Volume 5, Chapter 7: Dark Clouds Gather
The sound of zither music, flowing like water, came from a magnificent pavilion in Long Tingfei’s residence. The music was as if they were the sounds of nature, resounding with the help of the still frigid breeze. Xiao Tong hurriedly walked over. Through the window, he could see a figure in black and could not help sigh gently. More than a month ago, he had unintentionally discovered some old information that had practically been destroyed, discovering that Qing Dai had for an extended period of time disappeared on the frontier of Northern Han. Becoming uneasy, he immediately began to make preparations to take Qing Dai into custody. However, just as he was doing so, he learned that Duan Wudi had taken Qing Dai out of the residence, not letting anyone know where they were going. Just as he was frazzled, Ling Duan revealed the news that he had acquired through eavesdropping. Feeling even more uneasy, Xiao Tong had asked Qiu Yufei to come with him to help find Duan Wudi and Qing Dai. At Shi Ying’s grave, they had found the unconscious Duan Wudi and his dead guards. Duan Wudi had been poisoned with a highly toxic poison specially manufactured and used by Great Yong’s spy network in Northern Han. This kind of poison, although not especially potent and would not lead to immediate death, was extremely difficult to treat and cure. It would take months for the individual poisoned to recover his health and was frequently used by Great Yong agents to capture their targets alive. After Duan Wudi had awakened and explained Qing Dai’s intentions, Xiao Tong was greatly upset. Wasn’t it his fault that he hadn’t discovered that Qing Dai was actually a secret agent from Great Yong?
In order to make up for this mistake, Xiao Tong had asked Qiu Yufei to pursue and kill Qing Dai. After all, he could tell that Qiu Yufei’s martial arts had advanced greatly. However, Qiu Yufei actually tactfully declined his request. Xiao Tong knew that this junior apprentice brother of his had no interest in warfare and power, and practically was never involved. However, this time, Qiu Yufei’s acceptance of the mission to assassinate Jiang Zhe and his interference in the Duan Wudi scandal had caused Xiao Tong to forget about this point. As a result, the two of them had a nasty argument. However, ultimately because they were apprentice brothers, Qiu Yufei had still gone personally. Moreover, in the pursuit of several hundred li, Qiu Yufei had personally killed or wounded more than half of the fleeing spies. Were it not for timely reinforcements from Great Yong’s military, it was likely that Qing Dai, whose martial arts were higher than anyone expected, would probably have been unable to return alive to Great Yong.
After he had returned to Qinzhou, Qiu Yufei was extremely unhappy to the point of almost immediately wanting to return to Jinyang. Were it not for Long Tingfei’s persuasion that used every possible means, causing Qiu Yufei to temporarily stay, it was likely that Qiu Yufei would have departed long ago. Xiao Tong could faintly discern that Qiu Yufei not only did not wish to get involved in military matters, his junior apprentice brother probably also bore a grudge for being forced to pursue and kill Qing Dai. This was a conclusion that he had reached after listening to Ling Duan, who had revealed that Qiu Yufei thought quite highly of Qing Dai.
Recalling Qing Dai, Xiao Tong found himself fuming with rage. Being responsible for weeding out Great Yong’s intelligence network, he had suffered such a heavy defeat. This woman had openly displayed her loathing for the Northern Han court, causing him to never suspect her of being an agent for Great Yong. Based upon what Duan Wudi had witnessed, this woman’s position was quite high. Furthermore, she had been able to withstand a hundred exchanges with his martial apprentice brother. With someone of such martial arts and scheming, she was likely that head agent of Great Yong’s intelligence network in Northern Han. It was extremely unfortunate that she was allowed to escape. Although Xiao Tong was not blamed by Long Tingfei, he still apprehensive. As a result, he racked his brains to seek to have Qiu Yufei remain. This junior apprentice brother of his’s martial arts had advanced by leaps and bounds and with his help, Xiao Tong felt that he could do many things.
When the zither music finally stopped, Xiao Tong coughed lightly before walking into the magnificent pavilion. Qiu Yufei continued to caress the strings of the zither, not rising to greet and welcome to senior apprentice brother. From the beginning, there was no obvious difference in their status and position. Within the Devil Sect, martial arts and talent determined many things. Now that Qiu Yufei had advanced to the Xiantian realm, he had the qualifications to treat Xiao Tong coldly even if Xiao Tong was his senior apprentice brother.
