Book 33 Chapter 3 – Confirming the Spy Within
Xu Ziling was definitely not Hou Xibai, hence he did not understand Ji Qian’s temperament. Moreover, he was afraid to say a wrong thing, and then she might find out that he was an ‘impostor’. Thereupon he only said, “She and I had the predestined affinity to meet outside the Pass one time; nothing more than that!”
With a cold humph Ji Qian said, “If it was just a predestined affinity to meet one time, why did she send men everywhere to investigate you? She also took the effort to wait at the East Market for you to come back from Xing Chang Long. As I see it, you must have an unclear, indistinct relationship with her, yet you deliberately conceal it from me.”
Xu Ziling was starting to realize that this woman was not simple at all. At the same time, barraged with her questions, he was caught off guard, and was thrown into a very difficult situation. Without any better option, he shrugged his shoulders calmly and said, “Ji Qian Guniang did not believe me, there is nothing that Xiaodi can do. The only relationship between she and I is that I defeated her a round, half a round on the gambling table. It really stopped right there.”
Ji Qian’s pair of bright eyes lit up. Fixing her gaze on him, she said, “Turns out you know how to gamble. Where did Mo Gongzi dampen that girl [orig. yatou, see previous chapter], Hu Xiaoxian’s prowess?”
Inwardly Xu Ziling heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that he had caused problem for Hou Xibai later, so that the two of them were even. Lowering his voice, he replied, “In Jiujiang.”
Ji Qian happily said, “That must be at Yin Ru Ge, which is managed by the ‘Gambling Ghost’ Zha Hai [see Book 26 Chapter 6 and 11]; am I right? But the winner of the Tian Jiu Big Meet was Hu Xiaoxian, not you, Mo Daye.”
It was only then did Xu Ziling know who the winner of the Tian Jiu Big Meet was; he said, “I did not participate in the Tian Jiu Big Meet at all; I just gambled for two hands with her before the Meet.”
This moment several men that looked like the pampered sons of wealthy family were coming toward them. Ji Qian sighed and said, “Those bunch of pain-in-the-neck ghosts are coming again!”
And then she reached out to pinch his forearm, hard, and spoke in low voice, “I’ll settle with you later.”
Just like that, she slipped away at lightning speed.
※ ※ ※
With the beauty in his arm, Ke Dazhi came over, and said with a loud laugh, “Finally I can meet Mei Da Zhangmen [big headmaster]. I hear Mei Xiong has met, even fought hand to hand, with Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling; I wonder if that is true?”
Full of graceful smile, Xi’er greeted everybody, but her demeanor toward Sha Chenggong was cold, instead, her eyes fell onto Kou Zhong’s ugly divine doctor, as if she wanted to say something.
Having his scar cruelly exposed like that, inwardly Mei Xun was offended, but he had to answer; without any better option, he said, “Indeed we met, but did not really fight. These two are disciples with no guts; their most remarkable skill is to escape.”
Listening to this, Kou Zhong was amused inwardly, while a look of disdain appeared on Chang He’s face.
Behind, Sha Tiannan, Sha Chengjiu and Sha Chengde, three father and sons, were intercepted by other people who wanted to chat with them, so that they failed to join this small circle of conversation.
The number of guests in the public square has reached several thousands, and still more people were crowding in continuously. Moreover, Tian Gong [the Lord of Heaven] bestowed them beauty; the bright moon was hanging in the sky, plus the palace wall on the north side obstructed the cold wind, so that the public square was exceptionally and pleasantly warm.
Ke Dazhi smiled and said, “With Qi Wang and Mei Xiong leading the troops, naturally they had to flee at the mere sight of you. In Mei Xiong’s opinion, which one from the two is more brilliant?”
Both Kou Zhong and Chang He did not have good impression on Mei Xun; they exchanged a look, while snickering in their hearts, simply because they could catch Ke Dazhi’s implied meaning; he was mocking Mei Xun for relying on many men, a great force, naturally the opposite side had to break the siege and escape.
Mei Xun was a smart man; how could he not catch the hidden meaning behind his remark? However, Ke Dazhi was currently the most popular member of the Chang Lin Army, plus he had the Eastern Tujue’s support behind him, thereupon he had no choice but to endure the tone of his voice. Acting as if nothing had happened, he said, “This is quite difficult to say; each of those two has his own specialty, but neither one sticks to one pattern. No matter how simple and ordinary a style is, when they execute it, it could bring out the marvel of touching the base matter and turn it to gold.”
