Zhang Jieyu’s mood today was not good. Turned out Li Yuan originally promised to take her and Yin De Fei to come with him to Zhongnan Bie Gong [the ‘other’ palace on Mount Zhongnan], who would have thought that this morning he changed his mind at the last moment, by ordering the two beloved imperial concubines to stay in Chang’an?
Before seeing Zhang Jieyu, Zheng Gonggong again and again warned Kou Zhong, if he did not have any urgent business, it would be best to come again another day to seek audience; he even hinted that were it not for he was looking up at Kou Zhong, he would definitely not want to go through this trouble for him. Otherwise, if Zhang Jieyu took her anger out on him, Zheng Gonggong might fall head first.
Listening to his very serious talk, Kou Zhong also thought about beating the return drum. But then he remembered Chang He said that ‘Zhang Jieyu’s one word worth more than Li Jiancheng’s ten words’, he had no choice but to brace himself to go see Zhang Jieyu, because Zheng Gonggong taking her anger was a small matter, but if she took her anger on Chang He and the Sha Family, it would be a big matter.
Considering the severity of this case, he simply had to take this risk, no matter what.
After waiting for a moment, Zheng Gonggong came out to the outer hall and said, “Furen indeed treats Xiansheng favorably, knowing that Xiansheng came, she is putting aside everything and wanting to see Xiansheng first.”
Kou Zhong was dying to ask Zhang Jieyu what exactly were other things that she put aside, but he knew that asking such question was not appropriate; without any better option he took an indirect approach, “Has Furen calmed down?”
Terrified, Zheng Gonggong replied, “She has just hurled a big state-flower vase that Huangshang gave her and smashed it to pieces, and she did not allow anybody to clean up; would you say she has calmed down?”
Kou Zhong nearly turned around and leave; it’s just that his arrival has been reported inside, so it became if-you-ride-a-tiger, it’s-hard-to-get-off situation. In this kind of situation, if he told her that he was going to leave Chang’an, he wondered what would her reaction be?
“Come,” Zheng Gonggong said, “Don’t let Furen wait.”
There was only this six-character saying in Kou Zhong’s mind, ‘every one shall die in his own sin’ [zi zuo nie, bu ke huo]; his scalp went numb, he entered the inner courtyard.
The study room where Zhang Jieyu was receiving him was evidently not the place where she smashed things to vent her anger; the floor was clean, maids and servants were standing respectfully on the left and right with head hung low, with their heart alarmed, their body leaping [idiom: fear and trepidation in the face of disaster], the only thing they dared to look at was the floor.
Seething, Zhang Jieyu was sitting in an imperial tutor chair; forcing herself to nod at Kou Zhong, she coldly said, “Xiansheng, please sit down.”
Kou Zhong possessed an eloquent torrential talent, but in this case, he did not even dare to breathe loudly; he obediently sat down opposite her.
Zhang Jieyu was looking out the window. Suddenly she sighed, her voice turned soft, although it still carried a stiff, icy-cold impression, as she said, “Xiansheng is not coming with Huangshang to Mount Zhongnan?”
Kou Zhong almost blurted out without thinking, saying, ‘Zhang Niangniang is here, how could Xiaoren dare to stay away?’ Fortunately, he remembered that after saying those beautiful, big flattery words, how could he say goodbye to her? Without any better option he just shook his head.
Zhang Jieyu’s pretty eyebrows deeply knitted, she spoke coldly, “Xiansheng came to visit me, what exactly is the matter?” But then she felt that the tone of her voice was too heavy to be used toward the benefactor who saved her life. “Xiansheng, please don’t take offense,” she spoke apologetically, “I’m in a bad mood.”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “Seeing Furen’s mood is less than good today, Xiaoren indeed has a matter to be reported, yet too frightened to speak.”
Zhang Jieyu was slightly stunned; her eyes moved toward Zheng Gonggong, the latter immediately looked down. Zhang Jieyu scolded tenderly, “All of you, get out of here, I want to speak with Xiansheng in private.”
Being able to leave, Zheng Gonggong and the others simply did not know how to express their gratitude to Kou Zhong; hurriedly they scattered away like birds and beasts.
