Book 12 Chapter 04 – An Escape Trick
It is evening time. The clouds in the sky begin to sink and the moisture in the air begins to rise. When they meet, they acc.u.mulate and form a thick fog.
On a hill three miles South west from where they are, sounds of men talking and horses neighing can be heard. It appears that the enemies have lost their patience and thought that they have left for the farm long ago.
Up till now, not only did both parties have not exchanged blows, they haven’t even seen each other’s shadow. But this intangible battle been fought by both parties competing in intelligence, training, patience, strength and strategy. A small error could cause Xiang Shaolong’s smaller forces to be entirely wiped out.
Relying on the darkness and fog, Jing Jun and his hunters made sure that they were no spies nearby before pushing three rafts into the river. Securing them with rope, he hid the rafts among the reeds. Once accomplished, they returned to Xiang Shaolong’s side and inquired: “What do we do next?”
Regaining his cool and determination as a top elite special forces commando, Xiang Shaolong replied: “It depends on the enemies’ movement. Unless I am wrong, the men who were left behind will continue searching this area to confirm that we are not in hiding. Once confirmed, they will contact those men who have moved further down the road. That will be the time to retaliate.”
Teng Yi nodded: “This is a brilliant move. Once the enemy suffers an ambush, they will retreat back to the path and seal our escape route. At the same time, they will use a flare to inform those men ahead of us. This way, they will surround us from the front and the back. That will be the best time we will use the rafts and leave this area quickly.”
Ji Yanran praised: “Fantastic! Even if Sun Wu is here, he may not be able to think of such an excellent plan.”
Xiang Shaolong can feel his confidence and fighting will improve by leaps and bounds. Under his strict commands, Jing Jun and the Eighteen Guardians divide themselves into groups of threes and fours. Taking up advantageous spots around the campsite, they held their bows ready.
They may be smaller in numbers but every one of them is well-versed in night combat as well as jungle warfare. Their killing ability is not to be taken lightly.
Xiang Shaolong, Teng Yi and Ji Yanran hid themselves behind some rocks near the hilltop. Their mind at ease, they await the enemies’ appearance.
The new moon rises up slowly to take its place in the sky, surrounded by countless stars. As the fog begins to disperse, the enemies came into view.
They formed ten odd units and are conducting a search slowly along the river.
Opposite the river are another seventeen or eighteen men in three groups. They are the first to enter the firing range of Jing Jun and his three fellow hunters.
Xiang Shaolong and his two companions could sense ten odd men approaching their hiding place. The atmosphere was as tense as a drawn bowstring.
They held their breaths and continue to wait patiently.
As planned, one of their men deliberately provoked a warhorse hidden in the forest. The horse reacts with a loud neighing sound, breaking the silence of the forest.
The enemies begin to move quickly towards the sound of the neighing.
A series of tragic shouts can be heard. Needless to say, the enemies have fallen into animal traps set up by Jing Jun and the hunters. With sharp wooden stakes at the bottom of the pit, a number of men were killed or heavily injured.
Xiang Shaolong and his men knew that it is time. First, they shot out their burning fireb.a.l.l.s all around the enemies. It was followed by an endless volley of arrows.
Under the glow of the fire, the attackers were caught unaware and descended into chaos. Cries of help and sound of people falling filled the air. It was a pathetic sight.
The most formidable was of course Teng Yi. Arrows left his bow continuously with rest. The moment an enemy was sighted, his arrow will fly and embed itself in the enemy’s body as if it can see.
Since they were hiding in several spots along the river, arrows were shot from different directions and the enemy could not find a safe hiding place at all.
In a short span of time, over ten enemies have been shot dead. Those surviving whistled urgently to retreat and they withdrew in panic.
A flare shot up the sky and exploded into silvery white sparks.
Xiang Shaolong charged downhill and trailed the retreating enemies, striking those in his reach. After he struck down seven or eight men, he returned to the forest. Everyone collected their horses, retrieved Wu Jie, boarded their three rafts and floated downstream.
Finally, they vented some of their suppressed anger.
In the main hall of the Wu Family Farm, like a defeated man, Wu Tingwei and Wu Jie kneeled down in front of an incensed Wu Yingyuan.
Xiang Shaolong, Teng Yi, Jing Jun, Wu Guo, Pu Bu, Liu Chao and Tao Fang stood on both sides, staring icily at the two Wu family traitors.