Hesitating momentarily, Xiao Tong said, “The Grand General wants to send someone to the Eastern Sea to prevent the Marquis of the Eastern Sea from pledging allegiance to Great Yong in the near future.”
Qiu Yufei coldly replied, “How to prevent him? From the beginning, the Marquis of the Eastern Sea has been a relative of Great Yong. Moreover, Jiang Zhe spent years in the Eastern Sea. It will only be a matter of time before the Eastern Sea surrenders and pledges its allegiance.”
Helplessly, Xiao Tong replied, “What you say is correct. However, we require supplies from the Eastern Sea. Although we have been stockpiling as best as we could, it is still not enough. If the Eastern Sea surrenders to Great Yong, it will be a grievous blow to us. We only want the Eastern Sea to retain its neutrality.”
His eyebrows arching, Qiu Yufei replied, “This won’t be easy. Could it be that the Grand General has a plan?”
Xiao Tong frostily answered, “In the past, when the Eastern Sea was an enemy of Great Yong, without our country’s secret assistance, they would have fallen long ago. Right now, we do not seek their assistance, only wanting them to remain neutral. If they won’t even agree to this minor point, then the Jiang family’s father and son are truly ungracious and should suffer Heaven’s wrath.”
“You want me to use the threat of assassination against them?” asked Qiu Yufei indifferently. “The Eastern Sea is their sphere of influence. Are you not afraid that I will die on the ocean?”
Xiao Tong responded, “Based upon your current martial arts, you will be able to escape from the Eastern Sea at the very least. Moreover, with the backing of Master, the Eastern Sea will definitely not make things difficult for you lightly. Our demands aren’t excessive. I believe that they will agree.”
Qiu Yufei lightly strummed the zither strings, appearing to wavering. Xiao Tong knew that Qiu Yufei wasn’t worried about the danger, but rather whether he should be involved in these matters. Xiao Tong was not certain of how his junior apprentice brother would respond, leaving him apprehensive. At this moment, Ling Duan, who was standing to the side as an attendant, spoke up in a soft voice, “Fourth Lord, when a nest is overturned, can eggs remain unbroken? Will Great Yong take the Fourth Lord as someone harmless now?”
Qiu Yufei shivered inwardly, recalling his assassination attempt at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery and his pursuit of Qing Dai. Ultimately, he sighed and replied, “All right, I’ll go.”
Overjoyed, Xiao Tong replied, “Many thanks to junior apprentice brother for understanding elder brother’s difficulties. This is also Master’s intentions. As such, I hope that junior apprentice brother will be diligent.”
Qiu Yufei gazed apathetically at the zither manual beside his zither. He could not help recall the deep affection that man had displayed towards him, and the grief and indignation that man had revealed upon learning that he was an assassin. Recalling that handsome and refined, and yet gray-templed face, Qiu Yufei felt an indescribable sorrow in his heart. One of the rare intimate friends of his life and yet Qiu Yufei could only treat him as an implacable enemy.
Within a sanctum of the marshal’s residence, Long Tingfei sat and gazed at the gathered generals before him. He coldly said, “There is no need for you to speak further. I know that morale is unsteady. However, now is not the time to be soft. Great Yong’s Prince of Qi is already glaring like a tiger upon its prey. Although his attack upon Qinzhou is near, the soldiers and officers under Shi Ying must be reorganized so that no hidden dangers are left behind. Now that Northern Han’s survival is at peril, if we do not take emergency measures, before the iron hoof of the Great Yong oppressor has arrived, we will already be finished. Transmit my orders. All males fifteen and older in Qinzhou are to be conscripted into the army. After this war ends, I will naturally provide hefty rewards and financial support. If we are defeated and the kingdom falls, what’s the point of discussing peace and prosperity?”
Waving his hand to dismiss his subordinates, Long Tingfei tiredly sat down in his chair. The load on his shoulder in recent days had been exhausting. With Shi Ying dead and Duan Wudi poisoned, he had lost his arms. In addition, with news of Shi Ying’s defection and Duan Wudi’s smuggling spreading like wildfire, in order to calm the army and counter the court, Long Tingfei had completely exhausted all of his mental and physical efforts. Even with this, Duan Wudi was still demoted by a rank, while Shi Ying’s subordinates were implicated. Long Tingfei was forced to begin a purge. Right now, towards his subordinates, Long Tingfei only felt that in their silence, there was resentment and resistance. However, Long Tingfei had no alternatives. To restore the lost morale required an opportunity.
