Book 33 Chapter 2 – Cutting Across the Public Square
Kou Zhong closed his eyes, while secretly amassing his power at the time. Right now he really wished he could eat Mei Xun’s flesh and drink his blood, to vent his resentment for having his overall grand plan destroyed by him.
Surprisingly though, he did not hear anybody speaking. Opening his eyes, Kou Zhong only saw Mei Xun was showing the saber to Chang He, saying, “I bet you that this is the fine steel saber that Jiangnan Lao Dao [the Old Saber of Jiangnan] forged with his own hands; if you don’t believe me, let’s ask Mo Xiansheng.”
Kou Zhong nearly wanted to grab his head; the saber gleaming and flickering in Mei Xun’s hands was definitely not the Moon in the Well. Could it be that Wanwan really cared about him that she came earlier to swap his treasured saber with a fake one? He felt as if he had just woken up from a nightmare. Immediately his entire body relaxed.
Slipping down to sit in the barrel, he smiled wryly and said, “Two Dage, could you take the saber outside and examine it carefully there? Xiaoren is going to get out butt-naked to put on my clothes!”
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Xu Ziling followed Li Shimin and the Heavenly Policy Mansion civilian ministers and military leaders cutting across the public square separating the Palace City and the King City. Immediately he was dumbstruck.
Just now he entered the Yeting Palace via the back entrance, hence he did not see the scene on this side. The Lunar New Year’s Eve banquet has not yet begun, but all preparation was ready.
The first thing that made his eyes lighting up was a lantern wheel about fifteen zhang high built right in the middle of the public square, wrapped in multicolored silk brocade, with countless colored lantern hanging on it, dazzling the vast area of the public square, like seven-colored light tree with ten thousand beams of multicolored sunlight [of sunrise or sunset], so that the splendor of the colored lanterns arranged on both sides paled in comparison.
On either side of the Cheng Tian Gate leading into the Palace City, both left and right, there were firecrackers towers, which height reached twenty zhang. He could imagine the flashing fire and the exploding firecrackers when these were ignited later; a brilliant, glorious, and warm atmosphere.
On both sides of the lantern wheel, more than a dozen stages were set up for various types of entertainment, extending all the way to the ends of the square, on the east and the west. The performers: singing and dancing troupe and their accompanists, jugglers, animal acts, magic show, ethnic dancers, et cetera, were in all stages of preparation by the elevated platforms, waiting for the arrival of the auspicious time to begin their show.
The most eye-catching performers were a group of more than a hundred kids, looked to be around ten years old, wearing crimson headband and black clothes, their hands were holding large drums, as they stood around a master dancer wearing a mask with four huge golden-colored eyes on his head, holding a spear and a shield in his hands. There were also twelve men wearing ferocious beast masks, gathering in front of the Cheng Tian Gate, waiting.
Noticing that Xu Ziling was unable to take his eyes off this group of performers, Bu Jie whispered excitedly on his ear, “They are going to perform the driving off the malicious and evil spirits from the previous year to meet the ‘Great Nuoxi’ [Nuo (exorcism) opera, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuo_opera] of the new year, with the children as the ‘Changzi’ [the ghost of someone devoured by a tiger who helps the tiger devour others]. The master dancer is playing the ‘Fang Xiang Min’ [I believe it is a typo; ought to be ‘Fang Xiang Shi’ (ritual exorcist), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fangxiangshi]. I have seen it once in Luoyang; it was extremely brilliant and lively!”
Xu Ziling mused that although Bu Jie has been in Chang’an for many years, it seemed like this was the first time he had the opportunity to enter the Palace on Lunar New Year’s Eve.
This moment there were several thousands of visitors gathered on the square, mainly the House of Tang’s government officials with their wives and children, but there were also local big merchants, as well as diplomatic envoys and barbarian merchants from abroad.
Whether it was the palace maid, the official’s wife or children, or the singing and dancing female performer, everybody was dressed like a lovely scene of blossoming plants swaying in the breeze, in gauzed open-work silk, flowing embroidered brocade, brilliant pearl and green jade, and full makeup, creating a rich blend of color and smell, enhancing the unbounded tenderness and glorious beauty of the Lunar New Year’s Eve banquet that night.
On the stage by the entrance to the public square from the Heavenly Street, two groups of musicians were already playing. They repeatedly played Taiping Le [peace and security joy (or music)], Chuxi Le [lunar new year’s eve], and other famous festive tunes with Xiao [flute] melody and the ringing of bells and drums, brimming with the ushering-out-the-old, greeting-the-new atmosphere between the Lunar New Year’s Eve and the New Year’s Day.
From among the nobilities of Wang [king/prince] rank, Li Shimin was the first to arrive, immediately attracting the various groups who were chatting and joking with each other to come over to wish him a happy New Year.
