Departing the hall, Li An relaxed, glancing at Xia Jinyi. If it weren’t for his desire to not lose this subordinate, there was no way he would have fallen out with Xiao Lan and Li Hanyou. What’s more, it was truly appalling that those two women did not consider his face. If he allowed them to kill Xia Jinyi, wouldn’t he be a completely useless individual who couldn’t even protect his own subordinates? It seemed like Lu Jingzhong was correct. He needed to be wary of the Fengyi Sect, otherwise it was likely he would become their puppet, a figurehead emperor. Thinking of this, Li An warmly instructed, “Jinyi, call over Junior Mentor Lu. We have some things to ask him. Tonight, have your senior apprentice brother be on duty. You might as well take some leave outside the residence.”
Moved to tears, Xia Jinyi acknowledged, “Many thanks for Your Highness’s profound favor. This subordinate would rather serve Your Highness tonight.”
Li An smiled and replied, “Don’t worry. I won’t have time tonight. For this past year, you have not left my side. Presumably, you must be exhausted. We have no way of compensating you for what happened today. As such, I’ll give you the day off and enjoy the short holiday. Be sure to bring plenty of subordinates to prevent someone from seizing the opportunity to plot against you.”
Xia Jinyi immediately replied in gratitude, “Many thanks for Your Highness’s favor. This subordinate will go invite Junior Mentor Lu.”
Li An waved his hand and said, “Go … There are some things that even We have no alternative. Don’t take what happened to heart.”
Xia Jinyi’s gaze shifted. In a low voice, he said, “This subordinate’s status is petty and low. My life or death is a small matter. However, Your Highness’s honor and reputation has been stamped on by another. If this can be tolerated, what cannot?”
His expression changing slightly, Li An replied, “Let it be.… There is no need to speak further. We will first go to see the crown princess. Go invite Junior Mentor Lu.”
Xia Jinyi respectfully withdrew. His lowered gaze was filled with satisfaction.
Sitting inside the study that he had not entered for quite some time, Li An calmly gazed at Lu Jingzhong seated opposite him. It was a long time before he asked indifferently, “Do you also wish to advise this Prince to kill Xia Jinyi?”
“This subject does not care about Xia Jinyi’s life or death,” responded Lu Jingzhong respectfully. “It is only that if the Fengyi Sect becomes estranged with Your Highness because of this incident, then the gains would not make up for our grievous losses. This subject naturally does not wish for Your Highness to offend the Fengyi Sect because of this matter.”
“The Fengyi Sect truly takes this Prince lightly,” replied Li An enraged, “Xia Jinyi is no more than my favorite. He not only cannot harm Our great ambitions, he does not even have the qualifications to vie for authority and power with them. They are too arrogant!”
“They are only taking out their anger on Xia Jinyi,” explained Lu Jingzhong with a smile. “To this subject, Your Highness’s conduct is only dissolute and lecherous. To them, it is difficult to tolerate. However, they can’t rebuke Your Highness and can only take their anger out on Imperial Bodyguard Xia. Since Your Highness has already preserved your face, Your Highness should now take action to placate and appease them. The present situation is not advantageous towards us. Your Highness cannot diminish your own strength.”
Li An nodded his head and agreed, “Junior Mentor speaks correctly. Do you know who killed Liang Jinqian that day causing Us to be unable to refute the blame?”
Lu Jingzhong frowned. “Speaking of this matter, this subject has also thought it over. After consideration, aside from the Prince of Yong, there are two other individuals that are highly suspicious.”
Curious, Li An said, “Last time I asked, you stated that suspicions on Prince of Yong were the greatest, because the individual who benefits the most from Liang Jinqian’s death is the Prince of Yong. However, today, you have said that there are two others who are suspicious. Who are they?”
Lu Jingzhong casually remarked, “Prince Li Xian of Qi and Prince Li Kang of Qing are both suspects.”
“Although the Prince of Qing has a grudge against the Fengyi Sect, he has always been respectful towards Us,” replied Li An, staring back blankly. “Why would he do such a thing? Moreover, the Prince of Qi and We are in the same boat. Why would do this?”
