A solitary person, a solitary box.
A quiet, ordinary person, carrying an old-fashioned, ordinary box. As the sun set, this person quietly entered the ancient city of Chang’an.
The fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar.
Zhuo Donglai shut the door, closing out the wind and snow that for a thousand years had been a part of the ancient city of Chang’an. (2) He took off his violet, sable-fur coat and hung it on the violet-red sandalwood coat hanger propped to his left. In his right hand he held a set of violet-red copper tongs, which he used to stoke the fire in the violet-red copper brazier in front of him, a brazier which was never extinguished.
Next to the brazier was a violet-red sandalwood chair, over which was draped a fur of violet-red sable. Next to the chair was a violet-red sandalwood table, upon which was a violet crystal bottle, filled with Persian red wine.
It only took two steps to reach the table, upon which he could at leisure pour himself a cup of wine.
He liked the color violet. (3)
He liked famous race horses, beautiful women, luxurious clothes, and good wine. He liked to enjoy himself.
He was extremely particular and picky, and always planned everything meticulously. He was never willing to waste even the slightest amount of energy, and was also never careless. He didn’t even make exceptions for small everyday matters of life.
This was Zhuo Donglai.
Perhaps it was because he was this type of person that he had managed to stay alive to this day,
He sat down and took a sip of wine.
The warmth of the luxurious and beautiful room, the fragrant, sweet wine, had already driven the cold from his body. He suddenly felt very tired.
The past two days of preparation for tonight’s grand ceremony had already thrown his normal routines into chaos.
He definitely could not allow any mistakes. Even the smallest mistake could lead to a larger blunder, a blunder which might never be remedied. And if that happened, not only would he feel guilty for the rest of his life; his master would also be implicated. In fact, it could even affect all Jianghu.
The most important thing was that he could not allow Sima Chaoqun’s life or reputation to be harmed in any way, especially now, at the peak of his success. (4)
A person like him, who had worked so hard to become an idol to the heroes of Jianghu, must succeed in every undertaking, must never fail.
There were two things in life that Zhuo Donglai could not tolerate: mistakes and failure.
Sima Chaoqun was already undefeatable.
He rose to prominence in Jianghu at the age of eighteen. Throughout his thirty-three major battles, he had never once been defeated.
He was tall, strong and handsome, with a mighty and bold disposition. His rugged face always carried a bright smile. Even his enemies could not deny that he was a unique man, and there would never be a shortage of beautiful women willing to accompany him. And yet, he was completely faithful not only to his wife, but also to his children and his friends. Not once had he been involved in any sort of scandal.
He was extremely proud of this.
However, what was most worthy of pride in his life was what he had accomplished in the past two years. Using all of his martial arts ability, wisdom, good character and forthright work ethic, had traveled the road between Heshuo in the Central plains (5), all the way to Northeast China, persuading 39 of the greatest heroes and bandits to join him. Rising from the depths of the underworld to the pinnacle of righteousness, he had organized a never-before seen Great Protection Agency. For reasonable rates, they protected any trader or traveler in the region.
No mishap had every befallen anyone who stood under the protection of their violet-bordered satin banner, emblazoned upon which was the character “Great.”
This was an unprecedented, glorious achievement in the world of Jianghu. And it was something that could not be achieved using iron and blood alone.
Sima Chaoqun was currently thirty-six years of age, and he could already be considered an idol to the heroes of Jianghu – An invicible heroic idol.
Only he and Zhuodonglai knew what it truly took to attain this position.
After finishing his first cup of wine, Zhuo Donglai once more thought through the plan for the night’s grand ceremony, from start to finish.
He always drank slowly, but thought extremely quickly.
Today was the first time ever that Sima Chaoqun would accept a personal disciple. From whosever perspective you looked at it, this matter would cause a huge sensation in Jianghu.
The most shocking part of it all was that Sima Chaoqun’s first disciple was Yang Jian, who had just one month ago betrayed the “Central Plains Lion Clan.” (6)
Among the forty groups of heroes who occupied the northern roads, the Lion Clan was the only one who refused to join Sima Chaoqun’s alliance. They were also the largest and most powerful of the clans.
Yang Jian had been one of the four most trusted lieutenants of the Lion Clan Leader, Mr. Zhu.
No one in Jianghu would ever have imagined that Yang Jian would betray the Lion Clan. But everyone knew that the day after Yang Jian left the clan, “Fierce Lion” Zhu Meng had sent messages throughout the martial world, expressing his opinion.
—No matter the sect, school or clan, anyone who gave haven to Yang Jian was an enemy of the Lion Clan, and would receive full and unequivocal retribution.
