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The snow stopped.
The moment Shen Luoyan steered the small boat off the pier, Xu Ziling arrived at the Fei Yun [lit. flying cloud] Bridge, which was smaller in scale compared to the Yue Ma Bridge. Looking south, over two river bends, was precisely the Yue Ma Bridge.
Xu Ziling had a déjà vu of that day in Luoyang; he felt as if everything before his eyes had happened before, but everything also felt strangely unfamiliar.
Shen Luoyan lifted the oar to let the current brought the boat to gently bump into the bridge pier. She curled up her knees and wrapped her lily-white hands around them, and then she lowered her forehead and propped her head between her knees. Her bright and beautiful, yet carrying a bit of vicissitudes – eyes, under the new moon’s slanting beam, which had just reappeared from behind the black cloud, were fixed on Xu Ziling with full interest, but she did not say anything.
Being at the receiving end of her stare, Xu Ziling felt awkward, but at the bottom of his heart he still admitted that Shen Luoyan’s posture and appearance were extremely moving. Smiling slightly, he said, “Tonight Shen Junshi were asking me to come here, I wonder what instruction you would like to bestow?”
Shen Luoyan gently shrugged her shoulders, “Nothing,” she replied, “I just wanted to see you! How old are you this year? I shouldn’t be too much older than you are, my guess is probably two or three years older. This year you ought to be twenty-two or twenty-three, only after your birthday will you be considered one year older.”
Smiling ruefully, Xu Ziling said, “Shen Xiaojie seems to forget that she is now another man’s wife. As friends, seeing each other should not be a problem, but if like right now, in the depth of the night, on a small boat under the bridge, it could provoke other people’s misunderstanding.”
Laughing softly, Shen Luoyan said, “Are you saying that it should be no problem to reserve a table at the Fu Ju Lou, to see you under ten thousand of staring eyes?”
Xu Ziling was at a loss for words.
Shen Luoyan stopped her smile; lowering her voice, she said, “What I am about to tell you is very important, you have to listen carefully.”
Xu Ziling shivered greatly in his heart. He slightly nodded.
Shen Luoyan spoke heavily, “Last night, very late at night, Qin Wang summoned Shiji. When he came back, Shiji told me that we are going to leave Chang’an on the second day of Lunar New Year. The original plan was that we are going to come with Qin Wang to participate in the spring hunting on Mount Zhongnan.”
Without needing her to continue, Xu Ziling could guess what happened.
Because Li Shiji was the commanding officer of the remnant of Li Mi’s troops, it could be said that he was the only high-ranking military officer within Guanzhong with massive military force. Without the trouble of mobilizing the entire army division, he could easily make effective interception of Kou Zhong transporting the treasure away.
Under the multitude-of-enemies, few-friends [idiom from Mencius] situation, plus being weighted down by the wealth, goods and treasure, even if he and Kou Zhong were more formidable than the ‘Demonic King’ Shi Zhixuan, they would be helpless to do anything, and would only become fish and meat to the opposite side.
The most brilliant part of this plan was that it would absolutely not alert either Li Jiancheng or Li Yuanji’s side.
Shen Luoyan said, “At first I thought Qin Wang was preparing to attack Luoyang, but unexpectedly Shiji did not want to divulge anything about the inside story of this mission to me at all, so that I am more sure than ever that the person he wanted to deal with is you.”
Xu Ziling did not know what to feel. Just now Li Shimin wanted them to call each other ‘Xiong’ and ‘Di’ [elder and younger brother, respectively], yet beneath the surface he was making arrangement to deal with them. However, it was also difficult to blame him, because if he only made his move when they were leaving Chang’an, he did not break their agreement. It’s just that in his heart, Xu Ziling did not feel too comfortable.
With his thought wandering, Xu Ziling casually asked, “Why didn’t you tell Kou Zhong directly this morning?”
Sketching it in light shade, Shen Luoyan replied, “Because I wanted Xu Ziling to know that for his safety, Shen Luoyan is willing to betray her husband.”
“What?” Xu Ziling blurted out.
Shen Luoyan sat her tender body up straight, while covering her mouth as she said with a laugh, “I was just teasing you! Don’t take it too seriously. No one dares to say that you and Kou Zhong are fools, but I am very clear that you two are extremely muddleheaded; sometimes you got yourselves into the tip of the horn of a bull. I wonder if you have ever given any thought on the transportation issue, about how you are going to take the treasure out?”