Kou Zhong has never heard the enemy discussing his and Xu Ziling’s martial arts; the feeling was extremely novel.
Fascinated, Ke Dazhi said, “Listening to Mei Zhangmen’s description, these two have indeed reached the great expert realm, since they can change something rotten into something magical, and can make skillful appears clumsy. If we could defeat any one of them, it will certainly be a life’s pleasure.”
Sha Chenggong finally found an opening; he fiercely said, “In Luoyang, these two’s fame for fighting prowess is very resounding; if Ke Xiong came across them, what do you think your odds of victory will be?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Ke Dazhi replied, “Not even half a part [5%].”
Including Kou Zhong, everybody was greatly astonished by Ke Dazhi’s modesty.
Sha Chenggong burst into loud laughter and said, “In that case, Ke Xiong must be careful lest the life’s pleasure might turn into a matter for regret.”
Ke Dazhi revealed a hint of smile brimming with mockery; remaining tranquil and calm, he gazed deeply into Xi’er’s eyes first before responding to Sha Chenggong, “Er Gongzi has always been a layman in martial art study; you don’t understand that not only martial art study puts emphasis on the style and training in the basic skills, but the most important is the xinfa. Xiaodi’s Sandstorm Saber Technique’s xinfa is ‘seeking victory amidst defeat’. The principle is rather abstruse; it is not something that can be explained clearly in just a few words.”
Kou Zhong was the first to be emotionally moved. Although he was unable to completely grasp the xinfa that Ke Dazhi was talking about, but the thought of being able to strive to transform defeat into victory in hand-to-hand fight against the enemy was already extremely unusual.
He could not help feeling a bit anxious for Xu Ziling.
Xi’er was revealing a look of adoration, which was more damaging to Sha Chenggong, who immediately went silent – than Ke Dazhi’s remark.
Greatly astonished, Mei Xun said, “Unexpectedly Ke Xiong has this unique school xinfa; no wonder the Sandstorm Saber Technique is impossible to defend effectively, plus it changes unpredictably.”
Ke Dazhi nonchalantly said, “Xiaodi’s set of saber technique was developed from the Great Desert. Anybody who has been to the desert would know that the place is brimming with the taste of death, mishaps and desperation. And seeking the opportunity to live from such a dead end is precisely the principle of seeking victory in the midst of defeat.”
Xi’er sighed in praise, “What Ke Ye said is very moving!”
It looked like Ke Dazhi deliberately wanted to anger Sha Chenggong; looking down, he spoke tenderly, “Didn’t Xi’er Guniang want to watch some juggling? The juggling show over there is just beating to gong to open the performance.”
Xi’er blissfully nodded and said, “Ke Ye, please wait a moment, Xi’er wants to talk a little bit with Mo Xiansheng.”
※ ※ ※
When he was looking for the Bu Family brothers, Xu Ziling caught a glimpse of Kou Zhong and Xi’er talking. He only vaguely remembered Xi’er from many years ago; hence he could not immediately recognize her, who had grown up to be even more beautiful.
While he was muttering why such a beauty was taking a fancy to Kou Zhong with his current ‘revered countenance’, unexpectedly someone blocked his way and laughed aloud, saying, “Who could have thought that I would run into Mo Xiong here.”
Stunned, Xu Ziling halted his steps; to his surprise, it was the Tujue martial art master Ke Dazhi. Momentarily he was still not used to the idea that he ‘knew’ Ke Dazhi, hence it could not be helped that he was a bit losing his head.
Chang He and Mei Xun came to Ke Dazhi’s side. Chang He still showed some courtesy by politely greeting Xu Ziling, but Mei Xun only showed a hint of cold smile on the corner of his mouth, acting like he enjoyed watching a bustling scene, as well as throwing stones at somebody who fell down a well.
Leaving Xi’er, Kou Zhong came over. Sha Chenggong seized this opportunity to entangle Xi’er.
The people all around thought that Ke Dazhi and Xu Ziling were friends greeting each other; no one perceived the hostility between the two sides.
Seeing Xu Ziling looking at him like he was in a daze, Ke Dazhi spoke in great astonishment, “Mo Xiong’s heart does not grow timid, does it?”