“The Prince of Qing is suspicious because this subject has discovered that he has planted many men in Chang’an,” replied Lu Jingzhong with a humorless smile. “He was originally a child of the imperial household, but because of the Fengyi Sect was sent off into the distant Hanzhong region. Although Yizhou1 is rich and plentiful, how can it compare to the prosperity of Chang’an? What’s more, the animosity of killing one’s mother is absolutely irreconcilable.2 Now that the Fengyi Sect is guaranteeing Your Highness, he would naturally oppose Your Highness. Originally, when the Fengyi Sect was leaning towards the Prince of Yong, didn’t the Prince of Qing frequently make things difficult for the Prince of Yong? Recently, this subject captured a spy from the Prince of Qing. Under torture, I was able to learn that during the time when Liang Jinqian was poisoned, the Prince of Qing’s best martial artist, Ye Tianxiu, was in the capital. If he was not seeking to take advantage of the crisis for personal gain,3 why would the Prince of Qing allow his bodyguard to leave his side?”
Li An’s expression changed and he somberly asked, “If it really was him, how do you feel we should handle him? Should I speak a few words before Imperial Father to have him punished?”
“Your Highness must not do that,” advised Lu Jingzhong, shaking his head. “It is impossible for the Prince of Qing to inherit Great Yong. Therefore, Your Highness should entice him to become your support. Besides, Your Highness will need to use the Prince of Qing to check and balance the Fengyi Sect. How can we handle him? What’s more, we do not have definitive evidence pointing to his involvement. Your Highness need only to be careful towards this man. These days, the Prince of Qing’s people have become increasingly impudent and unbridled in Chang’an.”
Li An nodded his head and inquired, “Then how did Junior Mentor also come to suspect the Prince of Qi?”
“His Highness, the Prince of Qi, was originally Your Highness’s greatest supporter,” explained Lu Jingzhong. “However, these last few years, Your Highness has inevitably become aloof and distant towards him. In reality, Your Highness cannot be blamed for this. Although the Prince of Qi stands in opposition to His Highness, the Prince of Yong, he has always refused to go overboard, always retaining some considerations. It is proper and inevitable that Your Highness would suspect the Prince of Qi. Over this last year, the Prince of Qi has asked for an assignment to the frontier on numerous occasions. All of these requests were rejected by Your Highness. In the Prince of Qi’s eyes, Your Highness is deliberately preventing him from establishing meritorious service. In comparison, in Your Highness’s eyes, the Prince of Qi is actually hoping to avoid a direct confrontation with the Prince of Yong. In reality, this subject feels that neither Your Highness nor the Prince of Qi is incorrect. Although the Prince of Qi has not spoken it aloud, he truly fears the Prince of Yong. Your Highness refuses to allow him to leave the capital to campaign because of an unwillingness to permit his fighting prowess and military glory to become even greater. Your Highness also has to safeguard against the Prince of Qi. After all, someone is bound to get hurt when war begins.4 Isn’t this how Concubine Lan has advised Your Highness?”
Li An blushed. “I also believe that Concubine Lan speaks correctly. Moreover, the Prince of Qi is too arrogant. This Prince feels that he is always disrespectful.”
“Regarding this, Your Highness didn’t do anything wrong,” said Lu Jingzhong, stroking his beard. “It is only that it would be better if the Prince of Qi is consoled. After all, the Prince of Qi is a general who will help Your Highness protect the empire. Your Highness cannot offend him. Without the presence of the Prince of Qi’s army, it is likely that the Prince of Yong would have rebelled long ago.”
Li An deeply understood this. He stated, “You speak correctly. In a few days, I will invite sixth brother over and soothe him, having him rest easy while staying in the capital. In the future, would he truly fear that there are no battles for him to fight?”
Lu Jingzhong meaningfully replied, “In reality, there is another person that Your Highness also needs to pull over.”
Li An looked at Lu Jingzhong. Lu Jingzhong smiled and named, “Xiahou Yuanfeng.”
Li An could not help but laugh. “Xiahou Yuanfeng has long been a part of this Prince’s faction. You already know this. He and his father have pledged their support for this Prince long ago.”