Wu Tingwei continued to protest: “I am only thinking about the family. How can we hope to defeat Premier Lu?”
Wu Yingyuan furiously cursed: “To think that I have been successful all my life and yet give birth to a nitwit and unfilial son. If Lu Buwei manages to kill Shaolong, he will kill you next to seal you mouth. Tell me! Did anyone from Premier Residence arrange to meet you after the ambush?”
Wu Tingwei was taken aback, proving that there is indeed such an arrangement.
He may not be the brightest person around but will still understand a simple philosophy called dead men tell no tales.
Beside him, Wu Jie was shaking with fear, knowing that the house rules are extremely strict.
Wu Yingyuan sighed: “I do what I say. Not only have you disobeyed my order, you are worse than a beast. Men! Bring these two men out to be executed immediately.”
Wu Tingwei collapsed and shook with fear, exclaiming: “Father, I am wrong.”
Four family warriors came to their sides and restrained them.
Xiang Shaolong interceded: “Father-in-law, please listen to me. Why don’t we send him to the north and help Big Brother? This way, he can acc.u.mulate merits to compensate for his mistakes.”
Wu Yingyuan slowly sighed: “I understand your concern. But this concerns the survival of the whole family. If because he is my own son and I am lenient, the authority of our Wu Family house rules will be gone. Everyone will not submit and the other family elders will think that I practise favouritism. Originally, I have three sons but I’ll take it that I only have two sons. Come! Bring them to the ancestral hall and invite all the family heads to witness. I want everyone to know that family traitors will share the same punishment.”
Wu Tingwei realised that his father is not trying to frighten him. His legs turning soft like mud, he begged for mercy.
Xiang Shaolong wanted to say something else.
Wu Yingyuan coldly decided: “I have made up my mind and nothing will change it. I have no hesitation in sacrificing a son and gaining everyone’s cooperation.”
Everyone was dumbfounded as Wu Tingwei and Wu Jie were dragged out.
Wu Yingyuan is right. His insistence in executing Wu Tingwei has everyone in shock. n.o.body else within the family will dare to oppose him in fighting Lu Buwei to the end.
Even such an elaborate plot has failed to take Xiang Shaolong’s life, giving hope and confidence to everyone.
The power and prestige of the Wu Family in Xianyang is no longer despised by the Qin population like before.
With the army favouring Xiang Shaolong, including Lu Buwei’s general Meng Ao, they are in a much stronger position than before.
Since this plan has failed, Lu Buwei will naturally hatch another plot.
But Wu Tingwei’s death has created some problems as well.
His mother Madam Wu and Wu Tingfang became very sick around the same time. Amazingly, Wu Yingyuan is surprising strong-willed and handled the daily affairs as per normal. He summoned his two sons who are doing business and sent them to the north to open up farmlands, focusing on expanding their influence there.
This has been approved by King Zhuangxiang and even Lu Buwei cannot interfere.
Xiang Shaolong busied himself with the training of his army and spent two months in peace and harmony. Today, Tao Fang showed up with the latest news from Xianyang City.
Listening to his report are Wu Yingyuan, Xiang Shaolong, Teng Yi, Jing Jun and Wu Yingyuan’s two brothers Wu Yingjie and Wu Yingen.
Tao Fang started: “According to Qin customs, after three and a half months since his death, King Zhuangxiang’s funeral will be held at the Royal Temple. Every state has sent a representative to pay their respects. Tian Dan is representing Qi; I wonder what he is up to.”
Xiang Shaolong was aroused: “For Tian Dan to come personally, he must be up to something. I am not surprised that Qi sent someone as they did not join the combined army fighting Qin six months ago. But aren’t the five states still at war with Qin? Why did they send representatives as well?”
Tao Fang explained: “Prince Xinling’s military seal has been confiscated and is spending his time aimlessly in Daliang. The four armies retreated one after another and made truce with Lu Buwei. Every state is afraid of Qin attacking them and are busy presenting gifts and bribes. Xianyang City will be the centre of attention once again.”
Xiang Shaolong thought that Lord Longyang will definitely represent Wei but who will the other states send? He hates to see people like Li Yuan and Guo Kai again.
Wu Yingyuan questioned: “Anything from Lu Buwei?”
