Volume 6, Chapter 8: Among Green Willows and Fragrant Grasses1
In the seventh year of Longsheng, Wudi returned to the Central Plains and secluded himself in the mountains between Qin and Zezhou, building a house in General Tan's former homeland, never leaving before his death.—Northern Han Dynastic Records, Biography of Duan Wudi
After Ji's death, the state collapsed. The Yong Emperor ordered the Ministry of Rites compile a list of the names of deceased Northern Han generals, permitting them to enter the Martial Temple and receive sacrifices every spring and autumn. Because Ji was too murderous, the Ministry of Rites petitioned that he be excluded. The Yong Emperor agreed.—Northern Han Dynastic Records, Biography of Tan Ji
After Lin Bi and Xiao Tong departed, Lu Yun heard a frigid voice state, "Princess Bi seems to know as well."
"It's probably because Li Lin wasn't tight-lipped enough and grumbled about it to Princess Bi," replied Jiang Zhe with a laugh. "There's no harm. You can go."
Afterwards, Lu Yun heard the sound of someone pushing the door open and departing. He was delighted. Jiang Zhe was left alone. This was a Heavens-sent opportunity. After some more time had passed and seeing that Jiang Zhe had no intention of turning in, Lu Yun quietly dug himself out from under the bed. He saw Jiang Zhe sitting there with his back turned, one hand resting on a small square table, the other holding a scroll. Slowly, Lu Yun made his way forward. Just as he was about to carry out the assassination, Lu Yun caught sight of Jiang Zhe's right hand, the forefinger tapping gently on the table in an extremely relaxed and carefree manner.
Enlightened, Lu Yun suddenly threw aside his dagger and prostrated himself on the ground. In a clear voice, he declared, "Lu Yun pays his respects to Grand-teacher."
Jiang Zhe suddenly stopped tapping his finger and turned around at leisure, saying, "Get up. You've experienced much on your journey."
When their eyes met, Lu Yun caught sight of the gentle serenity of Jiang Zhe's eyes and that deep, knowing gaze. He even seemed to see the hint of a smile on this graying and yet ruddy man. He felt like an enormous weight had been taken off his mind. As he had expected, this man before him knew about his exact whereabouts.
Seeing the ill-fitting clothing that Lu Yun wore, I smiled and called out, "Xiaoshunzi, come in."
The door to the pavilion opened once again and Xiaoshunzi walked in. The passage of time had not left any obvious indications on his body. There was no change to his frigid, snowy complexion from seven years ago. The only change was to his set of eyes, increasingly profound and calm. Shooting a chilling look at Lu Yun, he asked, "Why is the young master showing this boy mercy? He cannot be forgiven for planning the young master's assassination. Even if the young master does not wish to deliver him to the Bright Inspection Department, he should still have a taste of young master's 'Seizing Spirit Acupuncture' technique."
Seeing the awkward look on Lu Yun's face, I smiled and responded, "Xiaoshunzi, there's no need to scare him. How could he have hidden underneath General Duan's pavilion without being discovered for so long without the protection of your internal energy? Based upon his paltry martial arts, it would have been impossible for him to hide from General Duan and Princess Bi, let alone Marquis Su and Xiao daren."
"Although he was soaked for a long time in the cold water, this boy was able to hear many secrets," said Xiaoshunzi, smiling. "If not for the following conversation being unsuitable for his ears and and that I pitied his anxiety, I would not have extinguished those lamps to allow him to get away."
Shocked, Lu Yun looked at Xiaoshunzi. Although he knew that he had fallen into Jiang Zhe's machinations, Lu Yun would never have thought that he had been followed the entire way. No wonder the lights were extinguished at such a timely moment. If he were discovered, they would almost certainly silence him. After all, they would not want anyone to know the contents of their conversation. Lu Yun was under no illusion that any of those individuals were merciful and lenient. Realizing this, he promptly saluted Xiaoshunzi to give his thanks. Smiling, Xiaoshunzi accepted the acknowledgement.
