Book 19 Chapter 8 – Immortals Crossing The Sea
After changing into imperial guard uniforms, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling galloped their horses to Man Qing Yuan’s main gate and shouted, “Has Miss Xiufang’s carriage left?”
The guards at the door promptly open the gate and replied, “Two Guan Ye [master officers], Miss Xiufang is still making herself presentable, but the carriage is ready, it can leave any moment.”
Putting on his official air, Kou Zhong said, “Show me the way!”
And then the two jumped off the horse, and followed the guard leading the way into the inner courtyard. Along the way Kou Zhong indirectly made inquiries, and very quickly he found out the procedure Shang Xiufang took whenever she went out to a party, including the number attendants that usually came with her, so he made a plan in his heart.
The sky was still dark with the clouds, but no rain. The suffocating atmosphere was so depressing, even the flowers and plants and the trees in the courtyard seemed to lose their color.
By the time they arrived at the small courtyard where Shang Xiufang was staying, her more than a dozen attendants were busy wiping the carriage and the horses in preparation to set off.
After sending the guard away, Kou Zhong pulled the leader of the attendants, a man called Bai Sheng, to the side and said, “Xuanying Taizi [crown prince] specially sent us here to protect Miss Xiufang. Bai Xiong ought to know about incidents that happened frequently in the Eastern Capital!”
Bai Sheng looked at the two men up and down for a moment before saying, “Two officers’ faces look very unfamiliar.”
Pretending to be very mysterious, Kou Zhong lowered his voice and said, “These days we were with Xuanshu Gongzi in Yanshi on business, that’s why we rarely meet each other. But last time Miss Xiufang went to Shangshu Mansion, didn’t I see Bai Xiong? It’s just that I was on guard duty inside the Mansion. I still remember Miss Xiufang’s first song, ‘young Gongzi bears much favor’ something like that. Hey! I only remember that one line, I forgot the rest!”
He was telling the truth, Ba Sheng’s misgivings vanished completely. But he was still frowning when he said, “I also heard about the Eastern Capital not being too safe. Xuanying Taizi is indeed considerate, but Miss usually does not like ostentatious display. If two officers are escorting on either side, I am afraid Miss will be displeased.”
Standing on the side, Xu Ziling was amused inwardly, thinking that with more than a dozen attendants escorting at the front and rear, wouldn’t it be ostentatious display? But this Bai Sheng was obviously only making excuses. Or perhaps Miss Shang Xiufang wanted to give the impression that she was ordinary people, hence was unwilling to be openly associated with government officials.
This was precisely what Kou Zhong wanted. Patting Bai Sheng’s shoulder, he said, “That’s easy, we’ll take off our uniforms, and we can follow the party from a distance!”
Bai Sheng had nothing more to say, he had to agree.
This moment, Shang Xiufang, in splendid attire, helped by two pretty maids, came out. Hastily Kou Zhong ‘tactfully’ pulled Xu Ziling aside. He spoke in heavy voice, “Now, if we could pass the Imperial City’s main entrance, we would be like the immortals crossing the sea!”
※ ※ ※
Shang Xiufang’s entourage went out of Man Qing Yuan, heading toward the Imperial City.
Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong brought up the rear, putting on an act of looking forward and back cautiously. Everybody constantly looking up to the sky, afraid that the accumulated moisture in the air would turn into heavy rain at any moment, hence subconsciously they increased their speed.
They have not gone far when from the rear came the sound of hoof beats. Being on guard, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling looked back, and immediately they groaned inwardly. Because the ones running after them were unexpectedly Li Shimin, Pang Yu, Zhangsun Wuji and Yuchi Jingde, four men.
The only thing they could do at this moment was to pray to Heaven, hoping that Li Shimin did not know every single one of Shang Xiufang’s attendants; otherwise their identity would be unmasked.
Li Shimin and the others were not like Bai Sheng at all; how could they be easily deceived?
The two promptly separated to the front and the rear, while also applying their internal strength to restraint the essence of their qi, and hunching their back a little, so that they would not arouse Li Shimin and the others’ alertness. Inwardly they were glad that if they were not riding on the horse, merely their tall and straight physiques would easily attract the enemy’s attention.