His gaze fell upon the scroll upon his desk. Upon it were all of the gathered information available about Great Yong’s Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe. Long Tingfei picked up the scroll and once again began to read it. Reaching the end, hatred and bitterness gradually rose in Long Tingfei’s mind. It was all this man alone, since his reappearance in the Eastern Sea, who had frustrated Long Tingfei’s plans. Long Tingfei could not help tear the scroll into shreds. Powerlessly sighing, he could not help wonder if Jiang Zhe was the bane of his existence. Feeling dejected, Long Tingfei returned to the internal residence, ordering his servants to prepare food and drink. He began to drink by himself. With the alcohol, his worries began to multiply. After drinking for some time and regardless of his excellent alcoholic capacity, he became dead drunk.
With his head throbbing in pain, Long Tingfei woke up. It was already past noon. His bodyguards delivered hot water and a towel. One of them very carefully asked, “Grand General, General Duan has been waiting outside for you for some time.”
Startled and not worrying about his haggard appearance, Long Tingfei walked out of his bedroom. He saw Duan Wudi standing at the foot of the steps in martial attire. Duan Wudi’s expression was grave and stern, his complexion pale. Long Tingfei hurriedly walked over and anxiously said, “Wudi, why have you come? You have not yet completely recovered from your injuries.”
Afterwards, he reprimanded his bodyguards, “Do you not know that General Duan was poisoned? Why have you not invited him to one of the side halls to rest? Truly useless!”
Trembling like cicadas in winter, the bodyguards did not dare to justify themselves. However, Duan Wudi calmly replied, “Grand General, do not blame them. It was this general who insisted upon waiting here.”
With guilt, Long Tingfei replied, “Wudi, everything’s been held up because I got drunk, letting you down. Quickly, come inside and take a seat.”
A brilliant light appearing in Duan Wudi’s eyes, he replied, “This general has a matter that needs to be discussed with the Grand General.”
Long Tingfei personally led Duan Wudi into his bedroom. After driving away all of his bodyguards and carelessly washing his face, Long Tingfei said, “Wudi, tell me what is going on.”
Rising to his feet, Duan Wudi unflinchingly replied, “This general has come today to report on military matters to the Grand General. However, since the Grand General surprisingly did not emerge, this general asked your bodyguards and learned that the Grand General had gotten drunk. As a result, this general has come to admonish the Grand General. Now that our Northern Han is on the brink of extinction, the Grand General is the heart of the army. How can you drink excessively? If this news were to spread, would it leave all of the soldiers bitterly disappointed? This general was arrogant in my blunt words and hope that the Grand General will not take offense.”
Blushing, Long Tingfei sat down in distress. He replied, “Wudi, you are one of my trusted subordinates. I will not keep you in the dark. I am truly powerless to reverse the present situation. Based upon military power, Great Yong is several times more powerful than us. Based upon supplies, Great Yong can fight for many years, while after a few months, it is likely that we will have exhausted everything. Based upon generals, Great Yong can dispatch numerous capable generals, while the most trusted generals under my command have either died or defected, while you carry poison in your body. It truly is a bit difficult for me to continue. Great Yong has a wise and virtuous monarch like Li Zhi, a commander-in-chief like Li Xian, and a strategist like Jiang Zhe. Do you understand the pressure on me?”
Duan Wudi solemnly responded, “The Grand General has bared your heart to me, then Wudi dares not hide anything. How does Wudi not know of our army’s predicament? However, whatever the case, Grand General must not reveal such thoughts! Right now, within the army, other than the Grand General, there is no one else capable of controlling the army’s morale. If even the Grand General gives up, then how can your subordinate officers and soldiers have any confidence? Grand General, if such are your thoughts, it is best if we do not go to war so that the soldiers do not lose their lives in vain.”
