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Kou Zhong was about to enter the Palace with Chang He to pay a New Year call, Dugu Feng was rushing over from behind. Apologizing to Chang He, she asked Kou Zhong to step aside to talk. She said, “Mo Xiansheng’s art of healing is indeed like a deity. From yesterday until now, I just can’t explain how well Momo [grandma/elderly lady, see also Akolaw’s comment on Book 32 Chapter 11] is, she did not even gasping for breath in her sleep. She said that in thirty years she had never slept all through the night until daybreak like last night. Therefore, she specifically told Feng’er to invite Xiansheng’s good self over so that she could thank you in person.”
Now that he knew that Wu Lou Si’s possibility was greater, correspondingly, Kou Zhong’s interest in Dugu Feng’s suspected mansion house was declining. He quietly mused that if he cured You Chuhong’s asthma, he could not tell how much more formidable this vicious old granny would be. Thereupon, he cleared his throat and said, “Feng Guniang do not need to be overly courteous, but today Xiaoren is simply too busy. When I have spare time in a couple of days, I will definitely stop by to pay a visit to Lao Furen [old madame] and Feng Guniang.”
Dugu Feng understood; she said, “Currently, Mo Xiansheng must be the busiest person in Chang’an. Say, last night Mo Xiansheng was really impressive; striding forward with head high, you came forward to confirm that that fellow called Mo Wei actually lost; the other side did not dare not to admit, yet you magnanimously treated his injury. Die and Ge [dad and bro, respectively], they praised you very much.”
Kou Zhong was a bit at a loss on how to ward off her admiring gaze, musing that when he was all right, it was not effective, but now that he was ugly, it was effective. If she really took a fancy on this ‘ugly man’, it would be thoroughly troublesome. Embarrassed, he said, “I was not thinking of confirming that that Mo Wei fellow was the loser; I was simply acting based on the feeling in my heart. Hey, I must hurry up to the Imperial Palace. In a couple of days I will pay Lao Furen a New Year call.”
Smiling sweetly, Dugu Feng said, “I just got back from the Imperial Palace. Last night, Shuni, me, and your Wu Xiaojie were having fun all night. Today is the New Year’s Day and the day to congratulate the imperial court. Huangshang is sitting on his dragon throne at the Taiji Palace, receiving the civil and military cabinet ministers, princes and dukes, nobilities and relatives – coming to the imperial court’s well wishes. In the Palace woodwind and string instruments are playing, making joyful music. Even in the old dynasty when Yang Guang was the Emperor, it was nothing more than this.”
Fortunately this moment Chang He came back to urge Kou Zhong’s good self to hurry. It was only then did Dugu Feng reluctantly let him go.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Kou Zhong sat down in the carriage that Chang He prepared for him.
Chang He laughed and said, “She seems to have a bit of affection toward you!”
With a rueful smile Kou Zhong replied, “She just looks upon my medical expertise. Whether family background, status, talent or appearance, how could Xiaodi match her?”
Chang He spoke with serious expression, “I respectfully disagree. Right now, as long as you, LaoGe nod your head, I guarantee that the Imperial Physician office will fall on you. That is a Zheng Er Pin [principal second grade] high-ranking official position, of the same rank as Liu Zhenghui, Wen Yanbo, and the others. After the world is unified, all the physicians across the nation will be working under you.”
Kou Zhong said, “My natural disposition is that I don’t like to be a government employee. What could be more enjoyable than living a carefree life? For this reason, women of honorable school, noble women born of large and influential family, unfortunately Xiaodi cannot enjoy!”
Chang He laughed and said, “What about Shang Xiufang? Zhenghui and I got a feeling that she is treating you differently.”
Kou Zhong blurted out laughing and said, “This is not a laughing matter even more. She is the fairy in the sky, how could I, a mere mortal, dare to be delusional?”
The sound of hoof beats rang out. A lone rider was chasing after them from behind.
Stunned, Chang He and Kou Zhong looked back.
※ ※ ※
The one coming to look for them was Hou Xibai. It was only then did Xu Ziling and Lei Jiuzhi realize that they were being paranoid.
With a face full of spring breeze, Hou Xibai wished them a Happy New Year first, before sitting down and said, “I have to trouble Ziling to become Mo Wei again. Today I just got to Qin Wang Mansion to pay a New Year call, on my way back I came across Hu Xiaoxian head on; she forced me to immediately go with her to Ming Tang Wo to pay a formal visit to the ‘Great Immortal’ Hu Fo. Fortunately, in dealing with women, Xiaodi could be considered having some skill. But I still had to spend considerable effort with my mouth and tongue before I was able to get away. Afterwards I still had to explain to Bu Jie and the others.”
