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Demi Gods & Semi Devils Book 5
XLIX- Worthless riches and glory, unpredictability of life, this life is absolutely dreadful!
Chinese title: 天龍八部 - 敝屣荣华 浮云生死 此身何惧Original novel written by Jin Yong (Louis Cha)
Wuxia Novel Fan Translation by justin13
DGSD Chapter 49: Worthless Authority The Circle of Life A Life without Fear
In the Imperial Palace of Dali, Duan Zhengming is ceding the throne to his Nephew Duan Yu. He advised Duan Yu on two things, one, love his citizens and two, accept good advice from others. In addition, he warned Duan Yu to never to edit the national policies or wage wars. At the same time, thousands of kilometres away north of Dali, in the capital of Great Song, inside Bianliang Palace, Chongqing Court inner chamber, the sickness of Grand Empress Dowager (Grandmother of Emperor) has taken a turn for the worse. She is giving her last instructions to her grandson, Emperor Zhao Xu: “Child, our founding ancestors went through indescribable hardships to create our Empire. Thanks to their excellent groundwork, we are able to enjoy days of peace. However, during your father’s regime, there were some new developments that almost took place. Till today, the common folks still retain some fear of these developments. Do you understand the reason behind this?”
Zhao Xu answered: “Child often heard from Granny, saying that Imperial Father took the advice of Wang Anshi and wanted to introduce new reforms. However, these reforms cause the people to suffer extensively.”
The dried and wrinkled face of Grand Empress Dowager moved slightly as she sighed: “Wang Anshi is educated and talented. Initially, he is not an evil man and his intention is to benefit the country and the people. However… Ai… However, your Father is anxious for results and demanded the reforms to be implemented instantaneously and speedily carried out. Unfortunately, some things cannot be rushed. More haste, less speed. In all the confusion, things ended up worse than before.”
As she spoke until here, she paused for a while and continued: “Furthermore, he does not appreciate dissent. He loves it when others sing praises of him, saying he is the Son of Heaven. When someone criticizes him for a bad decision and gives him an alternate suggestion, he would throw a tantrum. Many officials have been sacked or dispatched to faraway provinces as punishment. With this attitude, who would dare to offer an honest yet unfavourable opinion?”
Zhao Xu lamented: “Granny, it is a pity Imperial Father’s work is incomplete. All his commendable projects have been slandered by villains.”
Grand Empress Dowager was shocked. In a shaking voice, she questioned: “What… What commendable projects? What… What villians?”
Zhao Xu explained: “Imperial Father spearheaded the Crops stockpile reform, Horse management reform, Insurance reform, etc. Aren’t these reforms useful in building the nation’s wealth and strengthening our army? And yet we have these nincompoop scholars Sima Guang, Lu Gongzhu, and Su Shi coming in to disparage them.”
The countenance of Grand Empress Dowager took a change. She tried to force herself to sit up but her body is at its weakest state. Even when she tried to lift herself higher by one or two inches, she found it to be particularly challenging. Meanwhile, she was coughing non-stop. Zhao Xu commented: “Granny, do not be upset. You need to rest more and take care of your health.” Although he is giving advice, there is no tone of concern or love in his voice.
For a while, Grand Empress Dowager had a coughing fit. Gradually, it calmed down and she probed: “Child, you have been an Emperor for nine years. However, for these nine years… for these nine years, the real Emperor is Granny. In everything that you do, your instructions must come from Granny. You… In your heart, you must be very frustrated and full of hate for Granny, am I right?”
Zhao Xu cajoled: “Granny is acting on my behalf as Emperor because you adore me and is afraid I would be exhausted. All the subordinates listened to Granny; all the decrees were issued by Granny. Child is free and idle; what is bad about that? Why would I blame Granny?”
Grand Empress Dowager sighed once and softly revealed: “You are exactly like your Father, thinking you are clever and talented, and wanting achieve a major accomplishment. All along, in your heart, you have been hating me, I… Do you think I don’t know about this?”
Zhao Xu smiled and confessed: “Of course Granny knows about it. In the palace, the Commander of the Palace Guards is Granny’s trusted crony. In the Inner Court, the Head Eunuch is Granny’s confidante. Within the Imperial Court, all the high-ranking ministers are appointed by Granny. Besides obediently complying with Granny’s instructions, would Child dare to do anything or say anything that could be contradicting?”
Both her eyes staring at the top of the bed-curtain, Grand Empress Dowager predicted: “You must be waiting for this day all your life. Once I died of sickness, you… you can then showcase your capabilities.” Zhao Xu remarked: “Child is able to become Emperor because of Granny’s intervention. That year, when Imperial Father passed away, if not for Granny’s support, the senior officials of the Imperial Court would have appointed Prince Yong or Prince Cao. Granny’s immense debt of gratitude; Child would not dare to forget. However… However…” Grand Empress Dowager demanded: “However what? What do you wish to say? Just say it; there is not need to be wishy-washy.”
Zhao Xu replied: “Child has heard rumours, saying Granny chose Child as Emperor because Child is young and Granny can represent Child to rule over the Imperial Court.” He courageously said these words but his heart is thumping furiously. Stealing a few glances at the door, he identified the eunuchs stationed there as his trusted cronies. They will guard the chamber well and he was able to relax a little.
Grand Empress Dowager slowly nodded her head and commented: “Your words are not incorrect. I do want to run the country as my own. Over the past nine years, how did I fare?”
From his bosom, Zhao Xu produced a roll of paper and asked: “Granny, for the past nine years, the praises and commendations of Imperial Officials are numerous. If I repeat them, Granny would find it tiresome. We have a messenger from the North today, and he brought us a petition that was submitted from the Prime Minister of Liao to the Emperor of Liao. The petition mentioned about Granny’s governance. This is the private discussion of our enemy’s Imperial Court, is Granny interested to hear about it?”
Grand Empress Dowager sighed: “If they praise me, it is good, if they criticize me, it doesn’t matter too. I… I don’t think I can make it past tonight. I… I don’t even know if I can see tomorrow’s sunrise. The Prime Minister of Liao, how did he judge me?”
Zhao Xu spread open the roll of parchment and read: “In the petition, the Prime Minister made the following observations: Since *Curtain-politics begun, capable officials have been recruited and the new reforms have been discontinued. For the past nine years, the Court is free from corruption and the country is safe and prosperous. But formalizing ties, the Court is free from favouritism and even relatives do not enjoy special treatment. All the tribute items and valuables presented to the authority are transferred to the national treasury and not even a single object has been taken for personal use…” When he read up to this point, he paused for a while and could see the soulless eyes of Grand Empress Dowager suddenly glimmering with rays of joy. He concluded: “… This person is the female equivalent of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun!”
*(During Court Session, the Grand Empress Dowager will sit behind the Emperor, semi-concealed by a curtain. From TV shows, the curtain is not a cloth curtain but vertical rows of beads forming a partition. From that position, the GED will conduct the Court session via the Emperor. Emperor will be manipulated by her like a Puppet to a Puppet Master.)
Grand Empress Dowager murmured: “Female equivalent of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun! Female equivalent of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun! Even for these two Emperors, they eventually cannot escape the fate of death.” Out of nowhere, in her increasingly slow-witted brain, a light of inspiration was illuminated. She inquired: “Why did the Prime Minister of Liao Country start paying attention to me? Child, you… you must take note of this. They know I am dying soon and are going to take advantage of you.”
The young face of Zhao Xu glowed with pride. He disparaged; “They wish to take advantage of me? Humph, it is easier said than done. The Khitans have spies in Eastern Capital (of Song) and they knew that Granny is afflicted with serious illness; however, don’t we have our own spies in Upper Capital (of Liao)? We did get a copy of their Prime Minster’s petition, right? The Khitan officials are having a discussion, saying that when Granny… Granny has moved on from this world, if the Ministers and Generals remained the same; there are no new laws and the people are living a secured life, so be it. But if Child decided to… Humph Humph, act blindly without thinking… act blindly without thinking, they themselves will come and act blindly without thinking too.”
Grand Empress Dowager faintly enquired: “If this is true, are they sending their army southwards (to attack us)?”
Zhao Xu replied: “That is right!” Turning his body, he walked over to the window. Look at the Big Dipper shining in the sky, his eyes traced the formation and finally, gazing at the North Star, he murmured: “Our Great Song is packed with well-trained soldiers and abundant provisions. With our superior numbers, there is no need to fear the Khitans. Even if they do not move southwards (to invade), I may instead head north and challenge them! ”
Grand Empress Dowager is hard of hearing. She implored: “What did you say? Who are you challenging?” Zhao Xu strode back to her sickbed and elaborated: “Granny, Our Great Song population is ten times more than Liao Country. Our provisions are thirty times more than theirs, isn’t it? With ten against one, would we lose against them?” Grand Empress Dowager questioned in a trembling voice: “You wish to wage war against Liao Country? That year, even when the valiant and astute Emperor Zhenzong personally led an army against them, the end conclusion was the Agreement of Chanzhou. You… You dare to wage war against them?”
Zhao Xu was infuriated: “Granny has always despised Child, treating Child as if Child is still a breastfeeding baby who knows nothing about the world. Even if Child is inferior to Emperor Taizu and Taizhong, Child could definitely surpass Emperor Zhenzong.” Grand Empress Dowager whispered: “Even for Emperor Taizhong, he lost his battle against the Northern (Liao) Country and retreated with heavy injuries. The wounds did not heal, which led to his Imperial death.” Zhao Xu insisted: “These are separate matters and cannot be discussed concurrently. That year, we failed to defeat the Khitans, but that does not mean we will never be able defeat them.”
Grand Empress Dowager realised she has many things to convey. However, she can feel her strength gradually leaving her body and her eyesight is starting to cloud. With her mind mostly obscure, she found it challenging to speak out too. Still, in the depths of her heart, a persistent and clear message is throbbing relentlessly: “War is merciless, lives will be in peril, this confrontation must never take place.”
After some time, she took a deep break and slowly remarked: “Child, for these nine years, I have been monopolizing all the authority and did not spend any time analyzing situations with you. This is Granny’s fault. I always thought I have many more years to live and wanted to wait until you are older before exposing you to all of these. By then, you would have a better understanding. Unexpectedly… unexpectedly…” She made a few dry coughs and continued: “We do have superior numbers and ample provisions. But the people of Great Song are feeble compared to the bravery of the Khitans. Moreover, if war really breaks out, the battlefield will be lined with the remains of our soldiers and commoners. The casualties will be high, many properties and infrastructure will be destroyed. Under the sky, countless people will lose their families and their lives. There will be broken families everywhere. As the ruler, in our minds, we must always remember this word: Humanity. Let’s not even consider the unknown outcome of the war. Even if we are totally confident of victory, this war is better left unfought.”
Zhao Xu reminded: “Our sixteen prefectures of Yanyun have been seized by the people of Liao. Every year, we still have to pay tributes of gold and money. We are like their vassal state or worse, one of their tribes. As the Emperor of Great Song, how can Child endure this insult? Shall we be bullied by the people of Liao forever?” The more he spoke the louder he became: “That year, when Wang Anshi introduced the reforms, such as the Horse management reforms and Insurance reforms, these are meant to strengthen our country and our coffers, eventually redeeming the ridicule faced by our ancestors. As an Imperial descendent, by taking revenge for our forefathers, it is an act of great filial piety. For his entire life, Imperial Father has been working hard for the same reason, isn’t it? Child must continue Father’s unfinished projects, if anyone gets in my way, they will end up like this chair.” He suddenly pulled out a sword from his waist and chopped a chair beside him into two parts.
Except for leading the army to war or conducting a military inspection, the Emperor is unarmed. Witnessing this child abruptly pulling out a sword and chopping the chair, Grand Empress Dowager could not help but was greatly taken aback. In her semi-conscious state of mind, she thought: “Why is he carrying a sword? Is he here to kill me? Or does he want me to stop controlling him from behind like a puppet master? This Child is brave but reckless, I am going to force him to abdicate.” Although she is affectionate by nature, but after having complete authority for so many years, whenever she felt a threat to her power, she would instantly find a way to get rid of her enemy. Even family members will not be spared. In that split second, she forgot that she herself is at the end of her lifespan and would soon depart from world of the living.
