“Where is Your Highness going?” Little Xizi followed Jiang Yanchi. “It’s very late, and the palace gates are already closed…”
“The city gates are sealed. If anyone tries to release Xu Changling, I’ll cut off their heads. Go tell Commander Zhou to detain him and send an urgent letter to Puyang County.” The Crown Prince handed a jade token to Little Xizi. “I’m going to visit the Zhao family.”
“Why is Your Highness going to the Zhao family so late?” Little Xizi took the jade token. The Crown Prince hadn’t rested properly for the past half month. “If it’s something urgent, just summon Duke Guogong into the palace. Why trouble Your Highness to make a personal visit?”
“It’s too late for that.” The Crown Prince mounted his horse in a single step and galloped toward the palace gate.
He had to be fast.
Zhao Yu had not expected two high-ranking guests to arrive at his residence late at night. When the Crown Prince entered, he saw Grand Tutor Su at the upper seat and couldn’t help but be surprised. “Grand Tutor Su, you’re very well-informed.”
“What does Your Highness intend to do?” Su Mingan remained composed. “You don’t think that by suppressing Xu Changling, the Xu family will not make any rash moves, do you?”
“With the current turmoil in the northwest, most of the Xu family’s Changming troops are holed up in the northern border. They are countering the situation in the western capital, but have also left some key passes open for the northern barbarians to advance deep into the heartland. Now they are nearing Huaiqi County. Your Highness, should we deploy the Xu family’s troops or not?” Zhao Yu asked urgently, tapping his fingers on the table.
Not deploying them means that the Northern Xiong might breach Huaiqi and Puyang counties and proceed directly to the capital.
Deploying them means that Xu Yi would have a legitimate reason to send his troops southward, bringing them to the doorstep of the capital.
While it was Jiang Yanchi who had instigated the use of the barbarian troops to quell the internal rebellion, now Xu Yi, that old cunning fox, was using the same forces against the Crown Prince, putting him in a dilemma.
“There is another option,” Grand Tutor Su suggested, “abandon the capital. Relocate the capital farther south and then, after some delay, reevaluate the situation. What do you think, Your Highness?”
Relocate the capital further south and then reconsider?
Has this become a competition to see who has the more ruthless heart and the greater determination to burn the bridges behind them?
If they were to give up the capital willingly, wouldn’t everything become irreparable? Stalemate with Xu Yi would only benefit the Northern Xiongs.
Should they abandon the capital and continue to move south while waiting for the right opportunity, or should they fiercely defend the capital at all costs?
Seeing him in silence, Zhao Yu also looked conflicted. “Your Highness, why don’t we consider relocating the capital sooner rather than later…”
“No relocation,” Jiang Yanchi clenched his hand tightly. “Allocate fifty thousand of Ningyuan Wang’s troops to Jiang Silan, the Shizi of Puyang County.”
“Your Highness!” Zhao Yu’s facial expression changed, and he furrowed his brows. “How can we give military authority to Puyang County at this time? It’s strategically important, and Xu Yi…”
However, Su Mingan didn’t speak, only gesturing to the Crown Prince to continue.
“Jiang Silan is loyal and brave. His father wasn’t entirely in line with Xu Yi’s plans due to his weakness. He might not be willing. With the Northern Xiongs closing in, he has lived in Puyang County for over twenty years. Consider it my wager that he won’t willingly abandon Puyang County.”
“As long as I don’t yield and allow Xu Yi to move south, he’s nothing but a paper tiger, unable to truly restrain Yubei Wang and his son. He can use both threats and rewards, and so can I. We shouldn’t hastily retreat. That would only result in a devastating defeat and give Xu Yi the upper hand…”
Zhao Yu and Su Mingan exchanged a glance.
Then, they rose to speak, “Since Your Highness doesn’t want to allow Xu to advance or retreat, we have another proposal.”
“Huaiqi County, which is slightly to the west of the central region, has a competent commander named Zhao Lingqu from a distant branch of my Zhao family. While his military rank is low, he is strategic and skilled in warfare. How about Your Highness entrust him with the authority over twenty thousand troops in the west…”
The Zhao family actually wanted to take advantage of the chaos to gain control over the border troops.
Although it could indeed help alleviate the immediate crisis, the Crown Prince’s expression darkened, “Fine. Fifty thousand troops for Jiang Silan, and 150 thousand… to be given to your Zhao family’s Zhao Lingqu.” Jiang Yanchi’s hand rested on the tassel of his waistband, and he rubbed it with his fingertip repeatedly. “But I want him to sign a military contract. If he can’t keep the Northern Xiongs out of Huaiqi County, I want him and the heads of his close relatives.”