Xu Ziling’s relaxed and comfortable feeling was immediately swept clean. After listening to the details, he asked, “How’s your training in Immortal Image Method?”
Hou Xibai’s spirit greatly aroused, he said, “Shi Shi is indeed an out-of-this-world marvelous talent, unexpectedly he was able to create such a wide-ranging and profound gongfa. Without a year or a half, how could I master it? Presently I am only swallowing everything in one gulp, committing the entire scroll into my memory. Afterwards I am going to burn the entire Image Scroll into ashes, so that Yang Xuyan would never obtain it.”
“Then you must not have slept last night,” Lei Jiuzhi commented.
Hou Xibai laughed suavely and said, “One or half a night less sleep is nothing.”
Xu Ziling turned serious, “Hou Xiong must be a bit more careful. Although last night our theft was neat and tidy, Yang Xuyan would definitely guess that it was us. Furthermore, your esteemed master’s reaction is quite difficult to foresee. If he made his mind to destroy Hou Xiong, Hou Xiong’s situation would turn extremely dangerous.”
Smiling bitterly, Hou Xibai said, “I have already considered this outcome, but I have no other choice, hence I must destroy the Image Scroll. Unless Shi Shi disregards our school’s law, or else, even if Xiaodi’s life cannot be guaranteed, Yang Xuyan still loses the qualifications to learn the Immortal Image Method.”
Lei Jiuzhi could not help asking, “What kind of person your esteemed master actually is?”
Hou Xibai’s countenance turned dark. It was half a day later that he shook his head and said, “I really am not clear. Since I was young I was an orphan; I was raised by one servant of Shi Shi’s. Every so often Shi Shi would come to see me, teaching me all kinds of arts and martial arts. Sometimes he was like compassionate father, showing affection and consideration in every possible way. But other times he was like a cold-hearted stranger. I really don’t know how to aptly describe him.”
Xu Ziling spoke resolutely, “Hou Xiong better leave Guanzhong immediately.”
Shaken, Hou Xibai said, “You are so sure he is going to kill me?”
Puzzled, Lei Jiuzhi said, “As long as Shi Zhixuan cannot see through Xiao Hou’s disguise as Mo Wei, he should be all right.”
With grave expression, Xu Ziling said, “The person on the spot is baffled, the onlooker sees clear. Nobody understands Hou Xiong’s ins and outs better than Shi Zhixuan. Mo Wei came from Bashu, plus he has outstanding martial art skill. He will eventually arouse Shi Zhixuan’s suspicion. The battle of the Imperial Palace last night will only bring harm to us without any benefit.”
Hou Xibai’s countenance changed, he said, “Right now I, Ziling and Shao Shuai, three persons’ destiny is tightly intertwined; if one person is seen through, the other two will be implicated.”
Xu Ziling smiled and said, “Hence the reason I want you to avoid the problem by walking away from it. It will avoid Hu Xiaoxian’s entanglement, it will also remove one weak point from us of revealing any flaw, and Hou Xiong will be able to concentrate fully on training the Immortal Image Method. It could be said one move, three gains.”
Hou Xibai pondered quietly for half a day; his handsome countenance alternated between clear and cloudy. It was quite a long time later that he said, “I wonder if Ziling is ready to have a frontal conflict against Shi Shi?”
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “Hou Xiong is indeed an understanding person. In order to avoid Hou Xiong being hard pressed from left and right, combined with considerations on other aspects, Hou Xiong really ought to leave immediately. This is the best thing we can do under current circumstances.”
Hou Xibai revealed a pained smile and said, “You guys disregarded everything in helping me obtaining the Immortal Image Scroll, yet I avoid the problem by walking away from it. If something happens to you, how could I, Hou Xibai, rest or eat in peace in the future?”
Lei Jiuzhi said, “I agree with Ziling’s proposal. This is beneficial to both parties. As for the two of them, you don’t need to worry even more. What occasion and situation they have not been able to cope with?”
Xu Ziling did not let him to think too much. He said, “Hou Xiong go back immediately, write a letter, more or less explaining that you are actually Gong Chenchun and not Mo Wei; because Hu Xiaoxian saw through your identity, plus in the battle last night you received internal injury, you had to leave without saying goodbye, and so on, something like that. Brandishing characters, playing with ink, you are naturally more adept than I am.”