“At present, the majority of Your Highness’s strength comes from the Fengyi Sect,” replied Lu Jingzhong with a grim smile. “The Fengyi Sect only listens to the orders from its master, Fan Huiyao. Today, the Fengyi Sect master supports Your Highness, the sect supports Your Highness. Tomorrow, if Fan Huiyao were to support the Prince of Qi or Prince of Qing, they would immediately dance a different tune. Over this last year, isn’t Your Highness gathering a significant number of bandits for the purpose of building Your Highness’s military strength? Xiahou Yuanfeng’s martial arts are outstanding and he is also greatly favored by the emperor. If Your Highness can gain his sincere support, then he will become Your Highness’s sharp blade. At present, Commander Pei Yun of the Northern Barracks of the Imperial Guard has already joined the Prince of Yong’s faction. Although he still esteems the Prince of Qi, he has no favorable impression of Your Highness. Xiahou Yuanfeng once defeated Pei Yun. It would be a great pity if Your Highness does not gain this subordinate. As long as we respect the capable and wise, pulling Xiahou Yuanfeng onto our boat, when the time comes, we would gain the help of an expert with outstanding martial arts and profound scheming. Moreover, we can command him without needing to go through the Fengyi Sect. However, Your Highness has kept your distance from him. It would be a shame if this man slips away.”
Li An was somewhat uneasy. It was inappropriate for him to speak of his intentions to remove Xiahou Yuanfeng, if only because the man was too mysterious and he could not see through him. Li An asked, “Tell me, how should I entice him?”
Lu Jingzhong’s gaze lowered. “I have heard that Your Highness obtained a flexible sword capable of paring gold and cutting jade, and is extremely precious. Xiahou Yuanfeng is the fondest of flexible swords. Reportedly, he once dispatched people to all parts of the country to collect flexible swords.”
“I thought that it would have needed a treasure,” replied Li An with a smile. “So it is only a mere flexible sword. Although this flexible sword is precious, it is only a toy to this Prince. Tomorrow, I will have someone gift it to him.”
Lu Jingzhong bowed and acknowledged, “This subject is endlessly grateful for Your Highness’s willingness to accept criticism even from his inferiors.”
Li An smiled. “All right. Over this year, We have endured enough. You have to think of a way to allow Us to vent Our anger.”
Lu Jingzhong smiled as well. “This isn’t difficult. Now that the past is water under the bridge, it is the perfect opportunity for us to retaliate. If Your Highness feels that there are no obstructions, we can act against Pei Yun.”
“What use is a lowly commander of the Imperial Guard?” wondered Li An with a frown. “Imperial Father approves of him. I think it would be better if we change our target.”
“I’ve selected Pei Yun for several reasons,” answered Lu Jingzhong. “On the one hand, he is close to the Prince of Yong. Taking action against him will allow us to punish him and use it as an example to others.5 Second, that man has caused the Fengyi Sect to lose face. We can use the Fengyi Sect to act against him. If this were to happen, then the Fengyi Sect would create a deep grudge with the Shaolin Temple. This would allow Your Highness to better control the Fengyi Sect. Moreover, His Highness, the Prince of Qi, is also extremely appreciative of Pei Yun. This is the perfect opportunity for us to send a warning to the Prince of Qi. When the time comes, if the Prince of Qi pleads for leniency on Pei Yun’s behalf, Your Highness can conveniently perform a favor for the Prince of Qi. In any case, Your Highness only needs to remove Pei Yun’s position. In comparison, his life isn’t all that important.”
Li An nodded his head. “Then where are you acting from?”
With a faint smile, Lu Jingzhong approached Li An. In a low voice, he whispered a few words into Li An’s ear. Li An grinned from ear to ear and replied, “Tell Xiahou, if this matter succeeds, We will reward him heavily as a matter of course, and will not treat him unfairly.”
The two exchanged looks and laughed, their laughter sounding merciless and cruel.
Even under the beauty of the moonlit night and accompanied by a beautiful woman, Xia Jinyi’s entire face expressed worry. Lying down on the soft bed, he stared blankly up towards the ceiling. Today, he had brought several of his fellow imperial bodyguards to this famous brothel. After feasting with everyone and becoming helplessly intoxicated, he was helped into a room by a stunning courtesan. However, when he arrived in the room, Xia Jinyi immediately sobered up. After some horizontal refreshment,6 the famous courtesan yieldingly nestled against his side. However, Xia Jinyi felt his heart completely empty. In his eyes, he would rather sleep in the crown prince’s residence tightly embracing Xiu Chun. However, he knew that since the crown prince had spoken, it was better for him to leave the crown prince’s residence. But today’s trauma left him with lingering fear. At this moment, Xia Jinyi’s urgent desire to meet with Jiang Zhe increased, as he had no idea how he would proceed. Just as he was in the middle of letting his mind run away, suddenly someone knocked softly on the door.