Zhao Yu’s tightly knitted brows remained unfurled.
Faced with the unwavering gaze of the Crown Prince, he could only agree, “Very well. Our Zhao family accepts this.”
After the Crown Prince left, Su Mingan, who had been silent throughout, sat for a long while, simply eating some tea cakes.
“In fact, even without this edict, if we reach Huaiqi County, Lingqu can still seize military authority in the midst of the chaos. Why must the Crown Prince go through such a test…”
Su Mingan shook his head, “This isn’t a test, it’s a probing. Before, major events were all conspired and contested with Chu Xie, so it’s natural to understand his methods. Now, it’s the same with this Crown Prince. Without trying, how can we see his strategy?”
“That old Xu Yi is almost in his grave, yet he still has a wild heart. And, don’t you find him quite ridiculous?”
“Ridiculous in what way?”
“Twenty-three years ago, when the Crown Prince was benevolent, he insisted on installing the ruthless Emperor Xuanhe. Now, with the Crown Prince being ruthless, he is determined to protect a benevolent king.”
Su Mingan chuckled.
Gazing at the full moon over the capital, he said, “The people of the capital have always been fickle.”
“In fact, this little Crown Prince is quite pitiable. I think he never really wanted to be the Crown Prince… in the end, it’s all a matter of circumstances beyond his control.”
“He may not have wanted it, but he has to take the role. Even if our plans fail in the end, I want the Jiang family to carry half of the Yue Clan’s royal family’s blood in every branch of their lineage from now on.”
Thud, thud, thud.
With a crash, Zhao Yu’s drink spilled all over the table, dripping and pattering onto the floor, filling the room with the fragrance of wine.
Zhao Yu saw his grandson stumbling into the room. “Grandpa, did you hear—”
Thud, thud, thud…
Zhao Yu signaled for silence, carefully counting the tolling of the palace clock.
Thirty-two times in total, it rang thirty-two times. Signifying the onset of national mourning.
“His Majesty… His Majesty, he…” Zhao Xuan entered in a panic, struggling to step forward.
“It’s His Majesty’s passing!”
How could it be so coincidental that at this very moment, that the ailing Emperor passed away?
Su Mingan’s expression changed instantly. He got up from his seat, stepping on the seat cushion beneath his feet. “Zhou Wen! It’s Zhou Wen!”
“What happened to Commander Zhou?”
“Jiang Yanchi sealing the city gates wasn’t to keep Xu Changling from leaving the city; it was to keep the news of the national mourning hidden! As the commander of the Forbidden Army, Zhou Wen must know Jiang Yanchi’s intentions… Xu Changling is a fool who only cares about his own pleasures. By replacing half of your Zhao family’s Forbidden Army power and pointing the blame at the overbearing Xu family, nobody noticed that the Forbidden Army power within the Imperial City has all fallen into the hands of Zhou Wen alone!”
Sweat broke out on Zhao Yu’s back. Su Mingan’s implication was that the Crown Prince now held control over the Imperial Guards. The Emperor’s sudden demise wasn’t an accident—it was regicide, patricide, and usurpation.
Zhao Yu couldn’t fathom that the teen Jiang Yanchi would dare to commit such an act of defiance.
“Regardless of how fierce the battle is outside, with the current situation, the capital is firmly under Jiang Yanchi’s control. He doesn’t trust the Zhao family, and he doesn’t trust me!”
After the tolling of the mourning bells ceased, the entire capital fell into a horrifying silence.
Only the Forbidden Army stood guard at the city gates, patrolling all night.
“The Crown Prince ordered the mobilization of Xu’s troops to the south?” Yubei County Prince looked at the letter that came from the capital, then observed Xu Yi’s expression as he read it.
After a while, Xu Yi said, “No, he’s taken my grandson, Xu Changling, hostage.”
“….This!” Yubei County Prince was alarmed. It seemed that this Crown Prince was also a tough nut to crack. He was now caught between a rock and a hard place, and he was afraid that he might end up offending both sides.
“He has given the Shizi 50,000 troops,” Xu Yi handed the letter that came from the messenger bird to Yanbei Country Prince. “What do you think, County Prince?”
Yanbei Country Prince, however, felt uneasy.
Could it be because he secretly sent a message to the capital that the Crown Prince assigned him the troops to ensure his loyalty?
“Father, it means His Highness trusts us,” Shizi Jiang Silan took the letter and said, “Marquis Xu claims that the Crown Prince is ruthless, but I believe he still has the welfare of the common people in his heart. At the very least, he hasn’t abandoned the capital, and he hasn’t chosen mutual destruction with Marquis Xu Yi.”