Tao Fang shrugged his shoulders: “I believe he is too busy to pay attention to us. With the change of power, the most important task is to consolidate the country’s authority. I heard that he made several changes to the high-ranking officials and generals with the support of Empress Ji. He did not touch Xu Xian’s or w.a.n.g Ling’s men as the official posts that they are occupying are irrelevant.”
Wu Yingen mused: “He will carry out his plot step by step.”
Everyone nodded in agreement.
Teng Yi faced Xiang Shaolong and enquired: “If we can disrupt the relationship between Lu Buwei and Empress Ji, it will be as good as cutting of one of his limbs. What does Third Brother think?”
Everyone was eyeing him with high expectations. Xiang Shaolong bitterly laughed and replied: “I will proceed accordingly.”
Tao Fang suggested: “Shaolong should make a quick trip to Xianyang City. Empress Ji has tried to summon you three times but I have rejected them, saying that you are unwell. I don’t think it is good to ignore her too many times.”
Xiang Shaolong brightened up and resolved: “I will return to Xianyang City tomorrow.”
Xiang Shaolong was daydreaming about meeting Empress Ji.
Now that King Zhuangxiang is dead and if Zhu Ji wanted to get close to him, what shall he do?
He has the deepest respect for King Zhuangxiang and should not be getting close to his widow.
This is something unacceptable.
Back at the Hidden Dragon Abode, Ji Yanran is chatting with Wu Tingfang in private. Wu Tingfang is still sick and bedridden.
With his own brother executed according to the family rules, this beauty’s face is dead white and she is so thin until her cheeks have sunk into her face. Xiang Shaolong was grieved.
Ji Yanran saw him coming and stood up, advising: “Have a good chat with Tingfang!” Winking at him, she left the bedroom.
Xiang Shaolong understood that Tingfang hates her own brother for betraying the family and her father for being heartless. With conflicting emotions affecting her mentally, she fell sick.
Sighing to himself, he sat at her bedside and lightly caressed her shoulder. He noticed a bowl in her hand that is still full of medicine and softly asked: “Not taking your medicine again?”
Wu Tingfang’s eyes reddened and she lowered her head, sobbing silently.
No one knows her spoilt temper better than Xiang Shaolong. Once she throws a tantrum, no one can calm her down. Bending down to her ear, he whispered: “You are angry at father; but the real culprit is Lu Buwei. Everybody else is innocent. If you take it personally, not only will you remain sick, your mum will also be in bad health. Your father and I will be anxious about the two of you and cannot focus on fighting our real enemies. Do you understand?”
Wu Tingfang thought about it and nodded her head obediently.
Xiang Shaolong wiped away her tears and took this chance to feed her the bowl of medicine, coaxing: “That’s my girl. You must get well soon and visit your mum.”
Wu Tingfang protested: “The medicine is very bitter!”
Xiang Shaolong kissed her face and covered her with a blanket. He waited until she fell asleep and returned to the hall.
Zhao Zhi, Ji Yanran and the Tian sisters are playing with baby Bao’er. If Wu Tingfang is there as well, it would be perfect.
He received Bao’er from Ji Yanran and watched the sweet smile on his face. His heart swelled up with a strong will.
Lu Buwei can harm him and he can harm Lu Buwei as well.
The first man he must kill is not Lu Buwei but the devious and clever Mo Ao.
For every day he lives, one day, he will come up with a plot that will finally take Xiang Shaolong’s life.
Wu Tingfang’s health improved greatly. By the third day, she is strong enough to leave her bed and visit her mother.
She has become a quieter person and does not like to talk much or meet people outside the family. However, her eyes are glowing with never-seen-before determination. It seems that Xiang Shaolong’s words have untied the knot in her heart, making her shift her hatred to Lu Buwei.
Now that she has recovered, Xiang Shaolong could finally put his mind at rest. With Teng Yi and Jing Jun, they left for Xianyang City.
The Eighteen Guardians have been increased to Eighty Guardians, increasing their might.
With everyone alert and travelling non-stop, they reached Xianyang City within a day.
Xiang Shaolong entered the palace and sought an audience with Empress Zhu Ji and the soon-to-be-king Xiao Pan.
Zhu Ji has lost considerable weight but Xiao Pan is looking great and energetic, contrasting the mourning clothes that don him.
They were overjoyed to see him. Dismissing their men, Zhu Ji went straight to the point: “Shaolong, what’s up with you? Out of the blue, you slipped back to the farm and I cannot even find someone to talk to.”