In his mind, all Zhao Xu could think about is how to conquer his enemies and reclaim the sixteen prefectures of Yanyun. He fantasized himself riding a tall steed, leading a hundred thousand brave soldiers and overrunning Upper Capital (of Liao), forcing Emperor of Liao, Yelu Hongji to surrender and make a formal apology. Raising his sword high up in the air, he bravely declared: “The critical affairs of the Country were all ruined by a bunch of cowards and nincompoops. They called themselves Noblemen but are actually a bunch of greedy, selfish and gutless villains. I… I must punish them heavily.”
Grand Empress Dowager regained her clarity and thought: “This Child is the Emperor of the day. He has his own thinking and I can no longer manipulate him. I am an old lady on my deathbed. He is a young and vigorous Emperor. He is the Emperor. He is the Emperor.” She tried her best to speak as loudly as possible and praised: “Child, you have this strong ambition and Granny is happy for you.” Zhao Xu was pleased. Returning his sword into the sheath, he asked: “Granny, my words are correct, isn’t it?”
Grand Empress Dowager tested: “Do you know what is a surefire strategy that guarantees victory?” Zhao Xu frowned his brows and mused: “By picking capable generals, training tough soldiers, rearing sturdy horses and stockpiling our provisions, we can pit ourselves against the people of Liao on the battlefield. There is a good chance of victory but there is no guarantee.” Grand Empress Dowager suggested: “You, too, know that there is no guarantee of victory on the battlefield. Nevertheless, our Great Song can get them to yield without going to war.” Zhao Xu remarked: “By letting our people rest and governing the country with good policies, we can get them to yield without going to war. This is what you mean, right? Granny, this is the pathetic scholarly opinion of Sima Guang and the others. What good can they achieve from this?”
Grand Empress Dowanger sighed once and slowly advised: “Lord Sima is well-read and experienced. Why do you label his advice as pathetic scholarly opinion? You are the ruler of a country and must constantly study Lord Sima’s book “Comprehensive Guide for a Wise Ruler”. For more than a thousand years, the prosperity, decline, failure and demise of each dynasty is documented in this book. Our Great Song has fertile land and dense population. We outnumber the Country of Liao by ten to one. As long as war does not break out, another ten, twenty years later, we would be even stronger and richer. The people of Liao are brave and warlike. As long as we guard our borders well, they will soon be fighting among themselves. After a few internal conflicts, their country will be severely weakened. Two years ago, when the King of Chu rebelled, many of Liao’s soldiers were killed and injured.”
Zhao Xu slapped his thigh and recalled: “That is right. Actually, at that time, Child was thinking of leading an army up north and mount a pincer attack. Since the people of Liao are having an internal strife, they would find it difficult to deal with us. Ai, it is a pity we lost this once in a lifetime golden opportunity.”
Grand Empress Dowager scolded in a sharp voice: “You kept wanting to start a war with Liao. You… You… You…” She suddenly sat straight up with her right index finger outstretched, pointing ferociously at Zhao Xu.
When Grand Empress Dowager abruptly demonstrated a show of authority, Zhao Xu was so shocked he took three steps backwards, stumbling in the process. His hand on his sword hilt and his heart thumping furiously, he nearly fainted. He cried out: “Quick. Somebody come quick.”
When the group of eunuchs heard the summons of the Emperor, they dashed into the chamber at once. In a shuddering voice, Zhao Xu asked: “She… She… Look at her. What is happening?” Earlier on, his words are full of bravery and ambition, wanting to fight to death with the Khitans. Now, an illness-stricken old woman is demonstrating her authority and he was instantly shocked out of his wits and is at a loss of what to do. A eunuch took a few steps towards her and scrutinized her for a while. Gathering his courage, he sent out his hand to test for a pulse. He concluded: “Reporting to Emperor, Grand Empress Dowager’s ‘dragon’ body has ascended to Heaven.”
Zhao Xu was overjoyed and he laughed loudly, exclaiming: “Wonderful! Wonderful! I am the Emperor now! I am the Emperor now!”
Actually, he has been an Emperor for nine years; however, he was an Emperor in name only and lacks the accompanying authority. All his powers were held by the Grand Empress Dowager. It was at this moment when he is truly the Emperor.
With Zhao Xu personally in charge, the first thing he did is to demote Minister of Rites Su Shi to Dingzhou as the Prefectural Governor. Su Shi’s fame has spread all over the country and he carried all the heavy responsibilities. At loggerheads with Wang Anshi, he opposed the new reforms. Since the beginning of Grand Empress Dowager curtain-politics, she mainly relies on Sima Guang and the brothers, Su Shi and Su Zhe. Now that Grand Empress Dowager is dead, the Emperor has sacked Su Shi from the Imperial Court and sent him to manage the common folks instead. A worrying shadow was casted on the minds of the people. They imagined: The Emperor is going to implement the new reforms and cause misery to the populace again! Of course, there are some who are secretly delighted. When the Emperor resumed the reforms, there is an opportunity for them to get promoted and making a killing.
Presently, most of the positions in the Imperial Court are occupied by officials formerly appointed by Grand Empress Dowager. Hanlin Scholar Fan Zuyu petitioned: “The late Grand Empress Dowager has a penchant for fairness and equality. By sacking officials Wang Anshi and Lu Huiqing, the reforms are reverted back to traditional methods, thereby reversing the damage to society and turning our country away from danger and back on the path of peace. The disappointments faced by the people are now replaced by hope. As proven by the petition between the Prime Minister and Emperor of Liao: Southern Dynasty (aka Great Song) implements humane policies; we can guard Yanjing well and prevent any issues with the border forces. Your Majesty has been paying attention to our enemy country; by testing, we will know the results. Today, Your Majesty is personally involved; the villains will no doubt be shaken; and the greedy will temporary stop and observe further. Official (I) hopes Emperor will remember the tough times our ancestors underwent, as well as the hard work done by the late Grand Empress Dowager. Regardless of the inconveniences, no immoral personnel must be employed. By sticking to the good, the firm and the steady, with the external forces and the internal forces working hand-in-hand, you can govern with full righteousness and everything under the sky will be our good fortune!”
The more Zhao Xu read, the angrier he became. Throwing the petition on the table, he demanded: “Regardless of the inconveniences, no immoral personnel must be employed, these two lines are well-expressed. However, who is the righteous and who is the villain?” As he spoke, his eyes are fuming with energy as he stared at Fan Zuyu with hostility.
Fan Zuyu kowtowed and reported: “Your Majesty, please judge for yourself. When Grand Empress Dowager came into power, there are numerous petitions by officials and commoners, describing the reforms as inapplicable and harmful to the country. By following the will of the people, Grand Empress Dowager made changes to the policies. By sacking or removing the culprits behind the reforms, Grand Empress Dowager is serving her people. These sacked or demoted officials are naturally the villains.”
Zhao Xu coldly sniggered once and hollered loudly: “Those officials are sacked by Grand Empress Dowager; what have they got to do with me?” Waving his sleeve, he concluded the court session.
Zhao Xu is sick of meeting his officials. However, being new in power, it is inappropriate for him to sack the whole bunch of them. He immediately issued personal edicts and promoted Yue Shixuan, Liu Weijian, Liang Congzheng and others. He rewarded these men because they are his close associates and supporters. For several days in succession, he faked illness and refused to hold a court session.
A eunuch delivered a petition and the words are written with plump and powerful strokes. The sender is Su Shi. Zhao Xu noted: “That Big Beard Su has beautiful handwriting; I wonder what rubbish he has written.” The petition goes like this: Even at the border side, official is on alert. Unable to meet you before my departure, we are now miles apart. There are some things I wish to communicate but it is more difficult now.
Zhao Xu commented: “I purposely avoided you and your big beard. I never want to see you again in my life.” He continued to read: There is always something we can learn from history and our ancestors. Only when it is dark can you see the stars; only when you are still can you see what is moving. All the truths will be revealed to you. Your Majesty is more intelligent than other people, young and energetic…
Zhao Xu guffawed once and thought: This Big Beard is useless but he is good at flattery. By saying I am intelligent, young and energetic, he actually means I am young and naïve.
He continued to read: Official (I) is humbly advising Your Majesty to do nothing for now and spend time investigating the reforms. By weighing all the pros and cons, suitability and unnecessary, three years later, when the truth is out, you can take action on them. Afterwards, there will be no hatred from the people and Your Majesty will not have any regrets. From my perspective, if Your Majesty acts on the reforms now, it is too early. By waiting just a little longer, everything will be made clearer. Official is concerned there are some greedy officials who will advise Your Majesty to change quickly, because there are benefits for them. Therefore, Your Majesty must take note of this. By the time of the Agricultural Deity Temple blessing, the world will be a fortunate one.
Finished with the petition, Zhao Xu pondered: Everybody says Big Beard Su is a talented man with peak intelligence; the rumours are true after all. He predicted I am determined to emulate my late father and restart the new reforms. Thus, he came to hinder my plans and wanted me to wait for three years. Humph. ‘When the truth is out, you can take action on them. Afterwards, there will be no hatred from the people and Your Majesty will not have any regrets.’ He is simply putting it nicely but the meaning is still the same. He says that if I were to fast-track everything and go all out on the reforms, the people would bear hatred and I myself would experience regrets.
In a fit of anger, he tore the petition to shreds at once.
Days later, during Court, Fan Zuyu presented another petition: At the beginning of Xuning, officials Wang Anshi and Lu Huiqing introduced three new reforms which is a big shift from our traditional policies, allowing many villains to harm our country. Plenty of existing officials are removed from their Imperial Court positions and several new officials throughout the country are promoted into the Imperial Court. By deploying the army against borderland tribes, bad foreign relationships are created. The country is filled with despair and many people are homeless.
Reading up till here, Zhao Xu was infuriated. He thought: On the surface, you are disparaging Wang Anshi and Lu Huiqing, in reality, aren’t you reprimanding my Imperial Father?
He continued reading: Cai Que built prisons; Wang Shao dug rivers; Zhao Nao launched five creeks; Shen Qi disrupted transportation; Shen Kuo and the others revive our western conflicts with no less than two hundred thousand military and civilians casualties. The previous Emperor has expressed his regrets and demands the Imperial Court assign this blame to him personally.
The more read, the more furious Zhao Xu became. Skipping a few lines, he read: The people are suffering and society is in disorder. Fortunately, Grand Empress Dowager came in and salvaged the situation, allowing the people to find a solution to their haywire situation…
Reading up to this sentence, Zhao Xu cannot endure it any longer. Slamming the Imperial Dragon table, he stood up.
Zhao Xu is eighteen years old. Besides the authority of an Emperor, he also possesses the rashness of his youth. By suddenly throwing his tantrum in Court, his officials were traumatized. In a sharp tone, he censured: “Fan Zuyu, based on your petition, aren’t you defaming the late Emperor with evil language?” Fan Zuyu kowtowed relentlessly and replied: “Your Majesty, please judge for yourselves. Official (I) would never dare to do so.”
Exercising his authority for the first time, Zhao Xu was secretly pleased to witness his officials’ terrified expressions. His anger slightly subsided; he still maintained a fierce appearance on the outside. He roared: “The late Emperor is a gifted talent. With his excellent ambitions, he was ready to eradicate all the barbarians and unite the world. Unfortunately, he passed away at the prime of his life. With me continuing the leftover projects of late Emperor, what is there to be upset about? Yet, all of you are chattering nonstop and criticizing the reforms of late Emperor instead.”
Among the rows of officials, a senior minister presented himself. With a lean outlook, he carried an aura of authority. It turned out to be Prime Minister Su Zhe. Zhao Xu was annoyed as he thought: This person is Big Beard Su’s younger brother. These two brothers are partners in crime; nothing good can come out from either.
Su Zhe reported: “Your Majesty, please judge for yourself. The late Emperor has many good qualities and is more praiseworthy compared to our forefathers. For example, during his twelve-year reign, he refused to accept any honorary title. Junior and senior officials are full of praise for him but he always humbly reject these compliments. Even if he made some mistakes during his governance; it is only human to err. Father has begun a new legacy and the son will complete it. This is being filial to your ancestors.”
