gu Ying in the future. However, no one else can know about this information.”
Shangguan Yan was left bewildered. He naturally did not know of Chen Zhen and company’s intent to hand the Embroidered Union over to Xiahou Yuanfeng. With this, the Bright Inspection Department would thereby control all of the former Shu resistance forces.
In order to prevent Xiahou Yuanfeng from becoming unduly pleased with himself, Chen Zhen and Dong Que had plotted to send Gu Ning to kill Meng Xu. In fact, the two had long assumed that Gu Ning would most likely find it impossible to perform his mission. As a result, the only choice available to Gu Ning was to rescue the Shu king and queen dowager. If this happened, then although Xiahou Yuanfeng had achieved his goal of pacifying the Prince of Qing’s rebellion, he had also allowed the Shu royal family to escape. This meant Xiahou Yuanfeng would have made an admirable contribution but also be at fault. While his contributions wouldn’t be conspicuous, his mistake would be quite eye-catching, and would definitely be harped upon by those unaware of the particulars. Although Xiahou Yuanfeng would have taken control of the Embroidered Union, he would also have to bear the heavy responsibility for tracking down the Shu royal family.
Chen Zhen and company were fully confident that Gu Ning was resourceful enough to escape Xiahou Yuanfeng’s pursuit. After all, Gu Ning’s position in the Embroidered Union was quite high and he had excellent relations. In addition, when his deep roots in the former Kingdom of Shu were combined with Chen Zhen and company’s secret assistance, it was highly probable that Gu Ning could evade pursuit. Of course, in order to prepare for the unexpected, they had thought it best to leave a chess piece behind at Gu Ning’s side. As for Shangguan Yan, he was the best candidate. Although, it was possible that Shangguan Yan would rack his brains to think of a way to escape their control in the future. However, when that happened, it would already be unimportant.
As time passed, Meng Xu’s importance would gradually decrease. In addition, Shangguan Yan and company had already lost all hope of restoring their country. As a result, Chen Zhen and Dong Que did not worry that they couldn’t control the Gu family in the future. As for Gu Ying, even though he already knew the truth, it was inconvenient to kill him. They could only include him within the plan.
When Shangguan Yan followed Huo Yi out, he was utterly baffled. He naturally did not know that—at this very moment several dozen li away—Gu Ying had been earnestly and tirelessly persuaded to become the second chess piece to control the Gu family.
Ever since Gu Ying had been detained at Liu Hua’s side, Liu Hua had used all kinds of methods to tame the young and vigorous man. The threat of death combined with Liu Hua’s warmth—Liu Hua was a member of the eight elites and the head of the Secret Camp’s Hidden Group—allowed him to easily make Gu Ying treat him as an elder brother and close friend. After Liu Hua had indirectly explained the kind intentions of preserving the Gu family, how could Gu Ying not be involved?
Sitting inside his tent, the Prince of Qing thought of the failure to capture Chencang again today. He felt nothing. Although the Embroidered Union had agreed to look for an opportunity to assassinate Chencang’s garrison commander, there had been no activity on that front for days. Instead, due to the continuous assaults, he lost many of his trusted officers and soldiers. He was quite dissatisfied. Unfortunately, he had left Ye Tianxiu behind to defend San Pass, or else Li Kang would’ve sent him to investigate whether the Embroidered Union was deliberately procrastinating in order to make some exorbitant demands. However, as San Pass was just captured and though its former deputy garrison commander had defected, it was best to be on guard. If it not for his unwillingness to make for himself a reputation of killing those who had surrendered, and rattle the army’s morale, Li Kang had originally wanted to kill that deputy garrison commander.
While Li Kang was deeply worried and letting his imagination run wild, someone outside of his tent reported, “Your Imperial Highness, glad tidings have arrived from Chencang.”
The Prince of Qing raised his head and watched as Huo Yi quickly walked in with Shangguan Yan in tow. Huo Yi held a round, azure silk bundle that was dripping with blood in his hands. Overjoyed inside, Li Kang asked almost in disbelief, “Is the matter settled?”
Advancing forward, Huo Yi genuflected and answered, “Your Imperial Highness, the Union Head took on the task personally and has taken the head of the Chencang garrison commander, Ying Ling. At present, Chencang has been thrown into chaos. Your Imperial Highness, please immediately mobilize the army. We will definitely be able to capture Chencang in one stroke.”
