Volume 5, Chapter 37: Doubting the Loyal and Steadfast (End)
Beside the deserted1 official road, a clear stream meandered behind a verdant and lush grove. The grove here was quite sparse and a road wide enough for a carriage to pass through penetrated into the forest. Outside the forest hung a wine (酒) sign. With one glance, a thatched cottage with four or five spacious rooms within the forest could be seen. On the door hung the banner of the inn. This was presumably an excellent location for a traveler to rest and have a meal. Although a time of war, the faint fragrance of wine in the forest could still be whiffed and it seemed like it had not closed up shop. However, this was not strange. This was not the prime direction the Yong army advanced. As a result, the lives of many people still continued as before. It was only that they gained much apprehensiveness. This was the life of a commoner. As long as the axe or saber was not at their necks, they would still have to earn a living, or else they would be unable to support themselves.
Duan Wudi had already changed into the casual dress of a traveler. On the outside, he wore a cloak, while he had a bamboo hat on his head to block the sun. This kind of bamboo hat was something commonly worn by travelers to keep the elements away and was quite convenient. On the edges were muslin covering that could be used to conceal one's face. In Northern Han, the wind during spring and autumn was fierce. Even men were fond of blocking their faces from the wind.
Speeding along the journey, he did not bother to spare his horse. Although the Yong army had not garrisoned troops in this area, it was still frequented by Yong scouts. He could only do his best to avoid them. At this moment, he felt distressed. He focused on the journey, doing his best to avoid lamenting about his unknown future.
Gazing up at the sky, he could tell that it was almost noon. Feeling a bit tired and seeing his mount soaked with perspiration, he forced himself to look ahead into the distance. With one glance, he saw the inn located at the side of the road and was drawn to it. Having left in a rush, he had not prepared any rations. He decided to go within to rest, to buy some provisions and take some alcohol for the road. If he missed this opportunity, he probably wouldn't find any place to stop for a snack. Thinking of this, he urged his horse towards the grove. It wasn't long before he arrived at the inn.
The door to the inn was wide open. The tables within were all extremely clean. There were already several guests sitting at the rightmost table. The shopkeeper, a forty-year-old middle-aged man, laughed as he served wine and plates of food. Seeing the relaxed mood, Duan Wudi felt at ease. After tying his horse to the tree in front of the inn, he walked into the dining area and shouted, "Serve some good food and wine! In a moment, I still need to continue my journey!" Finished speaking, he picked a table to the left and sat down. In passing, he threw a few silver pieces on the table.
The shopkeeper promptly came over to wipe down the table, while his left hand nimbly tucked the silver into his sleeve. Pouring a cup of hot tea, he enthusiastically replied, "Honored customer's journey has been exhausting. Although my humble inn is remote, there are plenty of game and top-notch aged wine. Honored customer, please wait a moment." Finished speaking to Duan Wudi, the shopkeeper shouted, "Little Third, please serve good wine and food!"
Following his shout, an honest and straightforward-looking young man walked out from inside with food and drink. This young man was over twenty years old, appearing to be well-built and stocky. However, the expression on his face was insipid and simple. It was clear that his intellect was lacking. He blankly served a plate of peanuts and a plate of pig's head on the table before filling a wine jar from a massive vat. Afterwards, the simple man returned inside and the sound of a stir-frying wok floated out. It wasn't long before several wild game dishes were served. With the table covered with meat and vegetables, fragrant aromas assailed the nostrils.
Duan Wudi felt his stomach rumble with hunger, but remained vigilant. Intentionally or otherwise, he looked to the other side of the dining room. He saw four people over there. In the seat of honor was a middle-aged man wearing the attire of a merchant and seemed to be the master. To his left and right were individuals wearing bodyguard clothing and possessed gallant appearances. There was also a man in azure who had his back to Duan Wudi. Although Duan Wudi could not see this man's appearance, the man's hair was specked with gray and presumably was not young. However, there was no sign of age from the rear. He probably was around fifty years old. His only adornment was a jade hairpin binding his hair together, nothing else. He wore a set of azure robes and presumably played the role of an accountant. No matter how it looked, he didn't seem to be someone from the military. After confirming that these weren't pursuing troops, Duan Wudi breathed a sigh of relief, beginning to devour the food.