Xu Ziling came to his sense. Inwardly he was severely shaken. Relying on his outstanding intuition, he was nearly certain that Ke Dazhi must have known that tonight, the one going to fight with him was he, ‘Mo Wei’, hence he mistakenly thought that Xu Ziling was scared.
This information was very useful, because from this, it could be determined that just now, among the Heavenly Policy Mansion people, there was Li Jiancheng’s spy. Otherwise, it was impossible for Ke Dazhi to guess that the one going to fight was Xu Ziling and not Li Jing.
This matter was extremely important; he must notify Li Jing immediately.
Clearing his throat, he said, “Ke Xiong, why did you say such thing?”
Ke Dazhi was also a highly intelligent person; immediately he sensed that there was a problem with what he just said. His countenance did not change, he smiled and said, “This man is adept at observing slight changes in other people, thereupon I was simply making casual remark. I would like to offer a bit of good advice to Mo Xiong; a fine bird chooses a tree to nest in [Chinese proverb]. If Mo Xiong chooses wrong, I am afraid you will meet unexpected consequences. Were it not for this person admiring Mo Xiong’s swordsmanship very much, I would not have wasted this ‘lips and tongue’.”
This moment Kou Zhong came over. He said with a chuckle, “Ke Ye’s training in the language of the Central Plains is very good; you are very articulate, Xiaoren definitely cannot match it. Hey! This gentleman is …”
Chang He said, “This is Mo Laoshi of Xing Chang Long.”
“We’ve met before!” Kou Zhong said, “Mo Xiong shares the same given name and family name with Jiashu; you are closer than family with the same surname. With such fate, we must find the time to get together over a cup of wine.”
Pretending that he did not know Mei Xun, Xu Ziling’s gaze fell on his face. Mei Xun arrogantly looked up to the night sky.
Kou Zhong pretended to be astonished; he said, “Does Mei Xiong have any enmity against Mo Xiong?”
Mei Xun coldly said, “Persons who walk different paths cannot make plans together. If we have a chance, I must ask to experience Mo Xiong’s swordsmanship, which even Ke Xiong admires very much.”
This remark was full of gunpowder taste; the atmosphere was instantly strained.
Kou Zhong let out a dry cough; he was about to speak when Ke Dazhi spoke up, “Mo Xiong please think it over, or else regret will be too late.”
Xu Ziling laughed aloud and said, “I, Mo Wei, call one as one, two as two; I never knew what is called regret.”
Finished speaking, he stormed off in a huff.
Mei Xun let out a ‘hey, hey’ cold laughter, brimming with disdain.
Kou Zhong asked Chang He in low voice, “What’s the matter?”
Ke Dazhi followed Xu Ziling disappearing into the distance with his eyes; he smiled and said, “Tonight, I, Ke Dazhi, will make him understand what is called regret.”
※ ※ ※
‘Dang! Dang! Dang!’
The palace courtyard feast’s bells were finally ringing.
Accompanied by the members of the monarch’s inner ministerial circle, the imperial concubines, and Jiancheng, Shimin, Yuanji, three sons, amidst the sound of drums and warm music rising to the heavens – Li Yuan, wearing dragon crown on his head and yellow gown on his body, ascended onto the Cheng Tian Gate’s tower, to receive the crowd of government officials and the guests’ well wishes, as well as to make a speech corresponding to the holiday. The atmosphere at the square immediately boiled up. As soon as Li Yuan withdrew from the gate tower to return to the Taiji Palace, all performances begun.
Those who were entitled to attend immediately made a beeline for the palace courtyard banquet at the Taiji Palace.
Beyond the Cheng Tian Gate was precisely the Jia De Gate, situated between the Cheng Tian and Taiji, two gates; obviously it acted as a barrier between the Cheng Tian and Taiji, two gates, to ensure the Palace’s security.
After stepping out of the Taiji Gate, there were bell towers and drum towers on the left and right. Ahead was the majestic, magnificent sight of the Taiji Palace, with its myriad ambience – located exactly due north of the public square.
In the middle of the public square, which was paved with grey bricks, there was the imperial road, paved with large flagstones, from the front of the main hall straight toward the Palace’s gate.
Taiji Hall was the most magnificent building in the imperial palace complex; its width was twelve jian, and its depth fifteen jian [interval between two pillars (Courtesy of Akolaw)].