Forcibly resisting the happiness he was feeling, Li Kang ordered, “Bring the head over for me to take a look. I happen to be acquainted with Ying Ling.”
Huo Yi scooted closer on his knees, his entire face expressing happiness and possessing excitement, and presented the bundle containing Ying Ling’s head. Li Kang merely believed that Huo Yi was so excited because they were about to capture Chencang. In the agreement with the Embroidered Union, if the Union successfully assassinated Chencang’s garrison commander, then the power the Embroidered Union would gain would be no small matter. Because of this agreement, Huo Yi was one of those who would benefit the most. However, Li Kang still kept calm. When he rose to take the severed head, he maintained a barely discernable wariness, not displaying anything out of the ordinary.
At this very moment, one of Li Kang’s trusted generals charged into the tent and excitedly reported, “Your Imperial Highness, the entirety of Chencang is brightly lit and seems to be in disarray.”
Li Kang had arranged for this general to monitor the situation in Chencang at all times. Him personally coming and reporting served to confirm that the Embroidered Union had indeed successfully assassinated Ying Ling.
Only with this did Li Kang relax, accepting the bundle with both hands. Holding it up with one hand, he used the other hand to open the bundle. When he saw the head and the scattered hair, Li Kang did not have any have feelings of disgust, instead reaching out with his hand to brush apart the scattered hair. The head’s eyes were closed and the look on the face was malevolent, truly the appearance of Ying Ling he remembered.
Li Kang exulted. Just as he relaxed, Huo Yi suddenly exploded forward. Instinctively, Li Kang threw the severed head in his hands at Huo Yi, while he retreated and the color of his two hands suddenly became golden. The dagger in Huo Yi’s hands arced through the air like a piercing rainbow and crushed the severed head into smithereens. During this short time span, once Huo Yi’s dagger thrust at Li Kang’s abdomen, Li Kang’s right hand the color of gold caught the sharp blade. Although Li Kang was empty handed, there was no trace of blood on his hands.
Contempt shone in Li Kang’s eyes as he lashed out with his left fist, forcing Huo Yi to let go of the dagger and retreat. From Huo Yi’s hand, a pellet shot out. With a slight explosion, the pellet immediately filled the tent with smoke. Li Kang was frightened, afraid that the smoke was poisonous and swiftly retreated backwards. He swung his left hand upward across his body. Like a blade, the hand cut open a hole in the tent, allowing him to escape. Although his sight had been screened by the smoke, Li Kang could sense that Huo Yi had not pursued him. Instead, Li Kang heard a muffled groan and knew that his trusted lieutenant had been killed by someone. Not hearing a blood-curdling scream, Li Kang felt his heart ache. Li Kang understood Huo Yi’s and Shangguan Yan’s martial arts quite well. Neither of them had the ability to kill that general in one blow. The two of them had most likely acted together. Although Li Kang was not particularly experienced with hand-to-hand combat, he immediately realized there definitely was an ambush since Hou Yi had chosen not to pursue him. Otherwise, once Li Kang had summoned his bodyguards, Huo Yi and Shangguan Yan would definitely meet their deaths.
These thoughts were complicated and not easy to express succinctly, and were actually no more than a sudden inspiration. Just as Li Kang sought to move his body, he felt a sharp object pierce a key acupoint on his back. Li Kang felt his internal energy scatter and disintegrate. Before Li Kang had fallen on the ground, a man burrowing through the ground swept past and caught him. Passing through the opening in the tent, the burrowing man delivered Li Kang back into the tent.
Feeling his entire body stiff and unable to move in the slightest, Li Kang sighed lightly. Right before he could loudly cry out for help, the man who had seized him chopped down with a knife hand on his throat, causing Li Kang to feel a sharp pain in his throat.
By now, the smoke had gradually cleared and Li Kang looked around. He saw his trusted lieutenant collapsed on the ground. The general’s right hand was on the hilt of his sword while blood gushed forth from his chest. Shangguan Yan stood at the entrance to the tent, the sword in his hand covered with blood. On the general’s throat were visible fingermarks—his windpipe had been severed by someone’s palm wind. At this moment, the person behind Li Kang set him down into a chair and walked in front of him. This man was Chen Zhen.