Having hurriedly departed Yangyi, he had not eaten anything for a greater part of the day. With hunger, his table manners were naturally unsightly. After filling his stomach three-quarters of the way full, he began to relax. Although the wine of this shop was a rustic brew, it was dry and spicy. Wanting to drink more, just as he went to pour himself another cup, unexpectedly there was no more than a trickle left in the jar. Frowning, his only recourse was to ask for another jar. He usually did not drink much wine, not because of his poor capacity for alcohol, but his unwillingness to adversely affect military matters. Now that he had fallen into such straits, he had naturally lost some of his restraints. After drinking several cups, he felt his entire body lighten greatly and his exhaustion gradually reduce.
Wine was something capable of causing delusions. Once a person relaxed, they would unavoidably indulge in flights of fancy. Thinking of his loyalty and devotion, and yet accused of being a traitor and forced to flee, Duan Wudi could not help feeling sorrowful. The wine fueled his anxieties and his expression gained desolate grief and indignation. He did not realize that his mood was seen by the other customers on the other side of the dining room. Although the man in azure robes had his back to Duan Wudi, a specially manufactured copper pot before him reflected with Duan Wudi's entire person. Watching everything, sadness and pity showed on the man's face.
Having drunk too much, Duan Wudi felt top-heavy. Growing tipsy, he could not help loudly reciting, "A prince am I of ancestry renowned, / Illustrious name my Royal Sire hath found. / When Sirius did in spring its light display, / A child—I—was born, and Tiger marked the day …" Duan Wudi was fondest of this famous poem by Qu Yuan. Although he was not extremely familiar with the histories, he deeply loved this poem, Encountering Sorrow, and knew it by heart.
Having suffered mentally for several days, Duan Wudi's voice could not but be a bit hoarse and downcast. However, his recitation was sincere, filling with endless lamentation those who listened. When Duan Wudi reached the lines, "It is this that my heart takes most delight in, / And though I died nine times, I shan't regret it," he recited it repeatedly, unable to continue. Wiping away the tears, he once again drained a cup of wine.
At this very moment, Duan Wudi heard someone continue the recitation. That man's voice was mellifluous, his beautiful voice lingering. Duan Wudi was entranced, stopping his drinking. When the man's recitation reached the lines, "Yet humbling the spirit and curbing the pride, / Bearing the shame and enduring the snides. / But remaining pure til the dying days: / Such conduct the wise men of yore greatly praised," Duan Wudi was increasingly pained. Duan Wudi suddenly sobered up with the end of the recitation: "Enough! / Since in that kingdom all my virtue spurn, Why should I for the royal city yearn? / Wide though the world, no wisdom can be found. I’ll seek the stream where once the sage was drowned."2 In such a rustic shop, how could a merchant be able to recite the poetry of Qu Yuan?
Duan Wudi raised his head and looked. The customers across the way were still the ones he had seen earlier. The three Duan Wudi could see were silently drinking. Probably sensing Duan Wudi's gaze, the one with his back to Duan Wudi—the gray-haired man—turned around. Smiling, the man stated, "This one has seen that General was unable to finish the recitation out of grief and lamentation. At the time, I was enthused and helped Sire finish. Presumably, I have disturbed General's drinking. Please forgive me."
Duan Wudi's heart pounded. How could this man know his identity? Looking carefully, Duan Wudi saw that although the gray-haired man's temples were sprinkled with frost his appearance was scholarly and elegant. He appeared handsome and seemed to still be quite young. In addition, the man's bearing was relaxed and leisurely, making all those who saw him feel respect and admiration. This man's figure caused Duan Wudi to feel a hint of familiarity. Suddenly realizing his identity, Duan Wudi tasted extraordinary bitterness in his mouth. Downing the strong liquor in the cup, he serenely inquired, "How am I so fortunate to have the pleasure of meeting the Marquis of Chu here?"
I didn't find it strange that Duan Wudi recognized me. After all, it was quite easy to identify me from my youthful appearance and white hair. The individual playing the role of the merchant and the two bodyguards were all experts from orthodox factions of jianghu. Duan Wudi had been deceived because they did not carry themselves like soldiers. Now that my identity had been discovered, they immediately rose to their feet and protected me. The curtain leading to the back rooms of the inn was pulled aside and Li Shun walked out slowly. Behind him, the two Secret Camp members who played the roles of the shopkeeper and the simple shop assistant had regained their valiant appearances. At the entrance to the inn, two additional figures appeared—Su Qing and Huyan Shou. From outside, the sounds of suppressed breathing and weapons being drawn could be heard. It was obvious that this inn was already an inescapable trap that Duan Wudi had fallen into and had no hopes of escaping.