Long Tingfei flushed with anger from Duan Wudi’s words, as he gazed upon that pale complexioned and the perspiring Duan Wudi. At present, with his reputation had been smeared, Duan Wudi’s position in the military was difficult. Shi Ying’s subordinates loathed him, while the majority of the military did not understand the sacrifices that Duan Wudi had made. However, Duan Wudi still remained unflinching in his determination. Gazing upon this resolute Duan Wudi, the heroism in Long Tingfei’s heart was gradually lit. Northern Han’s army did not lack in these kind of heroes. What was there to fear about the power of Great Yong? Long Tingfei respectfully saluted Duan Wudi. As Duan Wudi hurriedly stepped aside to decline such an honor, Long Tingfei loudly said, “Tingfei will remember General Duan’s loyal and sincere advice. Even if I have sacrifice my life, I will never give into despair.”
Seeing that Long Tingfei’s vigor had returned, Duan Wudi cheerfully replied, “Grand General’s tactics are matchless and our Qinzhou is easy to defend and difficult to attack. Grand General, there is no need for you to worry excessively.”
His confidence restored, Long Tingfei replied, “General Duan, do not worry. Unless Tingfei dies upon the battlefield, otherwise I will not permit Great Yong’s army to conquer Qinzhou.”
Seeing Long Tingfei glowing with health and vigor, Duan Wudi finally relaxed and replied, “Grand General, please first change. This general will withdraw.”
Smiling, Long Tingfei replied, “Wait for me for a moment. Seeing that you are no longer bedridden, there are some things that I need to discuss with you. If you can’t hold out, you can rest within my residence. It would be a great pity if you were to continue to be bedridden in your recuperation.”
Feeling his heart warm, Duan Wudi replied, “This general obeys!”
At this same moment within an ancient temple on the eastern outskirts of Nanzheng,1 Li Kang stood within the temple’s main hall,2 gazing upon the solemn Buddhist iconography. He was deep in thought.
Although it was not yet the second month and it was still quite cold in Chang’an, Nanzheng’s weather was a lot warmer than Chang’an. The Hanzhong region was populous and rich. Li Kang’s existence in this area could be said to be all-controlling and able to hoodwink the populace.3 In addition, having also swept away all of the officers and spies that the court had arranged, there was no need for him to hold back. It was reasonable to say that Li Kang should be extremely happy and pleased with himself. However, a raging fire burned in Li Kang’s heart.
Just then, he had received an imperial edict from the Yong Emperor, Li Zhi. However, the edict had not been delivered by an imperial envoy. The imperial envoy had been intercepted and killed on Li Kang’s orders by soldiers pretending to be bandits even before he had stepped into the Hanzhong region. The edict had still been retrieved and delivered to Li Kang. Within, the edict ordered Li Kang to stoutly defend Jiameng Pass, exhorting him to not be remiss in his duties. After reading the edict, Li Kang should have been delighted, because this represented that the court did not yet know that he had completely seized control of the Hanzhong region. However, Li Kang was still extremely enraged. For what reason could Li Zhi always boss him around?
Li Kang had always felt as if he was unlucky. Because his mother was of humble and lowly background, he had never been doted on by his father. Aside from his mother, Li Kang had never received any tenderness or warmth. He had repeatedly seen Li An, Li Zhi, Li Xian, and even Li Zhen act willfully in their solicitation of Imperial Father’s love. He, himself, was the third prince. But because of his mother’s lowly status, he did not dare go forward. By itself, Li Kang could probably tolerate it. However, the only one who loved him dearly, his mother, had been clearly killed by that bitch, Ji Xia. Rather than doing anything, his Imperial Father had only conferred a posthumous title on Li Kan’gs mother and washed his hands of the affair. In anger, Li Kang had run away from the palace.
However, after he had run away, Li Kang discovered how his original life was the dreams and desires of many people. For a prince, who knew nothing about the world, to survive in these chaotic times was easier said than done. He had repeatedly experienced verbal and physical abuse, repeatedly went hungry. Based upon his limited martial arts and his vicious ruthlessness, he was finally able to survive. However, vengeance remained so far away it seemed impossible to attain. He had repeatedly been unable to endure the suffering that he had experienced and desired to return to the palace. However, the tragic scene of his mother’s death ultimately caused him to persevere. It was only when he ran into that mysterious figure who had changed his fate did Li Kang finally feel for the first time that the Heavens treated him well.
