Just as Qin Qing was about to forcibly search the carriage, suddenly, the curtain of the carriage was pulled open and an azure-robed youth exited. He stood at the front of the carriage, his arms behind his back. The youth’s expression was as cold and arrogant as ice. Under the dim moonlight, he appeared as if he was completely aloof from the world, as if he was not a mortal of this world. What caused the greatest dread was this youth’s pair of icy, sparkling eyes that were coldly gazing at Qin Qing. Qin Qing could feel that this man regarded him and his imperial guards as no more than lifeless objects and could easily destroy them without the slightest degree of remorse.
Calming himself, Qin Qing spoke, “Brother Li never leaves Major Jiang’s side, truly wholeheartedly loyal. This general has no malicious intent. I only need to take a look inside the carriage.”
Xiaoshunzi dryly laughed and replied, “Major Jiang is extremely respectful of the Grand General and General Qin. Who could have thought that the person come to drag down the young master’s face is actually General Qin?”
Qin Qing grew fearful. In his own home, he had personally witnessed this youth’s arrogance. If it weren’t for a word from Jiang Zhe, no one dared to believe that he wouldn’t have killed Crown Prince Li An in one blow. Over this last year, everyone in Chang’an had learned about the existence of this young expert, the “Demonic Shadow” Li Shun. His martial arts were sinister and his actions ruthless. And yet, this man was only wholeheartedly loyal to one person, willing to be that person’s shadow. It wasn’t clear who came up with the moniker, but it was extremely appropriate. When he stood behind Jiang Zhe, he truly seemed to be just a shadow. No one could believe that this kind of expert would willingly perform the duties of a servant, moreover, without complaint. However, once he became enraged and was intent on murder, he became terrifyingly ruthless. Several months ago, some people took advantage of the Prince of Yong’s decision to enjoy the spring weather to attempt to assassinate him. Unexpectedly, Jiang Zhe felt strong enough to accompany the Prince of Yong and ended up being meeting danger. This Li Shun angrily slaughtered all of the dozen or so assassins. According to those who went to clean up the scene, none of the corpses were intact; all of them had died miserably. The scene caused all of the imperial guardsmen and coroners to experience several nights’ worth of nightmares upon their return.
But Qin Qing also realized that if he were to let them off so easily, how would he explain things to Hanyou? Strengthening his resolve, he stated, “This general is only performing his duties. Would Brother Li please forgive me?” Finished speaking, he urged his horse forward. He calculated that Li Shun would not dare to kill a court official.
Li Shun smiled callously, dense killing intent exuding from his eyes, and prepared to raise his right hand. All of the imperial guardsmen brought by Qin Qing cried out in alarm, unsheathing their weapons. Following this, all of the guards from the Prince of Yong’s household also drew their weapons. At this moment, this area before the Vermillion Bird Gate was completely covered with bloodlust. Anything could happen at any moment.
No one expected that Li Shun only raised his right hand up high. In his right hand was a gold pendant. Qin Qing stared up and looked, quickly catching sight of the pendant’s unique decorative design and the nine coiled, golden dragons. On it were carved the words, “as if We are present in person.” Qin Qing cried out in shock. He knew what this pendant was. This gold pendant was bestowed upon His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, by the Emperor, allowing the prince to inspect and tour the empire on the Emperor’s behalf. Everywhere he passed through, the Prince of Yong had the authority to interfere in any and all matters. At present on this earth, there was only this one pendant. However, because the Prince of Yong conducted himself with care and caution, and in addition, his fame as a general was spread far and wide, he did not need this gold pendant and could act at will. Therefore, very few people had seen the pendant. Surprisingly, the Prince of Yong had actually given this gold pendant to Jiang Zhe. Qin Qing could not help but be filled with jealousy that the Prince of Yong so trusted and favored this surrendered Southern Chu subject to lend this golden pendant worth the lives of the entire prince’s household to him. However, regardless of that, the most pressing issue now was not this. He hurriedly called out and led all of his imperial guards to dismount from their horses and prostrate themselves on the ground, proclaiming the words, “Long live Your Imperial Majesty.”