Duan Wudi understood the situation he faced. With things coming to a head, he was actually as steady as a mountain. Calmly, he poured another cup of wine for himself. Raising his cup in toast, he stated, "Ever since Your Lordship came back from retirement in the Eastern Sea, my army has suffered repeated setbacks. In succession, Generals Tan and Long died for the country, while General Shi was forced to commit suicide. I have been accused of treason and have now fallen into Your Lordship's trap. Your Lordship's resourcefulness is truly world-shaking!3 It is only that Your Lordship is greatly honored. Why have you gone to such risks? If you wish to take my life, a single squad of cavalry or a few bodyguards will be enough. What need is there for you to come personally?" Although the last sentence implied ridicule, Duan Wudi's expression remained extremely calm, almost as if he had not fallen into the trap.
I did not have a hint of smugness, but rather felt a faint feeling of being thwarted. All of my arrangements were for the purpose of forcing this man to depart. From the moment he had departed Yangyi, there were a minimum of several hundred individuals monitoring his movements. After reckoning that he would definitely stop here for a meal, I had seized control of the area to set up this trap. Originally, I had hoped to deal him a mental blow at the first encounter and blunt his will. However, even though this man had fallen into my hands, he remained quite tranquil and indifferent, almost as if he had expected that this would happen. I could destroy the life and honor of this kind of resolute and steady individual, but could not wreck his determination. Feeling a hint of failure, I could only sigh inwardly and continue to forge ahead without fear of success or failure.
After flashing a wry smile, I replied, "I set a trap to frame General only because I knew that the Princess of Jiaping would not execute a loyal individual like you. However, it was also impossible for the Princess to oppose the entirety of Northern Han and she could only allow the general to go far away. If the general wishes to flee, you can only head towards the Eastern Sea. Although the Eastern Sea will become a part of Great Yong sooner rather than later, it is your only way of surviving. Based upon Marquis Jiang's character, even if he were to learn of General's whereabouts, he would feign ignorance. As a result, I have come with the intent of waiting respectfully for the general. Even if the general cannot appreciate this kind of sincere motivation, you should not be so cold as to disappoint this one's sincerity."
Duan Wudi's mind turned rapidly, as he understood several matters. He asked, "Originally, fourth young master Qiu was stuck in the Eastern Sea, but somehow returned safely this time. Could it be that Your Lordship had foreseen that the fourth young master would go to protect my life?"
I praised this man inwardly for hitting the nail on the head and revealing my intentions. I answered, "That's correct. I previously had Yufei placed under house arrest in the Eastern Sea, because he was an expert in the Xiantian realm and I did not want him to participate in this war. However, now that the war is decided, I have some use for him. As a result, I deliberately had him invited back. However, General is one of the reasons, otherwise he would have remained in the Eastern Sea for another fortnight. Yufei is a sentimental individual and was also involved with the Shi Ying affair. Because I framed General, while others may doubt General's loyalty, Yufei will never suspect that the general would commit treason. Combined with his high status and autonomy, even if the Princess of Jiaping had no choice but to harm the general, he would intervene to rescue. Although Yufei's whereabouts are like the mist—difficult to track—Qinzhou is already completely within the Yong's army grasp. I was fully aware of what he would do: pay his respects at General Long's grave in Jishi, spy upon the Prince of Qi's encampment at Pingyao before rushing to Yangyi to rescue the general. General Duan probably doesn't know, but Xiao Tong was sent to intervene in the event that the Princess of Jiaping allowed you to escape. Originally, he intended to pursue and kill you but was stopped by Yufei."
Gratitude appeared on Duan Wudi's face, as he said, "I cannot be grateful enough for fourth young master Qiu's kindness in rescuing my life. It is only that it is unlikely for me to have the ability to thank him in person. If Your Lordship meets him again, please thank him on my behalf."