Afterwards, Li Kang had trained in a profound martial art and had gone back to try to assassinate Ji Xia. However, he had failed and was captured. Were it not for Zheng Xia speaking out on a matter of principle, it was likely that he would have been condemned and imprisoned. By itself, this would have been nothing. However, Li Yuan had dispatched him to the Hanzhong region, prohibiting from returning without imperial summons. This kind of overt demotion and covert protection left Li Kang extremely aggrieved. Even though he was of flesh and blood of the imperial family, he was being forced to lower his head to the Fengyi Sect. Wasn’t Li Zhi brazenly opposing the Fengyi Sect? However, with Li Zhi at the helm of the army, no one dared to make things difficult for him. With this mindset, Li Kang spared no effort in reorganizing the troops in the Hanzhong region until he finally was able to control a not small force.
However, even though this was the case, Li Kang did not have even the slightest strength to become involved in the struggle for the throne. Regarding this matter, the emperor, the crown prince, the Prince of Yong, and the Prince of Qi seemingly all had the same thoughts. As a result, Li Kang had no way of establishing himself in the imperial capital. Even the most moderate Li Zhi had written a letter blocking him from becoming involved in the matters in Chang’an. Could it be that he was not a member of the imperial family? This kind of humiliation caused Li Kang to resolutely decide that even if Great Yong’s regime was overturned, he would not allow himself to be dictated to and bullied. As a result, beyond the Devil Sect Sovereign’s expectations, Li Kang had decided to rebel. And the first step in such a decision was to eliminate all of the agents that had been planted by his side.
The last several years in Hanzhong, Li Kang had already successfully created his own faction. The remnants of the Kingdom of Shu had joined him for the illusory goal of reestablishing their former kingdom. In addition, with covert assistance from the Devil Sect, Li Kang had finally been able to eliminate the agents and moles by his side. These individuals had long been placed under Li Kang’s surveillance. Now that they had been captured, Li Kang finally felt himself able to relax unlike never before. Afterwards, he had replaced the officers in the military and the civil officials. Having carried out the conspiracy that he had been planning for many years, Hanzhong was now his Hanzhong alone.
As long as he was able to find the right opportunity, he would be able to sally forth from the valleys and directly attack Chang’an. When the time came, he would be able to seize control of the Yong court. Of course, Li Kang knew that he had to carefully select the right moment, to wait for when Li Zhi had transferred the troops around Chang’an to reinforce the frontlines at Zezhou and in Jingxiang. Only then, could he skewer Great Yong’s heart like a dagger. Li Kang understood that although he had a hundred thousand men at arms, these troops were ultimately Great Yong’s. If the Yong court discovered his rebellion, then it was possible that his troops would be split apart and forced to surrender.
As a result, cutting off communications between Chang’an and Hanzhong, and hiding his traitorous intentions were of utmost importance. In order to accomplish his goal, it was extremely difficult to do so by himself. If he could not receive assistance from the remnants of the Kingdom of Shu, then he would be fail within sight of success. As for these remnants, aside from the former aristocratic families seeking to regain their former glory, the most important and necessary was the Embroidered Union, which continued to resist Great Yong in secret.
After several discussions and negotiations, this was the day that the Head of the Embroidered Union was going to meet with him. Huo Jicheng’s caution left Li Kang filled with admiration. He had been led around for quite some time before he had finally learned that he would meet Huo Jicheng here. For security purposes, Li Kang did not bring anyone else aside from Ye Tianxiu and several trusted bodyguards. He trusted that Huo Jicheng was sincere. These last several days, the Embroidered Union had helped him cut the roads between Chang’an and Nanzheng. This was the best proof of sincerity.
As dusk approached, the door to the hall suddenly opened. Two men in black stood before the door. One of them was Chen Zhen, who Li Kang had met several times. As for the other man, he wore a bamboo hat with azure muslin hanging down, hiding his face. Li Kang cheerfully advanced and said, “Vice Union Head Chen, this must be Union Head Huo, correct? This Lowly Prince has long heard of your illustrious name. To be able to meet with you today, it is a blessing of three lifetimes!”
The masked man in black took a step forward and saluted, replying, “Your Imperial Highness respects the wise and capable. I have long heard of your illustrious name. I am untalented and only desire to restore the kingdom. For many years, the results of my actions have been mediocre. Truly shameful. From Chen Zhen, I have learned that Your Imperial Highness has an orphan of the former King within your residence and that his identity has been verified. Your Imperial Highness’s grace, all of the people of the Kingdom of Shu without exception will shed tears of gratitude. Aside from expressing my thanks, I have come today to discuss matters of cooperation with Your Imperial Highness.”