And now, Sima Chaoqun was not only giving him haven, he was opening the doors wide, lighting incense, and accepting him as a disciple.
Even though the Lion Clan had not joined Sima Chaoqun’s “Great Protection Agency,” they had also not opposed him, let alone attempted to overthrow him. (7)
“Fierce Lion” Zhu Meng was sinister, fierce, and cold-blooded. He was not the type of person to trifle with, and when he made a promise, he kept it. If he made it known that he would fight dirty in order to win, then he would use any and all methods to secure victory.
In fact, in order to achieve his goals, he wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice the heads of his 3,800 subordinates and disciples.
What he cherished most in life was a woman named Die Wu. (8)
Die Wu was beautiful, and her dancing even more beautiful.
The man who comprehended the beauty of women more than anyone in the world, the Marquis Di Qinglin, once had an opportunity to watch her dance before he passed away. He was left speechless. Later, others would ask him how he felt about her dancing, and after a very long time he would sigh and say, “I can’t say. I’ve never seen a mortal person with such legs, never imagined that they could even exist.”
Everyone in Jianghu was convinced that no matter the circumstances, Zhu Meng would never let Yang Jian off.
Even if he held off on moving against Sima Chaoqun, he would definitely kill Yang Jian.
Zhuo Donglai disagreed.
He believed that no matter the situation, Zhu Meng wouldn’t touch a hair on Yang Jian’s head.
He was convinced.
The grand ceremony would be public. Those who received invitation cards could enter the inner chamber as Sima Chaoqun’s personal guests. Those without invitation cards could congregate in the outer courtyard to observe.
Among the disciples of the Lion Clan, there were many who had survived hundreds of battles and killed countless enemies.
In Jianghu, there were many professional assassins who could kill well-protected targets in the twinkling of an eye. Any of these people could show up, blend into the crowd, and wait for an opportunity to kill Yang Jian.
Throughout the course of the grand ceremony, there would be many such opportunities.
But Zhuo Donglai believed that the ceremony would be completed smoothly, and that not a hair on Yang Jian’s head would be harmed.
The reason was that he had calculated every possible situation and circumstance; every person who could possibly pose a threat to Yang Jian was under his surveillance.
In preparation, he had already dispatched 186 top-notch masters from the “Northern Roads 39 Great Protection Agencies,” each of whom could easily handle 27 or 28 opponents.
Zhuo Donglai had split them into eight groups, each of whom would take responsibility for a different area.
But one of the groups he set aside especially to deal with three people.
“Which three people?”
That morning, Sima Chaoqun had asked Zhuo Donglai, “Why do you need a whole group to deal with them?”
Zhuo Donglai only needed to speak the names of two of the people to answer the question.
“Because of the three people, one is Han Zhang and the other is the Wooden Chicken.” (9)
At the moment, Sima Chaoqun was eating.
He was a strapping man, and needed lots of rich food to maintain his vigorous physique.
His breakfast this morning was a beef loin that weighed about three pounds, along with ten eggs and a huge helping of fruits and vegetables.
The beef was slow roasted over charcoal, covered with spices and juicy sauce, and was extremely tender.
This was one of his favorite foods, but as soon as he heard these two names, he dropped the curved Persian knife he was using to cut the meat. He stared at Zhuo Donglai with eyes as sharp as knives.
“Han Zhang and the Wooden Chicken are both here?”
“Have you seen them before?”
“I haven’t.” Zhuo Donglai calmly continued, “I’m sure no one here has ever seen them.”
Most people in Jianghu had heard of them, but few had ever seen them.
Han Zhang was the same as Yang Jian. He was a lieutenant of the “Fierce Lion,” one of his most trusted followers, and also one of the most dangerous.
Zhu Meng rarely let him leave his side.
The Wooden Chicken was even more dangerous than Han Zhang.
He had no home and no permanent residence. He had no set pattern of life, and therefore, was impossible to find.
But if someone needed him, and he believed that he needed that person, he would suddenly appear.
What he normally required of others was pearls, jewels, gold or huge amounts of bank notes.
What others normally required of him were his flying noose and his two blades.
One long blade, one short blade.
He used a blade to cut peoples’ throats as gently and skillfully as a farmer cutting crops with a sickle.
When he killed people with his noose, it was just like a dainty playboy placing a string of pearls around the neck of a lover.
Of course, he required payment, and if the payment you offered was not sufficient, he wouldn’t kill an ant for you, even if you knelt on the ground and begged.