I frowned. Deliberately ignoring the faint death resolution he revealed, I replied, "Of Northern Han's many generals, I most admire General's character. General has been faithful and true, willing to ruin your own reputation, disregarding honor and disgrace. General's talents are greater than those of General Long's and the Princess of Jiaping's. It is only a pity that you come from humble origins and had no patron to rely upon, thus never having the opportunity to serve as the commander-in-chief. If General is willing to serve Great Yong, both His Imperial Majesty and His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, will be wild with joy. Although General Xuan was humiliated at your hands, he is also full of praise for the general. If General is willing to surrender and pledge allegiance, you can definitely become a marquis. If you have no interest in becoming renowned and celebrated, as General has long cherished the common people, your service to Great Yong will definitely help the soldiers and commoners of Northern Han. I wonder if General is willing to continue to sacrifice your reputation for the sake of Northern Han's masses?"
Duan Wudi smiled slightly. Picking up the wine cup, he downed its contents in one gulp. Feeling like he had drunk a cup of raging flames, he dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword at his waist and responded, "Regardless of Sire's elegant, but insincere words, it is impossible to sway my resolve. Betrayal is still betrayal. I am still a subject of Northern Han and do not care about the riches and honor bestowed by the monarch of Great Yong. As for helping the commoners of Northern Han, that is only a pretext. It doesn't matter if this world is short a Duan Wudi. If Northern Han is truly subjugated, it would naturally be for the best if Great Yong's Son of Heaven is willing to treat the commoners of Northern Han well. If not, there will simply be patriots who arise. Although I do not cherish my reputation, it is impossible for me to defect to the enemy. Your Lordship has stated that the stigmas attached to my name were a result of Your Lordship's machinations. Since they are not real, could it be that I will act recklessly out of hopelessness4 to bend my knee and truly surrender? Today, Your Lordship is out of touch with reality. How does it feel to wake in the middle of the night and think of Southern Chu?"
A slight, wry smile appeared on my face at Duan Wudi's determination. Originally, I had believed that in the face of the difficulties of his country and home, and his own difficult situation, he would waver. I had not expected that he would be so stubborn. Perhaps because he had seen me unable to refute Duan Wudi's rebuke, Li Shun coldly interjected, "For you to be so rude in the face of my young master's persuasion—do you not recognize that you presently face death? One order from the young master and you will die tragically. Afterwards, my young master need only make it public, revealing that you already surrendered to Great Yong. When that happens, even if you die, your reputation will be completely lost. Even if you were willing to serve with body and soul, who would know? I'm afraid that even the Princess of Jiaping and fourth young master Qiu will believe that you are a true traitor."
Duan Wudi smiled uncaringly. Keeping his grip on the hilt of the sword at his waist, he replied, "There is no need for the Marquis to give the order; I can act myself. As for honor and disgrace, I have never taken my reputation seriously. Even if the world denounces me, what does it matter as long as I possess a clear conscience? Besides, the truth cannot be hidden forever.5 There will be the day when the truth comes to light."
A fierce killing intent flashing across Li Shun's eyes, he stonily said, "In my presence, you might not be able to attempt suicide." So speaking, he took a step forward, while his eyes stared fixedly at Duan Wudi.
Duan Wudi's complexion chilled and his right hand seemed to prepare to draw his sword. While everyone focused on his right hand, his left hand suddenly pulled out a dagger as swift as lightning from his hip and pierced it towards his abdomen. In the moment he pulled out the dagger, Su Qing was about to shoot out a pair needles. However, a thought popped into her mind. Rather than having Duan Wudi experience all kinds of humiliation, wouldn't it be better to allow him to die? Lowering her eyes, she did not flick out the needles to injure Duan Wudi's wrist.
However, once she heard a groan of pain and looked up with astonishment, she saw that Li Shun's left hand had clenched down on Duan Wudi's throat, while the dagger was already in Li Shun's right hand. Su Qing's heart clenched. As her eyes wandered, she suddenly noticed a pair of gentle eyes staring steadily at her. Shaking inwardly, the two needles in her hand dropped to the ground.
Withdrawing my gaze, I hid what I had just witnessed in the back of my mind. Waving my hand, I had Li Shun withdraw as I mildly stated, "General Duan, please do not mind my subordinate's rudeness."