‘Humph!’ Zhao Xu snorted once and coldly asked: “Father has begun a new legacy and the son will complete it; what do you mean by this?” Su Zhe elaborated: “Let us use Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty as an example. By attacking the barbarians and constructing expensive palaces, he bankrupted the national treasury. By imposing tax on salt, steel, alcohol and roads, he is impoverishing the people. Unable to make a decent living, several rebellions were staged. When Emperor Wu passed away, Emperor Zhao inherited the throne and instructed Huo Guang to banish these rules, stabilizing the Han dynasty.” Zhao Xu snorted again as he thought: You are comparing my Imperial Father to Emperor Wu of Han!
Su Zhe noticed the displeased expression of the Emperor and realised he is in a perilous situation. He pondered: If I continue speaking and irritated the Emperor, he may order my execution in a fit of anger. But if I do not reflect the wishes of the people, the country will be in turmoil again. Tens of thousands of commoners will be miserable, hungry and cold. There would be homeless people everywhere. As a senior minister, how can I allow such an occurrence? Today, I shall risk my insignificant life to repay the deep gratitude of Grand Empress Dowager.
He continued: “During Later Han Dynasty, Emperor Ming wanted to find out the truth about his country. To draw a conclusion, he mistakenly believed some rumours spread by indecent soothsayers. By conducting an erroneous and ruthlessly investigation, many people lived in fear and horror. When Emperor Zhang came into power, he understood the gist of it all. By introducing humane and generous policies, the people are overjoyed and peace reigned once again. These are examples of sons’ finishing their fathers’ works. These are saintly acts of great filial piety.”
Su Zhe correctly guessed that although Zhao Xu was crowned Emperor at the age of ten, for the past nine years, he must obey every instruction laid out by Grand Empress Dowager, causing him to secretly accumulate hatred over the years. Now, he must have decided to destroy the legacy of Grand Empress Dowager and restore the reforms initiated by Emperor Shenzong. This is also a display of filial piety towards his father. As a result, he intentionally emphasized the words ‘These are saintly acts of great filial piety’ in his advice to the Emperor.
In a loud voice, Zhao Xu interrogated: “Emperor Ming of Han dynasty is an admirer of Confucian teachings, there is nothing deplorable about that. By comparing Emperor Wu of Han with late Emperor, what is your agenda? Are you opening defaming late Emperor? Emperor Wu of Han is an inferior military commander. In his twilight years, he even issued a bereavement decree self-censuring himself. His behavior is ridiculous and he was a laughing stock among his people. How can he be compared to late Emperor?” The more he spoke, the louder his voice grew. He was extremely agitated.
From the Official Platform, Su Zhe went to the centre of the Imperial Court and kneeled down, kowtowing perpetually and dare not speak again.
In the hearts of many senior officials, they thought: When the late Emperor introduced the reforms, many commoners are affected and are living an insecure life. Compared to him, Emperor Wu of Han is a better Emperor.
Nonetheless, nobody dared to speak up or debate on behalf of Su Zhe.
With a head of flowing white hair, another senior minister presented himself. He is named Fan Chunren. He calmly state: “Your Majesty, please calm down. Su Zhe’s words may have been inappropriate but that is an indication of his loyalty to Emperor. Your Majesty is still new in the matters of the Imperial Court; experienced ministers must be treated with respect and cannot be berated like servants. Furthermore, in his later years, Emperor Wu of Han regretted his past actions. By showing remorse for his wrongdoings, he cannot be considered bad Emperor.”
Zhao Xu argued: “There is a saying: Emperor Qin; Han Wu (Emperor). Emperor Wu of Han is perceived on the same level as the tyrannical Qin Shihuang*. Doesn’t that prove your theory wrong?” Fan Chunren explained: “Su Zhe is highlighting their circumstances and developments, not their personal character.”
(For more information about him, readers can look up another of my translation: A Step into the Past, OP Jean)
Listening to Fan Chunren’s debate, his wrath was appeased. He barked: “Su Zhe, come back!” From the centre of the Imperial Court, Su Zhe returned to Official Platform. He dare not occupy his previous station but instead kneeled down at the end of a row of officials. He pleaded: “Official has offended Your Majesty, I beg to be exiled to a faraway prefecture (instead of being executed)”
The same day, an edict was passed down. Su Zhe was demoted to Duanming Scholar and sent to Ruzhou to serve as the prefectural Governor. Unexpectedly, even a Prime Minister can be demoted to a minor prefectural role.
The Imperial Court affairs of Southern dynasty have been conveyed by spies to Upper Capital (of Liao). The Ruler of Liao, Yelu Hongji, learnt about the Imperial passing of Grand Empress Dowager and the young Emperor Zhao Xu demoting senior ministers. From these gestures, it is apparent to him that Zhao Xu is planning to restart the new reforms. Unable to hold back his joy, he instructed: “Prepare an entourage for Southern Capital (of Liao), I need to speak with Khan Xiao (Feng).”
Yelu Hongji added: “Southern dynasty has plenty of spies in Upper Capital, if they discovered I am heading to Southern Capital, they may take some precautions. Let us travel light and fast instead. There is no need to inform Southern Khan about our visit either.” At once, he led three thousand armoured troops and headed south. In light of King Chu’s recent rebellion, the Empress is personally staying behind and guarding Upper Capital. Another hundred thousand protective riders and soldiers will head south in several batches.
In less than a day, the Imperial Entourage has arrived at the outskirts of Southern Capital City. That day, accompanied by twenty odd bodyguards, Xiao Feng is hunting at the northern suburbs. When he learnt about the abrupt arrival of Liao’s Ruler, he raced his horse northwards in welcome. Identifying a large white banner with a yellow top some distance away, he immediately got off his horse and walked towards it. When it is near enough, he got onto his knees and paid his respects.
Yelu Hongji laughed boisterously and jumped off his horse, commenting: “Brother, although we are formally Ruler and Subject, we are actually blood brothers. It is not necessary for such a great show of respect.” Helping him up instantly, he cheerfully enquired: “Are there plenty of wild beasts?” Xiao Feng answered: “After days of bitter cold, the wild animals have fled southwards. After half a day of hunting, all we got were some grey wolves and musk deer, nothing extraordinary.” Yelu Hongji is extremely fond of hunting as well. He suggested: “Let us head to the southern suburbs then.” Xiao Feng informed: “The southern suburbs is the border between Southern dynasty and us. Official (I) is afraid to disrupt the friendship between the two countries and has strictly forbidden my subordinates from hunting there.” The eyebrows of Yelu Hongji frowned slightly and he probed: “So there is no pillaging too?” Xiao Feng responded: “Official has banned that as well.” Yelu Hongji proposed: “Today, we brothers are having a reunion. By breaking the rules once, there is no big deal.” Xiao Feng accepted: “Yes!”
The sound of horns filled the air. Yelu Hongji and Xiao Feng rode side-by-side southwards and took a detour around the city walls of Southern Capital. Behind them, the three thousand armoured troops are trailing. After riding for about ten kilometres, the armoured troops separated into east and west sections and spread out like a fan. By shouting at the top of their voices, coupled with the neighing of horses and barking of dogs, they are rustling the forest animals. As they close in from four directions, among the bushes, foxes and hares were disturbed out of their hiding places.
Yelu Hongji is not interested in killing these small creatures. After a prolonged period, there are still no sightings of large beasts such as bears or tigers. Disillusioned, he was about to express his disappointment when he suddenly heard sounds of yelling. From the southeast corner, ten odd men of Han-descent are running towards him. From their burly figures and dressing, they are woodcutters and hunters from Southern dynasty. Unable to herald any wild beasts, the soldiers of Liao knew their Ruler is displeased. Coincidently, in their encirclement, they managed to round up these ten odd southerners. By coercing with horses and battle cries, they forced the southerners in the direction of their Ruler.
Yelu Hongji was jubilant: “Great timing!” Raising his gold-glided and jade-embedded steel bow, he mounted a condor-feathered wolf-tooth arrow. A few sounds of ‘chi chi chi chi’ rang out as he fired with rapid succession. Without missing any of his targets, he shot down six men in the blink of an eye. The remaining southerners were stricken with fear and turned around, fleeing for their lives. However, with the Liao soldiers threatening them with sharp pikes, they were forced turn back again.
Xiao Feng cannot endure the sight any longer. He called out: “Your Majesty!” Yelu Hongji laughed; “The balance is yours. I want to witness the miraculous archery skills of my brother!” Xiao Feng shook his head and pleaded: “These men are innocent, please spare them!” Yelu Hongji chuckled: “There are too many southerners. Once we kill all of them, there will be peace under the sky. Being born as southerners is their crime.” As he spoke, he shot arrow after arrow. Using less than half his quiver, more than ten men of Han-descent were shot down. Some died on the spot; some were shot in the abdomen area and are still alive. Lying on the ground, they were groaning in agony. The Liao soldiers loudly applauded in unison: “Long live our Ruler!”
If Xiao Feng wanted to intervene, he could easily shoot down the feathered arrows of the Emperor of Liao. However, by shaming the Emperor in front of the army, it is an act of great disrespect. Nonetheless, his strong feelings of disapproval are unconsciously reflected on his face.
Yelu Hongji smiled: “How is it?” About to pack his bow, he suddenly noticed a rider cutting across the hunting encirclement, speeding swiftly like the wind. Identifying the rider’s clothes to be from Han-descent, Yelu Hongji did not bother to question further. Drawing his bow and mounting an arrow, with a ‘sou’ sound, the arrow whistled towards the rider. The rider stretched out a hand and using two fingers, the arrow was pinched from mid air. By now, Yelu Hongji’s second arrow has arrived. Using the left hand, the rider plucked the arrow from the air as well. All along, the horse never stopped galloping and the rider is now racing towards the Liao Ruler. Yelu Hongji fired more arrows in succession. With each arrow closely behind the previous arrow, their tips are almost touching. Nevertheless, the faster he shoots, the rider still caught the arrows by matching his speed. Before anyone knew what was happening, seven arrows have been shot and seven arrows have been intercepted.
The bodyguards of Liao Ruler shouted war cries and leveled their lances. By blocking the front of their ruler, they wish to prevent any cause for alarm.
When the rider got close enough, Xiao Feng could recognize the person. Utterly flabbergasted, he called out: “Ah Zi, is that you? You must not be impolite to the Emperor.”
The rider burst out into giggles and leapt off her horse. Handing the seven wolf-tooth arrows to a bodyguard, she kneeled down and paid her respects to Yelu Hongji. She pleaded; “Your Majesty, please do not take offence at me for intercepting your arrows.” Yelu Hongji guffawed: “Great skills! Great talent!”
Standing up, Ah Zi called: “Brother in law, are you here to fetch me?” Both her legs springing, she flipped to the front of Xiao Feng’s horse.
Xiao Feng noticed her pair of eyes is flashing energetically. Surprised and thrilled, he inquired: “Ah Zi, how did you regain your eyesight?” Ah Zi laughed: “Your Second Brother cured me, isn’t it wonderful?” Xiao Feng took another look at her and suddenly, his heart froze. He could discern an indescribable gleam of severe agony from her eyes. Logically speaking, she has regained her eyesight and has reunited with him; thus, she should be filled with happiness. But why did her eyes reveal this feeling of misery and wretchedness? Judging from her laughter, it is completely full of delight and joy. Xiao Feng thought: “Ah Zi must have suffered some injustice on her way home.”
Ah Zi suddenly let out a shriek and pounced to her front. Simultaneously, Xiao Feng can sense someone about to ambush him from the back. Turning around instantaneously, he saw a three-pronged pitchfork flying towards his chest. Ah Zi reached out her left hand and seized the weapon. Using the momentum, she swung it around and stabbed it into the chest of a man lying horizontally on the ground. That man is a hunter of Han-descent; after being shot by Yelu Hongji, he has yet to die. Using every last ounce of strength, he hurled his hunter pitchfork towards the back of Xiao Feng. He noticed Xiao Feng wearing the attire of a highly ranked Liao Official. He hoped to kill him and avenge himself for dying without a proper reason.
Pointing at the corpse of the hunter, Ah Zi cursed: “You pig; you dog; trying to kill my Brother in law? You have overestimated yourself!”