Xiaoshunzi smiled faintly. Putting away the gold pendant, he stated, “General Qin loyally performs his duties and should garner the major’s respect. However, this matter is not so simple. If General was permitted to search the carriage today, it is likely that the Prince of Yong’s household would no longer know any peace. General Qin, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, is a current imperial prince and is also the Emperor’s personally enfeoffed Marshal of Heavenly Strategies. He would absolutely never perform any action that would adversely affect the national prestige of Great Yong. From now on, General Qin’s conduct should be more careful to ensure that you do not gratuitously without reason serve as another’s tool.”
Qin Qing could only reply in the affirmative, while he was extremely enraged internally. Just as he was about to half-heartedly speak a few words, a group of mounted warriors rushed over from the distance. Qin Qing looked over and saw that all of them were in the uniform of the household guards of the Prince of Yong. At their head was a man with long eyebrows and phoenix eyes. His appearance was handsome and he had an uncommon bearing that caused others to feel a sense of intimacy. From the golden bow slung over his back and the special quiver beside the saddle, one would immediately know that this was Golden Bow Gongsun Ji. At a gallop, he approached. After first saluting Qin Qing, he spoke in a clear voice, “After waiting for some time and not seeing the major return, His Imperial Highness was worried and specially dispatched this general to come and serve as an escort.”
Jing Chi mumbled to himself, “Isn’t it because someone was blocking us?” Xiaoshunzi shot him a cold look, immediately causing Jing Chi to fall silent. Over this last year, I had frequently punished me by forcing him to transcribing books and to learn its contents by heart. Regularly, Xiaoshunzi would supervise Jing Chi’s work. As a result, now, one look from Xiaoshunzi was enough to cause Jing Chi to fall silent.1
At once, we saw off Qin Qing with proper etiquette. Xiaoshunzi quietly observed the guardsman who had secretly advised Qin Qing, carefully memorizing that man’s appearance. Afterwards, I finally returned to the Prince of Yong’s residence. Entering the main hall, I could hear the Prince of Yong furiously exclaim, “Suiyun, something has happened! Take a look …” Just then, he caught sight of Fang Yuanxin. Li Zhi’s expression changed, the majestic presence of a sovereign immediately enveloping the entire hall, causing one to have no intention of daring to resist.
Fang Yuanxin did not know why, but he advanced and prostrated himself on the ground. It was only when his knees touched the ground did he come to his senses and question what was happening.
I had already bowed and replied, “Your Imperial Highness, this is Jiang Yong, Marquis Jiang’s subordinate commander, Fang Yuanxin, General Fang.”
For a moment, the Prince of Yong stared at us blankly before he laughed heartily and stepped forward to raise Fang Yuanxin to his feet. Li Zhi stated, “Your name has been known to me for a long time. General Fang is an adept naval commander and is renowned throughout the world. I have heard that several years ago, general repeatedly fought bloody battles in the Eastern Sea, completely eradicating and subduing all of the pirates invading and harassing the coastal regions. Many of the sea merchants and fishermen have all established a long life memorial tablet on general’s behalf. With the coast at peace, General Fang’s contribution is not shallow. Although your master has set up an independent regime, you are all still the descendants of the Yan and Huang Emperors. This Prince greatly admires Marquis Jiang’s feats.”
Fang Yuanxin could only grow warm from the Prince of Yong’s words. Unexpectedly, the Prince of Yong greatly recognized his master and his colleagues’ actions. He opened his mouth and replied, “Your Imperial Highness praises us too much. Although My Lord is alone out overseas, his heart has always been inclined towards the Central Plains. Although he still holds resentment towards the Great Yong court, whenever he speaks of Your Imperial Highness’s outstanding and glorious military service, he would always be filled with admiration and respect.”
With a sigh, the Prince of Yong said, “Thinking back, cousin and I were childhood playmates and were as close as brothers. However, fortune toys with people. Now that he holds deep hatred for the death of his father, this Prince always becomes sad when thinking of our relationship. If it is possible, I would like to ask general to advise my cousin. Even if it is for his descendants, he should not stay long overseas. Cousin presumably longs for the beautiful landscape of the Central Plains? If cousin is willing to return, Zhi is willing to apologize to cousin. Whether he wishes to strike or to kill me, this Prince will accept it all.”