Jiang Silan looked at Xu Yi and said, “Lord Marquis, you’re right. The Great Wei cannot withstand further consumption at this time. If making me the Crown Prince’s puppet is another form of consumption, then taking the Crown Prince off his throne doesn’t make sense.”
“In any coup, bloodshed is inevitable. We’re strategizing for the long term…”
Jiang Silan seemed to disagree.
“Lord Marquis, what do you value about me? If I were the kind of person who would give up the entire Puyang County for the throne, would you still support me as the Crown Prince? It’s a paradox… Lord Marquis, forgive me for speaking candidly — I don’t want to become the Crown Prince, and I don’t want to enter the capital.”
“In fact, once pushed into that position, I’m not sure what kind of person I would become… To live a carefree life in Puyang County might be my best destiny.” Jiang Silan tore apart the two secret letters in his hand.
“The Crown Prince has given me 50,000 troops, regardless of his reasons, I will use this military power to defend Puyang County and ensure my family doesn’t suffer the horrors of war.”
Xu Yi remained silent, then turned to Yanbei Country Prince, “Is this what you think as well? Do you believe the Crown Prince will spare you?”
“Whether he spares me or not, as long as I have the ability, I will protect Puyang.”
Jiang Silan had made up his mind.
“You want to protect Puyang County! Then do you not want to protect the whole world? When Emperor Xuanhe ascended to the throne, he killed loyal ministers, unjustly accused good generals, and caused so much bloodshed. What good does it do to protect just Puyang County? Jiang Yanchi has half the blood of the Yue Clan royal family in his veins, and he was raised by the Yue Clan Princess. How do you know he won’t be full of resentment, secretly hoping for the fall of Great Wei?”
“Brother…” Jiang Suxue, awakened by the commotion, rubbed her eyes and softly called out to him from outside. “Are you quarreling…?”
“No, Ah Xue, go back to sleep,” Jiang Silan went to send his younger sister off and then, in a calm tone, looked at the Lord Marquis. “Lord Marquis, if you truly believe that Emperor Xuanhe was a cruel and heartless ruler, what expectations did you have when you initially helped him ascend the throne?”
“You have the same expectations now, wanting to push me into that position. How do you know if you’ll regret it in the future?” Jiang Silan looked with regret. “A guardian who doesn’t guard, a leader who doesn’t plan for his rule. Regardless of whether the Crown Prince is a good one or not, Lord Marquis, you certainly aren’t the lord that Great Wei truly needs.”
This statement was quite inappropriate, and the face of Yanbei Country Prince didn’t look good. Before him was someone who currently held half of Great Wei’s military power, and he was the Lord Marquis, a noble of three generations.
This was not a place for a mere child to interfere.
“Jiang Silan, you will surely regret this in the future.”
Xu Yi didn’t try to persuade him further. “Whether you rebel or not, you will rebel! You have no say in this!”
To prevent any accidents, a secret order was sent to the northern border, instructing Li Chengjin, the eldest son who had been lying low in Changye County, to prepare for action. They wouldn’t wait for the Crown Prince’s orders; they would march south.
This blatant conspiracy was now an open secret.
Xu Yi had made up his mind to rebel.
As soon as the secret letter was sent out, urgent reports came from outside the city. Northern Xiong forces were moving westward, having already captured four counties and now encamped just outside Huaiqi County, less than a hundred miles from Puyang.
At the same time, in a small village nestled in the hills of Huaiqi County, Xu Chunmu, who was nursing his injuries, was enjoying an unprecedented period of tranquility in this town on the brink of conflict. Chu Xie had no particular skills, so he used the little money he had to buy a few rolls of calligraphy and paintings. He attempted to imitate the genuine articles and exchanged them for some silver coins.
Unfortunately, after waiting for a day, no one purchased them. Chu Xie had some mischievous thoughts and picked the pocket of a well-dressed individual, making off with a money pouch.
Recalling the days when he could squander money without a care, and then counting the few coppers he had in his hand now, Chu Xie sighed.
After finally acquiring some money, he decided to pay off the debts he had accumulated earlier. “Innkeeper, give me the best medicine you have.” He went to a nearby teahouse to gather information.
On his way back, he bought some food for Xu Chunmu and said, “Hurry and eat. I sold two paintings today, and now I have enough silver for the next three days.”
Xu Chunmu nodded. Surprisingly, the people in this small town seemed to be quite knowledgeable. He took the bag of dry rations. “Thank you for your help.”
“I’ve heard rumors from outside that this place is about to go to war,” Chu Xie casually mentioned, wanting to hear Xu Chunmu’s analysis of the current military situation. “What are your thoughts?”