Xia Jinyi was startled. Turning his head, although he saw that the courtesan was already sound asleep, he was still worried. Gently, he sealed her acupuncture points before rising out of bed and walking to the door. Standing behind the door, he pulled it open lightly, only seeing an azure-clothed servant girl enter the room with her head lowered and bringing a pot of tea. The servant girl flicked a glance at the lowered curtains covering the bed. After she placed the pot of tea on the table, she turned and seemed to be prepared to leave. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Xia Jinyi gazing at her aloofly. She seemed to be frightened, her hands covering her chest.
Xia Jinyi shot her a smile of apology, stepping aside from the doorway. The servant girl paid her obeisance before carrying the tray and walking to the doorway. Just as she was about to leave and just as Xia Jinyi was about to let her depart, the servant girl suddenly took out a spring-loaded dart shooter from her sleeves and pointed it at Xia Jinyi. Xia Jinyi’s entire body shook. He knew that the weapon in the servant girl’s hands could easily penetrate light armor from a distance of thirty paces. The present distance between them was no more than three paces. There would be no way for him to avoid the attack. However, that this servant girl unexpectedly did not fire an arrow meant that there was room to redeem the situation. Xia Jinyi calmly gazed at this servant girl. She had already raised her head, gazing back at him with a slight smile.
Xia Jinyi stared back at her blankly. This servant girl was actually someone he recognized, Chiji. Chiji’s appearance was originally delicate and pretty, and possessed a short stature. He very closely resembled a maid if he chose to disguise himself as such. Xia Jinyi relaxed. In a low voice, he stated, “Little brother Chiji, you almost scared me to death.” Afterwards, he excitedly asked, “Does daren wish to see me?”
Chiji smiled and replied, “The young master is waiting next door. He requests that young master Xia go over.”
Xia Jinyi looked at his current appearance. So disheveled, how could he meet anyone? But if he were to wash and clean himself, it would likely raise that courtesan’s suspicions. Thinking it over, he picked up his robes. Draping it over his shoulders, he followed Chiji out, swiftly striding into the room next door. After entering, he saw Jiang Zhe wearing a set of azure-colored silk robes, seated on a chair. Jiang Zhe’s bearing was leisurely as he gazed upon the chessboard on the table. Standing at his side was an azure clothed refined youngster, accompanying in a game of weiqi.
When Xia Jinyi saw these two individuals, he immediately stepped forward and kneeled on the floor, declaring, “Xia Jinyi pays his respects to daren.”
I rose to my feet. Walking forward, I extended my hand and helped him rise to his feet. I replied, “Young master Xia, there is no need to be overly courteous. I do not deserve it.”
Xia Jinyi respectfully and cautiously rose to his feet, almost as if he was a servant or subordinate. I could not help but feel overjoyed. Originally, I was worried that he would not listen to my commands and was prepared to threaten and force him. Surprisingly, he was so polite. It seems that there was no need for me to force him. Indicating for him to sit down, I smiled and stated, “Over this last year, young master Xia has attained His Highness, the crown prince’s, profound favor. Amazingly, you still remember your old acquaintances.”
“After parting with daren last time,” said Xia Jinyi, rising to his feet, “Jinyi has longed for the time of our next meeting. Over this last year, Jinyi has done his utmost, only hoping that I can be of assistance to the young master. If daren is able to make Jinyi’s desire into reality, then Jinyi is willing to sacrifice this life to repay daren’s kindness.”
Gazing thoughtfully at Xia Jinyi, I came up with the reason for his current behavior. Before, I forcibly had him serve me. I initially found it strange that he did not forget our previous arrangement after receiving such glory and honor over this past year. However, upon hearing his words, I understood. If he did not have something to ask of me, why would he be like this?
In no rush, I languidly instructed, “Young master Xia, please explain in detail your desires. I will definitely think it over.”
Repeatedly kowtowing, Xia Jinyi stated, “If daren is able to help Jinyi completely defeat the Princess of Jingjiang and cause her to die in prison, Jinyi will listen to daren’s commands regardless of what they are.”
I stared back at him confounded and asked, “Xia Jinyi, you were originally just a wastrel in jianghu, while Li Hanyou is a princess of the imperial family and is now an imperial princess. If we were to consider her status in jianghu, she is a disciple of the Fengyi Sect. How did she earn your animosity?”