Seeing Ah Zi stabbing the hunter to death with one thrust, Yelu Hongji was elated. He praised: “Excellent. Your moves are nimble and decisive; it is indeed noteworthy. Earlier on, that fork attack naturally cannot hurt our Southern Khan. But in case he was injured because of that, it would have disrupted Emperor’s (my) big plans. My fair lady, how should I reward you?”
Ah Zi replied: “Your Majesty, you have conferred a high ranking official title for my Brother in law. It seems fun so I want to become an Official too. I do not need to be highly ranked like my Brother in law but don’t give me a low rank either. Otherwise, I will get ridiculed.” Yelu Hongji laughed: “In Great Liao, we have women in charge of households but no women holding official posts. How about this? You are already a Lady-in-waiting, a noblewoman. I shall promote you by one rank, making you a Princess. What should be your title? All right, you shall be titled: Pingnan (Flatten South) Princess!” Pouting her delicate mouth, Ah Zi opposed: “I don’t want to be a Princess!” Yelu Hongji was bewildered: “Why not?” Ah Zi explained: “My Brother in law and you are blood brothers; if I become a Princess, compared to you, wouldn’t I be one generation lower?”
Yelu Hongji noticed Ah Zi is especially affectionate towards Xiao Feng. And despite his high-ranking position, Xiao Feng has kept away from lust. According to ordinary customs of Liao people, sitting in such an esteemed position, having three or four concubines is a forgone conclusion. Even marrying thirty or forty companions is nothing extraordinary. Assuming Xiao Feng has feelings for Ah Zi too but did not marry her as she is too young, Yelu Hongji smiled and explained: “Your Princess title is Grand Princess, the same generation as my sister, not my daughter. Besides conferring you the title of ‘Pingnan Princess’, I shall fulfill another wish of yours. What do you think?”
Her charming face blushing, Ah Zi asked: “What is my wish? How did Your Majesty know about it? You are the Emperor and you cannot make promises that you cannot keep.” Ah Zi has a fearless character; even when speaking to Yelu Hongji, she did not adhere to the proper manners between a Ruler and his subjects.
The laws of Liao Country are considered barbaric. In addition, Xiao Feng is Yelu Hongji’s trusted benefactor. Even though Ah Zi spoke carelessly, Yelu Hongji only chortled and demanded: “If you do not want the Princess promotion, I will take it back. One, two, three, are you in?”
Ah Zi joyfully paid her respects and acknowledged in a soft voice: “Ah Zi thanks Your Majesty for his kindess.” Xiao Feng bowed too and acknowledged: “Many thanks to Your Majesty for your kindness.” He treats Ah Zi like his very own sister. Since she has accepted the promotion by the Ruler of Liao, he, Xiao Feng, should express his gratitude too.
Yelu Hongji thought his assumption was correct and imagined: I shall throw him the biggest wedding celebration of all times. Afterwards, I would order him to invade Song. At that time, I am sure he will do his utmost best.
In his mind, Xiao Feng, on the other hand, was analyzing: The Emperor has made a trip to the South, what is his agenda? Why did he give Ah Zi the Princess title of ‘Pingnan’? Pingnan, Pingnan, could he be thinking of sending an army to invade the Southern dynasty?
Holding Xiao Feng’s right hand, Yelu Hongji mentioned: “Brother, the two of us have not seen each other for some time. Let’s talk over there.”
Riding side-by-side, the two men and their spirited steeds galloped towards the south. A brief moment later, they had ridden more than five kilometres. The flatlands were covered with overgrown grass and some cornfields in the vicinity were being overrun by weeds and thistles. Xiao Feng analyzed: The people of Song are afraid of our pillaging; therefore, they chose to abandon these thousands of acres of fertile farmland.
With a slap of his whip, Yelu Hongji directed his horse up a small hill. Stationing his horse at the peak of the hill, he glanced around with an air of complacency. Xiao Feng trailed him up the hill and following his southerly gaze, he could see mountains upon mountains, land as far as the eye can see, right to the end of horizon.
Pointing his whip to the south, Yelu Hongji articulated: “Brother, more than thirty years ago, my Imperial Father brought me here. He too, pointed at the beautiful territory of Great Song.” Xiao Feng acknowledged: “Yes.”
Yelu Hongji questioned: “Since young, you grew up in the land of the Southern barbarians and are familiar with the life and climate of the Southlands. Compared to living in the south, is it more comfortable there than our Northern Country’s bitterly cold environment?” Xiao Feng replied: “Everywhere is the same. In terms of comfort, as long as life is orderly and quiet, the heart would be happy and comfortable. The northerners are not used to the southern climate; the southerners are not used to the northern climate either. Since Heaven has made this arrangement, it cannot go wrong. If we insist on switching the population, we are only looking for trouble.”
Yelu Hongji inquired: “You, as a northerner staying in the southlands, is probably used to the climate. By moving back here, wouldn’t you be at a discomfort?” Xiao Feng answered: “Official is a wanderer in the martial arts world. Everywhere I go, that is my home. You cannot compare me with the ordinary farmers and villagers. Official has benefitted from Your Majesty’s gift of shelter and a proper home to call my own. With a highly ranked position and a generous income, I am deeply grateful. What more can I ask for? I am more than satisfied.”
Yelu Hongji turned his head back and scrutinized his face. Xiao Feng felt it was discourteous to stare back at him so he shifted his gaze away with a smile. Yelu Hongji gradually state: “Brother, although we are Ruler and Subject, we are also foster blood brothers. After a long separation, why are you less friendly than before?” Xiao Feng elaborated: “That year, Official is unaware that Your Majesty is the Ruler of our Great Liao. As a result, I did not pay attention to the difference in our status and lacked the appropriate manners. After I know the truth, how could I continue to blatantly regard Your Majesty as my brother?” Yelu Hongji sighed: “As the Emperor, ironically, I am no longer in the position to acquire genuine friendship and confidantes. Brother, if I accompanied you in wandering the martial arts world with complete freedom and lack of constraints, I am afraid I will get addicted to the joy of doing so.”
Xiao Feng cheerfully recommended: “If Your Majesty is fond of it, it can be arranged. In the Central Plains, Official has two foster brothers. One of them is XuZhu Zi from Lingjiu Palace, the other one is Duan Yu from Dali. They are passionate and true buddies who are willing to go through the depths of hell with you. If Your Majesty is interested to meet them, Official can invite them for a tour of Liao Country.” Since he returned to Southern Capital, Xiao Feng has to interact daily with other officials, generals and soldiers. He finds his speech and character incompatible with this range of people. Deeply yearning for the two men XuZhu and Duan Yu, he hoped to invite them to Liao Country for a reunion and an extended stay.
Yelu Hongji was delighted: “Since they are the foster brothers of Brother, they are my brothers too. You can dispatch an urgent messenger and invite both of them to Liao Country. Emperor (I) can confer them with two high ranking positions.” Xiao Feng chuckled: “Inviting them for a tour is fine; these two brothers cannot cope with the lifestyle of an Official.”
After a period of silence, Yelu Hongji implored: “Brother, from my observation of your expression and language, it is apparent to me that there is some missing gap in your life. My wealth is unlimited and I rule the four seas; is there anything beyond my reach? Why don’t you tell Brother your unfulfilled wish?”
Xiao Feng was touched. He confessed: “To be honest with Your Majesty, there is a deep regret in my heart. I have committed a huge blunder and there can be no recourse.” He went on to give a rough summary of the circumstances leading to his wrongful killing of AhZhu.
His left hand slapping his thigh, Yelu Hongji hollered: “No wonder Brother is still single at the age of thirty-odd years old. You are cherishing a memory of an old flame. Brother, although you made this irreversible mistake, if we were to trace the origin, these Southern Han barbarians are the true culprits. Especially those beggars from Beggars Clan; all of them are a bunch of ingrates. You need not worry; I will plan a military campaign and invade the southern barbarians. I will completely annihilate all the martial artistes from Central Plains, including the Beggars Clan. This way, we can avenge the death of your mother at Yanman Pass and the group bullying of you at Hero’s Gathering Manor. Since you have a preference for the beauties of Southern barbarians, I will pick one or two thousand for your pleasure; nothing is impossible.”
Xiao Feng’s face revealed a tinge of bitter laughter. He thought: Since I killed AhZhu by mistake, I will never marry again. AhZhu is AhZhu. In all of history, all the countries and all the four seas, there is only one AhZhu. She cannot be replaced by one thousand or even ten thousand women of Han-descent. The Emperor is used to having thousands of pretty concubines for companionship, how would he understand the meaning of ‘true love’?
Thus, he replied: “Many thanks to Your Majesty for your kindness. However, the vendetta between Official and the martial artistes of Central Plains have been resolved. Official has personally taken the lives of numerous martial artistes too. Vengeance begets vengeance. There is no end to this. If we go to war, the world will be ruthlessly ravaged; this cannot be taken lightly.”
Yelu Hongji burst out laughing and described: “The people of Song are feeble and are only good for entertainment. In a real battle, they can hardly hold their own. Brother is brave and unrivalled, if you lead an army to conquer the South, the southern barbarians’ demise is guaranteed. Nobody will be ruthlessly ravaged. Brother, do you know why I made this trip to the south?” Xiao Feng replied: “I am waiting for Your Majesty to enlighten me.”
Yelu Hongji smiled: “The first matter is to reunite and happily bond with my brother, updating myself with current affairs. In this trip to the West, Brother must have fully comprehended the strengths and weaknesses of Western Xia Country as well as the headcount of their army and horses. In Brother’s opinion, do we have the means to conquer Western Xia?”
Xiao Feng was taken aback. He pondered: The Emperor’s ambition is overwhelming; besides harbouring thoughts of occupying Great Song, he has intentions to dominate Western Xia as well.
Therefore, he shared: “When Official made this journey to the west, my sole intention is to join the festivities for Western Xia Princess’s wedding application. The thoughts of military intelligence gathering and invasion did not cross my mind. Your Majesty can judge for yourself. Official is a man with a background in the martial arts world. In close combat, I am fairly confident of holding my own ground. In terms of military deployment and fielding an army, I have zero knowledge.”
Yelu Hongji jested: “Brother need not be too modest. With regards to Western Xia’s grand invitation for a Prince Consort, it was a strong start but a weak finish. Eventually, everything ended without a proper conclusion. It is hilarious. Actually, that day, Brother should have brought a hundred thousand soldiers to Western Xia and marry the Princess. It would be wonderful if you can escort her back to Southern Capital.” Xiao Feng smiled at him and thought: Because he has a strong army at his command, the Emperor thinks he can do whatever he wants.
Yelu Hongji added: “In Brother’s trip to the south, the second matter is to give Brother a promotion and a raise. Brother, receive your edict.” Xiao Feng protested: “Official is deeply grateful for the kindness, I dare not ask…” Yelu Hongji loudly proclaimed: “Southern Khan Xiao Feng, receive your edict!” Xiao Feng hastily flipped off his saddle and prone down on the ground.
Yelu Hongji declared: “Southern Khan Xiao Feng is loyal to his country and is a trusted confidante of Emperor. He is hereby promoted to the position of King of Song and Pingnan Grand Commander of the three armies. The end.”
Xiao Feng hesitated and did not know how to react. He remarked: “Official did not make any contributions and dare not receive this immense kindness.” Yelu Hongji was agitated: “What? Are you rejecting my edict?” Xiao Feng noticed his tone has turned grim. Knowing he cannot refuse this offer, he kowtowed and accepted: “Official Xiao Feng gives his thanks.” Yelu Hongji burst out into laughter and commented: “That’s the way, Brother.” Getting off his horse and supporting him up with both hands, Yelu Hongji revealed: “Brother, on my trip to the South, Southern Capital is not my last stop. The final destination for my Imperial Entourage is Bianliang (Capital of Song).”
Shocked again, Xiao Feng stuttered in a quivering voice: “Your Majesty wants to advance to Bianliang, in… in that case…” Yelu Hongji chuckled: “As Pingnan Grand Commander of the three armies, Brother can pave the way for me. We will ride straight to Bianliang. In the future, Brother’s King of Song residence shall be that kid Zhao Xu’s Bianliang palace.” Xiao Feng inquired: “Your Majesty is saying we are going to war with Southern dynasty?”
