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Xu Ziling and Gao Zhandao and his team returned to the treasure house via the Yong An Canal’s hidden entrance. Kou Zhong was waiting for them, burning with anxiety; seeing them arriving safely, he was overjoyed at the unexpected good news [idiom].
After both sides narrated their bitter experience, they all felt lucky. Under freak combination of factors [orig. an accident arising from many causes (idiom)], if Li Yuanji thought that the fake treasure-trove was the real storehouse, they would obtain obstacle-protection instead.
Kou Zhong said, “Now we must absolutely not make any noise from activating the mechanism, otherwise we cannot hide from the eyes and ears of the men on Li Yuanji’s side specializing in monitoring the activities underground. Therefore, right now two secret passages must remain open. When we have the opportunity, we can close the secret passage leading to the Yong An Canal.”
There were altogether four secret passages from the real treasure house. Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling opened up the two secret passageways leading to outside the city and the Yong An Canal, leaving the other two in their original state. But this did not mean that the exits were open; rather, the boulders filling the entrance would have to be removed via the mechanism. If they wanted to leave from the secret passage, there was another ingenious moveable door.
Frowning, Gao Zhandao said, “So how do we transport the things away?”
Having a plan in advance, Kou Zhong said, “After daybreak, the streets of Chang’an will be full of pedestrians and vehicles and horses going here and heading there, that will be the best cover, whatever we are doing down here, we won’t have to worry that anyone will hear it.”
And then he asked, “How long is it before dawn?”
“Ought to be less than half a sichen,” Niu Fengyi replied.
Zha Jie said, “An Long never showed up.”
Letting out a cold humph, Kou Zhong said, “Just consider him lucky.”
Yesterday they made up their mind to get rid of An Long before entering the well to search for the treasure. Who would have thought that An Long did not go to the Bei Li’s Le Quan Guan at all, so that the heroes had no ground to use their martial art?
Kou Zhong cheerfully addressed the crowd, “On the way to the tunnel exit over there, there is a super treasure house; stored inside ought to be several dozens of divine arms and sharp weapons of extremely great fame. As a token of my gratitude to all brothers, you can help yourself by picking up one item each.”
Gao Zhandao and the others, none was not wild with joy; to martial art practitioners, divine arms and sharp weapons are the things that could only be discovered but not sought, more valuable than any treasure. They were overwhelmed with the touching feeling of entering the treasure mountain, indeed they did not return empty-handed.
Everybody followed Kou Zhong. After they all picked up the treasure, from his pocket Kou Zhong produced a mask, and said with a laugh, “This was originally prepared for Yang Su to escape; since he has no use for it, you can inherit it.”
Xu Ziling took the mask. Running his fingers on it admiringly, he said, “Having one more mask is just like having one more identity. The former masks have been exposed too much; this one can be just the weapon with a life force in it.”
And then he asked, “What’s your plan in handling the stuffs from the treasure house?”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “It is both unwise and impossible to carry that much stuffs at once. I only intend to carry out the super weapons and super treasure from this super treasure house. Even if Li kid or anybody else intercept us, because they see that we do not harvest much, they might think that these are all from the original fake treasure house, and might not guess that there is another universe down here.”
Xu Ziling said, “I can imagine that the Li Clan will send men underground for a thorough search, conceivably among those men will be experts in civil engineering, as well as in mechanics and mechanism; perhaps they will be able to find the secret to the real treasure house.”
Kou Zhong replied, “That possibility is next to nothing, because I have another unexpected tricky move, which is, just now, taking advantage while Li Yuanji and the others were retreating toward the mouth of the well, I opened the steel door leading to the cave full of marsh gas [methane]. Now that passageway must be filled with marsh gas, only martial art masters who can close their qi for a long period of time will be able to enter. Before the marsh gas are cleared away, experts like Liu Zhenghui and the likes could only look at the door and sigh from a distance.”
Stunned, Xu Ziling said, “Such a vicious tricky move, I am surprised you can come up with it.”
