Volume 6, Chapter 1: The Young Have No Worries
On a bridge gazing down at the gently flowing water of spring,
I see the reflection of a green, cloudless mountain jutting straight as a clothes rack.
Within the Qin Park, fallen petals are wet with dew,
The new liquors of Baling are yet to be distilled.
The Azure Dragon gracefully coils around the twin palace towers,
The Crimson Phoenix bridal veil fords past the nine walls.
A great number of ancient travelers say farewell to their homelands,
Unable to bear to stop chanting about the setting sun.1
In the seventh year of Great Yong's Longsheng era, the twenty-first year of the sixty-year cycle, the harmonious feelings of spring were evident with the gentle breeze and warm sun in the second month of spring. The official road leading to Chang'an was bustling with an unending stream of horses and carriages. There were thousands of travelers coming and going.
Ever since the entire north was conquered in the first year of Longsheng, peace had been negotiated with Southern Chu. The two countries set their borders at the Yangtze River. Although violent undercurrents raged and neither side was as relaxed as they seemed on the surface, there were still seven years of peace.
The Great Yong court was well-ordered, leading to efficient government and harmony for the people.2 As the country grew more prosperous with each passing day, the capital of Chang'an flourished, especially as Great Yong developed trading routes with the Western Regions.3 In particular, the construction of several official roads made it quite convenient for the traveling merchants. With this, Chang'an had become the center of the world's commerce.
Within the endless stream of traveling merchants, a small and inconspicuous caravan plodded along taking its time. This caravan was an ad hoc formation made by small merchants. Considering the combination of the endless, long road and Great Yong having just recently unified the north, there inevitably were bandits. As a result, most merchants traveled together for the sake of safety. The leader of the caravan was a merchant surnamed Song, personal name Jian. He was just over forty years old and had about traveled all over China as a merchant. Because of his ability, efficiency, and straightforward temperament, he had been elected by everyone to lead the caravan. Seeing the willows on the Ba River, Song Jian raised his whip and pointed ahead, declaring, "Brothers, up ahead is Baqiao.4 Let's travel a bit further. We will be able to find an inn to rest at by sunset today."
These merchants were all excited and all voiced their agreement. Every one of them had fixed caravansary they stayed at in Chang'an. As long as they reached an inn, there were naturally those who would make all of the arrangements. With their destination in sight, even the calmest of individuals could not help but be excited. Among them was a youngster thirteen or fourteen years old who was the most excited. His eyes glittered as he looked ahead.
Seeing this, Song Jian could not help smiling slightly. This teenager was named Yun Lu and was not a merchant but a traveler who the caravan had run into on the road. On that day, Song Jia had been in a hurry and had run into brigands on the road. Although the caravan had escorts and hired hands, the bandits had blocked the way by loosing arrows. At the most critical moment, this young man had charged over on a horse and helped the caravan repel the brigands. Although this teen wasn't that old, his body was like a baby tiger, possessing boundless strength that allowed him to pull a bow that had the draw weight of three dan.5 His archery skill was frightening and he had killed countless ferocious brigands after loosing seven arrows. After the brigands had been driven off, after everyone in the caravan learned that the youngster was traveling north to Chang'an to find his relatives, all of them decided to bring him along upon his request. In any case, it wasn't that a big deal to bring along an additional person. In addition, this youngster's archery could come into handy.
The boy had tagged along over the course of the journey, displaying his diligence and cleverness. In addition, the boy had an optimistic and lively temperament. Although the caravan had only known him for a little over a month, he had already become the most popular person within the caravan.
However, when all was said and done, Song Jian was a worldly man. He had long ago noticed that this youngster was far from ordinary. Although this teen was quite clever and competent—and was capable of enduring hardships—judging from the frequent small mistakes the youngster had made at the beginning, it was clear the boy had never done such work before. In addition, although the boy had calluses on his hands and feet, they seemed to be the result of training martial arts. Moreover, even though he was young, he was literate. Although it was evident that this was this fledgling's first trip away from home, Song Jian only needed a few words to point out the sights along the journey for the youngster to fully understand and further get to the heart of the matter by asking detailed questions. If it weren't for the fact that Yun Lu was still so young, Song Jian would probably have suspected that he was a Southern Chu spy sent to Great Yong.
However, seeing the curious expression on this youngster's face, Song Jian smiled. No matter how useless the people of Southern Chu were, they would definitely not send such a youngster to pry for military intelligence. Most likely, this boy was a child of some aristocratic family who had run away from home. In addition, seeing that this youngster was capable in both civil and military, his family background was definitely eminent. However, this was not something that Song Jian had to worry about. As long as this teen was not a spy, then there would be no impact on their business.