Taking the lead Li Shimin was the first to pass them, but it seemed like his mind was on other important matters, he did not cast a single glance toward the two boys. One after another Bai Sheng and the others saluted, but Li Shimin only nodded and smiled in return. Pang Yu and the others followed Li Shimin closely, they did not pay any attention to the two boys either.
As he reached the carriage, Li Shimin slowed down to match the vehicle’s speed; he said, “Miss Xiufang, how are you? Shimin is late!”
The two cheered inwardly. Turned out Li Shimin has agreed to come with Shang Xiufang to the Palace.
After returning the greeting from behind the hanging curtain of the carriage, Shang Xiufang spoke in astonishment, “Qin Wang has always been punctual, why did you unexpectedly arrive late today? Siufang has no intention to blame at all, just curious!”
Li Shimin looked up at the pitch-black sky, he rode silently by the carriage’s side for quite a while before sighing and said, “Miss Xiufang, do you happen to remember Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling?”
Riding at the back, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling pricked up their ear and listened carefully. Hearing Li Shimin mentioning their names to Shang Xiufang, they were greatly interested. On one hand, they were wondering what Li Shimin coming late had to do with them; on the other hand, they also wished to know how this beauty and skillful-in-art beauty would respond.
Shang Xiufang suddenly went silent. It was quite a while later that she started to speak gently, “About Kou Zhong! Twice has Xiufang had the destiny to sit with him on the same banquet table. He made quite an impression on me, I always feel that his personality traits are different from other people. As for Xu Ziling! I only caught a glimpse of him from a distance at the Tingliu Pavilion; I haven’t had any opportunity to know him. Could it be that Qin Wang is coming late because of them?”
Her voice was suave, pleasant to listen to, and straightforward. The most attractive aspect was that within her intonation, there was some kind of seeing-through-the-worldly-affairs free-and-easy and languid feeling. This moment, since no one could see her but could only listen to her singing voice, that feeling was even more intense.
Through the cadence and rhythm of her intonation, the listeners could also make associative connection to, as well as reflect on, her touching singing voice. In the melancholy of sorrow and sighing swaying gently across the desolate desert and lowly plains, there was a trace of joy that all things are looking forward to, creating an extremely unique charm.
Smiling wryly, Li Shimin said, “Does Miss Xiufang know that Shimin and they were originally good friends, but now we have become mortal enemy that must fight between life and death?”
“Ah!” Shang Xiufang cried out tenderly. It was quite a while later that she spoke in low voice, “In that case, was it because of this matter that in recent days Qin Wang’s body and mind are always occupied?”
Li Shimin did not give her straight answer; changing the subject, he said, “Just now I was rushing about for them, turns out it was just a misunderstanding.”
Surprised, Shang Xiufang asked, “Isn’t Kou Zhong working for Wanggong?”
Li Shimin sighed and said, “That was something in the past. Miss Xiufang should not let the you-hoodwink-me-and-I-cheat-you of the mundane world contaminating your ears.”
Appearing to be probing further, Shang Xiufang said, “Although those two have outstanding martial art skill, and both are exceptional heroes, but if they wanted set themselves against Qin Wang, aren’t they overestimating their capabilities too much?”
The sound of hoof beats changed as the carriage and horses entered the main street along the river leading toward the Imperial City.
Boats and ships coming and going along the Luo River, vehicles and horses streaming continuously along the street; water and land traffic set each other off nicely.
Because of her touching voice, everybody seemed to forget the darkened sky.
Li Shimin breathed out a sigh and said, “These two men cannot be described simply by their outstanding martial art skill. They may be the most talented, peerless martial art masters since the beginning of history. Rarer still, they are both intelligent and brave. Therefore, until today, nobody is able to do anything to them. Even Li Mi, who wanted them dead, finally fell head first under their hands. From this, you can infer the rest of the story.”
The tone of his voice was brimming with high level of frustration and injury, giving the impression that he valued and treasured these two formidable opponents very much.
From the way he esteemed his adversary, one could see his broad vision and positive outlook, as someone who would not deliberately disparage his opponents.