Fang Yuanxin’s expression was filled with a bit of gloom, as he responded, “This general will definitely convey Your Imperial Highness’s deep friendship to my master. However, Your Imperial Highness must know that My Lord does not hate you. Although it was Your Imperial Highness who defeated the forces of the old marquis, it was all the result of the old marquis being too ambitious and unwilling to accept the noble rank bestowed by Great Yong. But if the old marquis died on the battlefield, although My Lord would be filled with grief, he will not wish for revenge. However, the old marquis was assassinated by that wicked woman, Fan Huiyao. My Lord can never forget this kind of humiliation. If this hatred is not avenged, My Lord will not be able to close his eyes when he dies.”
The Prince of Yong sighed once again. “General Fang, please take a seat as we talk. Let’s talk about these matters later on. There will definitely be a day when all this will be resolved. For what reason has General Fang come to my humble home? Is there something that this Prince can help out with? As long as it is not a major matter that interferes with the proper governance of the empire, Zhi will definitely not refuse.”
Fang Yuanxin promptly explained his wish to seek medical treatment for his little master, his eyes filled with entreaty and worry. He knew that with his explanation, the Prince of Yong would be able to control his master. However, he could not allow this last thread of opportunity—of letting the little master live—go by.
Just as expected, when he heard Fang Yuanxin’s words, Li Zhi immediately looked hesitant and vexed. He had just sat down, but with this, he instantly rose to his feet. With his hands behind his back, Li Zhi paced in a circle within the hall, glancing at Fang Yuanxin and also at the already seated, yawning, and drowsy Jiang Zhe. At last, he spoke, “General Fang, this Prince will not deceive you. If it weren’t for Sir Jiang’s poor health, this Prince would definitely request that he travel to the Eastern Sea. However, since he was attacked by an assassin, although he has recuperated for more than a year, his body is frail and his breathing weak. The only way he can travel now is if the journey is slow and unhurried, and requires several days of rest if anything were to happen. Only then will I be reassured. However, with this, without a year, it is unlikely that he will be able to arrive at the Eastern Sea. If this matter were to be delayed for that long, ignoring for now the fact that this Prince requires his help, with the extended time period, it is likely that this matter will inevitably be leaked. If that were to happen, what could we do? You must know that other people aren’t deaf or blind. This Prince cannot predict what will happen when that time comes. However, Sir Jiang will definitely be unable to reach the Eastern Sea.”
Fang Yuanxin’s heart froze. He knew that the Prince of Yong did not speak a single word of falsehood. Could it be that the only way was to escort the little master to Chang’an?
With sympathy, the Prince of Yong glanced at Fang Yuanxin. He continued, “At present, this Prince has two methods. One is to have this Prince secretly report this matter to Imperial Father. Imperial Father may tacitly allow the child to come to be treated in Chang’an. However, if this were to happen, then Marquis Jiang must make some concessions. The second method is for the marquis to think of a way to deliver nephew to Chang’an, concealing his journey from everyone. When the time comes, if everything goes smoothly, then nephew will be able at liberty to return to the Eastern Sea. However, there is no harm for me to speak bluntly. At present, the various factions in Chang’an are tangled and complicated. This Prince does not dare guarantee that this information will not be leaked.”
After thinking for some time, Fang Yuanxin replied, “This general will report this matter to My Lord as quickly as possible, and have him make the decision. If there is any news, I hope that Your Imperial Highness will be generous with your help.”
The Prince of Yong smiled. “Your master and I are still close blood relations. How can I harm him? As long as nephew arrives in Chang’an, this Prince will absolutely not stand apart and do nothing. The hour is already late. Originally, I should have you stay, but you must know that this Prince must avoid arousing suspicion. I will order someone to see you out.”
Fang Yuanxin kneeled and bowed, acknowledging, “Many thanks to Your Imperial Highness. Regardless of the success of this matter, this general and My Lord will both remember Your Imperial Highness’s kindly intentions.”
Li Zhi sighed and replied, “The timing is unfortunate. There are some matters that I need not explain to you, as you know them already. This Prince can absolutely not permit Major Jiang to journey far from Chang’an.”
In his mind, Fang Yuanxin thought, At present, you brothers are fighting tooth and nail to succeed the imperial throne. Jiang Zhe is also the prince’s most highly valued confidant. It is no wonder that you are unwilling to let him leave. Moreover, this Jiang Zhe’s health was really too poor. While we were speaking, he looked like he was about to faint.
