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At this moment, the sounds of bells and chimes came from outside Drunken Moon Pavilion. At the same time, cheering could be heard from the crowd. It was finally the time to commemorate the Buddha’s birthday.
A figure stepped forward and whispered, “Young Master, the time to offer respects to the one hundred deceased sages has come!” It was precisely the white-robed scholar who had taken Li Junxian’s place behind the brushwood door, ‘Li Junshan’.
Li Junxian blinked, took in a breath, and quickly turned around.
A person at his side offered a litany written in cinnabar ink.
“The heavens and earth share the same power; the ten thousand things share the same mind. To the one hundred sages above:
“We of the junior generation of the Confucian Sect, Li Junxian, Li Zhoushan, Zhang Songqin[…]are bound to inherit the great hopes of the one hundred sages, united in common cause to realize the Harmonious World envisioned by the one hundred sages, the long-cherished wish of bringing the world together and ending all wars for eternity. The path is difficult and bound to result in many sacrifices. But as long as the people will no longer be treated like grass and devoured like meat, we do not mind our bodies being crushed and our bones turned to powder!
“We swear this oath to the heavens and earth, with ghosts and gods as our witnesses!”
With the white-robed Li Junxian leading them, the Confucians raised their wine cups, their expressions serene and their eyes brimming with immense resolve.
That grandiose voice loudly resounded through the restaurant, but an invisible energy restricted it to remain within. Not even the waiter and receptionist on the first floor could hear anything. It was like they were truly in another world.
“To the sages!”
“To the sages!”
Once the litany was finished, Li Junxian raised his own cup and was the first to drain it. Soon after, all the others toasted the air and drained their cups, their faces brimming with resolve.
When the ceremony was over, the black-clothed man wearing the featureless white mask said, “Young Master, do you need my assistance?”
He slowly walked up behind Li Junxian, the simple sword in his hand raised up. At this moment, everyone turned their eyes to Li Junxian.
The atmosphere was one of absolute solemnity!
This was the final ceremony to commemorate the deaths of the one hundred sages!
“There’s no need!”
After a few moments of silence, Li Junxian shook his head and took the sword from the black-clothed man. Swish! The black headband tied around Li Junxian’s head was cut in two, and then his black hair fell to the floor with what seemed like the weight of one thousand jun!
To cut one’s hair was like cutting off one’s head!
Now that it had begun, he could never turn back!
With a solemn expression, Li Junxian walked out of Drunken Moon Pavilion, his snow-white feet bare. The others filed out behind him.
The Wang Family Residence was heavily guarded.
At this moment, Wang Chong was sitting in his study, his eyes closed in thought. In front of him was the somewhat yellowed ‘Map of the Continent’, precisely the one that Dalun Ruozan had brought with him from Ü-Tsang. This was the most precious and only map of the world. At this time, Wang Chong had placed black markers on the locations of Ü-Tsang, the Eastern Turks, the Western Turks, the Goguryeo Empire, the Xi, the Khitans, and Arabia. He had placed three small red flags on the locations of Arabia, Ü-Tsang, and Youzhou.
“Domestic strife and foreign aggression…”
After a long while, Wang Chong opened his eyes and deeply sighed.
In this wave of political strife that had overtaken the court, Wang Chong wasn’t just facing Li Junxian and the mysterious Confucian Sect that he led, but also the Great Tang’s various foes along its borders. Although the Great Tang had won major victories at both Talas and Khorasan, it had also paid no small price. It was only through great difficulty that the Great Tang had reached its current situation, but internal discord had caused it all to be ruined.
Wang Chong could already imagine the beaming smiles on the faces of Ü-Tsang’s Dalon Trinling, Ishbara Khagan and Duwu Sili of the Western Turks, Yeon Gaesomun of Goguryeo, and Mutasim III of Arabia. There was no doubt that they were elated by this situation, perhaps even helping it along, using the conflict between the militarists and Confucians to tear the Great Tang apart.
But this was far from Wang Chong’s only concern. His eyes flitted past the Beiting Protectorate to the Turkic steppe. No one understood more keenly than he did that a Little Ice Age, an event that took place only once every few centuries, or perhaps even once a millennium, would soon sweep down from the north.
The blizzard around Khorasan that had frozen several hundred thousand people to death would pale in significance to this event. The unprecedentedly low temperatures would force all the nomadic peoples to the north of the Central Plains to unite and invade the Great Tang.
And after that, the enormous army of otherworldly invaders, who would not die even if struck in their vital organs, would descend from the heavens and bring true death to this world.
He simply had too little time to work with.
Wang Chong took a brush, grabbed several sheets of paper, pressed the papers down with a paperweight, and after a few moments of silence, he began to write. Thirty minutes, an hour, two hours… even after four hours had passed, Wang Chong was still writing in his study.
Countless thoughts were flowing through his mind as Wang Chong used everything he had learned to try and map out a strategy that could help him change the fate of this world.