Yelu Hongji explained: “We are not going to war with Southern dynasty; it is the southern barbarians who are looking for trouble. When the old hag Grand Empress Dowager is governing Southern dynasty, everything is established and systematic. Although I have designs on the South, I am not fully confident of success. Now that the old woman is dead, that breastfeeding kid Zhao Xu is sending men to create trouble in the North. By training his army; drafting more soldiers; breeding more horses; stockpiling their provisions; hey hey, if this kid is not planning to attack me, then who is he targeting?”
Xiao Feng reasoned: “Although Southern dynasty is training their army, we can safely ignore them. For the past few years, Song and Liao do not have any armed conflict and the two countries are generally at peace. If Zhao Xu chooses to invade us, we will naturally give him a beating he will never forget. I believe he is fearful of Your Majesty’s prowess and would not dare to act recklessly. We need not lower ourselves and be bothered with that kid and his antics.”
Yelu Hongji supplemented: “There are issues that Brother is unaware of. Southern dynasty possesses vast territory and a dense population. Their productivity is high and the country is rich. If a wise ruler ever sits on the throne and wants to pick a bone with Great Liao, we will be the losing party. Fortunately for us, this kid Zhao Xu is a good for nothing. By exiling his loyal ministers and even demoting Big Beard Su, the Imperial Court of Song is presently in disharmony and the people are questioning his ability to lead. This is a once in a lifetime golden opportunity. If we do not take action now, there is no better timing.”
Raising his eyes and scanning the south, an imaginary illusion appeared before Xiao Feng: Tens of thousands of Liao soldiers are marching into southern terrain. Many houses are set ablaze and the air is blanketed with thick smoke from their burning. Countless men, women and children are being trodden by horses; many of them are squirming on the ground and groaning in pain. As the soldiers of Liao and Song hacked one another to death, one by one, riders are falling from their horses. Everywhere he looked, the ground is awash with fresh blood and there are large piles skeletal remains……
Yelu Hongji loudly announced: “For generations, our Khitan ancestors are eager to claim Southern dynasty and consolidate it into our Liao territory. Many attempts have been made but they all ended in failure. Today, Heaven has given me this opportunity and victory shall be mine. My good Brother, in the future, your name and mine shall be forever etched in history; isn’t that wonderful?”
Both his knees on the floor, Xiao Feng kneeled down and kowtowed several times, pleading: “Your Majesty, Official has a request.” Yelu Hongji was slightly stunned and probed: “What do you want? As your Elder Brother, if it is within my means, there is nothing I will not allow.” Xiao Feng begged: “For the sake of tens of thousands of lives from both countries Song and Liao, I beseech Your Majesty to retract your order to invade the South. We Khitan people are used to rearing livestock as the main form of livelihood. Even if we own the lands of Southern dynasty, it serves no purpose. Moreover, war is merciless and perilous; victory is unpredictable. If we suffer any setback, it would damage Your Majesty’s flawless reputation.”
Noting Xiao Feng’s advice and his obvious reluctance about invading the South, Yelu Hongji thought: Regardless of whether it is a Khitan Imperial family member, noble, general or minister, whenever the word ‘Southern Invasion’ is mentioned, everyone will be supportive and delighted. Why is Xiao Feng opposing this idea instead?
Taking a side glance at Xiao Feng, he noticed his eyebrows are tightly-knitted, revealing that he is deeply worried. Yelu Hongji pondered: When I conferred him as the King of Song and Pingnan Grand Commander, why was he unhappy? In Great Liao, it means he is second in authority. Except for me, he answers to no one and everyone is at his disposal. I get it. Although he is of Liao-descent, since young, he was groomed by the Southern barbarians and he is probably skewed towards them. In addition, his parents are citizens of Great Song. When he hears that I wanted to invade the Southern barbarians, he is doing his utmost best to oppose me. In this case, even if I force him to lead an army into the Southlands, he would be holding back. Therefore, he said: “My mind is firm on the Southern invasion. Brother need not say more.”
Xiao Feng proposed: “Going to war is an affair that affects the entire country. Your Majesty must consider it carefully. If Your Majesty must invade the South, please choose another capable leader instead. If Official is leading the army, I may fall below Your Majesty’s expectations.”
On his trip to the South, Yelu Hongji was initially full of enthusiasm. By rewarding Xiao Feng with a huge promotion and getting him to invade the south with an army of elite Liao soldiers, he was doing this because he treasures the blood brother relationship he had with Xiao Feng and is using this as a way to show his appreciation. He anticipated Xiao Feng to be overjoyed and grateful, however, Xiao Feng is a wet blanket and even rejected the promotion of Pingnan Grand Commander. Greatly discontented, he coldly hissed: “In your heart, is Southern dynasty more important than Liao Country? You would rather be loyal to Southern dynasty and be disloyal to my Great Liao?”
Xiao Feng prostrated himself on the ground and swore: “Your Majesty, please judge for yourself. Xiao Feng is a Khitan descendent and my allegiance lies with Great Liao. If Great Liao is in danger, Xiao Feng will undergo any kind of danger and protect my country. Even if I have to die ten thousand times, I will still do it.”
Yelu Hongji berated: “This kid Zhao Xu has been eyeing and lusting over the territories of Great Liao. As the saying goes: First Mover Advantage, Last Mover trapped in Cage. If we do not strike first, the next round, our country and race could be annihilated. You talk about protecting your country and dying a thousand times; however, when I ask you to lead an army for your Country, you ask me to retract my order instead?”
Xiao Feng pleaded: “In my entire life, Official has taken many lives and does not wish to stain my hands with blood again. Your Majesty, please allow Official to resign and retire into the wilderness.”
Hearing his request to resign, Yelu Hongji was even more furious than before. The intention to kill instantly manifested in his heart. With his hand pressing on his saber hilt, he was ready to pull out his weapon and chop down at Xiao Feng’s neck. Before he acted, he had a change of mind and thought: This person possesses consummate martial arts; if I failed to kill him in one slash, I will be the one to die today. Furthermore, back then, he accumulated a large merit when he quelled the rebellion for me. Additionally, he is my foster family. If I killed this high-performing official today just because we had a verbal disagreement, it reflects badly on my sense of righteousness and gratitude.
Letting out a long sigh, Yelu Hongji moved his hand away from the saber hilt and concluded: “Our opinions are different and coercion is meaningless. When you get home, please think it over. I hope you will change your mind and accept my order for the Southern invasion.”
Although Xiao Feng is prone on the ground, he can immediately sense what is going on around him. If someone near him twitches his eyebrows or raise his thumb, it cannot escape his detection; how can he fail to realise Yelu Hongji has placed his hand on the saber hilt and harboured thoughts of killing him? He can predict that things would only get worse if this conversation is continued, even to the point of severing of relationships. Hence, he swiftly acknowledged: “Official will comply!” Standing up, he led Yelu Hongji’s horse to his side.
Without saying anything, Yelu Hongji jumped onto his horse and rode swiftly away. Earlier on, Ruler and Subject rode side by side towards the south; on the northern return trip, one is in front and one is behind, with a fair distance between them. Xiao Feng recognizes that Yelu Hongji is now suspicious of himself. If he follows him too closely, Yelu Hongji may feel threatened. Additionally, he has rejected his request to lead a southern invasion so he might as well stay far behind him.
Back in Southern Capital City, Xiao Feng invited the Emperor of Liao to spend the night in his Southern Khan residence. Yelu Hongji laughed: “I am not going to impose on you any further. You can calm down and straighten your thoughts regarding these intricacies and weigh the pros and cons again. I will return to the Imperial Encampment.” Xiao Feng respectfully escorted Yelu Hongji back to the Imperial Encampment.
From Upper Capital, Yelu Hongji has brought a large quantity of precious sabers, exquisite swords, spirited steeds and beauties as a gift for Xiao Feng. Xiao Feng gave his thanks and brought the presents back to his Khan residence.
Xiao Feng delegated most of his official paperwork and is not particularly fond of books or academic works. As a result, there is no Study room in his Khan residence. Most of the time, he and his generals would sit on the floor of the main hall, indulging themselves in meat and wine. This habit is pretty close to what he used to do with his fellow beggars. For the Khitan generals, this is their standard routine in their desert tents as well. Faced with an easy-going and open-minded Khan who treated them with sincerity, all his subordinates are thrilled to be under his jurisdiction.
In this moment, Xiao Feng has returned from the Imperial Encampment and the sky is already dark. Stepping into the main hall, under the flickering lights of the giant cow-oil lamps, he spotted a purple-robed young girl lying on a tiger skin. It was Ah Zi.
Hearing his footsteps, Ah Zi leapt up and pounced on Xiao Feng, hugging his neck. Looking into his eyes, she inquired: “Are you unhappy to see me here? Why is your face so melancholic?” Xiao Feng shook his head and answered: “It is because of something else. Ah Zi, I am excited to see you. In this world, you are the only person that I am concerned about. I am always afraid that some harm will befall you. With you back at my side and your eyes healed, I have no more worries.”
Ah Zi smiled: “Brother in law, besides my eyes fully healed, the Emperor even made me a Princess. Are you happy for me?” Xiao Feng state: “Princess or not, Ah Zi is still Ah Zi. Earlier on, the Emperor wanted to promote me again, Ai!” As he spoke, he let out a long sigh. Picking up a cow leather pouch, he pulled open the stopper and drank two big mouthfuls of wine. Scattered around the main hall are leather pouches of wine, allowing Xiao Feng to drink whenever he has the urge and without summoning a servant. Ah Zi chuckled: “Congratulations to Brother in law, you have been promoted again!”
Xiao Feng shook his head and disclosed: “Emperor intended to promote me to be the King of Song and Pingnan Grand Commander, thereby getting me to lead an army to invade South dynasty. Think about it, if we start a war, how many officials, soldiers and commoners will lose their lives? I refuse to accede to his request and earned the wrath of Emperor.”
Ah Zi was puzzled: “Brother in law, you are acting strange again. I heard people saying you killed countless martial arts heroes at Central Plains Hero’s Gathering Manor without a tinge of regret. These Central Plains barbaric heroes have terrorized you in the past; today, the Emperor is giving you an opportunity to vent your frustration, why are you unhappy instead?” Lifting the leather pouch, Xiao Feng drank another big mouthful of wine and let out another long sigh, explaining: “That day, the two of us, your sister and I, were being surrounded and attacked. If I did not fight back at full prowess, we would be dismembered into pieces. It was an act of desperation. That day, there were many good friends among those that I was forced to kill. Whenever I reminisced about that event, it pains me greatly.”
Ah Zi guessed: “Ah, I knew it. That year, you were forced to kill other people for the sake of AhZhu. In that case, right now, can you kill those barbarians of South dynasty for my sake?” Xiao Feng shot a glare at her and chided: “We are talking about human lives but you are speaking as if we are slaughtering cows and sheep. Although your Father is from Dali, your Mother is a Song citizen of Southern dynasty.”
Ah Zi pouted her mouth and turned around. She begrudged: “I already know that in your heart, a thousand Ah Zi cannot be compared to one AhZhu. Ten thousand Ah Zi in the mortal world also cannot be compared to AhZhu who has left the mortal world. It looks like I must quickly die before you will finally begin to yearn for me. If I had known… I… I would not have travelled so far in order to visit you. You… When did you ever care about me?”
From her words, Xiao Feng deduced a secret grudge and was instantly alarmed. He recalled the time when she ambushed him by firing a secret poison needle, with the intention of keeping him by her side at all times. He advised: “Ah Zi, you are still young and only care about having fun and being cheeky, you do not understand how adults operate…” Ah Zi interrupted: “What is this adult children nonsense? For a long time, I am not longer a kid. You promised my sister to take care of me. You… You only cared that I have food to eat and clothes to wear, but… but when did you ever take care of what is in my heart? You never care about what is on my mind.” The more he heard, the more traumatized Xiao Feng was and he dared not complete his sentence.
With her back now facing Xiao Feng, Ah Zi continued: “When I lost my eyesight, I know you will never love me and I decided to stay away from you too. Now that my eyes have recovered, you still chose to ignore me. I… In what ways am I inferior to AhZhu? Am I less pretty than her? Am I less clever than her? Just because she is dead, you have been frequently pining for her. I… How I wish I was the one being killed by your palm strike and you will yearn for me the way you yearn for AhZhu …”
At the peak of her misery, she abruptly turned around. Pouncing into the bosom of Xiao Feng, she started crying her eyes out. Xiao Feng was at a loss of what to do and what to say.