Li Kang had a bitter taste in his mouth. Although he knew it was useless, he still managed to ask with difficulty, “Why?”
This time, Chen Zhen did not prevent Li Kang from speaking because he knew that Li Kang would not scream. Smirking, Chen Zhen commanded, “Huo Yi, take His Imperial Highness’s command arrow and summon all of the generals in the army for a conference in the command tent.”
With a slight grin, Huo Yi walked to the desk and picked up a golden command arrow before turning to depart. Confusion glimmered in Shangguan Yan’s eyes as he glanced at Chen Zhen. Calmly, he wiped his sword clean on the already dead general’s battle gown before immediately following Huo Yi out.
Dragging a chair over, Chen Zhen sat down across from Li Kang. Retrieving a jade bottle from his bosom, Chen Zhen shook out a pill and shoved it into Li Kang’s mouth. Li Kang was powerless to resist. Once that pill had reached his stomach, Li Kang felt his internal energy gradually dissolve like snow melting in spring. Ceasing all thought of using his internal energy to force out the concealed weapon at his back, pain and suffering shone Li Kang’s eyes. Once again, he asked, “Why?”
Chen Zhen smiled slightly and countered, “Your Imperial Highness, what’s the point of asking? Presumably, the Emperor and officials of Great Yong also wish to ask Your Imperial Highness why you don’t want to be a proper imperial prince and instead rose up in rebellion.”
As if he didn’t hear Chen Zhen’s quip, Li Kang continued to question, “I believe I have shown extreme forbearance for your Embroidered Union. If that weren’t the case, how could I have allowed you to seize control so easily? What benefit would there be to the Embroidered Union if I failed? Could it be that you do not wish to restore your country?”
Ridicule flashing across Chen Zhen’s eyes, he replied, “Restoring the country is the affairs of you nobles. I am only an ordinary man from jianghu. If you could live in peace and happiness with eat and drink, who would want to beat a dead horse over those matters? Great Yong is about to unify the world; its strength cannot be stopped. Even if you were successful in your rebellion, it would be of little benefit to you. It may be of benefit to the Shu Royal Family, but it won’t be of any benefit to commoners like me. High position and great wealth are enough to have one submit. However, to those of us who struggle to exist between life and death, it is unrealistic.”
Furiously, Li Kang retaliated, “Wrong! If your Embroidered Union is not doing this for the sake of restoring your country, then you definitely are colluding with Li Zhi! Otherwise, why go so far? Whatever Li Zhi can give you, this Prince can do so as well. Why have you betrayed this Prince?”
Hearing the din gradually become louder in the encampment, Chen Zhen responded, “What’s the point of Your Imperial Highness trying to get to the heart of the matter? After today we will never meet again. Your Imperial Highness is still the flesh and blood of the Imperial Family. Your fate is not something this lowly one can decide. If Your Imperial Highness manages to preserve your life, wouldn’t it be bothersome if this lowly one explained too much?”
“Why are you so cautious?” asked Li Kang, grieving. “Fine. If you are unwilling to speak, I will still eventually know. Li Zhi will definitely let me die with understanding. However, what have you done to this Prince’s subordinates? Can you tell me?”
Chen Zhen smiled and answered, “Since we’re idle, this lowly one will blab a bit since Your Imperial Highness wants to know. The food and drink consumed by Your Imperial Highness’s bodyguards outside were stealthily poisoned. The moment I snuck to the side of the tent was when the poison flared up. Without the antidote, they will definitely not be able to regain consciousness. That is why they were incapable of protecting Your Imperial Highness. As for that severed head, its appearance was changed using disguising techniques. The real General Ying is naturally waiting in Chencang ready for battle. Just now, Huo Yi went to summon the army’s generals for a conference. Then the Bright Inspection Department’s Xiahou daren will act personally and fell all of Your Imperial Highness’s trusted generals in one swoop. As for the rest of the officers and soldiers of the army, as the majority of them are citizens of Great Yong, they only need be placated and they will pledge their allegiance.
“Oh, that’s right. The Bright Inspection Department’s Liu daren will act in San Pass and cooperate with that deputy general who surrendered the pass. Once San Pass has fallen, the Bright Inspection Department will sweep away the rebels in Hanzhong with a lightning strike. Within ten days, Hanzhong will be pacified.”