Knock knock knock!
At this moment, someone knocked on his door.
“Your Highness, your subordinate has a matter to report!” Old Eagle’s voice could be clearly heard.
Wang Chong quickly raised his head and said, “Enter.”
With a creak, the door opened, and the black-clothed Old Eagle, travel-worn and weary, came in.
“Your Highness, there’s a problem. From the time you left Drunken Moon Pavilion, our people have been constantly watching that place, but I just learned from my subordinates that the young man called Li Junxian and those other Confucians have all vanished.”
Old Eagle bowed to Wang Chong, a look of deep shame in his eyes. For him to lose the target the first time was forgivable, yet he had also failed a second time.
“There’s no need to worry!”
Old Eagle had originally believed that Wang Chong would criticize him a little, but to his surprise, Wang Chong was utterly unperturbed as if having expected this situation.
“That Li Junxian is much stronger than you are. For you to fail to find him is within reason,” Wang Chong nonchalantly said.
No one could follow an Imperial Great General, and the Li Junxian who had appeared in Drunken Moon Pavilion was exactly this level of expert, a supreme existence on par with him. If this person didn’t want to be followed, then even if Old Eagle sent every man he had, he would still fail to find him. What truly drew Wang Chong’s interest was another matter.
“You also said that those Confucians vanished as well. What’s the story with that? Li Junxian is not easy to follow, but it should have been much easier to follow the other Confucians.”
“Our men began to follow them, but we quickly discovered that after leaving Drunken Moon Pavilion, they were all leaving the capital. Moreover, as we followed them, there was clearly another faction hindering our efforts. If it wasn’t a large number of identical carriages appearing mid-journey, it was a vast crowd rushing here and there. Some of our scouts were even knocked out,” Old Eagle earnestly reported.
If the Confucians had remained in the capital, Old Eagle would have been confident in his ability to follow them. But if they left the capital, the Central Plains was far too vast for someone of Old Eagle’s powers to cover, and this wasn’t even taking into account the fact that the other party was prepared.
Wang Chong’s brow slightly creased upon hearing this, but he quickly relaxed.
“Let them go. Since they’ve already revealed themselves, they can no longer remain in hiding. No matter how long they stay hidden, they will eventually show themselves of their own volition.”
“Your subordinate understands!”
Old Eagle immediately lowered his head.
Wang Chong took several letters from his table and passed them over.
“I’ve already sealed all six letters. Send them to the locations indicated. I need this matter to be kept extremely well-hidden. Not even Xu Keyi and the others are to know. Understood?”
Old Eagle was slightly taken aback. He had spent some time serving at Wang Chong’s side, and he rarely heard Wang Chong speak with such a solemn tone or stress that not even Xu Keyi and the others were to know.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Old Eagle did not pry. Taking the letters, he soon exited the study.
It was only a few moments after Old Eagle had left that a maid of the Wang Family came rushing inside.
“Young Master, Chamberlain of Palace Revenues Yang Zhao has come to pay a visit!”
Wang Chong had closed his eyes in thought, but these words caused him to open his eyes once more. A strange light flashed in his eyes.
“Tell him to wait a few moments. I will be with him shortly.”
It had been a long time since he had last met his sworn brother. Even though he had first met Yang Zhao as an impoverished man in a gambling house, even Wang Chong couldn’t help but sigh in praise at his sworn brother’s skill in navigating the political scene and his speed at getting promotions. The Chamberlain of Palace Revenues was one of the Sage Emperor’s major officials, in charge of finances, and even the Bureau of Revenue was under this person’s control. One could say that the economic lifelines of the empire were all in this person’s grasp, and he directly reported to the Sage Emperor. Wang Chong had heard that Yang Zhao had taken the post of Chamberlain of Palace Revenues when he was attending the court sessions, but Yang Zhao had not been present. Wang Chong only vaguely knew that he had been dispatched on some sort of task.
Wang Chong hadn’t expected Yang Zhao to come and pay him a visit.
Wang Chong met with Yang Zhao in the Wang Family’s reception hall. It had been nearly a year since their last meeting, and Yang Zhao had taken on an entirely new appearance. He was adorned with a red imperial robe and black official’s hat while a golden fish emblem was tied to his belt. He no longer had the air of a bandit around him, but the noble aura of a high-ranking official.
But even though he was now Chamberlain of Palace Revenues and was greatly favored by the Sage Emperor through his connection to Consort Taizhen, Yang Zhao was clearly not in any sort of carefree mood. On the contrary, he seemed burdened by worries as he shuffled uneasily in his seat.
“Ah! Wang Chong! Finally!”
As Wang Chong, dressed in civilian clothes, crossed over the threshold, Yang Zhao stood up, and his eyes instantly lit up and his face glowed as if he had seen his savior. Although Wang Chong was the King of Foreign Lands, a person of extremely high status, the first King of a different surname in the Great Tang, Yang Zhao still addressed Wang Chong by his actual name.
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