Gazing at the scenery on the banks of the Ba River, Yun Lu was extremely delighted. It was a delight that came from finally reaching his destination after a long and difficult trek. However, because of a mood that he could not explain clearly to others, he almost could not bear heaving a sigh. From a young age, he had grown up in the flourishing land of Jiangnan and had gotten used to the sights and sounds of the south. On this trip, he had seen the charming and gentle, moving scenes of spring in the north. Moreover, it contained a vitality that roused one to vigorous action towards advancement. While the spring scenery of both lands could be said to be equal, Yun Lu was fonder of the north's heroic youngsters who galloped amidst the spring breeze over the south's sentimental scholars. Over the course of the journey, having passed through numerous cities, towns, and villages, Yun Lu felt that Great Yong's people were bold and heroic. Perhaps their lives were not as easy and comfortable as the people of Jiangnan, but they possessed an intense confidence and unyielding quality.
It was no wonder his father would lament frequently and would sigh incessantly whenever the powerful northern enemy was raised. Even though he was clearly only just over thirty, his father's temples were already graying. Before, Yun Lu had always found it strange why his father, one the most powerful men in Southern Chu and had prevented Great Yong from invading south, was always frowning with worry in private. Although Jiangnan was rich and comfortable, its army and population coveted peace. If facing the rigorously trained troops of Great Yong, Jiangnan would definitely be in for a difficult struggle.
Thinking of the rusting weapons of the royal guard in Jianye and recalling the training performed by the various garrisons and militia, these second- and third-rate troops were probably better than the majority of Southern Chu's army. In comparison, the only troops capable of confronting Great Yong head-on were probably his father's troops, the troops defending Jingxiang under General Rong and the troops defending Jiameng Pass under General Yu. It was no wonder his father, although on poor terms with that old fox, had the same thoughts when it came to negotiating a peace with Great Yong.
Yun Lu's real identity was as the eldest son of Southern Chu's Grand General Lu Can, Lu Yun. Back in the day, although Lu Can was naughty and mischievous, he did not have any power over his own marriage. At the age of eighteen, he followed orders and was married. The next year, his wife had given birth to Lu Yun. In the last fourteen years, he had three sons and one daughter. Of course, the most treasured was Lu Can's eldest son, Lu Yun. Regardless of appearance or temperament, Lu Yun was a chip off the old block. Although he was born amidst beauty and wealth, Lu Yun most liked archery, horsemanship, and weapons. Right after he learned how to walk, he had begun to learn martial arts from the family retainers. When he just turned ten, he was already capable of hunting ferocious beasts with his bow, and killing bandits with his spear, renowned as a tiger cub of a military family.
Originally, because of his identity, there was no need for him to sneak into Great Yong. This time, he had left home in order to assassinate someone. Speaking of, this all resulted from the first year of Longsheng—the twelfth year of Tongtai—when Lu Can seized advantage of Great Yong focusing its attention on the war with Northern Han, the recent pacification of the Prince of Qing's rebellion, and chaos in Hanzhong to seize Jiameng Pass. With that, Lu Can had become Southern Chu's military leader in name and in deed. Even Shang Weijun, who controlled the Southern Chu court, had some qualms. When the vile characters who struggled for power in the Southern Chu court saw that they could not shake Lu Can directly, they began to assail him from the flanks. The fact that Lu Can was formerly Jiang Zhe's student thus became the best way to attack him.
Formerly a Southern Chu Hanlin Academic, now surrendered to Great Yong and married to the former Southern Chu Queen, this disloyal and unjust Jiang Zhe had long become a target for denunciation within the Southern Chu court. Under the instigation of manipulators, the scholars of Jiangnan would inevitably curse Jiang Suiyun as a turncoat and traitor even when tipsy. As Jiang Zhe's disciple and someone who had never severed his ties with Jiang Zhe, Lu Can was also caught in the crossfire. Because of Lu Can's honorable contribution to safeguarding the country and the military authority in his hands, no one dared to directly denounce him. However, a hidden smear campaign never ceased, so much so that some mad scholars even stopped by to deliver letters to admonish Lu Can to uphold righteousness. This situation had persisted for a long time. However, even though Jiang Zhe had now become an important official in the Great Yong court as a marquis of the first rank and Commandant of the Attendant Cavalry, and was greatly trusted by Yong Emperor Li Zhi, the denunciations did not cease from Southern Chu.