Hou Xibai smiled wryly and said, “Xiaodi has never thought about making lifelong friendships with anybody, but today I made three. Very well, I’ll do it according to what Ziling said.”
Xu Ziling smiled and said, “This will be greatly beyond Shi Zhixuan and Wan Yaonu’s expectation, while we also regain a bit of upper hand. From now on we have the initiative totally in our hands, otherwise we would end up nursing a grievance in Chang’an.”
Hou Xibai stretched out his palm to grasp Xu Ziling’s; his eyes emitted profound emotion, he said, “Take care of yourself!”
※ ※ ※
Chang He focused his attention to look; he exclaimed in low voice, “It’s Xiuning Gongzhu’s [princess] man.”
‘Not good!’ Kou Zhong secretly cried.
The man urged his horse to the carriage’s side. After saluting, he said, “After paying a New Year’s visit at the Imperial Court this morning, Xiuning Gongzhu suddenly felt unwell. We have to trouble Mo Xiansheng into the Palace to examine her.”
Kou Zhong was well aware of what was going on. He had made too big of a mistake last night by exposing his trace; swaggering like that and standing in the middle of the palace hall, making public appearance together with Xu Ziling, naturally Li Xiuning, who was familiar with him, was able to see through in just one glance.
Without any better option he turned to Chang He and said with a wry smile, “After entering the Palace, we have no choice but to take different roads and urge the horses on. I will also have to trouble you to apologize to Taizi Dianxia on my behalf that after seeing Xiuning Gongzhu, I will have to see Shang Xiufang.”
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling’s Yong Qin once again went to the Shang He An next to Dong Da Si. After reporting his intention, he was brought by the receiving nun to the simple and unadorned guest parlor.
His natural disposition was also simple and unadorned, with a passion for nature. In the guest parlor, other than a small table and several chairs, the walls on all four sides were bare, yet it gave him relaxed, peaceful, and suitably calming feeling instead.
In this tranquil frame of mind, the present situation of Chang’an appeared in his mind.
You Niaojuan indeed did not lie to him. Zhu Yuyan, Zhao Deyan and Shi Zhixuan were joining hands to conduct a big conspiracy to topple Li Shimin. If their plot succeeded, the Great Tang nation, which was like the sun in the middle of the sky, would be all split up and in pieces, turning from prosperity to decline.
If he guessed correctly, the central figures in this conspiracy ought to be Yang WenGan, Yang Xuyan and Xiang Yushan, three men. The conspiracy would take place during the annual hunting trip when Li Yuan was going to the Ren Zhi Palace at the foot of Mount Zhongnan. Their target was to wipe out Li Shimin and his men in one fell swoop, and then to exercise control over Li Yuan, forcing him to abdicate his throne to Li Jiancheng.
At that time, if they could make Li Jiancheng their puppet figurehead, the Great Tang Nation would fall into Yang WenGan and Yang Xuyan’s hands, which was akin to the surviving members of the Yang family of the evil former regime, the House of Sui, recovering their power once again.
Li Shimin and his men, the Heavenly Policy Mansion’s battle generals and personal soldiers were veteran of a hundred battles, undefeated mighty army. The Black Armor Riders’ name intimidated the world even more.
Battlefield was unlike the fights and vendettas in Jianghu. It required the power of the group; it had to go through detailed organization, drill, the art of war, battle formation, strategy and tactics, and good display of leadership; there was no place for luck.
In direct confrontation, even if Yang WenGan’s side had several times the number of people, it would be difficult for them to prevail. Once they let Li Shimin’s side mobilizing the Great Tang Army, even ten Jingzhao Lian would be forced to bag their food and leave before they finished eating. Therefore, Yang WenGan could only watch for the opportunity when they were unprepared, and then using ten-thousand-jun-thunderbolt-momentum attacked Li Shimin and caught him off guard.
The most important reason Xiang Yushan was involved in this matter was that he was an outsider whom Li Shimin did not even know, so he could move outside the Heavenly Policy Mansion’s surveillance network.
If Yin Gui Pai’s superior quality, made-in Jiangnan firearms fell into his hands, under particular environment, they could bring out hard-to-imagine destructive power.
So far, it suddenly became clear to him why Haisha Bang, which belonged to Shen Faxing, was willing to supply firearms to Bai Qing’er; it was simply because Li Shimin has become the number one big enemy for the warlords vying for supremacy, for those who were setting up independent regimes.