The most breathtaking thing was the single ledge on the top of the palace with its four different-style slope, interlocking out with the four layers of the wall. It was a complex structure in the middle of simplicity, really a combination of aesthetic perception with the mechanics.
Arranged at the wide northern extremity of the palace hall were six round tables as the main banquet tables. Those who were entitled to sit around these six tables were, naturally, royalties.
The rest of the banquet seats were arranged on the east and west, two sides; everything was clear and in good order.
Xu Ziling entered the Taiji Hall behind the Heavenly Policy Mansion people. As soon as he found an opportunity, he told Li Jing about the spy. Hearing that, Li Jing was frowning deeply, but since it was inconvenient to talk, he simply nodded to indicate that he understood.
Zhangsun Wuji came to Xu Ziling’s other side and spoke indifferently, “Mo Xiong and Li Jiangjun seem to be getting along very well with each other!”
Xu Ziling knew he was attentive and was very intelligent; hence he did not dare to lightly neglect him. Smiling wryly, he said, “Zhangsun Xiong misunderstood; Li Xiong simply did not feel comfortable with Biren’s martial art skill!”
Li Jing pretended to be embarrassed; he said, “Mo Xiong please do not be oversensitive; it’s just because this matter is very important, Ol’ Li is only curious and wanted to ask a couple more questions.”
Zhangsun Wuji said, “My understanding is that after fighting hand to hand with Mo Xiong at the Shang Lin Yuan that night, Ke Dazhi said that Mo Xiong’s shenfa is better than your jianfa [sword technique]. One time Xiaodi and Jingde carefully analyzed his strange comment about Mo Xiong, but we remain puzzled after pondering over it a hundred times [idiom]. Mo Xiong was the one directly involved, perhaps you can grasp the hidden meaning behind his comment better than we do.”
Inwardly Xu Ziling shivered greatly; he could not help revising his assessment on Ke Dazhi. He certainly understood this remark, which was referring to Hou Xibai’s sword move failed to fully match his confident and at ease, mysterious and strange shenfa. But perhaps it was because he was not using the Fan of Beauty that he was accustomed to.
But how could he reveal that?
“Let’s go to the side,” Li Jing said.
To avoid blocking other people, the three stepped aside to a corner of the Taiji Hall plaza and continued discussing their previous topic.
Xu Ziling saw Kou Zhong’s disguise of Divine Doctor Mo, accompanied by Chang He and Mei Xun on his left and right, mingled among the crowd of guests climbing up the hundred-step stone stairs of the main hall. He said, “That night, due to Jiancheng Taizi’s presence, Biren did not dare to use the sword technique to its fullest, hence Ke Dazhi could have such criticism.”
Pang Yu and Yuchi Jingde separately saw them from a distance, so they came over to say hello. The former said with a laugh, “Are you discussing tonight’s big plan to punish the bad guy? We will have to rely on Mo Laoshi.”
With grave expression, Yuchi Jingde said, “Ke Dazhi’s Sandstorm Saber, I am afraid only Song Que’s Heavenly Saber can comfortably beat him; even Kou Zhong’s Moon in the Well against him, victory or defeat is still hard to tell. Therefore, Mo Laoshi must not make the mistake of being eager to snatch victory, because not only Ke Dazhi has astonishingly tenacious power, he is also the best in using strength to attack strength, a martial art master in fighting hard battle.”
Xu Ziling mused inwardly that the Kou Zhong that Yuchi Jingde knew was the ‘old’ Kou Zhong when they were in Luoyang. What he learned through experience from Luoyang until now, plus obtaining the ‘Heavenly Saber’ Song Que’s painstaking effort in training and enlightening him, and then going through the battle against the Four Great Holy Monks, today’s Kou Zhong was not at all like the Luoyang’s Kou Zhong.
He definitely would not underestimate the enemy because of this.
Li Jing said, “Jingde, don’t worry, Mo Laoshi will definitely not make the mistake of neglect.”
Zhangsun Wuji asked in astonishment, “Xiaodi has a strange feeling that Mo Laoshi does not seem to take Ke Dazhi to heart at all. Could it be that Wuji misinterpret what I see?”
This moment, there was a sudden burst of commotion among the crowd waiting in queue to enter the palace hall. Turned out Shang Xiufang has arrived. Accompanying her was Hong Funu. Everybody, men and women alike, was striving to see her graceful bearing; a clear proof of her astonishing charisma.