After sobbing for some time, Ah Zi added: “Why do you regard me as a kid? During that stormy night beside the small bridge, I witnessed you killing my sister and crying your heart out. From then on, I became extremely fond of you. I told myself: ‘You need not be so upset, although you lost AhZhu, I will be like AhZhu and treat you with love and sincerity.’ I made up my mind that I will accompany you for the rest of my life. However, you are against the idea so again, I told myself: ‘Fine, if you do not allow me to accompany you, I will turn you into a handicap and manipulate you into accompanying me for the rest of your life.’”
Xiao Feng shook his head and declared: “That is all in the past; there is no need to bring them up.”
Ah Zi exclaimed: “There is no past. In my heart, that memory is as fresh as today’s memories. This is not the first time we are going through this but till now, you have never spared a single thought for me.”
Gently caressing Ah Zi’s silky hair, Xiao Feng whispered: “Ah Zi, I am more than twice your age and can only take care of you like an uncle or an elder brother. In my entire life, I have only been in love with one lady before and she is your sister. There will never be a second lady who can replace AhZhu; and I have decided to never fall in love again. The Emperor has presented me with more than a hundred beauties but I did not even bother to take a look at them. I care for you only because of AhZhu.
Angered and distressed, Ah Zi suddenly stretched her hand out and with a ‘Piak’ sound, she gave Xiao Feng a heavy slap to his face. If Xiao Feng wanted to evade, how could this slap land on his face? Looking at Ah Zi’s pale face, trembling body and the tinge of misery in her eyes, he was terribly anguished and ultimately cannot bear to avoid her slap.
Right after the slap, Ah Zi was instantly filled with regrets and wailed: “Brother in law, it is all my fault. You… You slap me in return too, slap me in return!”
Xiao Feng enquired: “Isn’t that being childish? Ah Zi, if you look carefully, in this world, nothing is a big deal and you need not get so depressed! Why are your eyes gleaming with misery and wretchedness? Brother in law is a boorish man. It must be tormenting for you to stay by my side!”
Ah Zi realised: “There is a tinge of misery and wretchedness in my eyes? Ai, it must be the fault of that ugly freak.” Xiao Feng queried: “Who is the freak and what did he do?” Ah Zi replied: “My pair of eyes came from that ugly freak, the iron-masked man.” Xiao Feng was momentarily stupefied and asked again: “Ugly freak? Iron-masked man?” Ah Zi revealed: “That chief of Beggars Clan Zhuang Juxian, who else? Actually, the whole episode is absolutely hilarious. His real name is You Tanzhi but I gave him an iron mask to hide his identity. He was the son of You Ju, Second owner of Hero’s Gathering Manor and the same person who scattered lime into your eyes. Somehow, he mastered some unorthodox martial arts and keep staying by my side, doing his very best to get into my good books. I was thoroughly deceived by him. When my eyes were blinded and could not depend on anyone, I was forced to politely address him as Mister Zhuang. Now that I think about it, it is such a shameful experience.”
Xiao Feng was puzzled: “So the Beggars Clan Chief Zhuang is the Iron-masked freak whom you have been playing tricks on. No wonder his face is badly scarred. It must have been inflicted when he tried to take out his mask. The Iron-masked freak is You Tanzhi? Ai, you have gone too far with your bullying and have treated him harshly. It is rare for him to treat you kindly in return without bearing a grudge.”
Ah Zi icily state: “Humph, what do you mean by rare? Doesn’t he have a selfish motive? He wanted to make me happy so that I will marry him.”
Recollecting the events that occurred on Mount Shaoshi, Xiao Feng remembered You Tanzhi staring at Ah Zi with deep affection in his eyes. However, he did not pay much attention to him back then. Therefore, he interrogated: “Since you know the truth, did you kill him in a fit of anger and dig out his eyes?” Ah Zi shook her head and swore: “No, I did not take his life. He willingly gave me his pair of eyes too.” Xiao Feng was even more bewildered than before and probed: “Why is he willing to dig out his two eyes and give it to you?”
Ah Zi detailed: “This person is a complete moron. After we arrived at Piaomiao Peak Lingjiu Palace, we located your Foster Brother XuZhu and invited him to treat my eyes. Consulting his medical notes for half a day, XuZhu Zi says it is necessary to replace my eyes with a fresh pair of eyes from another living person. Lingjiu Palace is staffed with XuZhu Zi’s subordinates; since he is helping to cure my eyes, I surely cannot ask him to sacrifice the eyes of his followers. I instructed You Tanzhi to go downhill and kidnap a passerby but this fellow started crying instead, saying that once my eyes are cured and is able to see his face, I will no longer pay any attention to him. Although I insisted I would not ignore him, he simply refused to take my word for it. Behind my back, he actually got himself a sharp knife and looked for XuZhu Zi, saying he wanted to give me his eyes. When XuZhu Zi refused to comply, that Iron-masked man started cutting himself on his body and his face. He threatened to commit suicide if XuZhu Zi did not change his mind. Forced by circumstances, XuZhu Zi was helpless and replaced my eyes with his.”
As she spoke, Ah Zi is speaking as if it is an ordinary matter but when her words entered the ears of Xiao Feng, he was filled with dread and horror. In his life, he has encountered numerous life-threatening moments and earth-shattering fights; however, this is the worst experience he could possibly imagine. Both his hands quivering, with a ‘pa’ sound, he discarded the wine pouch he was holding and repeated his question: “Ah Zi, so You Tanzhi gave his eyes to you willingly?” Ah Zi replied: “Yup.” Xiao Feng uttered: “You… You are truly a cold blooded human; when someone offers to give you his eyes, you accepted it without a second thought?”
Hearing his stern voice, Ah Zi’s eyes were blinking rapidly and she was about to break down into tears again. Suddenly, she whimpered: “Brother in law, if your eyes have gone blind, I would be willing to give you my eyes too.”
Listening to these two sentences, Xiao Feng can sense the truthfulness and sincerity in her voice. He cannot help but was deeply moved, and enquired in a gentle voice: “Ah Zi, Mister You is fully devoted to you. You have no idea how fortunate you are. Except for him, you cannot possibly find another admirer as faithful as him. Where is he now?”
Ah Zi guessed: “He is probably still at Lingjiu Palace. Piaomiao Peak is full of dangerous and steep paths. Without his eyes, how could he possibly come down?”
Xiao Feng wondered: “Ah, maybe Second Brother could get the eyes of a death sentence convict for him.” Ah Zi elaborated: “It cannot be done. That little monk… no, XuZhu Zi said so himself. My eyes are blinded because that old villain Ding Chunqiu’s poison had damaged my corneas. However, the nerves are still intact so it can be salvaged. For the Iron-masked freak, his eyes are being dug out so the nerves are severed and it cannot be replaced.”
Xiao Feng ordered: “You must quickly look for him and stay by his side and never leave him again.” Ah Zi shook her head and protested: “I am not going, I will only stay by your side. He is as ugly as a demon. I would feel nauseas when I take a longer glance at him, how could I possibly stay beside him for the rest of my life?” Xiao Feng angrily berated: “He may be ugly in terms of appearance but his heart is a hundred times more lovely than yours! I do not appreciate your companionship and I do not want to see you again!” Stomping her feet, Ah Zi started crying and stammering: “I… I…”
Both of them heard some approaching footsteps from beyond the door. Two sentries announced in unison: “The decree has arrived!” Following that, the door to the hall was opened. Xiao Feng and Ah Zi turned around simultaneously and saw an emissary of the Emperor entering the hall.
The etiquette of Liao Country Imperial Court is not as complicated as Song Dynasty Imperial Court. When the Officials meet the Emperor’s emissary, it is good enough to listen to the decree in a solemn manner. It is not necessary to change into Court Attire, put up an incense burner and kneeled down for the decree to be read. The emissary loudly proclaimed: “The Emperor has summoned Pingnan Princess for a discussion.”
Ah Zi replied: “Yes!” Wiping away her tears, she followed the emissary.
Staring at Ah Zi's back as she walked away, Xiao Feng thought: You Tanzhi's absolute commitment to her is almost unheard of. However, during Ah Zi's first awakening of love, we were coincidently spending plenty of time together. When she was badly injured, I did not observe the boundaries between men and women, and took care of her relentlessly, causing her to have a child-like infatuation towards myself. I must force her to return to the side of Mister You since she received such a huge debt of kindness from him. Even Heaven will not tolerate her for abandoning this blind man.
As he heard the footsteps of Ah Zi and the emissary gradually fading away and eventually disappearing, his thoughts shifted to Yelu Hongji's Southern invasion decree: Why did the Emperor summon Ah Zi? He must be trying to get her to persuade me to accept his order and invade Song. If I insisted on defying his decree, it is a challenge to his legitimacy. Earlier during our southern suburb disagreement, the Emperor has revealed his intention to kill by pressing his hand on the saber hilt. Still, he displayed an incredible act of self-restraint due to our brotherhood and his care for me as a loyal subject. Nevertheless, if I upheld his decree and invade Song, leading an army to butcher tens of thousands of Song citizens, how can I live with myself? Moreover, Father is now a monk at Shaolin Monastery; if he learns that I am leading an army to attack the south, he would be remarkably displeased. Ai, if I disobeyed the command of my Ruler, I am disloyal; if I disregarded our brotherhood, I am unrighteous; if I invade the South and slaughter the commoners, I am inhuman; if I violate my Father's legacy, I'm unfilial. Loyalty and filial piety cannot coexist; brotherhood and humanity cannot be simultaneously accomplished, what should I do? Forget it! Forget it! Forget it! This Southern Khan designation is not suitable for me; I shall seal my Study (office) and return my Seal (of authority), deserting the army and leaving without notifying the Emperor. But where should I flee to? The world is vast and yet, there is no place for me, Xiao Feng.
Lifting the cow leather wine pouch, he drank another two mouthfuls of wine and thought: When Ah Zi is back, we shall ascend Piaomiao Peak together. First, she can be reunited with Mister You; Second, I can hang around Second Brother's place for a while until I make further plans.
Accompanied by the emissary, Ah Zi arrived at the Imperial Encampment. Meeting Yelu Hongji, she blurted out at once: "Your Majesty, you can take back the post of Pingnan Princess, I quit!"
As predicted by Xiao Feng, Yelu Hongji summoned Ah Zi because he wanted to get her to persuade Xiao Feng to accept the southern invasion decree. Hearing her initial outburst, he frowned his eyebrows and furiously berated: "When the Imperial Court confers a title, it is a matter of national importance and not some child's play. It is not for you to decide if you want it or not!"
All along, because of Xiao Feng, he has been treating Ah Zi like family too. Compared to his past easy going attitude towards Ah Zi, this time round, his tone is especially stern. With a loud 'wa!' Ah Zi started bawling at the top of her voice. Stomping his feet, Yelu Hongji scolded: "What a mess! What a mess! This is unbecoming!"
Out of the blue, from the back of the tent, a delicate female voice sang out: "Your Majesty, what is troubling you? What have you done to frighten this little girl into crying?" As she spoke, with the jingling sounds of accessories, a Noble Lady came out from behind a screen.
This particular lady has lovely eyes that sparkle like crystal, luscious hair and a sweet smile. Ah Zi recognize her as Concubine Mu, the favourite pet of the Emperor. Between sobbing and sniffling, she protested: "Concubine Mu, please say a word of fairness. Your Majesty scolded me when I simply said I did not want the title of Pingnan Princess."
Seeing her pitiful and tearful appearance, Concubine Mu scrutinized her carefully. She has not seen Ah Zi for some time and Ah Zi is much taller now and her features are more refined. Shooting a glare at Yelu Hongji, Concubine Mu covered her mouth and giggled: " Your Majesty, since she does not want to be Pingnan Princess, why don't you confer her the title of Pingnan Concubine?"