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “I did not come up with it. In fact, I am not a vicious person, hence I cannot think of vicious thing. At that time I wholeheartedly wanted to create an illusion that I was escaping from the underground river, and then when the marsh gas was pouring into the cave I came up with that idea. Ha! I hope Li Yuanji is not entering the cave holding a torch; otherwise I am afraid his eyebrows and his hair will be difficult to protect.”
Xu Ziling said, “This time you might implicate the Sha Family.”
“Don’t worry!” Kou Zhong said, “I will immediately rush back to the Sha Mansion, and adapt according to the situation; I guarantee that I can still cover up everything.”
Xu Ziling said, “Everybody in the Sha Family, from top to bottom, are honest people; you, this kid, can easily deceive them, but aren’t you afraid Wanwan is coming to entangle you?”
Kou Zhong proudly said, “Xiedi Sheli is still in our hands; why would we be afraid of her? No matter how crafty and vicious Wan Yaonu is, in the end she is still a toy that I can play with on the palm of my hand.”
After a short pause, he added, “Leave the business here for Gao Zhandao to take care, you’d better use your Yong Qin identity to show your face everywhere, and then nobody will think that outside the fake treasure house, there is still the real one. Isn’t Yun Shuai still relying on you to make contact?”
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong secretly returned to the Sha Mansion and sneaked into his room. Groping under the pillow, he found the letter he left was still there, so he was relieved.
By this moment the sky has slightly brightened, light snow was still falling. Kou Zhong might as well put his head down and went to sleep, and only woke up when he heard Sha Fu’s cry of surprise.
Sha Fu, with happy expression, asked, “When did Mo Ye come back?”
Bundling up inside the quilt, Kou Zhong sat up; he asked, “Did anybody come to look for me last night?”
Sha Fu replied, “Xiufang Xiaojie and Qingqing Furen separately sent someone to look for you.”
Kou Zhong mused that fortunately his countenance was ugly; if he were wearing mask with Hou Xibai’s kind of appearance, he would definitely provoke interest from even more beauties, plus people would think that he was sowing love everywhere.
Sha Fu inquired further, “Where did Mo Ye actually go? Laoye and the others thought that you were afraid of being detained, and thus you left without saying good-bye.”
Kou Zhong replied, “These days I must take advantage of Huangshang leaving the city to steal away. Did Da Jiuye [first son-in-law] look for me?”
“Da Jiuye was on duty last night, he did not have time to stop by,” Sha Fu replied.
Secretly Kou Zhong thanked the heaven and thanked the earth; lowering his voice, he said, “Last night at dusk I came across Heavenly Policy Mansion’s Li Jing, and was invited back to the Mansion to have some drink. Who would have thought that three cups of wine went down my belly, I was drunk and did not remember anything, until I woke up earlier this morning, and only then did I hurriedly go home, by climbing in from the rear courtyard, because Laoye definitely will not be happy that I have such a close relationship with Heavenly Policy Mansion’s people. What can you do to help me covering this matter?”
Without even batting his eyes, Sha Fu replied, “That’s easy. In this mansion, who does not revere Mo Ye? Who is not willing to do his best for Mo Ye? As long as I make a bit of arrangement, I will say that only at chu hour [7-9pm] last night Mo Ye came back from either Xiufang Xiaojie or Qingqing Furen’s place, I guarantee no one will question it.”
Kou Zhong cheerfully said, “Just say I went to see Xiufang Xiaojie then. Thank you for your, the Senior’s trouble in making the arrangement.”
Sha Fu sighed and said, “It’s a small matter. Ever since Laoye found out that you insist on leaving, he has been very unhappy.”
Kou Zhong said, “I am just going out into the world to fulfill my destiny; it’s not a big deal.”
Lowering his voice, Sha Fu said, “But there’s news that Huangshang wanted to appoint you the Imperial Physician. If Mo Ye leave just like that, Huangshang might not be happy, perhaps he would blame Da Jiuye.”
Kou Zhong had not thought about this; frowning, he made up his mind and said, “Tell Laoye not to worry. I will go into the Palace to see Zhang Jieyu to give her the full account. With her speaking to Huangshang, it will be more effective than other people’s thousands of words. I guarantee that Da Jiuye will not be affected.”