Xu Chunmu had just unwrapped the oiled paper, and the steaming hot pastry seemed out of place against his cold demeanor. He didn’t mind and took a bite. “If both Huaiqi County and the strategic gate, Puyang County, fall, it’s unlikely that the capital can be held.”
“It was my grandfather who pressured the Crown Prince to deploy the Xu family’s troops to the south to defend against external enemies.”
“Do you know about someone named Zhao Lingqu?”
Chu Xie suddenly asked.
“I haven’t heard of him.”
“They say that the Crown Prince has promoted him to a deputy general, giving him 150,000 troops and ordering him to make a military pledge to defend Huaiqi County,” Chu Xie pointed at the pastry. “Last two bites and we’re finished.”
Xu Chunmu acknowledged with an “mm.” He usually didn’t like oily pastries, but now he ate every last crumb. Then he grabbed a handkerchief from the bedside and wiped his slender, pale fingers. “Huaiqi County is hilly, and the terrain is complex. Unfortunately, it’s not easily defensible. I’m afraid that this Deputy General Zhao will be in for a tough time.”
Chu Xie inquired further, “What if you helped him? Xu Chunmu, can you win this battle?”
Seemingly taken aback by this question, Xu Chunmu’s gaze turned increasingly puzzled. “We… weren’t we planning to live in seclusion? Are you still thinking about going to the capital?”
“If we just leave like this, the Crown Prince will be attacked from all sides. I can’t leave him like that. Xu Chunmu, here’s what we’ll do: you don’t have to reveal your identity. You tell me how to fight this battle, and I’ll discuss it with Deputy General Zhao. We’ll block the Northern Xiong outside Huaiqi County and consider it compensation for the Crown Prince.”
“Compensation?” Xu Chunmu was even more perplexed now. “What do you owe him? You helped him ascend to the position of Crown Prince, and now he’s ungrateful. Where does the notion of compensation come from…?”
Explaining this situation would be too complicated.
Chu Xie loosened Xu Chunmu’s collar a bit to check his injuries. Seeing that the dark scars were no longer oozing pus and were showing signs of healing, he let out a sigh and got straight to the point. “If you win this battle and free Jiang Yanchi from Xu Yi’s influence, once the job is done, we can leave together and never have to deal with matters in the capital again. How does that sound?”
Retiring together would be a smooth path, and it would ensure that Xu Chunmu was well protected, an ideal outcome.
“Has the last quest’s completion rate come out?” Chu Xie opened the system.
“Quest completion rate +3. Currently, the quest unlock rate is 88%, only 2% away from unlocking all quests. Keep up the good work, Host!”
The quest difficulties were only increasing, one after another. They were all life-threatening quests. Since Xu Chunmu had taken the initiative to suggest a retreat, Chu Xie would take this opportunity to persuade him to leave the capital and avoid potential dangers.
Xu Chunmu didn’t know what Chu Xie had in mind, but after hearing his proposal, he remained silent for a moment before agreeing.
“Alright, I’ll do my best to try to help you keep Huaiqi County.”
“You say you can help me defend Huaiqi County.”
This was the first time Chu Xie had met Zhao Lingqu, the deputy general. He saw his striking features, bold and rugged, just a little over twenty years of age, and about the same age as Xu Chunmu. His tall and sturdy build radiated a sense of vitality.
In contrast to Xu Chunmu’s refined and delicate beauty, Zhao Lingqu had a very sunny and energetic appearance.
He even had a bit of the air of a young general.
“Yes, I can help you keep Huaiqi County, and I can also ensure the safety of you and your family’s heads.” The black robe covering half of Zhao Lingqu’s face added a sense of mystery. He lowered his head slightly, and once he could see Chu Xie clearly, a glint of eagerness shone through his eyes, quickly hidden again.
“Oh, really? Let’s hear it.”
“Deputy General!” The assistant next to him tried to stop him from proceeding but was held back by Zhao Lingqu.
“It’s just a casual discussion. No harm done.”
Chu Xie didn’t expect him to be so friendly, easy to talk to, and even many of the well-prepared persuasions weren’t necessary. Although this Deputy General Zhao had remained hidden in this remote village as an inconspicuous military officer, he was extremely familiar with the terrain in the northwest of the two regions. When Chu Xie slightly guided the conversation, Zhao Lingqu quickly understood.
Chu Xie pointed to a part of the parchment and recited every word that Xu Chunmu had shared. “This is the only high point in this area, where we must hide at least a hundred men. When arranging troops here, after the Northern Xiong cavalry scatters, their main forces will move southwest. This terrain will allow us to stall this cavalry, trapping them temporarily.”