After paying his respects, Lu Yun could not stop from asking, "Grand-teacher, when did you realize this junior's intentions?"
"When did you realize I had set a trap in wait for you?" I countered with a smile.
Lu Yun respectfully answered, "This junior frequently heard Father speak of Grand-teacher's actions. Father once said that Grand-teacher liked to tease him during his spare time. In the beginning, Father would repeatedly be duped. Eventually, he avoided being tricked seven or eight times out of ten."
I recalled the past and the unsolvable riddle. That fellow was plainly quite stupid and yet it was impossible for me to tease him to my heart's desire. Although I dared not go too far because of my status as his teacher, it was obvious that fellow had some secret methods. Though brimming with curiosity, I feigned indifference and inquired, "Oh, so it was a secret method passed to you by your father. So what mistake did I make?"
Naturally, Lu Yun did not keep me in suspense. He said, "Father said that whenever you intended to tease someone, if your hand is on a table, you would always tap your finger on the table. As a result, as long as one pays attention to this detail, he won't be fooled regularly."
I stared blankly for a moment. So that was how Lu Can would always be able to escape whenever I intended to pit myself against him in the study. All of it was a result of my youth and inability to hide my intentions. In the present day, it wouldn't be so easy to see through my intentions. As for being caught by this boy, it was because I didn't view him with too great importance. Feeling a bit relieved, I said, "You are too green to play the part of an assassin. Mistakes were discovered as soon as you entered Chang'an. Let's ignore this for the time being. Your father and I became acquainted twenty years ago. At the time, he was about your age. Although your appearance is only fifty to sixty percent similar to his current looks, you are an exact replica of him in his youth. Even if you'd achieved your wish and gotten close to me, I would've recognized you at first sight. You are Lu Can's son and are known for your valor. Great Yong's Bright Inspection Department and the Intelligence Management Section have had your likeness on file for a long while now. Were it not for my orders to have people cover this up, you would not have passed the test at the Garden of the Golden Valley."
Lu Yun hung his head in embarrassment and did not speak. He now understood how childish he had been.
I continued to attack him psychologically. "You are a descendant of a family of generals. How could you perform such an absurd act? A child deluded into thinking he can assassinate an important minister of Great Yong. If you fail, you lose your life in the Yong capital. Even if you succeed, wouldn't the specter of war between the two countries be stirred? Even if your father can conceal the truth, he can't protect you. Could it be that you believe that Southern Chu wishes to go to war with Great Yong?"
Lu Yun was dripping with cold sweat. He realized how big of a mistake he had made. If Great Yong used this matter as an excuse to start a war, he would have transgressed against Southern Chu. His father would also be implicated.
I sighed and said, "Do you think your father is so respectful towards me because of our personal relationship? Do you know that I nearly lost my life at his hands? Your father merely hopes that when Great Yong's armored cavalry rides south, I won't participate in the planning and strategizing because of our old association. It is better to maintain a shred of friendship rather than completely fall out. I've already guessed that you've come to help your father eliminate this master of his who betrayed his ruler, and that you were full of youth and vigor. In the future, you will cause countless problems for your father.
"That's why I arranged three tests. If you could pass them, your virtues would be self-evident and I would spare your life, once. If you were truly reckless and incompetent, I would've taken your life even if earns me your father's resentment. In Southern Chu, your father is walking on thin ice. If you cannot understand his difficulties, it is better that you die."
As if awakened from a dream, Lu Yun found that all of his previous questions were answered. His father was so respectful toward this man not because of their old relationship but guilt. Thinking of his previous misunderstanding and criticism of his father, Lu Yun felt burning, painful regret and collapsed to the floor, weeping.
Seeing that this young man had recognized the error of his ways, my speech slowed greatly as I said, "I arranged three tests. The first was Li Lin. He summoned you for an interview in the Garden of the Golden Valley. If you failed to secure his attention, then your martial skill would have been just average. Since you had the audacity to come to try and assassinate me, you would clearly be exceptional. It would be best if you were killed, so that you didn't implicate your father. However, as expected, you can be considered a young hero. Hitting a willow branch with an arrow from a hundred paces is quite exceptional at your young age. You passed this first test smoothly and easily.