A peculiar feeling emerged in Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling’s hearts; they never expected Li Shimin to think this highly of them. No wonder by hook or by crook, Li Shimin collaborated with Wang Shichong to annihilate them.
Shang Xiufang asked in low voice, “Are they still in the Eastern Capital nowadays?”
“That is very hard to tell,” Li Shimin replied, “When those two are conspiring in the dark, everybody feels that it is difficult to guard against and plan countermeasure!”
This moment the entourage has reached the Chengfu Gate. The guards at the gate all raised their spears in salute, letting the entourage sped through the gate.
Finally Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were able to put down their high-strung heart.
Li Shimin and Shang Xiufang stopped talking. Under escort of the imperial bodyguards, they passed by Taichang [Minister of Ceremonies] Ministry and the Sinong [agriculture] Ministry, and turned left in front of the Shangshu Mansion, entering the Dong Taiyang Gate, following the horse path along the inside wall of the Palace City, straight toward the Heavenly Gate, the main gate of the inner palace, and entered the imposing and grand Palace City.
Inside the Palace City, the halls were interlinked with each other, balconies stood in great numbers. All palace halls had high walls on all sides, with portals between the walls, so that the halls were like interconnected chain.
This was the first time Xu Ziling set his foot inside the Palace City. Although last time Kou Zhong was escaping into the Palace City, he was like viewing flowers from horseback, plus he was not in the mood to enjoy the scenery, hence they both felt that this was an eye-opener occasion.
Just by looking at this Heavenly Gate, they could see how much manpower and physical resources the Emperor Yang of Sui threw away to build this city.
To the left and right of this gate were imperial city watchtowers, which reached twelve zhang high, supplemented by battlement storied-building. The gateway was more than ten zhang deep, with eaves and corners sticking out. The walls and the imperial city watchtowers reflected each other, and thus bringing out the towering and magnificent main part of the Palace.
Upon entering the gate, they arrived at an intersection; on the central axis there were altogether three gates and two palace halls. The gates were Yongtai Gate, Qianyang Gate, and Daye Gate. The palace halls were Qianyang, and Daye.
Qianyang Palace Hall was the main hall of the Palace City, where ceremonies and reception of foreign diplomats were being held.
A multi-storied building was built above the Qianyang Gate, with tall pavilion and the corridor all around it, extending to the east and west, circling the wide-open space outside the main hall. This moment there were already several groups of vehicles and horses parked outside the palace hall’s gate; evidently an event was being held inside the palace hall.
Qianyang Hall was worthy to be called the chief among various palace halls. The foundation itself reached several zhang high, from the ground to the owl-tail shaped of the top of the palace hall was nearly twenty zhang. The tall pavilion corridors all around were full of imperial bodyguards; the security was very tight. There were large wells left and right of the front courtyard of the palace hall to supply water for the sacrificial offering of the imperial palace. The southeast corner of the front courtyard, there was a multi-storied building facing south, where a bell and a drum were hung. Downstairs was a water clock, which at some point would toll the bell and beat the drum to indicate the correct time.
In itself, the style and structure of the Palace Hall was even grander; there were thirteen lateral spaces between two pairs of pillars, twenty nine frames, three-step pavilion with a view, twenty large pillars on all sides, finely carved door sills, snow-white crossbeams and elegant pillars, hanging down ceiling in the shape of a lotus, bright color like flowing flying rainbow, dazzling to the eye. [Translator’s note: all these are beyond my ability to translate properly. Those of you with better understanding of the text, please feel free to offer your help.]
Kou Zhong followed at the back of the line, riding side-by-side with Xu Ziling. They no longer had to worry about Li Shimin, but they worried about Bai Sheng. Now Li Shimin believed that they were part of Shang Xiufang’s entourage, but Bai Sheng believed that they were Wang Shichong’s men. Therefore, as soon as Wang Shichong’s imperial bodyguards showed any sign that the boys were not one of their own, Bai Sheng would immediately know that they were impostors. This outcome appeared to be inevitable. If Li Shimin did not travel together with them, it might still be possible for them to attempt to make their move first to control Bai Sheng, but now naturally they could not do that.