The Xiang Family turned from being in the open to being in the dark. Officially it was out of fear of him and Kou Zhong, but actually it was because he secretly colluded with various sects of the demonic school. On one hand, he continued doing business for Xiao Xian, but on the other hand, it was to deal with the two of them.
He was now certain that once they knew the location of the buried treasure, Zhu Yuyan would do everything she could to have them killed with all her strength, and then she would hog the treasure all for herself, and use the weapons within the treasure to assist Lin Shihong to obtain the world.
Xu Ziling had a feeling that Shi Zhixuan had already seen through Hou Xibai’s identity. So much so that after last night’s event, Kou Zhong also exposed his foundation; it’s just that he did not tell Yang Xuyan.
Based on Shi Zhixuan’s strength, with him lying in wait for the opportunity, he would definitely be able to snatch the Demonic Emperor Relics from their hands.
The current situation was extremely disadvantageous for him and Kou Zhong. Their every move was under the enemy’s ring of spies and surveillance, while they still had no clue about the Duke Yang’s Treasure. Therefore, they must seize back the initiative from being passive. Otherwise, they would always be in the disadvantageous position of taking a beating.
Thinking to this point, he could not help sighing.
Outside the window, fine flakes of snow were swirling in the air, increasing the indescribable melancholy of the beginning of the year.
Shi Feixuan’s gentle voice rang out, “The beginning of a new year, nature is taking on a new look. The whole year must be planned for in the spring [idiom: early planning is the key to success]; what new plan does Ziling have?”
Xu Ziling looked up to the entrance door; immediately he was stunned.
※ ※ ※
Li Xiuning’s residence, the Princess Mansion ‘Yi Yu Xuan’ [lit. proper rain pavilion (with a view)] was located east of the West Park. The cluster of gardens and courtyards were built by utilizing the original natural environment, it was elegant, quiet and secluded. Compared to the other palace halls and courtyards in the Imperial Palace, it had more fresh and clean flavor.
The main structure was located at the southern end, with layers of lakes and rockeries on the northern part, and small winding bridges scattered around. The artificial lake was extending toward the hall, where it turned into a winding stream, sprinkled with odd-shaped rocks.
The stream winded around the pavilion [orig. xuan, see above] on the west side and flowed into the fan-shaped lake on the south side of the pavilion, bringing about a rippling effect of the water of the lake lapping against the shore. It was quite an open country artistic mood, the relationship between the water and the buildings was handled exceptionally outstanding; clearly it came from a master architect’s conception.
Perhaps it was because these past couple of days his mind was revolving around all kinds of construction designs, quite naturally Kou Zhong’s mind was able to appreciate the relationship between the scenery and the resulting effect, he was very interested and enthusiastic.
Stepping over the small bridge, passing through the main pavilion, Kou Zhong went straight into the inner courtyard; from the main room, entering the inner chamber, he reached Li Xiuning’s fragrant chamber, which unconcerned person would be barred from entering. All sorts of feelings welled up in his heart.
Over the years, although he had intentionally shifted his love toward Song Yuzhi, but toward Li Xiuning, the beauty who made him fall in love for the first time, he was still unable to forget. Usually he simply suppressed this feeling, but as soon as he saw her, old affection was rolling over and over, making him unable to control himself.
Li Xiuning was sitting on a couch-chair outside her bedroom toward a small hall. Seeing him coming, she motioned him to dispense with common court protocol, and also dismissed the palace maids and servants.
Kou Zhong absent-mindedly sat down beside her.
Li Xiuning sighed and said, “Ay! I really am at a loss about you. Tell me, what should I do?”
Naturally Kou Zhong understood the contradiction in her heart. He, Kou Zhong, has become the big enemy of their Li Family; he came to Chang’an to conspire about the hidden treasure, which might be able to topple the House of Tang. Li Xiuning could not bear to lodge an accusation against him, but covering up the truth on his behalf, she felt guilty toward her father and elder brothers. The pressures she felt from left and right could be easily imagined.
Her hair was combed in a pair of spiral coils, on her forehead she wore elaborate hoop made of exquisite coral, on her body she wore high-collared lake water green and dark yellow decorative design dress that was connected to full-body gauze skirt, and silk floss gown draped over her shoulders to defend against the cold. The magnificent and beautiful clothes and ornaments did not fail to put her lucid and elegant, free from vulgarity personality traits on full display, so that Kou Zhong felt a rush of excitement, while his feeling of inferiority was even more painful.
Li Xiuning’s beautiful eyes gazed on him, she said, “Why don’t you say something?”