Yelu Hongji slapped his thigh and chided: "Nonsense! Nonsense! I conferred this child as Princess for the sake of Brother Xiao. One Pingnan Grand Commander and one Pingnan Princess, they would have the most glamorous wedding celebration money can buy. Unexpectedly, Xiao Feng is unwilling to be promoted to be Pingnan Grand Commander and this young lady does not wish to be Pingnan Princess either. I get it! You are a Southern barbarian; that's why you oppose our Southern invasion too, am I right?" In his tone, there is a hint of animosity.
Ah Zi clarified: "I don't care if you invade the south or not! You can invade the east or the west, none of it matters to me. But my Brother in law.... Brother in law wanted me to marry a blind and ugly freak who has no eyeballs." Blown away by this revelation, the confused Yelu Hongji and Concubine Mu questioned: "Why?" Ah Zi is reluctant to divulge the full story so she plainly stated: "My Brother in law is not fond of me so he is forcing me to marry somebody else."
At this point, someone outside the tent softly called out: "Your Majesty!" Yelu Hongji walked out of the tent and discovered the newcomer is his confidante whom he had dispatched to act as Xiao Feng's bodyguard. The bodyguard whispered: "Reporting to Your Majesty: Xiao Feng has sealed the entrance to his Study. He has also wrapped his golden Seal in a yellow bag and has hung it on a ceiling beam. From the looks of it, he... he... He seems to be planning to desert his position."
Upon hearing this report, Yelu Hongji cannot hold back any longer and became highly agitated and infuriated. He exclaimed: "He's rebelling! He's rebelling! Does he still regard me as his Emperor?" After a quick brainstorming, he demanded: "Summon the Imperial Encampment Commander!" A brief moment later, Imperial Encampment Commander Du appeared before him. Yelu Hongji ordered: "Lead your men and horses, I want the Southern Khan Residence completely surrounded." He then added: "Convey my instructions, the city gates must be closed and secured. Nobody must be allowed to enter or exit." He was deeply afraid that Xiao Feng would lead his subordinates into staging a rebellion and issued orders restlessly, summoning the senior generals who are deployed under the jurisdiction of Southern Khan.
From within the tent, Concubine Mu heard the endless blowing of horns and frantic galloping of horses. She guessed something is amiss. For the Khitan race, the lines between men and women are indistinct. Thus, she simply exited the tent and asked Yelu Hongji in a low voice: "Your Majesty, what is going on? What made you lost your temper?" Yelu Hongji angrily cursed: "Xiao Feng that scoundrel, he doesn't know what's good for him and actually wanted to betray and desert me. This scoundrel is loyal to Southern dynasty and must be heading there to expose our invasion plans to the Southern barbarians. He knows too much about Great Liao's military secrets; if he manages to flee to Southern dynasty, he will become the greatest threat to me." Concubine Mu muttered: "I often heard Your Majesty mention that this scoundrel possesses peerless martial arts skills. If we fail to rein him in and allow him to break through our encirclement, it will be a seed for future calamities." Yelu Hongji agreed: "Activate Flying Dragon camp, Flying Tiger camp and Flying Leopard camp, proceed without delay to the exterior of Southern Khan Residence as reinforcements." A bodyguard of Imperial Encampment acknowledged the decree and left to convey the instructions.
Concubine Mu offered: "Your Majesty, I have a plan." Leaning to his ear, she whispered for some time. Yelu Hongji nodded: "It sounds workable, if it succeeds, Emperor will reward you generously." Concubine Mu smiled: "To be able to make Your Majesty happy is a generous reward itself. Your Majesty has been very kind to me already; there's nothing else I desire."
Outside the Imperial Encampment, plenty of soldiers and horses are on the move. Sitting in the tent, Ah Zi cannot be bothered at all. She has seen countless incidences of Khitan people making all sorts of noises and running all over the place. During their frequent hunting expeditions, the chaos is exactly the same, so she's used to it. It never cross her mind at all that Yelu Hongji is commissioning his soldiers and horses for the sake of capturing Xiao Feng instead. Sitting on a camel saddle, her heart is tingling: Brother in law is fully aware of my love for him, but he... He did not care about my feelings and wanted me to accompany that ugly freak. I... I would rather die than go. I won't go! I won't go! I'll just won't go!
As she thought over these matters, the tip of her right foot carelessly kicked a tiger's head on the carpet. Suddenly, a hand gently pressed on her shoulder and Ah Zi had a minor shock. Raising her head, entering her view is the warm and kind gaze of Concubine Mu. The concubine giggled: "Little Sister, are you lost in your thoughts? You are thinking about your Brother in law, am I right?" Hearing her accurate prediction about her innermost and private thoughts, both cheeks of Ah Zi blushed red unconsciously. She lowered her head and kept quiet.
Sitting down beside Ah Zi, Concubine Mu took one of her hands and caressed it gently. In a soft voice, she mused: "Little Sister, men are coarse beings with violent tempers. Especially men like our Emperor and Southern Khan. They are the present generation's heroes and leaders. To win their affection is truly challenging."
Ah Zi nodded her head and felt that her words made perfect sense. Concubine Mu added: "In the palace, the harem is filled with thousands of ladies. Those prettier than me and those who knows how to win the Emperor's favour are immeasurable. However, I am the Emperor's pet. Half of it is my own ability while the other half is thanks to the guidance of an old monk from Upper Capital Shengde Temple. Little Sister, although your Brother in law has not given his heart to you, you need not be frustrated. When the Emperor and I are returning to Upper Capital, you can come along with us. By going to Shengde Temple and begging the esteemed monk, I’m sure he will have a solution for you."
Ah Zi was puzzled: "What can that old monk do?" Concubine Mu declared: "I am going to tell you his method; however, you must never ever tell it to anybody else. You must first make a solemn vow that you will never divulge this secret." Ah Zi swore: "If I revealed Concubine Mu's secret, may I be hacked into pieces and die a horrible death." Concubine Mu insisted: "It is not that I don't trust you but the consequences of this matter is too far-reaching. You must make a vow with a heavier penalty." Ah Zi agreed: "All right! If I leak out your secret, may I... May I be killed by my Brother in law in one palm strike." As she said this, her heart is filled with a bittersweet sensation.
Concubine Mu nodded: "Being killed by your loved one in one palm strike is definitely a hundred times worse than being hacked into pieces. I'll trust you. My Good Sister, that esteemed monk has magical powers and he is able to perform miracles. After I kneeled and begged for his assistance, he presented me with two bottles of holy water. By sincerely praying and conveying my secret wishes to the water, I must covertly let my ideal partner consume a bottle. For his entire life, that man will only love me and me alone. Till his death, his heart will not waver one bit. I already made the Emperor drink one bottle. Now, I am left with this other bottle." As she spoke, she retrieved a small, garnet-coloured porcelain bottle from her bosom. She held the bottle tightly in her hands, as if she is afraid that the bottle might drop. Actually, the ground is covered with a thick layer of carpet. Even if it really drops, the bottle will remain intact.
Ah Zi was delighted and surprised. She begged: "Good Sister, please let me have a look." Since young, she has been a disciple of Xingxiu Sect; with regards to these kind of bewitching tricks, she had no qualms about their efficacy. Concubine Mu warned: "Taking a look is fine but please handle it carefully." With both hands holding onto the porcelain bottle, her manner was serious and solemn as she handed it over. Receiving the bottle, Ah Zi pulled out the stopper and put the bottle to her nose for a quick sniff. The liquid carried a light fragrance. Concubine Mu reached out with her hand and took back the porcelain bottle. When she replaced the wooden stopper, she exerted some strength in pushing the stopper, as if she is afraid the holy water will evaporate. She remarked: "Initially, I don't mind sharing this bottle with you. However, I am afraid that the Emperor will have a change of heart in the future so I'm reserving this holy water as a back up."
Ah Zi quizzed: "According to what you mentioned, after the Emperor drank a bottle, he became wholly dedicated to you?" Concubine Mu smiled: "That is my experience so far; however, I don't really know how long the effect will last. Otherwise, why did the esteemed monk give me two bottles? My bigger worry is this holy water falling into the hands of another concubine. If she secretly fed it to the Emperor, even if he still loves me, his love would be divided..."
At this point, from outside the tent, Yelu Hongji's voice rang out: "Ah Mu, come outside to me, I have something to tell you." Concubine Mu happily replied: "I'm coming!" As she swiftly rushed out, with a 'ta' sound, the little porcelain bottle dropped from her bosom without her knowledge.
Ah Zi was thrilled and excited. The minute Concubine Mu stepped out of the tent, she instantly dived to her front and picked up the porcelain bottle. Stuffing it into her bosom, she thought: I will quickly let Brother in law drink some of this. After that, I'll add some clear water to it before returning it to Concubine Mu. After all, she is already the favourite pet concubine of Emperor and this holy water is currently useless to her.
Without any delay, she hastily made an opening at the back of the tent and quietly slithered out. Like a ninja, she returned undetected to the Southern Khan residence.
Observing the residence exterior overflowing with soldiers and riders, Ah Zi assumed the Southern Khan is formulating a military expedition. Walking into the main hall, she saw Xiao Feng pacing up and down the corridor of a water-feature wall with both hands behind his back. He appears to be bristling with impatience.
The second Xiao Feng laid his eyes on Ah Zi, he glowed with ecstasy and sighed with relief: "Ah Zi, it is great to see you back here. I fear that the Emperor might detain you and you are unable to get out of the predicament. Let's begin our journey; any delays and we might not make it." Ah Zi was puzzled: "Where are we going? Why are we in such a hurry? Why does the Emperor want to detain me?"
Xiao Feng hushed: "Listen for yourself!" As the two of them became silent, from outside the Khan Residence, there were sounds of hoof beats, the clanking noises of armour and the clattering sounds of weapons. Regardless of north south east or west, these noises were generated from all different directions. Ah Zi probed: "What is going on? Are you leading the army to war?"
Xiao Feng bitterly laughed: "These troops are not under my command. The Emperor is now suspicious of me and is planning to capture me." Ah Zi cheered: "That's excellent. We have not had a proper fight for some time. Let the two of us clear a bloody path out of here." Xiao Feng shook his head and disagreed: "The Emperor has treated me extremely well. First, he conferred me as Southern Khan. Now, he personally travelled to see me and gave me an additional promotion. He is now suspicious of me because I am determined not to invade the south. If I injured his troops, it is a dent on our brotherhood and I will be ridiculed by all heroes under the sky, saying I, Xiao Feng, is an ingrate and have let my Brother down. Ah Zi, let's leave immediately. By sneaking away without saying goodbye, he would fail to apprehend me and that is good enough.
Ah Zi inquired: "Mm, let's get out of here. But Brother in law, where are we heading to?" Xiao Feng answered: "To Piaomiao Peak Lingjiu Palace." Ah Zi's face turned gloomy at once. She swore: "I am not going to meet that ugly freak." Xiao Feng ordered: "We are in the middle of a crisis now; after we leave this danger zone, we can then decide if we are going to Piaomiao Peak or not."
Ah Zi thought: Since you have the intention to escort me to Piaomiao Peak, it clearly demonstrates your lack of consideration for my feelings. It is better to let you drink the holy water as early as possible and make you fall in love with me; when you love me, you will naturally listen to me. If I drag any longer, I fear that Concubine Mu will make her way here and demand the return of her porcelain bottle.
As a result, Ah Zi immediately replied: "That's a good idea too! Let me get some spare change of clothes."
Rushing to the back hall, she got herself a bowl. Emptying the holy water from the porcelain bottle into the bowl, she added plenty of wine. In her heart, she chanted a secret prayer: Bodhisattva, please hear me. I wish that after Xiao Feng has consumed this holy water, he will love me, Ah Zi, whole-heartedly; he will marry me as his wife and never think about Sister AhZhu again!
Back at the hall, she offered: "Brother in law, have this bowl of wine to increase your alertness. Once we leave, we will never come back again."
Receiving the bowl of wine, under the candlelight, Xiao Feng noticed Ah Zi's hands were trembling slightly and her eyes are shimmering with an unusual brilliance. Her expression displays both joy and tenderness. He cannot help but was moved, thinking: That year, when AhZhu was completely devoted to me, she had this similar expression on her face! Ai, it looks like Ah Zi is fully dedicated to me too!
Finishing the large bowl of wine, Xiao Feng checked: "Have you packed your clothes?" Seeing that he has consumed the holy water, Ah Zi was overjoyed and exclaimed: "Forget the clothes, let's go!"