While they were having this headache, the cavalcade slowly stopped. From the palace hall’s steps Song Mengqiu went down to meet them. Li Shimin jumped down from his horse to personally open the carriage door for Shang Xiufang. All around them were imperial bodyguards. They would not be able to slip away quietly even if they wanted to. Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling could only exchange helpless look, as they braced themselves and dismounted from the horse.
The imperial guards came over to take their horses away. ‘Boom!’ A sudden clap of thunder shook the Palace City. Strong wind blew, blasting everybody’s clothes that they fluttered in the wind. The horses were startled; they reared and neighed. And then bean-size raindrops started to pour down, sparse at first, but quickly became dense.
Song Mengqiu appeared to be prepared. Hastily he opened the umbrella he was carrying, to protect the gracefully-stepping-out-of-the-carriage remarkably beautiful woman from the rain. Others had no choice but to scurry around like drowned rats.
The earthed darkened the sky turned faint. While Shang Xiufang and Li Shimin and the others hurriedly climbing the steps into the palace hall, the rain was getting heavier, like it was pouring out of a tray.
The happiest were, naturally, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling. They took advantage while everybody else was busy taking shelter from the rain, to unleash their shenfa and while the gods was not aware, the ghosts did not perceive, they slipped away toward the bell tower at the southeast corner.
While gazing toward the elegant and grand roof of the Qianyang Hall, the two boys had a singular feeling of history repeating itself, so much so that they shuddered involuntarily.
From the bell tower where they were to the roof of Qianyang Hall, the distance was about thirty zhang, which was more or less equal to the situation at the Rong Mansion the previous night. Furthermore, the torrential rain has also turned the daytime into the dark of the night.
The corridor surrounding the main hall was full of imperial guards taking shelter from the rain. The only way they could enter the palace hall was from the roof going down, via the window close to the top of the palace hall, and launched a surprise attack into their target inside the palace hall.
Kou Zhong took a deep breath and said, “Do you have any idea how to cross such a distance? Can we repeat the technique you proposed earlier here?”
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “Of course we can. It is even easier now, because we have the long rope that we were going to use to scale the city wall. Come!”
Kou Zhong took off his knapsack to get the rope, which was about ten zhang long, out, and handed it over to Xu Ziling. “This time we are going to rely on your ability!” he said.
Planning in advance, Xu Ziling took the rope and tied both ends around his and Kou Zhong’s waist; he said, “If this method cannot bring us to the roof of Qianyang Hall, we can use it to escape!” while pulling Kou Zhong’s Moon in the Well in passing.
Kou Zhong protested, “At least you ought to tell me what to do!”
“Very simple,” Xu Ziling replied, “I send you to the air, you apply your inner power to glide, and then Xiaodi toss the Moon in the Well, you copy Huang Gongcuo stepping on the flying disc, relying on the saber’s momentum to fly to the destination. Remember, the most critical thing is to apply your energy to suck the saber. If it creates any noise, ‘Ding!’ as it pierces the roof of the hall, both of us can be declared finished.”
Immediately Kou Zhong’s eyes shone, “You are really quite something!” he said.
“Go!” Xu Ziling shouted in low voice.
Kou Zhong leaped off the bell tower. Xu Ziling stretched out both palms, flat, while applying his power to the soles of his feet, immediately he rose at an angle about ten zhang into the air, at the same time as the thunderstorm.
Normally, it would be strange indeed if nobody noticed people flying in the air like that, under this kind of strong wind and heavy rain circumstances, even if someone was to look up to the sky, perhaps they could not see anything.
A bolt of lightning flashed in the empty air above Kou Zhong’s head. When his momentum was used up, Kou Zhong made a somersault, like a flipping fish he slid in the direction of the palace hall’s roof. This moment Xu Ziling was also coming at an angle to catch up with Kou Zhong.
Under the rainstorm and the crash of the thunder, Kou Zhong ‘swam’ ten more zhang, which brought him nearly fifteen zhang from his target. Xu Ziling applied his power to throw the Moon in the Well, which arrived right on time under Kou Zhong. Kou Zhong reached out to grab the saber’s hilt, while at the same time raising his qi to lighten his body.