Whoever it was that required his services, they must first offer a sufficient payment. There was only one person who was an exception, because he owed this person his life.
And that person was Zhu Meng.
The curved knife, its hilt encrusted with jasper, lay on the wooden tray. The blade was covered with meat juices.
Sima Chaoqun used a delicate piece of silk to rub the blade clean until it shone. When he was finished, he asked Zhuo Donglai, “You’ve never seen them, how do you know they are here?”
“I know,” he said coolly. “I know because I know.”
Did this qualify as an answer? This type of answer wasn’t an answer at all. No one would be satisfied with this response.
And yet Sima Chaoqun was satisfied.
Because it was uttered by Zhuo Donglai, and he trusted Zhuo Donglai’s judgement, as much as he trusted that the knife on the wooden tray could cut meat.
And yet his eyes suddenly shone with a strange expression. And then he said something very strange.
“A mistake!” he said. “This time, Zhu Meng made a mistake!”
“Han Zhang and the Wooden Chicken are already here?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Zhuo Donglai.
“Can they leave with their lives?”
“Are they useful to Zhu Meng?”
“Would I send two useful people to their deaths?” Sima asked Zhuo Donglai. “Well, would I?”
Sima laughed. “So, Zhu Meng made a mistake.”
Zhuo Donglai didn’t laugh. He waited until Sima was finished, then slowly said, “Zhu Meng didn’t make a mistake.”
“He didn’t dispatch them here to send them to their deaths.”
“Then what did he send them here to do?”
“To be a front,” said Zhuo Donglai. “Han Zhang and the Wooden Chicken are just a front.”
“The person sent to assassinate Yang Jian is neither of the two. It’s someone else. If we only take precautions against them, then the third person will have a much easier time making a move.”
“Who is the third person?”
“It’s a young man. He wears clothes of homespun cloth and carries a sword. He’s staying in a cheap little inn, and for every meal he eats a bowl of noodles with boiled cabbage.(10) He’s been here for three days, but he’s never left his room other than to eat.”
“He locks himself in a bug-ridden room doing what?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is he from?”
“I don’t know.”
“What sword skill has he studied? Is his sword skill high or low?”
“I don’t know.”
Sima Chaoqun’s pupils constricted.
He and Zhuo Donglai had been friends for twenty years. From the distressed and impoverished muck, they had clawed their way up to their current position. No one understood him better than Zhuo Donglai, and no one understood Zhuo Donglai better than him.
And yet he never imagined that he would hear the three words “I don’t know,” come from Zhuo Donglai’s mouth.
When Zhuo Donglai wanted to investigate a person, he needed at the most 6 to 10 hours to uncover that person’s origin, family circumstances, habits, hobbies, martial arts affiliations, most recent whereabouts, and current destination. He could find out everything. Not only was he extremely experienced in this type of matter, he had many different methods, many special methods, each of which was very effective.
Sima Chaoqun knew all about these methods.
“He’s staying in a cheap inn,” said Sima Chaoqun, “and he wears clothing made from coarse materials. He eats noodles with boiled cabbage. From these facts you can at least see that he is not a very successful person. He must not come from a very good family.”
“It would seem that way,” said Zhuo Donglai, “but this young man is an exception.”
“Because of his bearing. When I saw him, even though he was in a little shop eating boiled cabbage noodles with a bunch of coolies and rickshaw drivers, he seemed as if he had just placed first in the Imperial Examinations and was feasting with the Emperor. Even though he was only wearing clothing made from homespun cloth, it seemed as if he was wearing a marten coat worth a thousand pieces of gold.”
“Maybe he was purposely puffing himself up.”
“This kind of attitude cannot be feigned. Only someone who is completely confident in themselves can have this kind of bearing. I’ve never seen someone so confident.”
Sima Chaoqun’s eyes shone. It seemed he was very interested in this young person.
Zhuo Donglai continued, “The name he used at the little inn was ‘Li Huicheng,’ but it’s definitely fake.”
“How do you know it’s fake?”
“Because I saw the name he wrote at the sales counter. He wrote it himself, and correctly, but very stiffly. When a person who can write characters signs their own name, it shouldn’t be so stiff and unnatural.”
“When he speaks, what kind of accent does he have?”
“I didn’t hear him speak, but I asked the innkeeper.”
“What did the innkeeper say?”
“The innkeeper used to work for a protection agency, and has been to a lot of places. In fact, he can speak the dialects of seven or eight different provinces. But even he couldn’t tell where this Mr. Li is from.”
“Because this Mr. Li can speak the dialects of those seven or eight provinces even better than the innkeeper.”