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “Gongzhu, there is no need to feel difficult, we and your esteemed brother Shimin have reached agreement. We will help him go through the crisis, and he won’t care about what we are doing in Chang’an. Only if I really carry the treasure away will he look for me to give me bad luck. This way, won’t Gongzhu feel a bit better?”
Li Xiuning was astonished, “What crisis?” she asked.
This moment a maid’s voice was calling from outside the door, “Reporting to Ning Gongzhu, Fuma-Ye-to-be [emperor’s son-in-law] has arrived.”
Kou Zhong’s tiger-body was severely shaken. “Fuma-Ye-to-be?” he blurted out.
※ ※ ※
This was the first time that Xu Ziling saw Shi Feixuan returning to wearing women’s clothes, but it was also the first time that he saw her wearing the grey coarse hemp garment of those who had left home [to become Buddhist/Daoist monk/nun].
Her cloud-like beautiful hair cascaded like waterfall over her shoulders and her back. Her uniquely jade-countenance quiet-and-contented-without-any-ripple, her plain and simple cloth robe against her skin emphasized her beautiful innate, complete-beauty-without-any-flaw character.
A burst of inconsolable pain appeared in Xu Ziling’s heart, as if his liver and intestines were about to break. Shi Feixuan was dressed like this to see him, it was to show him that she was a person who had left her home and definitely would not set foot on the emotional entanglement between men and women.
He suddenly felt that his dealings with her were like spring dream, autumn cloud, which eventually he could only look back in his mind, as an unbearable memory.
Suddenly he had an impulse in his heart; if right now he avoided the problem by walking away from it and forever would not see her again, what would the consequences be? Would she feel sad? Or perhaps regret?
Although this impulse could only appear among the fantasies in his mind, but thinking about it could also bring the delight of revenge of the pain that arose because of this; even more, it could also compensate slightly the disappointment in his heart due to being treated like this by her.
Xu Ziling endured all kinds of feeling attacking and piercing through his heart, and then he ferociously took a deep breath to discharge all flights of fancy from his mind, to return his heart to the tranquil state of still water.
It was at this moment that he secretly made steadfast determination not to indulge himself in any wild fantasy or delusion of longing for Shi Feixuan. It was highly likely that the other side’s reaction was due to his alias ‘Yong Qin’ [lit. harmony with Qin]. This time Lei Jiuzhi has indeed brought terrible damage to him.
But it also made him more aware of Shi Feixuan’s wishes.
Shi Feixuan sat down by his side. The crisp spring breeze lightly blew inside from the quiet and peaceful courtyard via the window, carrying with it the fresh smell of rain and snow.
The blue sky seemed to have disappeared. He could only see the vast expanse of whiteness of the never-ending spring snow floating down in the air. It seemed like there was nothing else on the earth except two beating hearts.
Xu Ziling’s gaze was fixed on the tip of his boots, he spoke calmly, “The demonic school’s three giants, Zhu Yuyan, Shi Zhixuan and Zhao Deyan are joining hands, conspiring to assassinate Qin Wang.”
Shi Feixuan did not show any particular reaction. She responded indifferently, “I heard yesterday Ziling came to look for Feixuan, but came across Qin Wang, and the two of you talked for a while.”
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “This was perhaps Laotianye’s arrangement, so that he could pass through this calamity.”
Knitting her brows, Shi Feixuan said, “Qin Wang always guards against Jiancheng, Yuanji’s inappropriate conduct, he is always very careful. Even if they launched sneak attack, it might not necessarily be effective. Song JinGang has tried it, the outcome was that he returned without any achievement.”
Xu Ziling said, “This time the plan might be even more thoroughly auspicious. I hear large quantities of firearms are involved. If the plan is matched with appropriate timing, plus Qin Wang’s attention is only focused on the Chang Lin Army’s movements, maybe it could cause the ship to capsize in the gutter.”
Shi Feixuan’s pretty eyebrows were tightly knitted; she spoke in astonishment, “Li Yuan has always exercised strict control on weapons, firearms and the like; unless they are from forced robbery. Otherwise, where could large quantities of firearms come from?”
Xu Ziling said, “Therefore, if we could investigate the location of this batch of firearms, we could uncover, as well as thwart, the entire conspiracy. Moreover, since this matter involves Yang WenGan, Yang Xuyan, even the Tujue people, Li Jiancheng would not be able to escape responsibility. As a result, perhaps Qin Wang would be able to, in a perfectly legitimate way, become the Crown Prince.”
Shi Feixuan’s beautiful eyes brightened. She smiled and said, “Could Ziling tell me more details?”
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