What left Lu Yun especially dumbfounded was that his father would rather allow himself to be denounced and gossiped about than sever all ties with that man. Even to this day, Lu Can would still send an envoy to pay his respects every year. Even though that man's position in Great Yong was high and important, there was no need for such impropriety.
The intense discontent had built up in Lu Yun. At the beginning of this spring, Lu Yun accompanied his father to enter the palace to participate in a banquet. In the royal gardens, he had been surrounded by Shang Weijun's eldest grandson, Shang Wen, and a number of notorious children of big shots.6 In front of Lu Yun, they abused his father for having illicit ties with Great Yong. In anger, Lu Yun had battered the several hedonistic sons of powerful parents until blood flowed. This incident had serious ramifications. When he was interrogated by Lu Can, Lu Yun had remained silent without speaking and had been punished by Lu Can using family regulations. Lu Yun had lain in bed for a half a month to recuperate from the beating, and had been disciplined by being locked up and forced to think on his mistakes.
However, because of Lu Can's fierce temperament, he thought that if he assassinated Jiang Zhe, then nobody would reproach his father. As a result, he took advantage of his father's absence of inspecting the defenses along the Yangtze River to run away from home. Because of his young age and Lu Can's strict control, Lu Yun did not know many people but had surprisingly been able to pass through several layers of checkpoints, traveling north toward Chang'an.
Seeing the close-at-hand city of Chang'an, he was both excited and frantic. How was he going to assassinate that traitorous renegade under heavy security to clear his father's good name? Moreover, he could not allow his identity to be discovered. No matter how ignorant he was, he knew what kind of waves would ripple by assassinating the husband of a Yong princess and an important minister of the Yong emperor. Lu Yun had no wish to implicate his father. Perhaps he would imitate Nie Zheng of the ancient days. After successfully completing his mission, he would disfigure his face before committing suicide, and allow Lu Yun to disappear forever. Resolutely tightening his fists, Lu Yun spurred his horse and followed the caravan toward Chang'an. Lu Yun, full of killing intent, was intoxicated by the bright and beautiful radiance of spring.
Just after they passed Baqiao, the sudden and urgent pounding of hoofbeats came from behind. Lu Yun was once at his father's side as a spectator when his father was training cavalry. Just from listening, this was a well-trained unit of cavalry galloping. In addition, from the orderly and powerful hoofbeats, this was definitely an elite unit. Even the best troops under his father were at best their equal.
Lu Yun could not help but turn his head to look and saw a unit of cavalry in mismatched armor galloping closer. Lu Yun could not help sucking in a breath. This troop of cavalry were as imposing as wolves and tigers. Although the armor they wore were all different, the armor were all made of finest quality iron. From their postures, he could tell that this was an elite band. As Lu Yun stared, he saw that the foremost horseman had a banner in his hands that clearly displayed the character, Lin (林).
Lu Yun and the caravan all withdrew to the side of the road. In the blink of an eye, the unit of cavalry had already hurtled past. Lu Yun could distinctly see a young couple being escorted by the horsemen. The man wore a casual set of azure clothes and was roughly twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old. He appeared handsome and bore signs of having endured hardships. However, the man had a refined aura about him. As for the woman, she was roughly twenty-five or twenty-six years old. Her body was covered by a durable, fiery-red cloak. She was equipped with a longbow and white-feathered arrows. She was as beautiful as a flower and had a fiery manner. Amidst her gorgeous and charming appearance, she possessed a heroic spirit.
As the two of them brushed past, the young man unintentionally glanced over and looked at Lu Yun and was slightly startled. Lu Can shook inside. That man's refined gaze had an unspoken imposing aura, carrying with it a killing aura which was present but not displayed. This was an aura only possessed by remarkable generals. Almost as if she had noticed the young man's distraction, the woman also turned to look. Lu Yun once again felt himself quiver. The woman's imposing manner was even thicker, possessing the awe-inspiring presence of someone who commanded a magnificent army of thousands of soldiers.
In a flash, the unit of cavalry had already gone far. However, Lu Yun, who had been left behind, was greatly astonished. Could it be that all of Great Yong's generals were so imposing? No wonder his father was always frowning worriedly.
At this moment, Lu Yun heard his companions begin to discuss, "So the Crimson Clouds Princess has also come to Chang'an to offer birthday congratulations. It has already been several years since the passing of the Emperor Emeritus. This time, it's the Emperor's forty-fifth birthday. All of the news from Chang'an states that the celebrations this time will be magnificent. It is no wonder that Daizhou has also dispatched people to offer congratulations."