Just as Fang Yuanxin was about to bid his farewell, I spoke up. “Wait a moment, General Fang.” As I spoke, I took out two small jade boxes that Xiaoshunzi had earlier gone off to grab. Languidly, I stated, “I have only heard the name of the rouge jade sea snake, therefore I can only treat the wound after I have seen it. However, I also cannot allow General Fang to return empty-handed. In these boxes are two kinds of medications. One is capable of treating the majority of common poisons. Its efficacy is very high. At the very least, it should be able to prevent the poison from attacking your little master’s heart. The other medicine, if taken one per day, will cause a person to enter into a deep sleep, and yet, at the same time, not harm one’s body. This will allow your little master to avoid having to endure the pain and suffering daily.”
Hearing this, Fang Yuanxin was overjoyed at the unexpected gift. He appreciatively said, “This general thanks Sir Jiang for your compassion on behalf of my little master.” Even if it was to temporarily alleviate the little master’s pain, then it was already worth it. Therefore, he absolutely gratefully accepted the boxes of medicine.
“This medicine was originally for my own use,” I stated with a smile. “While I was recovering, the wound would frequently ache and itch, making it difficult for me to sleep. Therefore, I specially made this medication. I didn’t expect that its effect would be so great. It is only that the concoction is quite difficult. Moreover, its prescription can absolutely not be leaked, otherwise I would have written down the prescription for you.”
After Fang Yuanxin had departed, I heaved a deep sigh before asking, “Your Imperial Highness, has something happened?”
Only then did Li Zhi remember the matter that he had originally wished to discuss with me. With a wry smile, he stated, “Tonight, Imperial Father received a remonstration memorial, impeaching Pei Yun for being immoral and violating filial piety.”
I stared back at him blankly and inquired, “Your Imperial Highness, Pei Yun dotes on his concubine and is estranged from his wife. This can be argued to be immoral, but violating filial piety? This shouldn’t apply?”
“How can I explain it?” replied Li Zhi with a wry smile. “That Imperial Censor Cai is truly audacious. In his criticism, he stated that Pei Yun has snubbed the wife that his parents had betrothed to him, causing his parents to grieve and worry to this day. Therefore, he is unfilial. After all, ever since that incident happened, Pei Yun’s father was so enraged that he fell ill. What’s more, that imperial censor has alluded to the fact that Lady Xue is still a virgin, which is clearly Pei Yun’s failure to adhere to the ethics of human relations.”
“Imperial censors should be mindful of important matters of state,” I wondered in amazement. “Is he also now worrying about someone else’s bedroom matters?”
“To them, it is better to help a villain do evil than to help with the worries and difficulties of Great Yong,” replied Li Zhi with a humorless smile. Continuing, he said, “Forget about him for now. What’s to be done? We can’t have Pei Yun’s father to submit a memorial that he approved Pei Yun to take a concubine and snub the wife. Wouldn’t that cause the household to fall into chaos? If this happens then Pei Yun would truly be unfilial. Since ancient times, only sons take the blame for their fathers, not the other way around.”
I was also somewhat vexed. I did not expect that someone would make a fuss out of something like this, even going so far as to label Pei Yun as unfilial. However, at this moment, I couldn’t think of any solutions. Each successive dynasty governed the world through filial piety. If Pei Yun were to gain a reputation for being unfilial, then it was likely that his future career prospects would be extremely challenged and limited. From the present situation, it looked like the commander of the otherwise ironclad Northern Barracks of the Imperial Guard would be changed.
Xiaoshunzi suddenly distantly observed, “The Emperor may not necessarily view this matter in such a light.”
Both the Prince of Yong and I looked over and stared at him, however Xiaoshunzi stopped talking. Both the prince and I very quickly understood. The Emperor was wary of the Fengyi Sect. If the Emperor learned that Pei Yun did not wish to be connected by marriage to the Fengyi Sect, it was likely that he would not fault Pei Yun. After thinking it over, I stated, baffled, “The crown prince’s faction must surely know this. Why would they do such a thing?”