Xiao Feng carried a bundle on his back; inside the bundle are some clothes and gold ingots. He whispered: “They are preventing me from fleeing to the south. I shall travel northwards instead.” Holding Ah Zi’s hand, he quietly opened a side door. Scanning the exterior, he observed two sentries patrolling side by side towards his direction. Xiao Feng hid behind the door and coughed once, causing the two sentries to rush over and investigate the noise. His fingers flashed out and the two sentries were immobolised. Dragging them into the shadow of some nearby trees, Xiao Feng whispered: “Quickly change into their armour outfit.” Ah Zi was thrilled and praised: “Excellent plan!” Xiao Feng and Ah Zi rapidly plucked the armour from the sentries and wore it on their own bodies. Each of them holding a long pike, they began their escape by marching side-by-side away from the residence. Ah Zi wore her helmet in a low position and it was pressing on her eyebrows. Peeping at Xiao Feng, she noticed him trying to shrink his body and is walking in a bent posture; she was secretly humoured at his antics. After taking twenty over steps, they encounter a 10-men sergeant from the Imperial Encampment on patrol with his entourage of ten Imperial troops. Moving to the side of the path, Xiao Feng and Ah Zi raise their pikes and saluted the sergeant.
The 10-men sergeant nodded his head and was about to walk past them. Under the illumination of the fire torches, he caught sight of Ah Zi’s ill-fitting body armour that was almost touching the ground. Aroused, he inspected her closely and noticed that the saber sheath hanging from her waist is dragging on the floor. Annoyed, he threw a punch towards her shoulder and roared: “What are you wearing?” Ah Zi knew their ruse has been exposed; flipping her hand for a hook, she managed to hook his wrist and kicked his waist with her left foot. The sergeant yelled ‘Aiyo!’ and collapsed at once.
Xiao Feng shouted: “Let’s go!” Pulling her wrist, he sped away from the scene. Unaware that the two disguised sentries are Xiao Feng and Ah Zi, the remaining ten Imperial troops raised the alarm, shouting: “There are spies here! There are spies here!” After they covered some distance, Xiao Feng and Ah Zi saw ten over riders approaching them from the front. Lifting the long pike, Xiao Feng executed a horizontal sweep and all the riders were cleanly knocked off their horses. With a lift from his right hand, he sent Ah Zi up a horse while he himself flew onto the back of another horse. Turning their horses around, they raced towards the Northern city gate.
By now, the generals and soldiers surrounding the Southern Khan Residence have received word about their activities and are in pursuit from all over the city. Xiao Feng rode like the wind. As he predicted, 80% of the Liao Imperial troops are stationed along the southern route in order to prevent him from escaping towards the Southern dynasty. On his northern route, the troops were scattered and limited in numbers. When these soldiers encounter Xiao Feng, their hearts are secretly cowering. Although they are forced by military orders to approach and hinder him, whenever Xiao Feng roared and rode towards them, the soldiers would involuntarily make way for him. Ultimately, all they could do is to chase after Xiao Feng and shout at him to stop. By the time Imperial Encampment Commander Du has arrived with reinforcements, Xiao Feng and Ah Zi are long gone.
As Xiao Feng arrived at the north gate on horseback, he saw that the city gates have been tightly secured. Before the city gate, more than a hundred troops were clustered closely together, brandishing their long pikes and blocking the road. If Xiao Feng chooses to kill his way through, these hundred odd Liao soldiers are not his match. However, he only seeks to escape with his life and does not wish to injure any more of his fellow countrymen. Stretching out with his left hand, he grabbed Ah Zi and brought her onto his own horse. With a light tap of his right foot on the stirrup, both his legs are now standing on the back of the horse. Taking a deep breath, he flew (using Qing-gong) towards the city gate. Under normal circumstances, this leap is insufficient to propel him to the top of the city wall. However, he was well prepared for this. When his body started to fall, he stabbed the wall with the long pike in his right hand. Using the embedded pike as a stepping-stone, he easily landed on top of the city wall.
Scanning the external northern surrounding of the city, Xiao Feng observed that it was wholly pitch black and no fire torches were lighted. It is evident that no one expected him to flee the city in the northern direction and no soldiers were dispatched to secure this area. Projecting his voice, Xiao Feng announced to the soldiers in the city: “Please report to the Emperor, saying Xiao Feng has offended Your Majesty and dare not resign in person. Xiao Feng will never forget the immense kindness and goodwill of the Emperor.”
Seizing Ah Zhi by the waist, he turned around. Once he jumped off the top of the wall, he would be a like fish in the open sea or a bird in the open sky. All his worries would be gone forever.
Slightly excited, he was about to leap off the wall when suddenly, his abdomen was hit by a bout of pain; followed by both his arms aching and turning numb. Even his left arm that was holding Ah Zi’s waist automatically loosened. Next, both his knees turned soft and he half-fell half-sat onto the floor. In his stomach, he felt such excruciating pain, as if a thousand small knives were cutting and slicing the organ. He cannot help but snorted ‘humph’ once. Ah Zi was terrified and exclaimed: “Brother in law, what happened to you?” His entire body convulsing and his teeth chattering, Xiao Feng stuttered: “I… I… was… was badly… badly poisoned… Wait… I’ll activate… activate my internal energy to force out the poison…” He immediately circulated his energy to ‘Dantian’ point and wanted to force out the poison from his abdomen. If he did nothing, it is not so bad. The moment he activated his internal energy, his four limbs and his hundred odd bones were instantly seared with agonizing pain. The ‘Dantian’ energy was barely activated before it subsided again. In between, Xiao Feng could hear loud sounds of hoof beats as thousands of riders rode northwards from their southern positions. As he tried to activate his energy again, he realised he cannot feel his four limbs at all. Acknowledging the incredible potency of this poison which cannot be purged out by internal energy, Xiao Feng urged: “Ah Zi, you better leave quickly, I… I cannot accompany you any more.”
By reassessing the situation, Ah Zi had a huge revelation, realizing that she herself was being scammed by Concubine Mu into serving Xiao Feng with holy water. That was no holy water but a strong poison instead. Alarmed and filled with regrets, she hugged Xiao Feng’s neck and wept: “Brother in law… it is my fault. I was the one who fed you the poison.” Xiao Feng was shocked and puzzled. He questioned: “Why do you wish to harm me?” Ah Zi sobbed: “No! No! Concubine Mu gave me a bottle of water. She lied to me, telling me that if you drink it, you would love me forever and will… will marry me as your wife. I am so stupid. Brother in law, I will die together with you. We shall never be apart again.” As she spoke, she whipped out her waist knife and is about to slice her own neck.
Xiao Feng yelled: “Hold… Hold it!” His entire body felt as if he is being barbequed alive and being cut opened by steel knives. With both his internal organs and external body wretched by pain, he could barely organize his thoughts. After a long while, he finally comprehended Ah Zi’s explanation. He assured: “I will not die and you need not commit suicide either.”
‘Zhazha’ the noise generated by the opening of the heavy city gates entered their ears. Hundreds of cavalry soldiers dashed out of the northern gate and assembled into military formation among sounds of loud shouting. As tons of troops rushed over from the south of the city in relentless waves, they poured out of the city. Sitting on the top of the city wall, Xiao Feng glanced to the north and could see fire torches lighting up the city exterior for several kilometres, resembling a few fire dragons zigzagging towards the north. Turning his eyes southwards, nearly half the city is lighted by fire torches. He thought: In order to catch me, a single person, the Emperor went to the extent of activating every single soldier from the Imperial Encampment.
From inside and outside the city, the generals and troops shouted in unison: “Rebel Xiao Feng, surrender at once!” His abdomen undergoing another round of unbearable pain, Xiao Feng whispered: “Ah Zi, you must quickly find a way to escape.” Ah Zi uttered: “I personally fed you with a fatal poison, how can I live a lonely life by myself? I… I… I will die together with you.” Xiao Feng bitterly smiled: “This is not a fatal poison but a poison designed to weaken my body and incapacitate me.”
Ah Zi was instantly cheered and quizzed: “Really?” Turning around, she pulled Xiao Feng up so that she can carry him on her own back. However, her figure is rather petite and Xiao Feng is exceptionally burly. Although with Ah Zi’s support, Xiao Feng managed to stand up, however, both his feet are still planted on the ground. At this point in time, ten over Khitan warriors have already scaled the city wall. Holding their saber in one hand and a fire torch in the other hand, they remained fearful of Xiao Feng and dare not get too close to him.
Xiao Feng advised: “Resistance is futile. Let them come and take me prisoner!” Ah Zi wailed: “No! No! If anyone dares to touch you, I will kill him on the spot.” Xiao Feng reasoned: “You must not kill because of me. If I am willing to take any more lives, I can simply adhere to the decree and lead an army to invade the south. We would not have landed in our present circumstances.” Raising his voice, he commanded: “By cowering in fear, how can you call yourself a Khitan warrior? Come, let us meet the Emperor together.”
The group of warriors were utterly stumped. Bowing in unison, they respectfully obeyed: “Yes! We are only acting in accordance with the errand in the decree; if we are discourteous to Khan, we seek Khan’s understanding!” Although Xiao Feng was appointed as the Southern Khan for a limited time, he treated his subordinates well and his fame has spread throughout the Northlands, earning the deep respect of all the Khitan warriors. Among the crowd, everyone is shouting ‘Rebel Xiao Feng’ because everyone else is doing the same. But when they come face to face with him, the natural respect they had for him swelled up and they immediately halted their insolent behavior.
Supported by Ah Zi’s shoulder, Xiao Feng struggled to stand up. His five viscera and six bowels are hurting as if they are being grappled and bitten. The troops stood a few metres away from him and have sheathe their weapons, watching him as he slowly took one step after another down the stone steps from the top of the city wall. When Xiao Feng reached the bottom of the steps, all the generals and soldiers instinctively flipped down their horses (in a mark of respect). Whether inside or outside the city, the tens of thousands of troops suddenly became absolutely noiseless.
By the light of the fire, Xiao Feng witnessed these sincere, solemn and respectful expressions. His heart bursting with a gush of warmth, he thought: If I invade the south, among the tens of thousands of troops here, I believe less than half would be able to return to the Northern country alive. If I were able to save these countless lives, even if the Emperor sentences me to death, I would die without regrets. My only fear is that after the Emperor has executed me, he would get another general to lead the army to attack the south.
As he thought up to this point, his chest area is experiencing another bout of severe pain and his body is tottering on the verge of collapse. A general led his own horse towards Xiao Feng and helped him onto the steed. Ah Zi got onto another horse as well and followed him from the back. Surrounded by escorts, they headed south back to the Khan residence. Although the generals and troops captured Xiao Feng and have accomplished a difficult mission, no one felt any joy or pleasure. The air is filled with sounds of metal armour going ‘qiang qiang’ and tens of thousands of iron horse shoes striking the stone street steps. Besides these sounds, no happy cheers or celebratory wishes were heard.
As the row of riders and escorts went through the North Avenue and came to White Horse Bridge, Xiao Feng rode his horse up the bridge. Out of nowhere, Ah Zi flew up from her seat. By springing both her feet from the saddle, she took a far leap. With a light ‘chi’ sound, she dived into the river. Witnessing this occurrence, Xiao Feng could not help but was alarmed, but his shock was swiftly replaced by delight. He recalled the first time he encountered this cheeky lady. That time, she pretended to drown to death by submerging herself in a small lake. Her water abilities are extraordinary and ultra rare, allowing her to even deceive both her parents. This time round, by using the river to escape, it is the best possible outcome for her. Thinking that he would not have the chance to see her again in the future, he felt a tinge of disappointment. Xiao Feng hollered in a loud voice: “Ah Zi, why did you commit suicide? The Emperor will not make things difficult for you, why did you choose to drown yourself?”
Listening to Xiao Feng’s words and noting that Ah Zi did not resurface after sinking into the river, the generals and soldiers assumed she really committed suicide. The Emperor’s decree is for the capture of Xiao Feng only. Whether Ah Zi is dead or has escaped, nobody could be bothered. After a brief wait on the bridge and unable to detect anything from the river, everyone continued riding with Xiao Feng in the lead.
- END OF CHAPTER 49 -