Who was this Crimson Clouds Princess? wondered Lu Yun. For the moment, he couldn't remember and could not help but ask Song Jian, "Uncle Song, who is this Crimson Clouds Princess? Why does she appear to be so majestic?"
Song Jian smiled and answered, "Little Lu, you've never come to Great Yong before so you don't know. Great Yong's Imperial Court is unlike Southern Chu's. Also, women can go into battle. The one who just passed us is the General of Daizhou, Lin Tong. She was Northern Han's Crimson Clouds Princess. After Daizhou submitted to Great Yong, the Yong Emperor was extremely courteous to the Lin family and had her retain her status as a princess. This Princess is not ordinary. Years ago, she commanded the Daizhou army to obstinately defend Yanmen to the last soldier, refusing to retreat even in the face of death. After Veteran General Lin died in battle, she obeyed her father's orders to submit to Great Yong. At present, although the family head of the Lin family is the Marquis of Dai, Lin Chengyi, all of the army and civilians of Daizhou only follow the orders of this Crimson Clouds Princess.
"The man by her side is presumably her husband General Wang Ji. General Wang originally hailed from Southern Chu and was formerly a retainer of the Marquis of Chu. He followed Marquis Jiang to Great Yong and fell in love at first sight with the Crimson Clouds Princess in the Eastern Sea. Unfortunately, because they served different masters, their love could not be fulfilled. Afterwards, when Great Yong went to war with Northern Han, the barbarians took advantage to invade Yanmen. When this General Wang learned that his beloved was fighting to the death at Yanmen, he abandoned everything to face death together with the Princess at Daizhou. Later on, before the decisive battle, Elder Marquis Lin wed the pair. Originally, General Wang was prepared to die in battle alongside the Crimson Clouds Princess. Fortunately, the Yong Emperor was tolerant and magnanimous, dispatching reinforcements in a timely fashion. Otherwise, both of them would probably have died at Yanmen."
Entranced, Lu Yun replied, "No wonder they possess such presence. So they are capable generals who fought against the barbarians. I have heard that Great Yong has dispatched troops to fight and attack the barbarians in the steppe every year. Presumably, the campaigns have been led by the Crimson Clouds Princess and General Wang. No wonder they have such thick, domineering killing intent."
"There are quite a few female generals in the Yong army," said Song Jian, nodding his head. "Ignoring all others, the Crimson Clouds Princess's elder sister, the Princess of Jiaping, is someone equally famous as a heroine alongside Princess Changle of Ning. One martial and one civil, both are some of the individuals who have shaken all levels of society. At the time, the Princess of Jiaping cooperated with General Long to battle with Great Yong to utterly defeat countless numbers of Great Yong's top generals. When they were surrounded by four hundred thousand Yong troops, this Princess was able to fight her way out. All of Great Yong say that the Emperor's wish to convince the Lin family to surrender and treated the Northern Han Royal Family with courtesy was mostly because of this Royal Highness.
"Did you know that before General Long committed suicide, he entrusted his funeral arrangements to His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi? Afterwards, this matter raised a hubbub. Although His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, greatly admired the Princess of Jiaping, the Princess refused to consent. It was only after the Prince of Qi persistently pursued for a few years that he was finally able to move the Princess and obtain her consent. Four years ago, when the Princess of Jiaping and the Prince of Qi married, the Yong Emperor bestowed the marriage, while the Emperor Emeritus and the Prince of Yongding, the former Northern Han King, personally oversaw the ceremony. That was a grand event that caused a sensation in the entire realm. Not only did the whole Great Yong Imperial Family and all of the important members of the Yong court attend, even many of Northern Han's former officials and generals also attended the wedding ceremony.
"The popular customs of Northern Han are exactly that ferocious. When Northern Han was subjugated, these people had no alternative but to return to civilian life or retire. None of them were willing to bend their knee to serve Great Yong. However, after this wedding, these individuals all returned to serve."
Lu Yun's complexion was somewhat heavy. This was something he knew. At the time, after his father learned of this, he had sighed deeply without end. On that day, Lu Yun did not yet understand. However, listening to Song Jian speak now, he understood. The wedding between the Prince of Qi and the Princess of Jiaping represented the fusion of the upper strata of Great Yong and Northern Han. With Great Yong flourishing, the impact was naturally making a bad situation worse for Southern Chu. It was no wonder that his father was so worried. In addition, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, was already a formidable opponent for his father. Combined with this Princess of Jiaping, the pressure on his father was even heavier. Besides, there was also General Pei Yun who stood against them deadlocked, separated by the Yangtze River.