Duan Wudi sank weakly. The tipsiness and the cutting off of his breath made his vision and head swim. He could do nothing as Li Shun removed the sword at his waist and forced another cup of wine down his throat. When Duan Wudi returned to his senses once again, there was a bitter smile on his face. Lifting his head, he saw that elegant young man standing before him and holding a handkerchief. Behind the young man was a pair of icy eyes watching him intently. Duan Wudi felt himself grow cold, almost as if he were a frog being gazed at by a viper, and did not dare move. He was well aware that if he made any ill-advised movements, he would definitely fall into a predicament where he could neither live nor die. Accepting the handkerchief and wiping the sweat from his face, Duan Wudi understood clearly that there was only one way for him to escape this kind of situation.
Gazing at Jiang Zhe, Duan Wudi heavily said, "I once had a heart-to-heart with fourth young master Qiu and knows a little about Your Lordship. Although the world knows of Your Lordship's viciousness, I believe that Your Lordship is a sentimental individual. Southern Chu's Prince of De treated Your Lordship poorly and yet Your Lordship never spoke ill of him. For the sake of Great Yong's Empire, Your Lordship has spared no effort. The entire world knows about these matters. Presumably, when Your Lordship faced the Fengyi Sect Master, you were also willing to sacrifice your reputation and your life. I am untalented. Even if I cannot live or die, I still have the courage to refuse to surrender. Since Your Lordship esteems me, why are you willing to watch me fall into such a state? If you can help me remain loyal, I cannot be grateful enough even in the underworld."
I sighed lightly. Gazing into Duan Wudi's eyes, I could only see his perseverance and fearlessness. I felt increasingly agonized, recognizing that everything had been for naught. At this moment, Su Qing took a step forward. In a rather miserable tone, she suggested, "My Lord, this general asks that you allow him to follow his aspirations."
When these words were spoken, Duan Wudi could not prevent his gaze from turning to Su Qing. His eyes showed his immense gratitude. Feeling ever more sorrowful, Su Qing looked away, unwilling to look at what was unfolding.
I gently shook my head before retreating several steps and turning around. Understanding, Li Shun handed back Duan Wudi's sword before retreating several steps himself. Her heart aching, Su Qing knew that the two were tacitly allowing Duan Wudi to commit suicide. Unwilling to be a spectator, Su Qing lightly took a step back and looked away.
Seeing this, Huyan Shou shifted half a step and blocked the majority of Su Qing's figure from the view. He was apprehensive. Just now, from Su Qing's inappropriate behavior, he was worried that Su Qing would have an intense reaction when Duan Wudi committed suicide and make Jiang Zhe's suspicious. That was why he had moved to block her from the sight.
Both delighted and sorrowful, Duan Wudi rose. Saluting, he acknowledged, "Many thanks for Your Lordship's grace." Then his gaze flitted past Huyan Shou and Su Qing. Having always been a meticulous individual, he had immediately noticed that something was odd. Cracking a grin, he kneeled down facing the city of Jinyang. In distress, he declared, "In life, Wudi was unable to protect the country. In death, I hope that my spirit can return and protect my homeland!"
Finished speaking, he raised his sword to his throat. Not knowing why, my chest heated up and I interjected, "Hold up!"
Li Shun had long been prepared for this and sent out his internal energy with a flick of his finger. Duan Wudi felt his hand go numb and the sword fell to the ground. Startled, Duan Wudi angrily asked, "Could it be that Your Lordship wishes to go back on your word and toy with me?"
At this moment, Duan Wudi was angry to the extreme as he shot to his feet. Although his path was barred and he was prevented from violently causing problems, he was in a towering fury and his eyes had become bloodshot.
Smiling slightly, I answered, "General, do not worry. I will absolutely not change my mind. I only wish to give the general another choice. If General is unwilling, then you can do as you please and I will not try to stop you."
Duan Wudi glanced at Li Shun and company, understanding that he had no choice but to listen. He could do nothing but angrily reply, "Your Lordship, if you have words, please speak."
Slowly enunciating each word, I spoke, "I will allow the general to depart. What does the general think?"
Duan Wudi received a huge shock. However, he very quickly revealed a dry smile and responded, "Presumably, Your Lordship has spoken in jest. I am untalented. If I were in Your Lordship's position, I would definitely not allow a bird trapped in a cage to escape."