When only the two of them remaining in the study room, Zhang Jieyu left her seat, pressed one hand on the table, and spoke angrily, “Mo Xiansheng, you be the judge for me. That Dong Fei [imperial concubine], what kind of thing is she? Unexpectedly Huangshang is leaving me and Yin De Fei behind, while taking her alone to Zhongnan. Not distinguishing between senior and junior, who’s first and who’s last, how could there be such an unfair, unreasonable thing under the heavens?”
Hearing that, Kou Zhong was dumbstruck; only then did he understand what was going on. However, although Zhang Jieyu was showing her shrewish side, she was still impressively beautiful; there was some kind of touching demeanor of pretty, coquettish anger around her.
Without needing to ask, he already knew; Li Yuan left his two favorite imperial concubines in the palace, it was out of consideration for their own safety. He let Dong Shuni come along, most probably because he understood her relationship with Yang Xuyan. As for whether the fact was like this, perhaps only Li Yuan knew.
The more she spoke, the angrier Zhang Jieyu was; she hatefully said, “Qin Wang brought this vixen [lit. fox-spirit] back from Luoyang, Yin De Fei and I already guessed that he was having bad intentions; he wanted to confuse Huangshang. This is too revolting!”
Kou Zhong was afraid she might cry, which would be even more difficult to handle, and then how would he talk about saying goodbye? Thereupon he busily said, “Niangniang, please calm down. Xiaoren has different understanding.”
Astonished, Zhang Jieyu asked, “What understanding?”
Inventing crazy nonsense, Kou Zhong said, “Just now when Xiaoren entered the Palace, I came across Huangshang; at that time Taizi Dianxia was also present. Xiaoren said that I was going into the Palace to see Furen, Huangshang revealed a very concerned look about Furen, he implored Xiaoren over and over again to serve Furen well. Taizi Dianxia will be able to confirm this.”
Although it was a deliberate exaggeration, he was certain that Li Jiancheng would not expose him.
The thing that Zhang Jieyu was most afraid of was losing favor; hearing that, half-believing, half-doubting, she said, “If Huangshang really cares about me, then why is it that when he left, he did not even come to say goodbye to me?”
Kou Zhong was now certain that Zhang Jieyu was not Yin Gui Pai’s mole, because her jealousy and grievance, none did not come from the bottom of her heart, absolutely not fake; thereupon he confirmed, “If Xiaoren did not guess incorrectly, Huangshang is afraid that if he saw Furen first, he would be reluctant to leave, or perhaps he would not be able to help taking Furen along to Zhongnan. As for the reason, it is not Xiaoren’s place to know.”
And then lowering his voice, he said, “Xiaoren is most adept in reading people’s countenance. Hey! The ‘seeing’ part of the ‘seeing and hearing, asking everything’ is precisely referring to this. Because Huangshang has a load on his mind, the inflammation of his liver is rising, his cheekbones are turning red; this trip to Zhongnan is not as simple as it appears on the surface, it must be involving some extraordinary secret. It is enough for Furen to know it in your heart, you must never, ever reveal it to anybody else, not even Yin De Niangniang or Taizi Dianxia. Otherwise, it’s hard to say, but Huangshang might be really unhappy.”
Zhang Jieyu revealed a grave expression; absentmindedly she returned to her seat, nodded her head, and said, “Now that Xiansheng mentioned it, I also feel that these past few days Huangshang’s demeanor is rather strange, as if he has a very heavy load on his mind? Suddenly he ordered Liu Zhenghui to seal off the two side doors, left and right, leading to the main palace. He suddenly summoned Taizi, Qin Wang, and the others for a meeting. The strangest thing was that he handed over the Xuanwu Gate Imperial Guards Headquarters to Pei Ji to take full responsibility, leaving Jiancheng Taizi to take charge of the city defense; all these arrangements are out of keeping with reason.”
Inwardly Kou Zhong scolded Li Yuan for beating the grass to scare the snake. However, from Kou Zhong’s standpoint, it was really not his mother’s fart to care about.
Stroking her silky chest, Zhang Jieyu exhaled slowly, and then said, “Now my heart feels much better! Xiansheng not only know how to cure illness, you also know how to pacify others’ heart. Xiansheng’s coming here, what exactly is the problem? As long as it is within my powers, I will definitely do my best for Xiansheng’s sake.
Kou Zhong heaved a sigh of relief inwardly; after giving everything he had, finally he seized a good opportunity to talk.