"The second test was at the Overlooking Wave Pavilion. I wanted to see if you would be ruthless enough to harm Roulan. If you were so vicious, Huo Cong would have taken care of you on my orders. Unfortunately, Roulan is my daughter, as you know. In order to avoid meeting you head on, she jumped into the water of her own volition. As such, you can be considered to have barely passed the second test.
"The third test was tonight. If you failed to consider swimming upstream to find my pavilion, then your intelligence would be lacking. I would've punished you for your sins. Since you had the courage to come to Great Yong to assassinate me, if your martial arts, intelligence, and character were lacking, then it would be nothing if I were to have you killed. However, your luck was pretty good, and you passed all three tests. At present, your life is safe and you are worthy of being Lu Can's beloved son."
Stemming his tears, Lu Yun listened with his face flushed scarlet. He could not help but rejoice that he hadn't harmed Roulan. However, another sentiment rushed to the forefront of his mind as he apprehensively asked, "Grand-teacher, do all of them know of my identity?"
Smiling, I said, "What? Do you no longer have the face to meet them? Although they didn't know at the time, they all know now. Why do you think Li Lin was so infuriated yesterday?"
Lu Yun once again felt shame and sorrow. Although he considered Roulan and company as his mortal enemies before today, he had more favorable sentiments for Huo Cong and Roulan, and even Li Lin and Li Jun, and had broadened his amity. Since the assassination had utterly failed, he opened his heart to them. However, he worried that they would look down on him.
Seeing the look on his face, I celebrated on the inside. The reason I had gone to so much trouble to have the children arrange this trap was solely out of the hope that Lu Yun's thoughts and resolve would be influenced, and perhaps even Lu Can's will. This kind of subtle sentiment would probably be useless in the face of national and personal enmity. However, when all of that disappeared, such subtle influence could play a decisive role. I deliberately allowed Lu Yun the opportunity to see Duan Wudi so that the Lu family's decision-making would be changed at a critical juncture. I held out no hope that Lu Can would defect. I only wanted to ensure the continuation of his family line. Of course, I couldn't speak of this selfish motivation openly and had to rely on these imperceptible and subtle measures.
Lu Yun was restless from shame. He had come north out of hostility. However, after arriving at Chang'an, he discovered that Jiang Zhe wasn't as shameless as rumored in Southern Chu. If Jiang Zhe were such a man, it would have been impossible for him to be esteemed and respected so. Even those who feared him felt respect and admiration. In addition, if Jiang Zhe were as greedy for high standing and great wealth as rumored, why was it impossible to see any hints of hedonistic shortcomings from either Roulan or Huo Cong? In reality, Lu Yun's hatred for Jiang Zhe had long dulled. It was only that he hadn't noticed. Earlier, when he was preparing to assassinate Jiang Zhe, how could he have discovered Jiang Zhe's small movements if he was filled with killing intent?
However, gazing at Jiang Zhe's scholarly and distinguished figure, Lu Yun found it difficult to express any affection. After all, this man was a major figure in Great Yong. Having spent days by Li Lin's side, Lu Yun could figure out that Great Yong would march south in the near future. When the time came, based upon this man's cruel stratagems, his father would likely be consigned to eternal damnation. His heart aching, tears began to flow once again. This time, there was no sound, merely the feeling that his heart was being cut apart. His focus on Jiang Zhe became fuzzy and blurred. But he couldn't say a single word.