Xiaoshunzi smiled slightly and explained, “Your Imperial Highness and young master are too close to the situation and don’t see the big picture. If this news were to spread, it is likely that Lady Xue would have no face to see anyone ever again. For a woman to be so ignored, in addition to ruining her reputation, it seems likely that her only option going forward is death. When that time comes, the Vice Minister of Works, Xue Ju, will inevitably submit a memorial denouncing General Pei. Regardless of what, General Pei cannot say that his actions were not improper.
“In addition, as an important official in the Ministry of Works, Xue Ju is adept at the manufacture and improvement of weapons. Who in the world does not know that the ‘Divine Armed Bow’2 is an effective weapon for defending city walls? When that time comes, Xue daren can stake himself, as he carries the responsibility of failing to properly educate his daughter, and will definitely seek to pull General Pei down with him. Even if Your Imperial Highness sides with General Pei, he will still be temporarily suspended from duties. When General Pei resumes his duties, he will no longer be able to control the Northern Barracks of the Imperial Guard. Moreover, General Pei has newly pledged his allegiance to Your Imperial Highness. If Your Imperial Highness is helpless to protect him and also cause Xue Ju to become an enemy, then this will be three birds with one stone.”
Listening to Xiaoshunzi’s words, Li Zhi grew frightened. With admiration, he replied, “Xiaoshunzi, you are indeed incisive. This Prince didn’t foresee all these consequences. It is likely by tomorrow that this impeachment memorial will be spread widely throughout all levels of society. Even if Lady Xue does not wish to commit suicide, she will still be forced to do so. What do you think we should do now? Pei Yun has the disposition to become a famous general. This Prince honestly cannot bear to see him so sullied.”
After understanding the key points, I sighed and stated, “This strategy is indeed fierce and malicious. However, there are ways to resolve it. The best method would be if General Pei’s concubine dies from the injuries sustained. If that were to happen, then Lady Xue would be guilty of murder. Pei Yun’s actions would therefore not be considered as excessive. Unfortunately, this is impossible, as the concubine’s body has already been cleansed of poison. Many people know of this fact. Another method would be to use Lady Xue. If she is willing to submit a memorial to beg forgiveness, explaining her guilty conscience and willingness to become a nun to redeem her sins, then no one will be able to continue to blame Pei Yun.”
“If she were willing, then we would need not to worry,” replied Li Zhi with a wry smile. “However, it is likely that she will be unwilling to admit defeat. Every single one of the disciples of the Fengyi Sect is proud and arrogant. It is likely that she would rather die than admit her guilt and concede.”
With a slight smile, I countered, “Why would a young lady wish to die? It is likely that she is extremely remorseful of her marriage to General Pei. The problem is whether she is willing to submit a memorial and admit her guilt. Even if she wishes to commit suicide, with the importance of life, why would she not cherish it? If she were given the opportunity, she would probably agree to get away and live a new life. However, whom should this matter be handled by? This is somewhat difficult. If this isn’t handled properly, we are likely to end up with egg in our face.”
After thinking it over, Li Zhi’s eyes brightened and he declared, “I have a method! The Duke of Wei, Cheng Shu, has always been friendly with all the court officials, and is someone who can speak with Xue Ju. Moreover, that old fart has plenty of ideas. Combined with Cheng Shu’s kind intentions, Xue Ju will absolutely not take precautions and reject him outright. Moreover, the Duke of Wei has a jocular temperament. Many of the children of the top officials all consider him to be their uncle. Lady Xue was once one of them and is still extremely intimate whenever she meets him. If he were to go, this matter would definitely be successful. There’s no time to lose. This Prince will go immediately to speak with the Duke of Wei. He has always guided the younger generation and will absolutely be unwilling to see Pei Yun receive censure.”
That night, Li Zhi personally paid a visit to the residence of the Duke of Wei. After a long discussion, Cheng Shu quickly hurried to the Xue residence. He entered the residence right after the morning court session had just ended. At this moment, Lady Xue had just learned about the impeachment memorial. Even as she was completely disheartened and about to raise her sword to cut her own throat, Cheng Shu let out a loud shout and burst into the room, knocking the sword out of Lady Xue’s hands. If it was someone else, Lady Xue would have flown into a rage out of humiliation, but seeing that it was Uncle Cheng who had frequently allowed her to sit on him to serve as a horse, she could not help but kneel on the ground and break out into tears.