Sha Fu said, “In that case, you have to be quick. I hear that Huangshang is leaving today for Bie Gong [lit. the other palace] on Mount Zhongnan; he might take Zhang Guifei [imperial consort] along.”
Kou Zhong thought that the Duke Yang’s Treasure affair was like paper cannot wrap fire [fig. the truth will come out], it would be strange indeed if Li Yuan would not postpone his trip because of this; thereupon he nodded his agreement.
Sha Fu left hurriedly to circulate the lie on Kou Zhong’s behalf, lifting one load from Kou Zhong’s mind.
After freshening up, he was about to go out when Wanwan’s fragrant-self came to honor him with her presence. Seeing Kou Zhong’s serene appearance, as if nothing happened to him since he was staying peacefully inside the room, she could not hide the look of surprise from her face.
Kou Zhong also wanted to know clearly what happened between them [feminine] and Li Yuanji, so he sat down on the side and said, “I’m surprised you still have the face to see me.”
Wanwan sat down at the edge of the bed, looking contrite; acting cute and pitiful, she said, “How could you blame me? The one eating his words is you; having no choice, we were forced to carryout necessary action for self-preservation.”
Spreading out his hand, Kou Zhong said, “All right! Now we break up this agreement; you don’t have the Relics, I lost the treasure. The only thing I am thankful of is that I can still eat and walk away.”
“Pfft!” Wanwan giggled tenderly, “You should thank us instead. Your so-called covert operation turned out to be just like that. Were it not for Zhu Shi came into the treasure house just in time to lure Li Yuanji away, even if you, Kou Zhong grew wing, it would still be difficult to fly.”
And then, spreading her palm, she said, “Give it to me!”
Kou Zhong shivered inwardly; Wanwan’s side definitely had a spy inside the Li Clan, hence the reason they knew what happened inside the treasure house as soon as it happened. Furthermore, she knew that he ‘escaped’ from the underground river.
Knitting his brows, he said, “You think I have the Relics in my hand?”
Wanwan said, “Before Li Yuanji found the entrance, the two of you had enough time to turn the treasure house upside down. When we saw Xu Ziling, he was wearing skintight water armor, there is no possibility to hide the Relics on his body. Since it was not on him, naturally it’s on you.”
Kou Zhong laughed calmly and said, “If I did not see that you can still dress up as God, play the devil, I really do not wish to make a business deal with you. But now you can only listen to me: tonight, at the beginning of xu hour [also 7-9pm], meet me at the Foreign Guesthouse!”
Wanwan still wanted to talk, but there were footsteps coming.
Kou Zhong signaled Wanwan to get out with his eyes before going to the small hall to meet the visitor. Turned out it was a servant coming to report that Ke Dazhi was waiting for him in the East Hall.
Kou Zhong already guessed that Ke Dazhi would get the wind and come to see him; he gladly went.
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling changed back to become Yue Shan and waited patiently in the inn.
Sure enough, when the sky was bright and the floating snow stopped, the Great Tang Emperor Li Yuan’s dragon-self, wearing hunting attire, came to honor him with his presence.
Grabbing his head, Li Yuan said, “The Duke Yang’s Treasure has been unearthed!”
Xu Ziling calmly looked on as Li Yuan was sitting by his side. “Did you catch those boys?” he asked.
Shaking his head, Li Yuan said, “Consider them very lucky; they separately escaped via the entrance to the well and the underground river. Yang Su was very cunning; unexpectedly there is a storehouse within a storehouse; it was nearly concealed from us.”
Xu Ziling’s entire body, from head to toes, broke into cold sweats; could it be that they found the real treasure house? If so, wouldn’t that mean Gao Zhandao and the others meet with calamity? But listening to the tone of Li Yuan’s voice, it did not seem that they caught anybody. “What do you mean a storehouse within a storehouse?” he asked.
Li Yuan did not hesitate to explain in details; he said, “As early as many years ago, when Yang XuanGan’s army was defeated and he perished, someone came to me and told me that before his death, Yang XuanGan mentioned that sentence, ‘a storehouse within a storehouse’. Therefore, when we entered the treasure house, we paid particular attention, and finally unearthed an entrance under a chest, opening to another room underneath. The weapons inside are well preserved, enough to assemble a thousand-man army.”