Just by looking at this, it was obvious how much Li Shimin obtained popular support, albeit Jiancheng and Yuanji pushing him aside and intentionally alienating him.
As a result, the Heavenly Policy Mansion’s party was also dispersing; everybody was scattering around, looking for people they were familiar with to chat. Shortly afterwards, Xu Ziling realized that Bu Ting and Bu Jie also disappeared to nobody-knows-where. However, he felt his ears pure and peaceful instead [idiom: staying away from the filth and unrest of the world].
This moment Li Jing came over, pulled his sleeve, and said with a sigh, “Let’s move aside and talk, shall we?”
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The City of Chang’an became the city without the night. Each and every family was decorated with lanterns and colored banners. The maidens and young children who normally hide inside the house were pouring out into the street to welcome the approaching holiday. The sound of firecrackers was ringing nonstop. Affluence families were even opening their doors and preparing a feast, allowing anybody passing by to come in and eat and drink.
Kou Zhong rode on the carriage together with Chang He, Mei Xun, and the Sha Family’s First Young Master Sha Chengjiu, three men. The latter asked, “What’s this sweet smelling fragrance?”
Chang He asked in surprise, “Wasn’t Luoyang like this as well? In Chang’an, every Lunar New Year’s Eve, the Palace lighted Chenxiang [Aquilaria agallocha (Agarwood)] and Tanmu [sandalwood] in a bonfire, which will burn until daybreak, so that the scent permeated the entire city!”
Kou Zhong was speechless. “They must be burning a lot of incense wood?” he asked.
Mei Xun laughed and said, “At least a hundred carts of incense.”
Just by looking at Mei Xun’s expression this moment, Kou Zhong knew that his suspicions on him had completely gone.
A moment ago, when he got out of the bath barrel to return to his room to change clothes, Wanwan’s fragrant tracks already disappeared, hence he did not have any chance to ask whether she did swap his Moon in the Well with the fake article for him.
For Kou Zhong, compared to having his identity uncovered, losing the Moon in the Well, which he was accustomed to, was merely a trivial matter.
The two carriages joined the traffic heading toward the Vermilion Bird Gate, the main entrance to the Palace. Since the Imperial Bodyguards at the gate must verify the identity of the banquet guests one by one, they could not move faster.
Kou Zhong asked Mei Xun, “What are the arrangement and the program in tonight’s banquet?”
Mei Xun pushed the boat with the current [idiom: to take advantage of the situation for one’s own benefit]; he said, “On this, Chang Daren is more clear than Xiaodi.”
Chang He said, “Based on usual practice of previous years, we should have banquet first and dance later. The banquet is the Taiji Palace’s courtyard banquet and standing banquet held in the public square. After all, the seats in the Taiji Palace are limited, only highly qualified people could attend. The standing banquet could accommodate the remaining numerous guests. Frankly speaking, the standing banquet is much more fun than the banquet at the palace courtyard. Not only it is more relaxed and livelier, there are also dancing, music, and a hundred other shows to liven things up.”
Sha Chengjiu asked, “The dance you are talking about, is that the Great Nuo Dance to exorcise the demons?”
“Precisely the Great Nuo Dance,” Chang He replied, “The dance will start at the xu hour [7-9pm], and last until the zi hour [11pm-1am, midnight]. The Nuo Dance chases the plagues from the Palace one by one; it will be repeated three times, the last one will use torches to send the plagues and inauspicious demons out of the Palace’s gate, and then the torches will be cast into the Yong An Canal at the Yue Ma Bridge, so that the plagues and demons will never turn over. At the same time, the moment we enter the zi hour, the two firecracker towers will be ignited. The sound of firecrackers will spread throughout the city, the flash and the smoke will soar into the sky; very spectacular. Afterwards Huangshang will drive out of the Palace and circle around the city, to welcome the arrival of the New Year’s Day.”
Listening to that, inwardly Kou Zhong was greatly delighted. According to Chang He, the banquet ought to finish before the Great Nuo Dance on the xu hour. By that time the Palace would be in confusion, so that if he, this fake divine doctor went missing, it should not attract anybody’s attention. As long as Chang He did not go looking for him, he should be all right.
“Xiaoren loves to enjoy the excitement the most,” he spoke in low voice, “Is it possible for me to skip the courtyard banquet in the Palace? Xiaoren is serious.”
If he asked that question before Mei Xun examined his saber, it would definitely add more suspicions. But this moment Mei Xun only felt that Kou Zhong was being honest and showing his true nature. Laughing, he said, “If Mo Xiansheng skipped the courtyard banquet, Shengshang and Niangniang would be disappointed.”
Chang He nodded and said, “This matter, Xiaodi cannot bear the responsibility. Mo Xiong, just do Xiaodi a favor: as long as you make an appearance for a moment, Xiaodi will try to find an excuse so that Xiansheng could leave early.”