Deputy General Zhao listened attentively.
“I’ve remembered it. It’s truly remarkable, and the art of warfare is full of ingenious tactics. I didn’t expect to find such a knowledgeable military strategist here.” Deputy General Zhao nodded respectfully and thanked Chu Xie. “It’s a great honor for me.”
This person had been promoted three ranks in such a critical situation. Could it be related to the Zhao family in the capital?
“Do you recognize Zhao Xuan, the Shizi of the capital?”
The man chuckled heartily. “The young Shizi from the Duke’s mansion? I’ve met him a couple of times, distant relatives. But we’re not close enough to have any significant connections. That’s why I’ve been stuck in this small place for over twenty years…”
That made sense.
Deputy General Zhao respectfully addressed Chu Xie as “Military Advisor” and allowed him to stay the night at this place. Chu Xie considered that Xu Chunmu had some lingering injuries, and he decided to take his leave.
Two days later, Zhao Lingqu successfully held off 250,000 Northern Xiongnu troops with 150,000 troops at this hard-to-defend location.
The 50,000 troops from Puyang County barely had time to make an impact and were restrained, unable to advance even a single step.
The good news reached the capital and then later, Puyang County.
Xu familys troops were on the way south and were close to Puyang County, arriving in the capital in a couple more days.
Chu Xie spent his last afternoon in the military camp, and the situation was settled. Jiang Yanchi had at least a 50-60% chance of securing his position as the Crown Prince.
“My Lord, why aren’t you having a drink?” A soldier poured a full bowl of wine for Chu Xie.
“I don’t drink.”
“Ha-ha, you’re a man of letters, don’t you know how to relax and enjoy a drink?”
“Lord Chu, have a drink. You’re planning to leave tomorrow, so this can warm you up.”
Chu Xie stared at the bowl of clear wine in front of him and fell into deep thought.
If Xu Yi’s rebellion failed, he wondered how Jiang Yanchi would treat the Xu Yi family.
Xu Yi might not be worth mourning, but what about Xu Chunmu? Would he just watch Xu Yi’s execution?
The so-called retirement, was it genuinely possible?
As someone deeply involved, was it truly that easy to extricate oneself from the situation?
Thinking this, Chu Xie raised the bowl of wine before him, its pungent aroma filling the air. He was about to take a small sip when his expression suddenly changed.
“I’ve remembered something important at home. Deputy General Zhao, I need to leave for a while. I’ll come to bid you farewell tomorrow and make up for it by sharing three hearty drinks!” Chu Xie flashed a smile and offered a military salute as he made his exit.
Zhao Lingqu called out to him, “Certainly, I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow!”
As Chu Xie turned away, the smile on his face vanished.
Moments ago, Zhao Lingqu had addressed him as “Lord Chu.”
“Lord, you’ve left something behind.” Deputy General Zhao handed over the fallen cloak and helped Chu Xie put it on. “Let me see you off.”
Chu Xie could still smell a faint hint of blood on this person.
“It’s not necessary. We don’t live too far from here.”
As he descended the tower, Chu Xie turned back and saw Zhao Lingqu waving goodbye from a distance.
The sun was setting.
Chu Xie’s hearing wasn’t the best, but he could vaguely sense someone following behind him. He didn’t dare to return directly to the inn, fearing that it might lead to trouble for the still-injured Xu Chunmu.
But the sound of hoofbeats grew closer.
Just as they were about to catch up, Chu Xie broke into a cold sweat and swiftly hurled a dagger in his hand. However, his wrist was gently caught, and he saw Xu Chunmu’s face up close. “Ah Xie, what’s wrong?”
“I noticed you hadn’t returned, so I came to find you. What’s going on? Why are you sweating so much?”
Chu Xie sighed in relief, helping Xu Chunmu to his feet and saying, “Hurry, we must leave this place immediately…”
Before he could finish his sentence, he was tackled to the ground by a strong force, with Xu Chunmu rolling him into the nearby bushes. They saw a dark figure passing by the forest road.
Xu Chunmu pressed Chu Xie down to hide him and covered Chu Xie’s mouth, signaling him to breathe softly.
The dark figure gradually drew near, and he was none other than Zhao Lingqu.
Chu Xie’s pupils suddenly dilated.
In his hand, he held a beautifully crafted spear with a red tassel. There were fresh bloodstains on it, which glowed intensely under the dim evening sun.
A stern voice echoed in the forest. “Chu Xie.”
A horse galloped in from a distance, bringing an urgent message. “Deputy General, Deputy General! We’ve received news from the capital. His Majesty has passed away, and the Crown Prince has already succeeded as the new emperor!”