Xiang Shaolong was secretly stunned. With her husband dead, Zhu Ji is like a phoenix that has been set free. Nothing can hold her down anymore. He paid his obeisance to them, took his seat and answered: “Please excuse me, Empress. I have my own troubles as well.”
Xiao Pan lowered his head, understanding what he meant.
Zhu Ji demanded: “Tell me about it or I will not let you leave.”
From her tone, she did not treat him like a subordinate but as a friend.
Xiao Pan interceded: “Mother, please spare Grand Tutor Xiang. If he can say it, he would have done so.”
Zhu Ji exclaimed: “The two of you are ganging up against me?”
Xiao Pan winked warmly at Xiang Shaolong, stating: “I take my leave. Mother should have a good chat with Grand Tutor Xiang!”
Looking at him leaving, Xiang Shaolong almost wanted to pull him back. His biggest fear now is to be alone with Zhu Ji.
When they were alone, Zhu Ji became quiet instead. After some time, she lightly sighed: “Is there some differences between you and Buwei?”
Xiang Shaolong kept quiet.
Zhu Ji scrutinized him for a while and slowly revealed: “When you returned from your last mission, I can tell that you have lost your bearings and seemed to have become a different person. Buwei has a funny look in his eyes when he looks at you. I know him too well. To achieve success, he will resort to all means. Isn’t it obvious when he presented me to Zhuangxiang? He told me he will never leave me in the morning and by night I am with another man. ”
She suddenly asked: “Will Shaolong blame me for not differentiating between good and evil?”
Only Xiang Shaolong will understand these words.
Zhu Ji, Xiao Pan and Lu Buwei’s fate are intertwined together.
Lu Buwei need Zhu Ji and Xiao Pan to continue his hold of power and run the country legitimately. Zhu Ji and Xiao Pan needs Lu Buwei to manage the opposing court officials.
With rumours that Xiao Pan is Lu Buwei’s son and if Zhu Ji eliminates Lu Buwei, they will be in danger. Without Lu Buwei, before Xiao Pan can be crowned King, they may be toppled down already.
Xiang Shaolong bowed: “How can I blame Empress?”
With an agonized smile, Zhu Ji softly reminded: “Remember the day when we left the Wu Family Fortress in Handan City? I promised Grandmaster Wu that as long as I am alive, Wu family will live in prosperity. I have never forgotten my promise; Shaolong can rest easy.”
Xiang Shaolong was touched that Zhu Ji remembered her promise in times like this and was lost for words.
Zhu Ji brightened up and added: “Two days ago, Xu Xian, Lu Gong and w.a.n.g Ling proposed that you be promoted as the Imperial Cavalry Commander, leading ten thousand cavalry and securing the safety of Xianyang City. Lu Buwei objected strongly to their proposal. I did not know how would you feel and did not insist. I am surprised that the three most powerful men in the military are supporting you. Shaolong! You must not hide anymore. Little Zheng and I need you by our side!”
Xiang Shaolong was stunned. Does Xu Xian and the rest know that he is opposing Lu Buwei?
Zhu Ji wailed: “You! Aren’t you concerned about the Wu family’s safety?”
Xiang Shaolong knew what she meant.
If she must choose between Lu Buwei and himself, she will choose him.
If he can replace Lu Buwei and protect her and Xiao Pan, then Lu Buwei will be unnecessary.
Hatefully, he knew that Lu Buwei will not be easily toppled. It is all recorded in history.
He nodded his head vigorously: “Thanks for Empress’s concern!”
Zhu Ji’s face reddened and she lowered her head, commenting: “As long as you do not treat me like an outsider, I will be satisfied.”
Xiang Shaolong bitterly smiled: “I have never considered you as an outsider. But the King has treated me well, how can I… Ai!”
Zhu Ji’s eyes shone with anger, sighing: “How can I forget his love too? Shaolong spoke to him before he pa.s.sed away. I think I can guess what it is. But please do not tell me because I do not want to know it now. I hope Shaolong can take pity on me and my unfavourable circ.u.mstances.”
Xiang Shaolong discovers that Zhu Ji is cleverer than he expected. Reminded about Lao Ai, he wonders if he should challenge fate and warn her beforehand. The attendant at the gate suddenly reports: “Right Premier Lu Buwei is here to seek an audience with Empress.”
Xiang Shaolong wished he could disappear into thin air. Of all people, he has to run into his arch enemy today.