A look of bitter resentment appeared on Xia Jinyi’s face as he replied in distress, “What bullshit! She’s neither a princess of the imperial family nor an imperial princess. Li Hanyou is no more than an imposter, a pheasant pretending to be a phoenix. Although her plumage is splendid, her heart is vicious and ruthless, filled with ingratitude. She is someone who turns her back on emotions and friends.”
My heart shook, as I commanded, “Explain in detail. If this is true, I will absolutely give you justice.”
Xia Jinyi’s facial expression became extremely severe. Slowly, he spoke, “My original name was Xia Quan. My family has only had one descendant for three generations. Although our bloodline was thin, my entire household was joyous and harmonious. My hometown was remote and far from civilization. That year, when war erupted in the Central Plains, it did not reach my hometown. Therefore, my entire family was able to enjoy familial love and joy together. Because my parents were worried that the Xia bloodline would end, my parents adopted a girl when I was five years old, hoping to have us marry when I reached adulthood. This girl’s parents came from the same village as us, but were unable to raise her because of the family’s impoverished financial state and because they had seven daughters. As a result, this girl was adopted into my family as a future daughter-in-law. At the time, I was young, only treating her as a younger sister. This girl’s appearance was actually quite beautiful and extraordinary. She was also extremely intelligent, and was loved dearly by my parents. They had the two of us study together. I could not compare. At the age of twelve, I was fortunate, and followed a priest from the Kongtong Sect to learn martial arts. My parents knew that in these chaotic times, it would be wonderful if I learned martial arts to be able to protect myself. Therefore, they were greatly pleased. At the time, she was only seven years old. She even held onto me, asking that I return home frequently to see her.
“One does not know the passage of time while learning martial arts deep in the mountains. When I had attained a certain degree of success and master finally gave me permission to return home to visit my family, I was sixteen years old, while she was eleven. Although both of us were young, both of us were already knowledgeable about the ways of the world. During that time, because of my mother’s frequent illnesses, she and I were married to use the luck and fortune from the wedding to counteract my mother’s misfortune. Although our marriage was not consummated as I still needed to train martial arts and she was still young, we were already officially husband and wife. Shortly after the wedding, I returned to the Kongtong Sect. However, although we were young, we had made a promise to spend the rest of our lives together.
Unexpectedly, two months later, I received news from my clan that both of my parents had died. Bewildered, I returned home. After questioning my clansmen, I learned that not long after I had departed, several swordswomen passed through my village. Apparently, they had taken the wrong path. As my father was the elder of the clan, he offered them warm hospitality. No one expected that when these women saw my wife, they stated that she possessed incomparable aptitude, and desired to take her away. My parents naturally refused. However, these women convinced my wife. I do not know what they said, but my wife perfectly and willingly followed them away, only leaving behind the several hundred taels of silver that they forcibly foisted on my parents to serve as payment to redeem for my wife. Because of this, my mother was so enraged that she passed away. It wasn’t long before my father also fell ill and died as well. I examined my father’s injuries. His arteries had been damaged by someone using yin energy. It did not need to be said who had injured my father. I wished to seek revenge, but I was not a fool. After learning of the women’s attire, the only possibility was the Fengyi Sect. They had plenty of women who used swords. However, the Kongtong Sect had an alliance with the Fengyi Sect. What use would it be even if I diligently trained my martial arts? There was no way for me to take revenge. Therefore, I was deeply discouraged. From that point on, my spirits became depressed. Within half a year, I was expelled from my sect and ended up wandering the jianghu for several years.”
Speaking to this point, tears were flooding down Xia Jinyi’s face.
With a grave expression, I inquired, “Are you saying that Li Hanyou is your wife? Do you have proof?”
Xia Jinyi lifted his head and responded, “There is no way I’m wrong. Although her temperament has changed greatly, I would definitely not fail to recognize her. She is definitely my wife, Qiao Cuiyun. Although she is now magnificent and noble, I grew up with her from a young age. Her appearance still retains traces of her past. There is no way that I can’t recognize her habits. If daren does not believe me, this lowly one also knows that she has a red birthmark at her waist.”
I was completely stupefied. Who could have thought that Li Hanyou was actually not of the imperial family? Then how did she become the Princess of Jingjiang?