Li Kang replied, “Union Head is being too modest. In the past, Union Head assassinated the King of Southern Chu, causing Li An’s scandal in the Ministry of Revenue to be divulged. Even the Fengyi Sect was ferociously attacked by Union Head. This Lowly Prince does not dare forget these glorious achievements, especially that incident in Luoyang. Union Head’s adopted son is truly a youthful hero. By himself, he threw two influential and aristocratic families into complete confusion, weakening the Fengyi Sect’s influence in Luoyang to its lowest point. This matter has long caused this Lowly Prince to sigh with admiration. I wonder if it’s possible to meet that young hero.”
The man in black laughed softly and replied, “It was only a child making trouble, incurring Your Imperial Highness’s ridicule. Huo Li is one of my trusted lieutenants and my adopted son, long garnering my affection. Unfortunately, this child has other heavy responsibilities that he cannot extricate himself from. If Your Imperial Highness likes youthful heroes, this one has another adopted son, Huo Yi, whose martial arts are excellent. One can be reassured towards any matter that he handles. If Your Imperial Highness does not scorn him, I hope that he will be permitted to serve Your Imperial Highness.”
Smiling, Li Kang replied, “That would be great! Your honored union has plentiful talents, leaving this Prince truly envious. How about allowing Huo Yi to come to my side to serve as a bodyguard? If his abilities are truly unordinary, this Prince will naturally place him in an important position. Union Head Huo, regarding our cooperation, I wonder what does Union Head think?”
After falling silent for some time, the man in black answered, “Your Imperial Highness speaks correctly. This is the proper subject of discussion. This one has stood on the side and detachedly observed that Your Imperial Highness is resolute in your decision to rebel. That was why I did not fear falling into a trap and come meet Your Imperial Highness in Nanzheng. However, Your Imperial Highness is after all still a Prince of the first rank of Great Yong. How can you have me believe that Your Imperial Highness will restore the Kingdom of Shu? Although there are no questions about the identity of the orphaned son of the King, this kind of cheap tricks of employing a puppet ruler is commonly seen. In the past, the Hegemonic King of Western Chu, Xiang Yu, helped place King Huai upon the throne and yet King Huai died at Xiang Yu’s hands.4 Your Imperial Highness, why should we believe that you will restore the Kingdom of Shu?”
Having prepared for this question long ago, Li Kang calmly answered, “This lowly Prince will not speak any pompous words. There is no such charity in this world. This Prince is the one rising in rebellion and yet a young child is the one who must bear the title of King. As a result, power and authority must rest in this lowly Prince’s hands. Setting up a King of Shu is no more than a pretense to gain the support of the remnants of the Kingdom of Shu. However, this Prince can promise that I won’t abandon Shu upon achieving my goals. After all, without Shu, it would have been impossible for this Prince to set up an independent regime here. As such, I will definitely ensure the safety of the Royal Family of Shu. This Prince can even go so far as to pledge loyalty to the Kingdom of Shu. However, if the rebellion is successful, this Prince will usurp the throne. Everyone only desires high position and wealth. Don’t tell me that I, Li Kang, can’t give you these things? Surely, Union Head does not have any blind loyalty and the Shu throne is not only theirs to have.”
Although one could not see the expression on the man in black’s face, one could see from the slight shaking of his body that he was moved emotionally. It was some time before the man in black replied, “Your Imperial Highness speaks the truth. The throne of Shu belongs to one who is capable of taking it. Your Imperial Highness needs to rely upon the people of Shu and thus can only carefully plan and prepare. In twenty years, the people of Shu will treat Your Imperial Highness as one of their own. Your Imperial Highness’s trust, I cannot thank you enough. If Your Imperial Highness were to speak with duplicity, I would have looked down upon you. Good, if Your Imperial Highness is willing to agree to one condition, our alliance will be reached today.”
Li Kang exulted. After careful analysis, he trusted that for the Embroidered Union to accomplish such freakish deeds meant that their leader was not an individual who conservatively followed old conventions.5 As a result, Li Kang was certain that Huo Jicheng would not be completely supportive of the orphaned son of the former Shu King. Everything had gone according to Li Kang’s expectations. Somewhat relaxing, he replied, “Union Head, please speak. As long as it’s reasonable and fair, this Prince will definitely agree.”