Walking to the table, I sat down and waved my hand to indicate the dismissal of everyone aside from Li Shun. Then I gestured for Duan Wudi to sit down opposite me. Duan Wudi hesitated slightly before walking over. Having long set aside everything, he ultimately had decided to let himself go.
Smiling, I spoke, "There is no need for me to avoid taboo subjects. In the past, I was disloyal when I turned from Southern Chu and pledged my services to His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong. Now that I have married Princess Changle of Ning—a subject taking a monarch's daughter—it is a matter of even greater disloyalty and unrighteousness. Later generations will certainly have words of condemnation for me and it is possible that my name will go down in infamy. However, I care not for my own name and reputation, because my choice was made willingly and not out of reluctance."
Hearing Jiang Zhe speak these words, Duan Wudi could only listen silently.
Recalling the past, reminiscence appeared on my face as I continued, "In reality, it wasn't the case that I did not have any concerns about my reputation and integrity. General Duan must know that I was taken captive and brought back to the Yong capital by the current Emperor of Great Yong."
Duan Wudi nodded his head and replied, "This general is aware of this. At the time, Your Lordship was a commoner. At the time, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, personally extended an invitation and was refused before Your Lordship was taken captive and brought to the Yong capital. Reportedly, His Imperial Highness moved Your Lordship with his sincere treatment, respecting and esteeming you in every way. That was how Your Lordship changed your mind and willingly began to serve Yong." When he reached the end, the mocking in his words was quite heavy.
Not paying it any mind, I indifferently continued, "In reality, how could the so-called consideration and kindness to men of talent cause my resolve to waver? Which monarch in this world isn't like this? In the beginning, they would treat their subjects as close blood relations. Once everything had been settled, they would get rid of them once they had served their purpose. Some muddleheaded monarchs would even harm their subjects before everything had been settled. At the time, although I had some everyday worries, there was no need for to serve anyone. As a result, I was determined to not serve the Prince of Yong, even going so far as to cause all kinds of problems forcing His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, to have no choice but to give up. With His Imperial Highness's abilities, he naturally would not set me free lightly and had no other option but to confer death upon me."
Hearing this, Duan Wudi inhaled a deep, cold breath. Learning such a secret, he could not help being interested and so asked, "Then how did Your Lordship enter into His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong's service?"
Proudly, I answered, "I of course had a clever way of preserving my life. Of the hegemons in this world, the majority of them believe that those who comply thrive, while those who resist perish. I forced the Prince of Yong to bestow me with poisoned wine in the hopes of faking my death to escape. When the time came, I could wander the world free and unfettered. Once I had grown sick of the normal world, and if I still lived, I would have sought out a peaceful place to live the rest of my life. That would have been wonderful."
Speaking to this point, I could not help revealing a look of regret as I carried on, "Unexpectedly, although I, Jiang Zhe, was confident that I could read people's minds, I still was outdone by His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong. To my surprise, as everything hung in the balance, His Imperial Highness actually poured out the poisoned wine and filled his golden helmet with wine to see me off. I am untalented, but know that there are few who can match me in this world. For His Imperial Highness to be able to let me off so lightly, in the face of such a benevolent master, how could I betray a virtuous cause out of trivial considerations? That is why I ultimately submitted to His Imperial Highness. Henceforth, we became ruler and subject, and I returned to my proper surroundings to this day."
A look of great admiration flashed across Duan Wudi's eyes. However, he quickly replied, "Although Great Yong's Son of Heaven is benevolent, he is ultimately not my Northern Han's master. If Your Lordship believes that you can persuade me with this tale, please forgive me for not appreciating your kindness."
Shaking my head, I smiled and stated, "That is not the case. General's unyielding will can be said to be matchless. I know that the general will never betray Northern Han and its people. I know full well that General's request to be allowed to commit suicide is because you do not believe that I will permit General to depart."
Duan Wudi was silent and did not respond. This was something that went without saying. I tranquilly continued, "Indeed, the general is worthy of your reputation as a famous general and is faithfully loyal to Northern Han. No one would believe that I would let General off. However, I just remembered what happened to me in the past. On that day, it was seemingly impossible that His Imperial Majesty would spare my life out of his affection for the talented. I deeply admire General's character. What's impossible about setting you free today? That is why as long as the general agrees to one condition, I will allow the general to depart."