‘Deng!’ the rope between the two boys was pulled perfectly straight. By the time Kou Zhong was brought to the edge of the palace hall’s roof, Xu Ziling was also pulled by the rope. He made a somersault, and landed by Kou Zhong’s side.
Time for action. Hooking their feet on the roof of the palace hall, the two boys leaned out the eaves to look down.
They looked inside through the ventilation window close to the roof the hall. The vast main hall was brightly lit. More than a dozen banquet tables were set up, divided into two rows, facing the main banquet table.
In the midst of the rumbling noise of the rain beating the roof, the melodious sound of music, intermingled with the sound of people talking and laughing, seemed to be coming from another world.
Kou Zhong whispered in Xu Ziling’s ear, “Li kid openly participates in a distinguished meeting held by Wang Shichong in the Palace, isn’t that the same as acknowledging Wang Shichong’s imperial throne?”
Xu Ziling was examining the situation; he saw that to left side of Wang Shichong’s main banquet table, the first seat was occupied by Wang Xuanying, followed by Lang Feng, Song Mengqiu, Rong Fengxiang, and the others. To the right, the head seat was occupied by Shang Xiufang. Next in line was Li Shimin, followed by officials, members of the gentry, and celebrities of the City of Luoyang. Hearing the question, he crossly said, “You still have time to think about such thing? Li kid is willing to participate in this lunch banquet, naturally he has his own reasons!”
When he was talking, the rain flowed from the back of his neck to his face and mouth, filling him with some kind of joyous, carefree, and he-could-throw-caution-to-the-wind-at-any-moment feeling.
The heaven and earth were overflowing with rolls of thunder, flashes of lightning, and the loud noise of the rain. Compared to the warmth of the lights inside the palace hall, the outside world appeared particularly violent, ice-cold, and merciless.
The rain poured down from the tiles of the roof like an unstoppable waterfall onto the flight of steps by the corridor of the palace hall. All the guards were crowding toward the wall of the hall. It seemed like in the whole imperial palace, only the two of them were hanging from the eaves of the palace hall, letting themselves swept by the wind and battered by the rain. Water was dripping from every single strand of hair on their bodies.
Wang Shichong’s hateful voice was vaguely heard inside the palace hall, “Tonight Miss Xiufang’s honorable self will depart by boat, so let us offer her a toast, wishing her to have a pleasant journey.”
It was only then did the two boys understand why the banquet was being held at midday, and why Li Shimin was willing to attend.
Kou Zhong leaned over and whispered, “I am going to pretend to assassinate Wang Shichong, you are in charge of catching that little Xuanying; what do you think?”
Xu Ziling shook his head and said, “Leave Wang Shichong to me, you deal with Li kid, put Yuchi Jingde, those three fellows under control.”
Kou Zhong was stunned, “Then who’s going to do the kidnapping?” he asked.
Taking off his mask, Xu Ziling said, “Naturally, that will be Xiaodi. When Wang Xuanying sees that his Laoye [lord/master] is under attack, he will certainly rush over to help, and that will be the moment he is going to be captured.”
Following his example, Kou Zhong also removed his mask. “Be careful of Rong Fengxiang,” he said, “If he is a bit more formidable than Rong Jiaojiao, it is enough to give you headache. Hey! Do you think I might accidentally kill Li kid?”
Xu Ziling replied in heavy voice, “Our target is to rescue Mr. Xu. If you are greedy to render merit and seek victory, you might be captured by the enemy instead, and then we will lose everything. If that happened, the hostage to be swapped would not be Mr. Xu, but you, this stupid fellow. Do you understand?”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “In front of you, how come I am always the stupid one?”
Xu Ziling refused to bicker with him much longer, “When do we move?” he asked.
“What do you think?” Kou Zhong muttered irresolutely.
Xu Ziling wiped the rain from his eyes, revealed a smile on his face, and spoke softly, “Naturally the moment the enemy’s alertness is at the lowest point! Tell me, when should we make our move?”
Revealing his brilliant smile, Kou Zhong replied, “This is called heroes usually agree. The moment our great expert Xiufang starts to open her golden mouth will be the moment we make our move.”