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling met with Yun Shuai, the latter said, “I thought I would not see you again.”
Xu Ziling knew that relying of his exceptional qinggong, Yun Shuai really had the ability to spy on the Tang Army’s movements in secret. “What did Guoshi [teacher of the state] see?” he asked.
Under the distinct silhouette of his high and straight nose, Yun Shuai’s eyes appeared to be even deeper. Revealing a hint of enigmatic, slightly crafty expression, he fixed his gaze on Xu Ziling as he responded, “I heard intense noise of a gate being broken coming from the Dugu Family’s Xi Ji Yuan; rushing over, I saw Li Yuanji and Dugu Family’s people gathered around the mouth of the well in the right backyard, and then Li Yuan and a large number of imperial bodyguards rushed over. What exactly happened?”
Just by hearing how he was able to casually mention the name of the Dugu Mansion, Xu Ziling knew that Yun Shuai had spent some effort to investigate. The sound of breaking door that aroused his attention must be from Zhu Yuyan; she would rather have the Demonic Emperor Relics temporarily fall into the Li Family’s hands, which was better than if Yang Xuyan obtained it.
Xu Ziling suddenly had a little regret for cooperating with Yun Shuai. From the fleeting expression showing in his eyes just now, he intuitively felt that all his actions were based on self-interest, and if necessary, he could turn his back ruthlessly. As a Persian living among the Western Tujue and holding the Teacher of the State position, his situation was very similar to Zhao Deyan, who, as a Han, was the Eastern Tujue’s Teacher of the State.
Merely this kind of similarity was enough to make Xu Ziling wary. If he also had wild schemes toward the Demonic Emperor Relics, then it would be a great headache for them.
In that instant he made up his mind to take Yun Shuai out of the game. Actually, the real reason was because the changes in their situation. Their originally fool-proof plan has become hard to execute according to plan.
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “What happened last night was the heaviest accident; when we entered the treasure house, we were detected by Li Yuanji’s men who are monitoring the underground situation; fortunately we managed to escape via the underground river. This time I came here to tell Yun Shuai that the plan is canceled.”
Shaken, Yun Shuai asked, “What about the Demonic Emperor Relics?”
Xu Ziling was even more convinced that Yun Shuai was not without any desire to obtain the Relics himself; but since at least up to this moment they still had a cooperation agreement, he felt that deceiving him was an unrighteous thing. Thereupon he smiled and said, “The Relics is in our hands.”
Stunned, Yun Shuai said, “Since that’s the case, why cancel the plan?”
Xu Ziling shook his head as he laughed in spite of himself, he said, “The problem is that even if we guarantee that the Relics is in our hands, no one is willing to believe. In this kind of situation, if we proceed according to plan, it will be akin to throwing ourselves into the net that Zhao Deyan is laying out.”
Yun Shuai said, “If the Li Family’s men cannot find the Relics in the treasure house, how could they not believe?”
Xu Ziling said, “Currently the storehouse is full of marsh gas, the Li Family’s men could only make quick inspection; the vile environment does not allow them to make a thorough search.”
He did not tell Yun Shuai half a word of lie; he just did not reveal the existence of the real treasure house.
After muttering to himself irresolutely for a moment, Yun Shuai asked, “What exactly is the Demonic Emperor Relics?”
“I have not seen it yet,” Xu Ziling responded truthfully.
“What?” Yun Shuai blurted out.
Lowering his voice, Xu Ziling said, “The Demonic Emperor Relics is stored in a sealed copper container, it is only about a chi tall, and it is immersed in some kind of thick liquid. We did not dare to open it, hence we still lack the good fortune of seeing the Demonic Emperor Relics.”
Yun Shuai’s pair of eyes emitted penetrating divine light, as if he wanted to see through Xu Ziling. Knitting his brows, he said, “Toward this unusual treasure that everybody in the demonic school is fighting over, you guys don’t have the slightest bit of interest?”
Xu Ziling laughed calmly and said, “Honestly, no.”
Yun Shuai said, “Since you don’t want to make use of the Demonic Emperor Relics to proceed with the plan, what is your plan to handle it?”
Xu Ziling casually replied, “Perhaps we’ll find a place to bury it. Does Guoshi have any good suggestion?”
Yun Shuai said, “I still think that we could proceed according to plan. As long as the Relics is the real Relics, we could still use it to control the situation, so that Zhao Deyan will fall into the trap.”