With that pointer, Xu Ziling understood immediately. His tiger body slightly shook.
Since arriving in Chang’an, all along they were in distress on how to find the treasure’s location, but they had neither the time nor the mood to think about this aspect, while in fact, transporting the treasure was equally important to finding the treasure. If there was no detailed plan, they might fall into a no-room-to-advance-or-to-retreat, at-a-loss-to-know-what-to-do situation.
Gao Zhandao and the others might have a plan, but it was no more than how to stealthily transport a large quantity of weapons and treasure out of Chang’an via the waterway, yet there was no ingenious plan. Under the current situation, where there was an enemy soldier on every tree or bush, where every sound of the wind was a reflection of the crane, their plan absolutely would not work. Based on Li Shimin’s shrewdness, surely they would find out Gao Zhandao and the others’ relationship with the two boys.
Shen Luoyan said, “The way of the military expert is nothing more than using empty in place of real, and using real in place of empty. In term of strength, you guys are weak; you must not have direct confrontation with the enemy, only use the strategy of deploying troops to mislead the enemy. With your, Xu Ziling’s intelligence and wisdom, without anybody telling you, you ought to know what to do?”
Xu Ziling sincerely said, “Thank you very much for the directions!”
Shen Luoyan went on, “This morning Pang Yu found an excuse to come to pay a New Year call to us, he and Shiji talked in the study room behind closed door for the entire sichen, you know what kind of role Pang Yu is playing within the Heavenly Policy Mansion? It’s precisely what I have been doing for Mi Gong [Duke Mi] in the past.”
Xu Ziling recalled that at the Heavenly Policy Mansion earlier, Pang Yu was the only one he did not see; turned out he was in charge of intelligence, investigation, infiltration, and other similar military duties, just like Shen Luoyan. If he was cooperating with Li Shiji, plus this place was his territory, and on top of that, Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong’s identity had been exposed, with clear distinction which one in the open and which one in the dark, his and Kou Zhong’s transporting-treasure troops might be heavily besieged by Li Shiji. He started to understand the gravity of this matter.
Revealing a grave expression, Shen Luoyan spoke in low voice, “I’ve heard rumors on the grapevine; do you want to hear it?”
Smiling bitterly, Xu Ziling said, “With so many bad news, what’s the harm in hearing one more?”
Shen Luoyan said, “After acquiring the treasure, are you going to split way and scattering the goods [i.e. goods sent under the protection of an armed escort]?”
Xu Ziling’s heart tightened; he could no longer act indifferent toward Shen Luoyan’s so-called rumor on the grapevine. Nodding his head, he asked, “What exactly is the matter?”
Shen Luoyan said, “Ning Daoqi has answered Shi Feixuan’s request; after you guys split up, he is to force Kou Zhong, using all possible means, to withdraw from the strive over the world. Otherwise, if they let Kou Zhong safely return to Pengliang, even if he did not have the treasure, the world’s situation would have to be rewritten. In Li Shimin’s eyes, only Kou Zhong can terrify him.”
Xu Ziling’s hands and feet turned icy-cold, secretly musing that unexpectedly even Shi Feixuan was plotting against him.
Although the one Ning Daoqi was going to deal with was Kou Zhong, but to him, it was no different than dealing with him, Xu Ziling, personally. No matter what, Kou Zhong was his brother, who was closer than his own flesh and blood.
Although Shen Luoyan could not see his face, she could guess that behind the mask, his handsome face must have turned extremely unsightly.
Xu Ziling spoke heavily, “Would Ning Daoqi act mercilessly?”
Shen Luoyan sighed faintly; she said, “In order to let Li Shimin achieve his goal of unifying the world, if necessary, the Buddhist and Taoist, two schools, under the leadership of Ci Hang Jingzhai and Ning Daoqi, would definitely carry out extreme means. With Kou Zhong’s martial art skill this day and age, who has the ability to capture him alive? Based on Ning Daoqi’s identity and status, he would disdain any cooperation with anybody else to deal with Kou Zhong. In that kind of situation, the danger that Kou Zhong is facing could be easily imagined. Otherwise, Xiuning Gongzhu would not have to borrow my mouth to warn you. Xiuning Gongzhu is hoping that Kou Zhong would rein the horse at the edge of the precipice [idiom: to act in the nick of time], to give up his idea of striving over the world, because it seems that this idea has become a deadly delusion to him.”