I sighed sadly, understanding the conflicting feelings he felt. However, as his father and I served different masters, in the event of war, there was nothing that Lu Can or I could do, let alone a child. As I extended a hand, Xiaoshunzi immediately placed a small jade bottle into my palm. Walking forward to raise Lu Yun to his feet, I stated, "Cold has pierced your very bones. If it isn't treated, it will become the root of illness. This bottle of medicine will be able to help stabilize and improve your cultivation. Take a pill every night for a month. Any medication that remains, keep on your person. If you've recently healed from an injury, taking this medication will be of help. The day before yesterday, your father dispatched trusted subordinates to see me. A father knows his son best. He also guessed that you would come to assassinate me and so dispatched people in search. They are waiting for you at my residence. Once you've met them, go back. Do not let your father worry because of you. A child like you can't intervene in the war between our two nations."
Lu Yun felt himself relax. He worried that he would be used by this man in front of him to coerce his father into surrendering. Although he knew that his father wouldn't yield, Lu Yun knew that this would be used to slander his father. Besides, Lu Yun knew that his father would be sad and grief-stricken. If this were the case, Lu Yun wouldn't be able to rest easy even if he died. Raising his head to gaze into those two eyes filled with affection, Lu Yun threw himself into Jiang Zhe's embrace and began to sob.
Holding this youth in my embrace, I was overcome with a swirl of emotion. It wasn't that I couldn't utilize his presence in Chang'an to employ the stratagems that were my specialty. However, it was ultimately a tinge of selfish motivations that caused me to abandon such an idea. When Great Yong's armored cavalry swept aside all resistance, I hoped that this child would remain alive and recall that he had someone to rely upon in Chang'an.
The next day, Lin Bi was the first to depart from Nanshan. Li Lin naturally accompanied her. However, Lu Yun was detained at Jiang Zhe's side. Lu Yun wanted to find the opportunity to voice his apology to Li Lin but was completely ignored. After helping Lin Bi onto her carriage, Li Lin departed without any second thoughts. Lu Yun felt sad and disappointed.
Su Qing and Huyan Shou were the next pair to depart. Lu Yun dearly wanted to meet this marchioness famed throughout the lands and found an opportunity. When he saw her, even though he hadn't fully matured, Lu Yun was stunned. Purer than any snow, more beautiful than any frost; it was the charm of a cold plum standing proudly amid the ravages of frost and snow. As for the general by her side, he was eclipsed regardless of appearance or temperament. Lu Yun could not help but question why Su Qing had selected this kind of husband. As it happened, Lu Yun saw Su Qing turn her head to speak to her fiancé. Lu Yun saw the single-minded devotion of someone protecting a priceless treasure. As for the expression on Su Qing's face, it was gentle and serene. Although Lu Yun didn't understand completely, he knew that only this kind of man could protect a woman who had suffered for half her life.
Lu Yun didn't see Duan Wudi depart, because he left from Nanshan that afternoon with Jiang Zhe. Returning to Jiang Zhe's residence, Lu Yun finally saw the subordinates his father had secretly dispatched. With shame and guilt, he was tactfully reprimanded by two of his father's subordinates who had watched him grow up. The next day, everything was packed. Lu Yun didn't see Roulan or Li Lin before they set off, and was seen off only by Huo Cong to Baqiao.
Seeing Lu Yun full of earnest hope and some guilt, Huo Cong smiled. Snapping off a willow branch, he handed it to Lu Yun and said, "Don't take offense. They are young and so hotheaded. In reality, they are only angry that you were able to conceal things from them and don't blame you."
Taking the willow branch, Lu Yun replied with a sigh, "Thank you greatly, Big Brother Huo, for your care these days. I had hoped to return the bow that the Prince of Jia presented me. Now, I can only ask Big Brother Huo to do so."
Lu Yun then handed the bow presented him by Li Lin to Huo Cong. Huo Cong sighed, "There's no need. The Prince of Jia isn't so petty."
Insistent, Lu Yun said, "Please communicate to the Prince of Jia and the Princess of Jiaping that Lu Yun didn't deceive them intentionally. After departing on this long journey, we'll likely never meet again. Lu Yun is unable to return the Prince's great kindness and can only return this bow. As for the Princess, please apologize on Lu Yun's behalf."