“I want to discuss it with Kou Zhong first,” Xu Ziling replied, “Tonight, before the you hour [5-7pm], we’ll give Guoshi a definite answer.”
Yun Shuai suddenly sighed. He said, “I have something that I’d like to discuss with you. Supposing we proceed according to plan, and then when everybody is scrambling to seize the Demonic Emperor Relics, I join the melee, would two gentlemen be willing to give me a hand?”
Xu Ziling never expected him to be this forthcoming, without glossing over anything; it greatly increased his favorable impression instead. He also responded candidly, “To Kou Zhong and I, our highest hope is that the Relics will fall into Shi Feixuan’s hands; but under current circumstances, the chances that she will show up appears to be not too good. In this case, helping you is not a problem; however, I wonder if Guoshi has considered the aftermath?”
Yun Shuai smiled wryly; he said, “The aftermath is that if I succeed, then the return route to my country will be nine deaths and still alive [idiom: narrow escape]; however, to you, it will only bring benefit without any harm. Relying on my feet’s power, no one will be able to intercept me for the first part of the journey. But because I am not familiar with the road, there will always be the risk of being overtaken. However, I still think that it worth taking the risk to try.”
Xu Ziling said, “If Guoshi obtains the Relics, because you do not know how to draw its power, it might be useless for you, plus you let the chance to kill Zhao Deyan slip by for no reason. It looks like it won’t be too worthwhile.”
Yun Shuai said, “You and Kou Zhong discuss first whether we will proceed according to plan; if everything is feasible, we will make careful plan.”
Inwardly Xu Ziling heaved a sigh of relief; he also recalled the old sayings, ‘human beings will die for riches, just as birds will for food’.
※ ※ ※
Li Yuan’s spring hunting team galloped majestically out of the Vermillion Bird Gate, into the Vermillion Bird Boulevard, while the multitude of common people flanked the street to see them off. The sound of cracking horsewhip unending, the atmosphere was very warm.
Since ancient times, there was no lack of men, emperors, kings and members of the imperial clan of successive dynasties, who loved to go on hunting expeditions. Every dynasty designated a certain restricted imperial park where common people were not allowed to hunt.
It was after the Great Tang entered Chang’an that Mount Zhongnan was selected as the hunting ground.
The number of unforeseen events related to hunting expeditions throughout history was too numerous to mention individually one by one.
The ancient Xia Dynasty’s [2070-1600 BC] Son of Heaven, Tai Kang, because of his obsession with hunting, was deposed by Hou Yi, the leader of Dong Yi Tribe [Eastern Barbarians, non-Han tribe living to the east of China c 2200 BC], who took advantage of Tai Kang going out hunting to start rebellion, and then he himself ascended the royal throne.
However, Hou Yi himself did not learn from experience; he was also obsessed with hunting and ignored the state affairs, and ended up in the same tragic fate as Tai Kang.
The Zhou Dynasty even specially formulated a system of shooting etiquette and field hunting; they promoted hunting expedition as major national affair, and even used it as a way to select the best talent.
A lot of promising monarchs were crazy about hunting; for example, during the Warring States period [475-221 BC] the King Zhuang of Chu [reigned 613-591 BC, one of the Five Hegemons] reached the top, and then there was the Han Dynasty’s [206 BC-220 AD] Han Wudi [Emperor Wu, 141-87 BC], and the Three Kingdoms’ Cao Cao [(155-220), famous statesman and general at the end of Han, noted poet and calligrapher, later warlord, founder and first king of Cao Wei, father of Emperor Cao Pi].
However, the most absurd was Emperor Wei Ming. Unexpectedly he established a restricted park at Xingyang, east side of Luochang, which was more than a thousand li wide. In it, he raised six hundred tigers, three hundred wolves, ten thousand foxes, and other birds and beasts, so many that their number cannot be counted. He also prohibited the local people from harming the beasts of the park; thereupon the beasts went everywhere, hurting people, so that common people suffered. Not only they bewailed the tyrannical government, which was fiercer than a tiger, but demanding government and fierce tigers and vicious beasts were not a good combination.