Xu Ziling heaved a sigh of relief inwardly, ‘Turns out only that,’ he mused. He could not help prostrating himself in admiration toward Lu Miaozi’s ‘psychological warfare’. If it were them, supposing they were unlucky to find the ‘storehouse within a storehouse’, they might also believe that this was the real treasure house, and thus beat the gong to recall the troops. “This time Xiao Dao struck a bumper harvest,” he spoke heavily.
Li Yuan nodded and said, “It is indeed unexpected joy; my only regret is that we failed to catch those two gods-appear-and-devils-vanish [idiom: to appear and disappear unpredictably] kids. Also, to get to the cave inside the treasure house, it will still take some effort, because presently the storehouse is full of marsh gas. Were it not for the night pearl from the Palace’s warehouse, when we got in, we would not be able to see anything.”
Xu Ziling had a faint feeling that the reason Li Yuanji was confused, thinking that Zhu Yuyan was him, Xu Ziling, must be because Yang Xuyan was playing trick on him, because he did not want the Li Clan to be on guard, to such an extent as to destroy his plot to restore the Yang Clan’s old dynasty.
Li Yuan gratefully said, “Our Li Family’s good luck so far is entirely thanks to Dage’s advice. Later on, after subduing the treacherous villains and evildoers, I must invite Dage to the Palace for a drink and heart-to-heart chat, as well as to celebrate.”
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “I have not had that kind of mood early on; Xiao Dao, do your best to be the Emperor!”
Shaken, Li Yuan asked, “Dage wants to leave?”
Acting old and decrepit, Xu Ziling said, “In life, we come together and separate, nothing is permanent; what we cannot see, we can’t understand! While I, Yue Shan, still have a little bit of strength left, I must accomplish some unfinished wishes before I die.”
Li Yuan stared blankly for half a day. Lowering his voice, he said, “Yue Dage wants to go to Lingnan for a decisive battle against Song Que, Xiao Dao hereby offers best wishes for the success of your mission. The ‘Heavenly Saber’ Song Que is a rare genius of the Central Plains’ Wulin for the last hundred years, and now he is the strong supporter behind Kou Zhong’s back; he has indeed become our Li Family’s serious problem.”
Xu Ziling mused that this was exactly the reason why Shi Feixuan did not hesitate to do everything within her power to prevent Kou Zhong from snatching the treasure and returning to Peng Liang, and even Ning Daoqi agreed to make his move.
Song Que plus Kou Zhong, once they established a foothold and succeeded in controlling the situation, in the world, apart from Li Shimin, it would be difficult to find anybody who could match them. If Li Shimin did not occupy the favorable location in Guanzhong, plus his foundation deep and stable, perhaps he would suffer a dismal end as well.
Li Yuan’s fear was, by no means, a paranoia.
With a far-away look on his eyes, Xu Ziling slowly, yet firmly said, “In this battle, I have no regard of success or failure, life or death; I am only looking for delight.”
‘Delight’, these two characters [tong kuai] carried an inauspicious implication, but Li Yuan did not dare to point it out to him.
The ‘Heavenly Saber’ Song Que was a martial art master of Ning Daoqi’s caliber. His name shook the world after he defeated Yue Shan; since then, he had never tasted utter defeat. Even though the demonic school’s martial art masters came forth in large number, they still obediently stayed away from his sphere of influence in the Lingnan region, so as to avoid angering this outstanding figure who was acclaimed as the number one saber expert in the world.
The reason behind the Li Clan recruiting Huang Gongcuo and Nanhai Pai was precisely because they were hoping that they could curb Song Que’s influence.
Nowadays, from the Jianghu Four Major Clans, the Dugu Clan was in decline due to their defeat against Wang Shichong; the Yuwen Clan repeatedly suffered defeat, their prestige went down the drain like the Yangtze River flood. Although the Li Clan was like the sun at noon, but the Song Clan was settling steadily in the south [orig. Nan Jiang – southern border (of a country)]. One more day Song Que still alive, one more day they would not be willing to bow to anybody. Perhaps it would not matter who succeeded in unifying the world, that person would still be unable to do anything to Song Que.