Xu Ziling was no longer in the mood to tarry here; he spoke gratefully, “Xu Ziling will never forget Shen Junshi’s strong affection and profound thought. Tonight you came out to see me like this, aren’t you afraid you might provoke your revered-husband’s suspicion?”
Shen Luoyan hung her cicada head down; she spoke softly, “Dealing with such a trivial matter, I, Shen Luoyan, still have a bit of trick. Are you leaving? Please take a good care of yourself!”
After saying goodbye, Xu Ziling left the boat and landed on the shore.
All of a sudden, his heart was filled with grievance, resentment and indignation; he made a firm resolution that if they obtained the treasure, he simply must help Kou Zhong transporting the goods and wealth back to Pengliang before he could part company with Kou Zhong.
This was not only because Kou Zhong was his brother, even more, it was because the anger out of sympathy toward the weak, who was fully experiencing bullying and humiliation.
※ ※ ※
By the time Xu Ziling arrived at the Yue Ma Bridge, Kou Zhong was already there, searching the Yue Ma Bridge thoroughly one time through, yet still ended up empty-handed.
Relying on his eyesight and sense of touch and intuition, which were a hundred times sharper than ordinary person, he nearly dare to be certain that this magnificent stone bridge did not have any mystery.
After going through the washing ritual of the big snow, the city of Chang’an was once again covered in thick snow. Although each and every family was still decorated with lanterns and colored banners, but this deep in the night, plus after the merriment of the previous night, this world-famous city has returned from brilliance to tranquility.
Occasionally there was still the sound of firecrackers coming from the depths of the lanes and alleys, but it was a far cry from the grand occasion of the Lunar New Year’s Eve the previous night. All around was silent with nobody in sight. The bitterly cold weather compelled the patrolling guard to goof off inside their warm lookout posts.
Hiding in the shadow under the bridge, Kou Zhong shook his head and said with a bitter smile, “It’s finished! Tomorrow I am going to return to the village to open a food stall. Kou Zhong no longer has any share in striving over the world.”
This was originally the word that Xu Ziling wanted to hear the most. But as this moment he really heard it from Kou Zhong’s own mouth, a difficult-to-describe feeling welled up in his heart, like the feeling of losing all his gambling chips on the gambling table, and while he was feeling miserable, the opponent, feeling fortunate, cast his eyesight on the misfortune.
Xu Ziling took a deep breath and said, “Let’s get to the side and talk.”
“Let’s go!” Kou Zhong replied.
Xu Ziling followed Kou Zhong leaving the bottom of the bridge. They leaped onto the Fu Ju Lou’s set-up-on-high roof. This was the highest point in the area surrounding the Yue Ma Bridge. Unless somebody was leaping up like them, nobody would be able to see them. This was the safest place.
Kou Zhong sat on the roof ridge, staring fiercely at the magnificent stone bridge spanning the Yong An Grand Canal, connecting the two sides, down below, at an angle from the roof. The peculiar light in his pair of eyes was flashing brightly, obviously he was extremely unwilling to accept this.
Xu Ziling said, “This is perhaps a sign that your life should not end; finding the treasure might make you running away in calamity.”
Stunned, Kou Zhong asked, “What do you mean by that?”
Sighing inwardly, Xu Ziling decided not to say what Shen Luoyan told him. His gaze fell onto the bridge, he said, “Supposing the purpose of the Duke Yang’s Treasure was to provide Yang Su with large quantities of goods and weapons in time of need, to be used to save his life in rebellion, then from the start, it ought to be easy and convenient to transport the weapons out of this treasure-trove to ground level.”
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “You are right! If they needed three days and three nights to bring the stuffs from the treasure trove to the ground level, Yang Su would have been slaughtered by Yang Jian early on.”
Xu Ziling analyzed calmly, “Naturally the weapons are for his men, hence the exit must be in a courtyard house that can accommodate a large number of soldiers. If the exit is at the bottom of Yong An Canal, or perhaps at the Vermillion Bird Boulevard, it would only be a joke.”