Lu Can had no doubts about the Princess of Jiaping's abilities. Disregarding all rumors, from the valiance and formidableness of her younger sister, the Crimson Clouds Princess, he could tell that the Princess of Jiaping would definitely be even more outstanding.
At this moment, Song Jian continued, "Yun Lu, once you reach Chang'an, you will likely run into another legendary individual. She is the Marquis of Cheng, Su Qing. General Su originally hailed from Northern Han. However, in order to avenge her family, she pledged her services to Great Yong and served for many years as a spy in Northern Han. Reportedly, she made innumerable contributions. However, her identity was exposed and she was surprisingly revealed as a disciple of the Fengyi Sect rebels. Her master was supposedly someone who pursued the Yong Emperor for several hundred li and nearly succeeded in killing him. After this secret was revealed, many believed that no matter how magnanimous the Yong Emperor was, this General Su would be demoted into a commoner. However, who could have expected that the Son of Heaven's tolerance was as enormous as the ocean? Not only did the Yong Emperor not punish her, but he also bestowed a marquisate upon her. At present, General Su is the Vice Commander of the Stalwart Tiger Guard. She is responsible for guarding the Imperial Palace, deeply trusted by both the Emperor and Empress.
"Look, all these Northern Han women are extraordinary. All three of these women are capable of turning everything on their heads and yet all three willingly serve Great Yong. With this, you can tell that the civilian officials and military generals of Great Yong are even more capable. If Southern Chu did not have General Lu, the Yong army would probably have invaded south long ago."
Hearing this, Lu Yun could only sigh deeply at the enormous burden on his father's shoulders, understanding deeply. However, with people continuing to secretly slander and denounce him, Lu Yun was resolved to murder that man who had had caused his father to suffer countless humiliations, Jiang Zhe, no matter how high and important his status.
Just as Lu Yun was mentally making a solemn oath to himself, he heard additional galloping horses and the sound of melodious laughter like the ringing of silver bells floating over, carried by the wind. Lu Yun could not stop from looking in the direction of the laughter. From the fork in the road behind, seven riders were galloping over. Lu Yun gazed at the horsemen and had an urge to rub his eyes, widening his eyes to look carefully.
All seven horses were fine thoroughbreds which were one in a thousand. The three riders at the front were all teenagers, while the four horsemen behind looked like their escorting bodyguards. It was evident that they were youngsters from powerful families in Chang'an returning from a spring trip.
The rider in the center was mounted on a white horse and was an extremely elegant-looking youth, with long, shapely eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, and skin as pale as snow. The youth wore a set of light-yellow clothes and glowed with health and vigor. Lu Yun figured that the laughter came from this youth. On the left of the youth was a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old handsome teen. Although he was in riding attire, he seemed scholarly and intellectual. Even though they were galloping, there was not a hint of domineering in his appearance. The black-clothed youth on the other side of the yellow-clothed youth was substantially different. Although he was in his early teens, his complexion was frosty, seeming grave, stern, and uptight. His countenance contained a faint killing aura, making people tremble with fear.
Lu Yun's gaze focused on the yellow-clothed youth. No matter what, he could not pull back his eyes away. This young man dazzled like the brightest and most beautiful ray of sunshine in spring. The laughter was lively and did not contain the slightest bit of worry or distress. Upon seeing this youth, he could feel just how expansive the world was, how beautiful, lively, and dazzling life was. Lu Yun could not help but feel slightly envious. He was merely nursing a grudge and would most likely lose his life here. However, under the same sky, there was a similarly aged youth who was so merry and carefree.
Footnotes:This is a poem entitled, Poem Composed in Baling Circuit (灞陵道中作) by the Tang Dynasty poet Wei Zhuang (卫庄). Baling was another name for Yuezhou (越州), now present-day Yueyang (岳阳), Hunan (湖南). 政通人和, zhengtongrenhe - idiom - lit. efficient government, people at peace; fig. all is well with the state and the people 西域, xiyu - lit. Western Regions; refers to what is now Xinjiang and Central Asia 灞桥, Baqiao - one of the six districts that make up modern-day Xi'an (西安), Shaanxi (陕西) About 150 kilograms (over 330 lbs) 臭味相投, chouweixiangtou - idiom, lit. share the same rotten tastes; fig. birds of a feather, partners in notoriety