The only thing Song Que was lacking was someone who would be willing to conquer the world on his behalf, and nobody was more qualified for this task than Kou Zhong. Just like Song Que’s daughter, Song Yuhua’s analysis, Song Que seeing Kou Zhong was like bees meet honey; no one could separate them.
Xu Ziling was lost in his thought for a moment. He spoke heavily, “Xiao Dao, go! LaoGe is wishing you the-horse-arrive-the-meritorious-deed-succeeds from here.”
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong sat down by Ke Dazhi’s side. Smiling wryly, he said, “You came this early in the morning to look for Xiaodi, aren’t you afraid people might grow suspicious?”
Ke Dazhi exhaled very, very slowly; he said, “Even Ol’ Ke have no choice but to admire Shao Shuai for possessing great magical power. Currently there is a widely-spread rumor in the palace that Shao Shuai is buried inside the marsh gas cave in the treasure-trove, only Xu Ziling escaped alive; who would have thought that not only Shao Shuai is still alive and well, you appear vigorous as if you just wake up, looking radiant with happiness?”
Kou Zhong replied, “Without some skills [orig. skills acquired through religious practice], how could I mingle in Jianghu?”
Ke Dazhi said, “Naturally Shao Shuai has a skill so high that it’s hard for other people to believe, only Yan Shuai [Commander Yan] worried that probably you guys did not have time to take away the Relics.”
Raising his eyebrows, Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “Did somebody find the Relics in the treasure house?”
He casually took out a night pearl from his pocket. Although it did not produce the same brilliance as when it was in the total darkness of the underground treasure house, anybody would be able to tell in just a glance that it was indeed a rare gem. Facts speak louder than words, Ke Dazhi was immediately left speechless.
Putting the night pearl back into his pocket, Kou Zhong said, “Ke Xiong, please go back and notify Yan Shuai, the business transaction will proceed as planned tonight; you must, by all means, not play any trick. Otherwise, if he killed us, he won’t get the Sheng Sheli. Besides, I, Kou Zhong, am not one who will be easily bullied. Presently Xiaodi has many things waiting to be done, I must leave immediately to take care of so many things more than I can count, please forgive Xiaodi for not able to accompany you.”
Ke Dazhi rose up to his full height; his pair of eyes flickering brightly, he sized Kou Zhong up and down, and spoke in amazement, “Shao Shuai does not seem to care about losing the treasure-trove you have just obtained; what exactly happened?”
Accompanying him standing up, Kou Zhong smiled mysteriously and said, “Entering the treasure mountain, how can one return empty-handed? Riches can make the ghosts pushing grindstone. Ke Xiong is very familiar with our humble country’s proverbs, surely you understand the meaning of these two sayings?”
Ke Dazhi was at a loss against him; knowing one and understanding half, he left.
He just went out the door, Sha Fu came and said, “Li Jing Jiangjun is here! He said he wanted to see if you have any hangover from drinking last night. I did not dare to let Laoye and Xiaojie know, so I invited him to sit at the small pavilion of the outer courtyard, waiting for Mo Ye’s honorable self?”
Inwardly Kou Zhong praised Li Jing for being astute; following the tone of Sha Fu’s voice, he helped him perpetuating the lies, so that the crazy nonsense he uttered now become seamless heavenly clothes. He hurriedly went out to see him, fully aware that this hurdle would be even more difficult to deal with compared to Ke Dazhi.
※ ※ ※
After Li Yuan left, Shi Feixuan honored him with her presence [note: original text says fa jia – Buddhist teaching good-self]; seeing Xu Ziling’s Yue Shan, she spoke, tranquil and calm, “Is Kou Zhong all right?”
Just from this question, Xu Ziling knew that her communication with Li Shimin was even more highly efficient than he thought, hence she received the news this quickly. Smiling, he said, “Thanks to your lucky influence [polite reply to health inquiries]!”
Her eyebrows deeply knitted, Shi Feixuan sat down beside him, but the tone of her voice was very tranquil as she spoke softly, “Why does it look like Ziling suddenly has a great change of attitude toward Feixuan?”