Kou Zhong’s pair of eyes lit up; his gaze swept over the roofs, which were covered in heavy snow, and stopped at the Xi Ji Yuan [lit. west lodge garden, see Book 32 Chapter 12], the Chang’an residence where the Dugu Clan lived away from home. Nodding his head, he said, “Courtyards that can contain several thousand men like that are not many. Although there are a lot of grand residences around the Yue Ma Bridge, Xi Ji Yuan occupies the largest tract of land; it also has the best qualification to hide the troops. It is even a bit bigger than Wu Lou Si.”
Xu Ziling pondered, “Evidently Wu Lou Si is not a good place as an exit, unless the monks inside the temple are entirely Yang Su’s men. This is certainly not possible. But why did Lu Xiansheng build such a Buddhist temple? What’s the purpose of this building?”
Growing dispirited, Kou Zhong said, “I have a more outrageous thought; based on Lu Dashi’s intelligence and wisdom, if he was only designing an underground treasure-house, and the purpose was only to hoard large quantities of treasures and weapons, it is really inconsistent with his style. That’s why he especially taught me about mechanism. Frankly speaking, under ordinary circumstances, how could I find the interest to delve into this kind of knowledge? He was forcing me to learn, so that his skill would not die out. Therefore, the way to enter the treasure-trove must be related to the study of mechanism.”
“Your so-called outrageous idea, is that it?” Xu Ziling spoke crossly.
Kou Zhong shook his head and said, “That was just the introductory remarks. What I wanted to say is: Duke Yang’s Treasure House is perhaps an underground fort, where advancing one can attack, retreating one can defend. I dare say that it has multiple gateways. Before the mechanism is activated, all gateways are closed. Therefore, even if the Li Family’s people turn Chang’an upside down, they still cannot touch the treasure-trove’s shadow. The mechanism to open it must be on the Yue Ma Bridge; otherwise, before her death Niang would not possibly point out Yue Ma Bridge.”
The two boys’ gaze fell onto the six lookout pillars in the middle of stone bridge at the same time. Only these six lookout pillars had the roof carved into six stooping down, stretching forward outside of the bridge – stone dragon heads, the painting of the dragon dot, which looked like eyeballs, added unbounded liveliness to the peaceful stone bridge.
The two boys exchanged glances; they saw the thought in each other’s heart at the same time.
Whether it was a dragon or a snake, they would have to look at these six dragonheads.
Shaken, Xu Ziling said, “I know the reason Lu Xiansheng built Wu Lou Si!”
Kou Zhong responded, “Must be for ventilation. In time of need, Yang Su and his men could go to take refuge in the underground vault, and then escape from another secret path. My Niang! This place is only several hundred zhang away from the city wall. One of the tunnel exit might be outside the city.”
Xu Ziling took a deep breath. Staring fixedly at the six dragonhead lookout pillars, he said, “What do you think? You want to give it a try?”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “I am very much afraid.”
Xu Ziling laughed involuntarily, “Afraid?” he said, “Are you joking?”
Kou Zhong replied with a sigh, “I really am very afraid. Afraid that the dragonheads might not budge at all, also afraid that when the dragonheads’ mechanism is activated the Chang’an underground would produce strange creaking and rumbling noise, so that the entire city would know that I found the Duke Yang’s Treasure.”
Xu Ziling nearly doubled up in laughter. Gasping for breath, he said, “Fancy that you are still in the mood to crack jokes. Do you want me, this little apprentice, to test it on behalf of you, this mechanism expert?”
Revealing a smile full of confidence, Kou Zhong said, “Just now when I inspected them, I discovered that the construction of the six dragonhead lookout pillars is different from other lookout pillars. Instead of the entire pillars joined together, the column is embedded inside the hollow square pillar. At that time I was already suspicious, but I did not think that it has something to do with mechanism; hence I skipped it over. Do you remember Lu Dashi’s secret room in the Flying Horse Ranch? After the mechanism was activated, the entire secret room unexpectedly sank underground.”
Xu Ziling took another deep breath. He said with a laugh, “Come on Brother! Let’s see whether we buy big and open big, or buy big and open small.” [No idea, must be Chinese idiom]
Just like when they were little, before doing anything important, the two boys always bumped their shoulder to each other; only then did they somersault down from the roof, and flashed toward the Yue Ma Bridge under cover of darkness.