The complex combination of suspicion and hope intermingled in Duan Wudi's eyes. However, he remained silent. Once again, I affirmed, "The Heavens can see my intentions! General needs only agree to one matter and I will allow the general to depart."
After hesitating, Duan Wudi inquired, "Your Lordship, what are your instructions? However, there are some things that I cannot agree to."
Understanding full well, I responded, "You do not have to worry. I will not make things difficult for you. I know that you intend to go to Southern Chu by way of Binzhou. If you agree to not go to Southern Chu, I will allow you to leave."
Frowning, Duan Wudi replied, "The Eastern Sea will become a part of Great Yong sooner rather than later. How can I stay in the lands of the enemy?"
Hearing his words, I knew that he was already tempted and thus answered, "Although that is the case, there are many other places you can go besides Southern Chu. In recent years, numerous ships from the Central Plains have sailed out to sea, either going to Gorguryeo or to the various southern barbarian states. If General is willing to depart from the Central Plains, naturally never opposing Great Yong again, I will allow you to leave. I can explain myself before His Imperial Majesty and His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi. What does the general think?"
Duan Wudi was silent for some time. If Northern Han fell, what was the point if he fled to Southern Chu? If Northern Han did not fall, what did it matter if he were overseas? Making up his mind, he nodded his head and said, "This general agrees to this condition."
I smiled faintly and replied, "Since that is the case, General is free to go to Binzhou to seek out the young owner of the Hai Family Shipping Company, Hai Li. He will arrange everything for the general."
With doubts, Duan Wudi asked, "Your Lordship's stratagems frequently do not leave any leeway. Why are you so lenient towards me? Could it truly be that Your Lordship thought of what happened in the past because of me?"
I rose to my feet. Xiaoshunzi helped tie an azure cloak around my shoulders. Walking to the exit, I paused and placidly answered, "Usually when I employ strategies, I exploit others' shortcomings. Only this time, I actually exploited General's loyalty and compassion. This is probably why I feel extremely guilty towards the general. In the future, you will have gone far from the Central Plains, adrift and without anything. This kind of life is only slightly better than death. This cannot be considered lenient. However, General must remember that if you are deluded in thinking to exploit my kind intentions, my retribution will make it too late for General to have regrets. Although General Su has severed ties with you, her pleading for leniency on your behalf shows that she still possesses her former feelings. If you do not wish to implicate her, it is best that you stay a few years overseas. When the time comes, Northern Han will already be dead and there will be no harm if you wish to return."
Stupefied, Duan Wudi stood at the center of the dining room. As the sound of departing horses reached his ears, he was filled with complex emotions. Slowly picking up his sword, he returned it to its sheathe. Was the thin, bright light in the darkness another world?
Sitting on my horse, the corner of my eye swept past Su Qing traveling the entire way with her head down and not speaking. It could be assumed that she still had feelings for Duan Wudi. It was only that the two were separated by national enmity and personal hatred which made it impossible for these two former betrothed to come back together.
Smirking, I gazed north. These last several days, the emperor had consecutively issued four secret edicts summoning me to Xinzhou for an audience. Now that the army had surrounded Jinyang, the offensive on Jinyang would begin once the matter in Daizhou had been resolved. The Zezhou army now extraordinarily harmonious and with no further internal issues, my duties had concluded. Having not seen one another for years, it was no wonder that the emperor was impatient, summoning me for an audience. I could defy an imperial decree once or twice, but not over and over again. It was best that I hurry along.
Lifting my head, I looked up at the sky. Feeling the cleansing wind and seeing the wispy clouds, I felt carefree and relaxed. Only, I wondered whether that young fellow, Chiji, was still alive.
Footnotes:渺无人烟, miaowurenyan - idiom, lit. remote and uninhabited; fig. deserted, God-forsaken These are all excerpts from the famed poem entitled Encountering Sorrow or The Lament (离骚) by the famed poet Qu Yuan (屈原), of the Warring States Period. 惊天动地, jingtiandongdi - idiom, lit. frightening the Heavens and shaking the Earth; fig. earthshaking 破罐破摔, poguanposhuai - idiom, lit. to smash a pot to pieces just because it's cracked; fig. to act recklessly out of hopelessness 纸包不住火, zhibaobuzhihuo - idiom, lit. paper can't wrap fire; fig. the truth cannot be hidden forever