His objective was reached, immediately Kou Zhong was bursting with joy. He and Hou Xibai agreed to try as much as possible to delay the Tong Xing She’s New Year’s Eve family dinner until after the xu hour. Therefore, as long as he could get away from the courtyard banquet in the Palace early, they would have plenty of time to deal with Yang Xuyan.
As for Xu Ziling’s battle against Ke Dazhi, he was not worried at all; no matter how formidable Ke Dazhi was, it would still be very difficult for him to compare to the ‘Demonic King’ Shi Zhixuan. Dealing with him, Xu Ziling ought to be handling a butcher’s cleaver with ease [idiom: to do something skillfully and easily].
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Everybody all around was happy and excited, brimming with an ushering-out-the-old, greeting-the-new holiday atmosphere. But for Li Jing and Xu Ziling, it was like they existed in a different dimension.
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling asked, “Li Dage is talking to me like this, aren’t you afraid people might be suspicious?”
Li Jing spoke heavily, “They might think that you and I are researching a way to deal with Ke Dazhi. Ay! Ziling, do you realize that you are putting me in a very difficult position?”
Xu Ziling said, “I wonder if Dage is aware of my other identity, Yong Qin?”
Stunned, Li Jing asked, “What Yong Qin?”
Inwardly Xu Ziling was greatly astonished, realizing that Li Shimin concealed his meeting with him to even the closest of his subordinates. This was probably due to his cautiousness, but it was more likely that he did not dare to trust anybody.
After explaining everything to Li Jing, Xu Ziling said, “Dage, please set your heart at ease. We have a secret agreement with Qin Wang; for each day that we have not taken the Duke Yang’s Treasure away, there will still be friendly and cooperative relationship between us.”
Li Jing’s countenance relaxed slightly. Knitting his brows, he asked, “Xiao Zhong agrees to help Qin Wang just like that?”
Xu Ziling replied, “The Eastern Tujue and the Demonic School are our common enemies; besides, who would want to see the dreadful situation of foreign invasion and the evil way going on the rampage? Hey! Has Tuli returned home, safe and sound?”
Letting out a cold snort, Li Jing replied, “Of course he is back safe and sound; otherwise, how could we withdraw and return? We sent him off straight to the northern frontier, had him meet with his clansmen, with Fu Qian Wangzi, Cheng Yaojin and Qin Shubao escorted him for a bit longer, but because we were worried about the situation in Chang’an, we turned back earlier. The two of you slipped away one by one, your Saozi [sister-in-law] threw me a temper for several days.”
Xu Ziling apologetically said, “What’s done is done. Li Dage, please understand our difficulties.”
Li Jing sighed and said, “How could I not understand? Actually, you two were willing to protect Tuli’s life with all your strength, Qin Wang was extremely grateful. Qin Wang has always been someone who accomplishes big things but does not bother about small things. Whatever it is that he is doing, he can’t possibly do a slovenly job. But whenever he is mentioning you two, he is always hesitant and cannot make decision, and seems to be in a very difficult position. Ay! Tell me, what should I say?”
Xu Ziling honestly said, “Li Dage need not be worried. The Duke Yang’s Treasure is just like flowers in a mirror and the moon reflected in the lake [idiom: an unrealistic rosy view]; our chance of getting it out is more and more remote. As long as Kou Zhong’s treasure hunt operation failed, I might be able to force him to abandon his great endeavor of striving for the world. And then Dage won’t have to be in quandary.”
After muttering to himself irresolutely for half a day, Li Jing said, “How can I help you?”
His heart was moved, Xu Ziling said, “It is highly possible that Chi Shengchun is Xiang Gui’s eldest son. Currently Xiang Yushan is disappearing without any trace, but in secret he is still engaged in the offending-Heaven-and-reason shady business of human trafficking. We want to lure him out and to completely destroy their evil family business. Perhaps Li Dage could lend us a hand.”
Li Jing was stunned. “Chi Shengchun actually belongs to the Xiang Family?” he asked, “It is indeed beyond my expectation. But the relationship between Chi Shengchun and Li Yuanji is very close. According to Heavenly Policy Mansion’s intelligence, half of the Six-Happiness Casino’s profit goes into Li Yuanji’s coffer. It is really not easy to shake him.”
Xu Ziling was about to speak when he saw in the distance a lovely scene of blossoming plants swaying in the breeze [gorgeously dressed woman] was waving at him. Fixing his gaze to look, unexpectedly it was the master gambler, the Shang Lin Yuan’s famous courtesan Ji Qian. He could not help groaning inwardly.
Casting her a glance, Li Jing asked in surprise, “Who’s that?”
Smiling bitterly, Xu Ziling replied, “It’s the trouble that Hou Xibai, that kid, attracted. I wonder if Li Dage could do me a favor?”