Just as Huo Cong was about to respond, dust kicked up in the distance. His mind racing, Huo Cong turned to look. With a smile, he said, "If there's anything you want to say, you can tell them directly."
Shaken, Lu Yun looked up. Weren't the ones galloping over Li Lin and Roulan? He was warmed to the point of nearly shedding tears. As the two horses came to a stop before the pavilion, Li Lin and Roulan leapt off. Casting aside the bridles, they walked before Lu Yun.
Glancing at the bow in Lu Yun's hands, Li Lin blasted, "When did this Prince take back those things given away? It's nothing more than a lousy bow. Don't tell me that you won't accept it?"
After glancing at Li Lin, Lu Yun handed the bow to his father's subordinate. Then he stepped forward and saluted, declaring, "Much thanks to Your Imperial Highness for your kind consideration over these days. Lu Yun concealed much and hopes Your Imperial Highness will forgive him."
Smiling bitterly, Li Lin replied, "Fine. If it wasn't for those who were helping you, how could this Prince have been fooled for so long? This isn't your fault, since there were those who were helping you." Li Lin glared at Huo Cong before looking at Lu Yun with a hint of regret. He continued, "How could you be General Lu's son? If it were someone else, this Prince would've definitely retained you. My Imperial Brother appreciates you greatly. There are some things I don't need to say for you to understand. Perhaps we'll encounter each other on the battlefield. When the time comes and you are defeated by my hand, you must not seek death."
Lu Yun forced a smile. How could he not understand the current state of affairs? While the descendants of Great Yong's leadership were eager for war, those of Southern Chu were debauched. The majority of them lived in a drunken stupor. However, Lu Yun was a direct descendant of the Lu family. How could he yield? Raising his head high, he declared, "Your Imperial Highness's words are mistaken. Although my Southern Chu is weak, we still control a vast swathe of territory. If Great Yong's armored cavalry dares to march south, I, Lu Yun, will don armor and go into battle. Even if I die, I will not allow my country to fall. Although Lu Yun has forsaken Your Imperial Highness's great kindness, if we are to meet on the battlefield, there will be absolutely be no cause for deference."
Looks of ire and esteem fought on Li Lin's face. Just as he was about to respond, Roulan seized the opportunity to step forward. Pushing aside Li Lin, she extended her right hand and said with a pretty smile, "There's no sign of that yet. Lu Yun, this Princess's golden headband is missing. After thinking it over, you're the only one who could have picked it up. Since you're going back, why haven't you returned it to me?"
Lu Yun's face turned red. He glanced over, seeing Li Lin's angry look at hearing this information as well as Huo Cong's look of understanding. With reluctance, Lu Yun took the headband out of his bosom. The headband, still warm from Lu Yun's body heat, sparkled dazzlingly in the sunlight. Steeling himself, Lu Yun placed the headband in that slender, white hand. Taking back the headband, Roulan suddenly burst in laughter. This laugh caused Lu Yun to forget where he was.
Roulan shoved the headband back into Lu Yun's hands, proclaiming, "Nevermind, it's just a golden headband. I've heard that you have a younger sister. She should be seven this year, right? Gift this to her on my behalf."
Accepting the headband, Lu Yun didn't know what to say. At this moment, one of the subordinates urged, "Young master, we still have a lot of road to cover."
Jolted, Lu Yun shoved the headband back into his bosom. Clasping his hands together in salute, he bade farewell, "Take care. Lu Yun takes his leave."
He then turned and mounted his fine horse. Not even glancing at the expressions on the three's faces, he whipped his mount and rode off. As wind whistled past his ears, Lu Yun felt his vision blur as he galloped into the wind. Enduring the sorrow he felt, he thought, Dad, I'm coming back. I'm coming back to protect our country with you, to die without regrets.
Footnotes:绿杨芳草, luyangfangcao - lit. green of willows and fragrance of grass; likely a reference to a poem by the Song Dynasty poet, Qian Weiyan (钱惟演), entitled "Magnolia" (木兰花) that laments the demise of his political career as akin to the fleeting nature of plants