Feeling an acute pain in his heart, Li Kang tasted something sweet in his mouth. With that, blood sprayed out from his mouth. Ferociously, he spewed, “So, your Embroidered Union are actually Li Zhi’s lackeys. Good, good! Who would have thought that the Embroidered Union nominally seeking to restore their country would actually be Great Yong’s hired thugs! Huo Jicheng is presumably Li Zhi’s trusted aide. Why else would he deliver the entirety of the Embroidered Union to ruin? I finally understand. In the past, Huo Jicheng must have been incited by Li Zhi and deliberately colluded with Li An, harming the Crown Prince. Li Zhi’s methods are truly vicious, his heart is truly ruthless! What a good Huo Jicheng! Unfortunately, his contributions will never be revealed to the world. Don’t tell me that Huo Jicheng is unafraid of being eliminated when he has served his purpose? The people of the world will likely laugh at the one surnamed Huo and scold him for his shortsightedness.”
The expression on his face unchanging, Chen Zhen smiled and replied, “Your Imperial Highness is overthinking things. First, this matter has nothing to do with His Imperial Majesty. Second, Huo Jicheng died long ago. There is no need for him to worry about being eliminated having served his purpose. As for the ugly reputation left behind, the one unable to meet others is Huo Jicheng. It has nothing to do with me.”
Not understanding Chen Zhen’s words, Li Kang sternly declared, “So you actually are a rebel! Could it be that you murdered Huo Jicheng and secretly pledged your allegiance to Great Yong?”
Disinclined to speak further, Chen Zhen indifferently responded, “Perhaps that is the case. Your Imperial Highness, it is best that you worry about yourself. I wonder how His Imperial Majesty will handle a brother like you who would attack someone when they’re down. Oh, that’s right, there is probably a matter Your Imperial Highness does not yet know. The defeat in Northern Han is no more than rumor. His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, has annihilated the core of Northern Han’s army at Jishi and Long Tingfei perished at the Qin River. At present, Northern Han is already on the verge of falling. Success is merely waiting for His Imperial Majesty to personally take the field at Jinyang.”
Hearing this, Li Kang felt his vision grow dark, fainting from extreme anger. He had always been conceited, feeling that he had been wronged by being assigned to Hanzhong because of Imperial Father’s prejudices. If he’d had the opportunity to become the heir apparent, he would definitely be Li An and Li Zhi’s superior. Who would have thought that he was being played by these coarse individuals? For the moment, he had an attack of anger and actually lost consciousness.
Chen Zhen laughed humorlessly. At this moment, someone walked into the tent and chuckled, “As expected, brother Chen is formidable. Your tongue is sharp as a weapon and your will profound. If brother Chen is willing, the Bright Inspection Department has a vacancy which this one has reserved for you.”
The one who had walked in was Xiahou Yuanfeng. His light and simple battle gown was stained in several locations with several dark red bloodstains, causing his elegant complexion to gain an vague killing aura.
Chen Zhen glanced at him and said, “Presumably Xiahou daren has already handled the entire encampment. If there is nothing else, this one will withdraw.”
Stepping forward, Xiahou Yuanfeng clasped his hands together in salute and replied, “Brother Chen, although high position and great wealth are transient, a man cannot be without power and authority. Are you truly willing to let go of the power of having hundreds at your beck and call?2 At present, the Embroidered Union is about to disappear like smoke, making brother Chen no more than an attendant by Marquis Jiang’s side. What’s the point of such misery? It would be better to serve the Imperial Family and gain titles for your wife and children,3 not living this life in vain.”
Apathy showing on his face, Chen Zhen fell silent and did not reply. Ever since Jiang Zhe had handed over the Secret Camp to him to command, Chen Zhen had given all of his loyalty to that man. If he were truly interested in prestige and great wealth, with that man’s position and abilities, it would be easy for him to be granted a bright future. However, Chen Zhen had long become tired of the life a spy led, which required lying to one’s superiors and subordinates. In comparison, when serving under Jiang Zhe, Chen Zhen could do as he pleased as long as he completed the tasks assigned. Searching his soul, Chen Zhen knew that he could never find a better master.
Therefore, he was completely disinterested in Xiahou Yuanfeng’s words. Seeing him like this, Xiahou Yuanfeng helplessly laughed, “This one will naturally handle what’s to follow. Brother Chen, do as you wish. If there are things to explain, there is no harm in being frank.”