They climbed the stone bridge and came between the six dragonhead lookout pillars. The two boys you-look-at-me-I-gaze-at-you, finally Kou Zhong reached out with both hands to grope around one of the dragonhead lookout pillars.
A clump of black cloud happened to float over from the southeast direction, covering the barely-there weak moonlight.
The sound of gong announcing the night watch hour came from the distant place.
Lowering his voice, Kou Zhong said, “In Lu Dashi’s mechanism book, there are a total of more than a dozen different types of ‘button switch’ to activate the mechanism. The most brilliant button switch will not show any difference before and after the mechanism is actuated. I hope these six dragonheads are of this type; otherwise, if all six dragonheads are facing the same direction, it would be thoroughly terrible.”
Xu Ziling laughed and said, “Don’t you know that there’s such thing as the revered master’s important way? Watch out lest Lu Xiansheng won’t bless you.”
Kou Zhong pushed a little. The dragonhead did not budge at all. He repeatedly exerted more force, twisting to the left and turning to the right, but the dragonhead still did not respond.
Xu Ziling was not disappointed at all; he said in low voice, “This is to be expected. Otherwise the mechanism would have discovered by many hands early on, and Lu Xiansheng did not need to teach you about mechanism. Quickly use your brains!”
“I hate to let my hands off,” Kou Zhong said, “Can you go under the bridge to take a look? Button switch must have button lock; logically it ought to be under the bridge, not on the bridge surface.”
Frowning, Xu Ziling said, “I did not study civil engineering and mechanism; how would I know how to open a lock?”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “I am not much better than you; otherwise just now I would have found the lock. Today your luck is much better than mine, Xiaodi cannot afford the blow of another defeat.”
A squad of patrolling soldiers was coming from the direction of the Western Market. The two boys quickly somersaulted down the bridge railing, and used their inner power to stick themselves under the bridge.
Twelve patrolling troops strode up the bridge. Suddenly they stopped. One of them said, “This heavy snow made men and birds hide from the cold, otherwise tonight would be very lively.”
The other men laughed and swore. They all talked spiritedly, mentioning last night’s majestic pomp in the Palace; evidently they were still immersed in the high spirit of the previous night.
The two boys under the bridge were unable to take their eyes off the bottom of the lookout pillars. Focusing their power into their eyes, they faintly saw a faint trace of the circle where the column and the body of the bridge met. If it were not the target of their investigation, they might think it was just the grain of the stone and would overlook it.
The patrolling troops, under their fervent anticipation, finally left.
Kou Zhong excitedly said, “My Niang! We got it! You do it.”
Xu Ziling freed his right hand. Applying his divine power, he used this thumb to press the center of the ring mark, and then exerting his strength, he pushed it upward.
With a loud groan the column sank upward, creating a depression about two cun deep.
Severely shaken, Kou Zhong said, “Success!”
Xu Ziling said, “This kind of button lock can be opened even without understanding the science of mechanics. There should be five more locks.”
Before he finished speaking, Kou Zhong already moved around the entire bottom of the bridge; using the fastest speed he found the other five button locks and set them in motion one by one.
The two boys returned to the surface of the bridge.
Again Kou Zhong held a dragonhead with both hands; muttering to himself, he exerted his strength. Pulled by him, suddenly the dragonhead rose nearly two cun.
Greatly delighted, Xu Ziling said, “Success!”
Kou Zhong nervously said, “Not yet. Shall we turn it to the left or twist it to the right?”
Staring blankly, Xu Ziling responded, “You ask me, whom should I ask? There shouldn’t be any difference?
“How could there be no difference?” Kou Zhong replied, “If we turn it the wrong way, perhaps the entire bridge would collapse, and then we would become drowning dogs.”
Displeased, Xu Ziling said, “Twist it to the left then!”
Kou Zhong twisted it to the left, the dragonhead did not budge at all. Greatly delighted, Kou Zhong said, “This time it is indeed a success!”
Applying his power to the right, the dragon pillar obediently turned a circle. When Kou Zhong released his hands, the dragon pillar was back to its original position. Indeed there was not the slightest difference from before.
Blowing out a big mouthful of air, Kou Zhong said, “What do I do next?”
This question, in this whole wide world, perhaps only Xu Ziling, one person – understood his real meaning.
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