The Li Clan inherited the tradition of field hunting; they consider it the sign of the nation’s prosperity. Field hunting and beauty were two hobbies that Li Yuan greatly enjoyed and ones he never tired of. However, this time the hunting expedition involved the struggle between the orthodox and the demonic school, the conflict between the previous dynasty and the new one; hence the pleasure was greatly reduced.
Kou Zhong followed behind the end of the procession to leave the Palace, and headed north toward the Bei Li. His heart was not without a sigh of sorrow, but it was quickly replaced by another kind of emotion.
The person he wanted to see was Shang Xiufang, the number one famous courtesan in the world. Even though the previous night she did not send anybody to look for him, he felt the need to say goodbye to her. The contradiction in Kou Zhong’s heart was excruciating. He wanted to see Shang Xiufang, because when he was intoxicated by her touching amorous feelings and charming attitude, he could forget about the ugly side of the world. However, he also had a faint feeling that he was playing with fire. In case anything went bad, he would suffer the calamity of ‘burning body’.
There was the rumbling noise of horses’ hoof. A carriage was speeding out of the Vermillion Bird Gate of the Imperial City; ahead and behind the carriage were eight Imperial Bodyguards. When the carriage was by Kou Zhong’s side, it suddenly stopped.
And then Princess Xiuning’s voice came from behind the hanging-low window curtains, “Mo Xiansheng, where are you going? Would you let Xiuning give you a ride?”
Since he was in the middle of major thoroughfare, Kou Zhong had no choice but to board the carriage, facing the other person, whom he wanted to see, but he did not wish to see.
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling walked swiftly along the street. His destination was the Le Quan Guan of Bei Li. Originally he was thinking of diving back into the treasure house to check the situation, but in broad daylight, both on the water and on both banks of Yong An Canal, traffic was heavy; how could he go down into the water under ten-thousand staring eyes?
The chances of assassinating An Long were quickly fading, but there was still a sliver of opportunity, as long as he was willing to come to Le Quan Guan today.
Since he had nothing to do anyway, he might as well go to Le Quan Guan to check on this gathering place, and find a restaurant that was open for business along the way to fill his belly.
With his current cultivation level, several days without a drop of water entering his body would not be a problem, but eating was still a pleasure and delight to the mouth, which he considered it as some kind of enjoyment in life.
While passing through the Ming Tang Wo and the Six-Happiness Casino, he noticed a lot of people were going in and out, although there was no queue like the previous two days. A large number of gamblers must have lost their money with only both-sleeves-flowing-in-the-breeze remained, no longer had the power to come to enjoy the excitement.
Li Shimin was advocating the ban on gambling. But he was helpless to deal with Ming Tang Wo, which had Yin De Fei’s evil tyrant father Yin Zuwen supporting behind them. And then the Six-Happiness Casino had the strong support of Li Yuanji. Just by looking at how the Great Immortal Hu Fo and his daughter, Hu Xiaoxian could publicly appear at the Lunar New Year’s Eve banquet at the Palace, he knew that since they had the support of the Princelings Faction and the Imperial Concubines Faction, Li Yuan had to allow the two major casinos’ existence.
Judging from this point, Li Yuan was not a good emperor at all.
While he was still engrossed in his thinking, suddenly he heard a tender humph coming from the main gate of the Six-Happiness Casino.
Xu Ziling did not expect that the tender call was actually targeted at him. Without looking back, he continued walking forward, until he heard the sound of footsteps running after him from behind, and only then did he stop and look back.
The beautiful courtesan Ji Qian, who made her big appearance and made headline during the Lunar New Year’s Eve banquet, was panting for breath as she rushed over toward him, provoking the other passers-by raise eyebrows.
Xu Ziling felt big headache, because he knew that this woman was difficult to deal with.
Ji Qian came to his side and crossly said, “What’s wrong with you? The more I call, the faster you are walking away. I don’t know how to address you.”
Xu Ziling really wished he could pretend not knowing her, but he knew that it would make no sense, because whether it was a man or a woman, as long as they caught a glance of someone as pretty as her, Ji Qian, they would definitely not forget her.
Feigning surprise, he said, “Isn’t this the Guniang that I once saw at the Six-Happiness? I wonder why are you looking for Zaixia?”
Ji Qian pulled his sleeve and said, “Let’s find a place to sit down and talk. Don’t worry, I won’t ask to borrow money from you.”
Xu Ziling was helpless against her; he was pulled away by her without the freedom to act independently.