Li Jing sighed and said, “Speak up!”
Lowering his voice, Xu Ziling said, “Later, when I go out to battle Ke Dazhi, regardless of victory or defeat, I would pretend to receiving internal injury. I need Dage to think of a way to personally take me out of the Palace, so that I can take the time to deal with Yang Xuyan.”
Li Jing gave his consent, turned around, and left.
No sooner said than done, Ji Qian floated over like a butterfly. Grabbing his sleeve, she forcefully pulled him to the side. Her powdered face was pulled taut, she was seething in anger, “What’s your relationship with that girl [yatou – used deprecatingly] Hu Xiaoxian? Why did you get on her carriage and ride in a circle around the East Market?”
Xu Ziling cried, ‘Bad!’ inwardly; how should he answer this question?
Hou Xibai was indeed a good friend.
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Kou Zhong and his party got off the carriage at the public square behind the Vermillion Bird Gate and continued on foot to cross the square.
Kou Zhong took this opportunity to ask Chang He, “Is there any etiquette we have to observe in the palace courtyard banquet? Will I sit next to you?”
Chang He laughed. “Don’t worry!” he said, “Even if you, LaoGe break any court etiquette, definitely no one will dare to blame you. Early this morning Zheng Gonggong received special order to see me. He instructed me to make you feel at home. It can clearly be seen how Zhang Niangniang is showing you special attention. Later on I only need to tell Zheng Gonggong that you, Laoxiong, would love to go to the square to enjoy the festivities, I am sure he will make the arrangement. There won’t be any problem at all.”
Kou Zhong thought that if Chang He was coming with him, it would still be difficult for him to get away. Thereupon he sounded out, “I can go alone to enjoy the fun. Chang Xiong need not come with me.”
“How could I do that?” Chang He replied, “Tonight, we, two brothers, must party until daybreak; we are not going home before we are drunk, we’ll pass the festive day together.”
Kou Zhong cried, ‘Not good!’ inwardly, yet he had no way to refuse Chang He’s excessive friendliness.
This moment Mei Xun, leaving Sha Chengjiu, Sha Chenggong, two brothers behind, came to Kou Zhong’s other side and said, “Since Mo Xiansheng is also a martial art master, you must not miss the brilliant martial art duel in tonight’s palace courtyard feast.”
Pretending to be stunned, Kou Zhong asked, “Isn’t the feast tonight to celebrate the beginning of Spring? Plus isn’t there prohibition inside the Palace? How could people fight desperate battle in it?”
Chang He replied, “This is Huangshang’s original family, the Li Clan’s tradition. Every celebration of festive day is a good day to compete, to pit oneself against each other. The participants only touch on the opponent and stop; there won’t be any serious injury or bloodshed. It is precisely because of our Great Tang’s illustrious and flourishing martial style that the Great Tang’s military can be unrivalled under the heavens.”
Kou Zhong assumed an air of having just received an enlightenment; he asked, “Will Mei Xiong personally come down to the arena to play a round or two?”
By this time Mei Xun already considered him someone from the Crown Prince Jiancheng’s side; not concealing anything, he said, “Tonight, Taizi Dianxia might send someone out to challenge the Heavenly Policy Mansion’s troops. Ay! If I were Qin Wang, I would also have big headache. Apart from Li Jing and Hong Funu, all the others are the other side’s defeated generals.”
Chang He said, “I have seen with my own eyes Li Jing’s Bloody Battle Ten Styles; it is indeed a first-class formidable saber technique. But compared to Ke Dazhi’s Sandstorm Saber Technique, I am afraid it is still half a notch inferior.”
Pretending to be an amateur, Kou Zhong said, “If the difference is so slight, plus it is not really a battle to determine life or death, can’t they just fight to a draw and be done with it?”
Mei Xun laughed and said, “Even in the game of chess, slight difference can make one having his hands and feet bound and unable to do anything, much less martial arts competition contending for supremacy. Martial art masters in attendance are as numerous as the cloud, Huangshang himself is a big expert in martial art study. Just by looking at a few moves, he could immediately tell who’s superior and who’s inferior. Huh! Speaking of the devil [orig. don’t talk about people in the daytime, don’t talk about ghost in the nighttime], isn’t that Ke Xiong?”
Following his gaze, the two saw Ke Dazhi, accompanied by a cute beauty, strolling among the crowd, in an ample-aspiration-full-of-confidence manner.
Taking a closer look, Kou Zhong recognized the delicately pretty girl by Ke Dazhi’s side; who else but Xi’er?”
This moment Ke Dazhi also saw them, so he steered Xi’er to walk toward them.
Kou Zhong looked back to cast a quick glance toward Sha Chenggong. He saw the anger on his face that made the blue veins appear, his eyes shot hatred out of jealousy.