Seeing Li Jing, the two women turned toward them, inciting not a few of admiring and envious gaze.
Taking the opportunity while the two women had not yet arrived, Xu Ziling responded to Zhangsun Wuji, “I am the kind of person who is indifferent toward fame and profit. Plus tonight it’s not like a battle to determine life or death. Therefore, I do not take this matter to heart. I will only think about it when things come to a head, so it’s not like Zhangsun Xiong think that I do not have any regard toward Ke Dazhi.”
Zhangsun Wuji appeared to be quite suspicious toward him. Although due to Shang Xiufang’s arrival he did not continue his questioning, his pair of sword-shaped eyebrows was still tightly knitted.
Everybody crowded warmly to socialize with Shang Xiufang.
Shang Xiufang was indeed a natural beauty; she had the countenance that was capable of causing the downfall of a city. The most touching thing was that whether she was walking, standing, sitting, or lying, she had myriad bearings; every frown and every smile, none could not overthrow all living things.
By the time she arrived in front of them, everybody, Li Jing included, held his breath because they were overawed by the extraordinarily enchanting beautiful appearance of her lightly made up pretty face. Her seemingly-full-of-tender-feelings big eyes were sweeping across everybody’s face until her gaze stopped at Xu Ziling. However, she was speaking to everybody. She said with a smile, “By nature, Xiufang is curious; seeing gentlemen are having discussion in high spirits, I could not help begging Hong Fu Jiejie to take Xiufang here to listen respectfully.”
Naturally everybody knew that she was joking. But she was willing to come over and exchange some pleasantries with them, not only she was giving them a lot of face, she also made them feel overwhelmed by favor from superior.
Pang Yu laughed and said, “We are discussing whether Xiufang Dajia [great expert] would open your golden mouth tonight, to offer a tune to Huangshang in the palace courtyard?”
Among the generals of the Heavenly Policy Mansion, Pang Yu was well known to be a romantic character. This kind of teasing comment would never come out of Yuchi Jingde, Li Jing, and the others’ mouth.
Hong Funu replied on her behalf, “This time Xiufang came on Huangshang’s invitation, not to perform her singing art.”
If Shang Xiufang were invited to the palace courtyard banquet on Li Shimin, or even Li Jiancheng’s invitation, it would only to be expected. But since the invitation came from Li Yuan, it was clear that their relationship was very unusual.
Intuitively Xu Ziling knew that the relationship was not that of between men and women, rather, it had something to do with Shang Xiufang’s mother, Ming Yue.
From Pang Yu, Shang Xiufang’s beautiful eyes returned to Xu Ziling. She spoke softly, “Not only Mo Laoshi’s swordsmanship is brilliant, turns out you are also a distinguished and accomplished figure that in the four arts [zither, Go (Chinese chess), calligraphy, painting], none is not exquisite. Xiufang has not had any chance to ask for advice.”
Xu Ziling was greatly embarrassed; secretly he cursed Hou Xibai for ‘not knowing how to restraint himself’. Merely this sarcasm-hidden-inside-the-compliment was already hard to swallow; furthermore, now he knew that Shang Xiufang was quietly paying attention to ‘him’ at the pleasure house. Perhaps she even knew he was ‘fooling around’ with Ji Qian like the back of her hand.
Bracing himself to face the worst, he said, “Biren was only accompanying our family’s Er Shaoye to Shang Lin Yuan to enjoy the fun!”
Shang Xiufang cast him a deep, meaningful glance, so that even with Xu Ziling’s breadth of mind and self-cultivation, he still could not stop his heart from throbbing.
Li Jing said, “It’s almost time! Xiufang, please.”
Everybody looked at the palace hall’s door. Most guests have already entered. If they did not move now, they would be late.
Shang Xiufang did not modestly decline; accompanied by Hong Funu, she took the lead toward the Taiji Hall in elegant, many-postures – light jade steps.
Xu Ziling was about to move, Zhangsun Wuji held him back and said, “Qin Wang instructed me to remind Mo Xiong, if Mo Xiong could block Ke Dazhi’s fifteen saber strikes, he will stop the match. Our Heavenly Policy Mansion will already win back our face.”
Xu Ziling replied with a smile, “It would be best if Huangshang stops the match; wouldn’t it be more convincing?”
Finished speaking, no longer paying attention to Zhangsun Wuji, he ran after Li Jing.