The man in black resolutely and decisively stated, “This one wants authority.”
Li Kang was somewhat baffled. He knew that in order to ally with the Embroidered Union, they needed to be given power, authority, riches, and honor. Why had Huo Jicheng specially raised this point? Just as he was about to ask, the man in black waved his head, indicating for him to not speak.
In a bright voice, the man in black continued, “It is said that authority comes in myriad ways. However, there are two types of authority that cannot be lightly wrested away—military and supervisory authority. The reason why Imperial Power is paramount is because the Imperial Household controls all military authority and the spies to supervise officialdom. Our Embroidered Union has no interest in military authority and does not have the ability to control it. As a result, I wish to control intelligence. The Embroidered Union can become Your Imperial Highness’s eyes and ears, and assassins. Only in this way can the Embroidered Union form a stable alliance with Your Imperial Highness. If Your Imperial Highness is unwilling to accept this condition, then the Embroidered Union will definitely not cooperate with Your Imperial Highness.”
Li Kang shivered inwardly. Huo Jicheng was as difficult to deal with as expected. Although he was interested in absorbing the Embroidered Union, Li Kang knew that if he allowed them to freely control supervisory authority, then it would be impossible for the two parties to separate. Although he was somewhat hesitant, after thinking it over, Li Kang realized that he wanted the Embroidered Union for their covert strength. It was only that Huo Jicheng’s required authority was a bit bigger than he was originally willing to give. After all, with military authority in his hands, as long as he continued to control the military, there was nothing to worry about the Embroidered Union. In addition, with this, then the alliance between the two would be unbreakable. To him, only in this way, would he have the chance to fully be able to control the former citizens of Shu. As a result, Li Kang extended his palm and said, “It’s a deal.”
A look of excitement seemed to flash across the man in black’s face, as the two clapped hands to seal the deal. With the alliance formed by the hand clap, the man in black prepared to leave. He said, “This one’s reputation is a bit poor. It is best that our alliance is not publicized for the time being. Furthermore, Your Imperial Highness does not wish to arouse unwanted attention. Chen Zhen is one of my trusted subordinates. I will let him discuss the particulars about our cooperation.”
A cold light flashed across Li Kang’s eyes, as he replied, “That is for the best. However, this Prince has a presumptuous request. This Prince has long admired the Union Head. However, meeting you today, Union Head has not been willing to reveal your true appearance.6 This Prince wonders if it is possible to remove your bamboo hat and show your face with sincerity?”
The man in black was silent. At this moment, Chen Zhen, who had been standing behind him all this time, was restless. However, just then, the sound of multiple footsteps could be heard outside the door and a faint murderous aura could be felt to enter the hall. Li Kang’s body seemed to be towering like a mountain, a killing intent that reeked with blood soared up into the air, demonstrating that Li Kang was not only a military commander, but also an expert from jianghu whose hands were covered in blood. Right now, the atmosphere in the hall immediately became cold and solemn with concealed murderous intent.
Footnotes:南郑, Nanzheng – a modern-day county in Hanzhong Prefecture, Shaanxi Province; historically Nanzheng was another name for Hanzhong and served as the capital of the Hanzhong prefecture/region大雄宝殿, daxiongbaodian – lit. Hall of Great Strength; the main hall of a Buddhist Temple一手遮天, yishouzhetian – idiom, lit. shut out the Heavens with one hand; fig. hoodwinkt he public, all-controllingIn order to unite the disparate rebellion factions as the Qin Dynasty collapsed, Xiang Yu’s uncle, Xiang Liang (项梁), sought and placed a descendant of the Chu royal family, Xiong Xin (熊心), who was a shepherd, on the throne, first as King (King Huai of Chu, 楚怀王) and later as Emperor (Emperor Yi of Chu, 楚义帝). After Xiong Xin had served his purposed, he was first demoted to become King before being ordered assassinated by Xiang Yu.食古不化, shigubuhua – idiom, lit. to swallow ancient learning without digesting it; fig. follow the beaten track, conservatively following old convention庐山真面目, lushanzhenmianmu – idiom, lit. the true face of Mt. Lu; fig. one’s true appearance