Chen Zhen glanced at Xiahou Yuanfeng. He was well aware of this man’s deep schemes. If he revealed any openings, it would likely be difficult for him to disengage. As a result, Chen Zhen was not in a talkative mood, only disinterestedly replying, “Daren, act as you please. The young master’s subordinates will depart Hanzhong tomorrow at daybreak.”
Finished speaking, Chen Zhen flung his sleeve and departed, not bothering to look again at Xiahou Yuanfeng. He had long since brooded over Xiahou Yuanfeng’s bullying of Jiang Zhe.
At dawn the next day, Chen Zhe, Dong Que, Bai Yi (Huo Yi), and Shanzi (Huo Shan) reined their horses to a halt before the walls of Chencang, watching loyalist Yong troops purge the Prince of Qing’s army. Seeing the unease on Baiyi’s face, Shanzi smiled and asked, “Baiyi, what’s going on? Could it be that you cannot bear to part with the Embroidered Union?”
“Why would I hate to part with it?” answered Baiyi. “I am only worried about one matter. Hualiu has sent news that he allowed Ye Tianxiu to escape with Lady Song. This will cause no end of trouble in the future.”
Shanzi replied, “It is only a weak woman and a swordsman. The entire world belongs to the Emperor. Where can they escape to? At most, it will be enough to have Hualiu dispatch extra men to capture and bring them to justice. It actually is the Embroidered Union that I’m worried about. I worry that some remnants will escape.”
Dong Que indifferently said, “What are you afraid of? The list of names and the diagram of the traps of the secret headquarters will be enough for Xiahou Yuanfeng to capture the important figures of the Embroidered Union in one fell swoop. Even if there are a few who are fortunate enough to escape, can they find traces of us? That’s right, has Jianfei handled the task assigned him?”
“Jianfei’s task has gone smoothly,” answered Chen Zhen. “Shangguan Yan and Xiong Bao have already rescued Gu Ying. The entire Gu family has gone into seclusion deep in the mountains. Jianfei has mastered their movements. However, once they have settled down, Jianfei will depart. After all, Xiahou Yuanfeng is not someone to be trifled with. If he can discover the Gu family through Jianfei then our plan will be a complete waste.”
Exchanging glances, everyone smiled, all of them feeling completely satisfied. Without consulting one another, they simultaneously spurred their horse and departed. They were heading to Chang’an, waiting there for Jiang Zhe’s arrival.
At the end of the fourth month of the first year of Longsheng, the Prince of Qing’s army suddenly disappeared without a trace from below the walls of Chencang. The timing of this occurred mere days after the Prince of Qing had vowed to restore the Kingdom of Shu. The Prince of Qing was captured; all of the rebel generals were either captured or killed, while the remnant officials of Shu within Nanzheng proper were confiscated and executed, transforming the city into a river of blood. The force that sought to restore their country, the Embroidered Union, also perished. These enormous changes made the name of the Bright Inspection Department—which was overseeing this matter—resound throughout the world and caused Xiahou Yuanfeng to be attacked from all sides. With this, the farce rapidly concluded.
However, the fearful people of Shu felt comforted in the fact that the new Shu King, Meng Xu, had disappeared without a trace. Amidst the chaos, no one could notice of their own accord one of the Prince of Qing’s concubines, Lady Song, escaping and going into hiding. However, a reward of two hundred gold taels was offered for Ye Tianxiu, the Prince of Qing’s trusted bodyguard, who had disappeared with her.
Of course, people wouldn’t notice that, at this same time, the Great Yong Palace had also undergone a secret purge. Let alone that several maids were executed, the mistress of the Bright Terrace Pavilion, Lady Huang of Complete Beauty, being exiled to the Cold Palace because of her family’s involvement in the rebellion quickly passed without a trace. In the blink of an eye, no one paid it any further attention.
Footnotes:凌迟, lingchi – death by a thousand cuts; an execution form that was used for exceptionally severe crimes such as high treason, patricide, or matricide; typically involved anywhere from 100 to several thousand cuts lasting minutes to days 一呼百诺, yihubainuo – idiom, lit. one command brings a hundred responses; fig. having hundreds at one’s beck and call When a man’s contributions were deemed sufficient, the emperor would frequently reward him by granting his wife and children official titles and positions.