A feeling of ‘delight’, which even Xu Ziling himself did not fully understand, welled up in his heart. But then he calmed himself and got rid of any distraction from his mind. He changed the subject by saying, “Xiedi Sheli is in our hands; tonight’s plan will proceed as scheduled, has Xiaojie made appropriate preparation?”
Shi Feixuan’s jade countenance returned to her usual ancient-well-without-any-ripple state; she gazed at him for half a day, and then softly said, “There is really no other way?”
Xu Ziling nonchalantly said, “Only by doing this we can kill Xiang Yushan, plus we can break apart various factions of the demonic school. Does Xiaojie have a better suggestion?”
Shi Feixuan spoke indifferently, “Why didn’t Ziling answer Feixuan’s question earlier?”
Smiling ruefully, Xu Ziling replied, “How does Xiaojie want me to answer? Our problem is only because our goals are different that we appear to disagree on how to handle Xiedi Sheli.”
Shi Feixuan sighed lightly, she said, “Destroying Xiedi Sheli is merely the exertion of lifting one’s hand, but it will give rise to great misfortune.”
Xu Ziling mused inwardly that if you, Shi Xiaojie did not invite Ning Daoqi to deal with Kou Zhong, perhaps they would indeed do so; but presently, this was the only way that could put the top few people of the orthodox and heretic schools completely under control.
Whoever succeeded in seizing the Demonic Emperor Relics would be busy dealing with the other people and would have no time to worry about anything else. In the end, he and Kou Zhong did not have to be afraid that the Demonic Emperor Relics would fall into the hands of the demonic school people.
In the martial art way, there was no instant-success, to-get-there-in-one-step method; the Jade Annulus of He Clan was the best example. Although their attainments were progressing slowly, but they were improving every day, practically they need not be afraid of anybody.
Xu Ziling did not want to be in a tangle with Shi Feixuan any longer; toward Shi Feixuan, his heart had already died. He replied calmly, “If Xiaojie can persuade Kou Zhong, I, Xu Ziling, will not have any objection.”
Shi Feixuan was slightly stumped for words; her pretty eyes staring at him, obviously she had a faint grasp on the reason of Xu Ziling’s change of attitude toward her. It was quite half a day later that she said, “Now that you lost the treasure that you have just obtained, what’s Kou Zhong’s plan?”
This was the question that Xu Ziling dreaded the most. No matter how resentful he was that Shi Feixuan was conspiring against Kou Zhong in secret, he still was not willing to lie to her. Sighing inwardly, he said, “Why don’t Xiaojie drop by in person to ask Kou Zhong?”
Shi Feixuan’s pair of beautiful eyes emitted complicated expression. Sighing quietly, she said, “If I have a choice, Feixuan definitely did not want, even more, did not wish – to be enemies with you. If things really developed to that stage, Ziling, I want you to know that Feixuan is acting against my will.”
Inwardly, Xu Ziling let out a rueful smile. When Kou Zhong found the Duke Yang’s Treasure, things had indeed developed to this inevitable stage, no one could do anything about it.
Shi Feixuan’s beautiful eyes appeared pained and bewildered; this was indeed an expression that has never appeared on her. A sliver of pained smile floated out of the corner of her mouth, she spoke indifferently, “But Feixuan is still very much grateful of two gentlemen helping Qin Wang out of righteousness this time. Ziling, please take good care of yourself!”
Finished speaking, she floated away.
His scalp felt numb; Xu Ziling sat blankly in his chair.
Finally he broke off relations with Shi Feixuan. Emotional stirring and heartache, which he could not even start to explain, were surging in his heart.
Perhaps it would be unlikely that he was going to stand face-to-face against Shi Feixuan as enemies, but when Kou Zhong became her greatest enemy, there would not be as much room for a turnaround as before.
Since setting his foot in the Duke Yang’s Treasure-trove, Kou Zhong has started to embark on this difficult road in his great undertaking to contend for hegemony over the world. Unless someone could knock him down, there would be one day that he became a hegemon whose prowess would intimidate the world.
No one knew Kou Zhong’s strength better than him. Once he launched his great undertaking, with every passing day, his foundation would grow even more solid, he would be even more difficult to restrain.
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