“What about his clothing?”
You can tell a lot about a person from the clothes they wear.
All clothing is made from different materials. Even homespun cloth has many different types. Different areas have different methods of dying and weaving, as well as yarn production.
Zhuo Donglai was also an expert in these types of matters.
“I’m sure you saw his clothes,” said Sima Chaoqun. “What could you tell?”
“I couldn’t tell anything. I’ve never seen that type of cloth. I’ve never even seen the type of thread used to sew the clothing. I’m sure that he spun the thread himself, wove the cloth himself, and sewed the clothing himself. Even the cotton was probably grown by himself somewhere. Somewhere that neither you nor I have ever been to.”
The two of them had set out together in the beginning, and had adventured throughout China.
Sima Chaoqun laughed bitterly. “We’ve been almost everywhere.” (11)
“I also didn’t see his sword,” said Zhuo Donglai. “His sword was wrapped up in cloth, and always at his side.”
“The cloth the sword was wrapped in, was it the same cloth that his clothing was made from?”
“Exactly the same.”
Sima Chaoqun suddenly laughed. “It seems this Mr. Li really is an eccentric. If it turns out that he’s here to kill me, then tonight should be really enjoyable.”
Inside the little restaurant, the fragrances of lard and stir-fry, the sweat of coolies and rickshaw drivers, the odor of hard liquor, hot peppers, leeks and garlic, all mixed together to create a strange, hard-to-describe smell.
Little Gao liked this smell.
He liked the smell of clouds floating past a mountain peak, and the delicate fragrance a cold wind passing through trees and leaves. And yet, he also liked this smell.
He liked the smell of noble and elegant scholars, but he also liked these sweaty men, who sat eating flatbread-wrapped leeks, garlic heads and fatty meat, and drank hard liquor.
He liked people.
This was because he had been alone for too long, and rarely saw people, only the green mountains, white clouds, flowing water and ancient pines. Three months ago he had finally returned to the world of men. And in three months time he had already killed four people.
Four local warlords with illustrious reputations, people who deserved to die, and yet couldn’t be killed.
He liked people, and yet he killed people.
He didn’t like killing people, and yet he killed them.
The world is filled with many things like this, things that leave you with no leeway to make any decision.
Chang’an. Ancient Chang’an. A grand city, filled with ancient history and the feeling of countless legends.
Little Gao didn’t come to Chang’an for any of these reasons, though.
He’d come for a person—the forever invincible hero Sima Chaoqun.
He’d brought his sword with him, and his sword sat at hand next to him. It was forever at hand.
The sword was wrapped tightly in cloth.
Few people could see this sword. From the time it was forged until now, few people had even had the opportunity to see it.
This sword was not a sword for people to see.
Little Gao knew that someone was watching him.
The second day he’d arrived, he’d noticed. It was a very thin man, wearing very expensive clothing, with a pair of cold eyes that seemed like they would never contain an ounce of emotion. His eyes looked like they might be grey.
He had seen eyes like this before.
When he was eleven years old, he had almost been killed by a leopard. That leopard’s eyes had looked exactly the same.
As soon as this person appeared, it seemed as if everyone in the little restaurant had stopped breathing for a moment.
Later, he found out that he was the trusted assistant of the top chief of the “Steward of the 39 Northern Roads Great Protection Agency,” Sima Chaoqun. His name was Zhuo Donglai. (12)
Little Gao slowly ate his bowl of boiled cabbage noodle soup, and he felt very happy.
He knew that Zhuo Donglai and Sima Chaoqun would definitely be suspicious of him, would discuss him, would guess about who he was.
He was sure they would never figure out who he was.
He was like his sword. Few people had ever seen him.
The sky slowly grew dark. Even though there was no lamp in the room, the lamplight from outside shone brightly.
A cold wind blew in through the cracks in the windows, and the faint sound of speaking and laughter could be heard coming from the courtyard outside.
Sima Chaoqun knew that the guests who had come without an invitation to observe the ceremony outnumbered those he had personally invited.
He also knew that everyone was waiting for him to appear, waiting for the chance to see him.
And yet he sat in his seat, not moving. Even when his wife entered, he didn’t move.
He was extremely irritated.
Burning the incense, accepting a disciple, throwing a huge banquet, receiving guests… he thought all of these things were extremely irritating.
He just wanted to sit there peacefully and have a drink.
Wu Wan understood what he was thinking.
No one understood Sima Chaoqun better than Wu Wan. They had been married for eleven years, and had a nine-year old child.
She had come to urge him to go out as soon as possible.
She had opened the door quietly and entered. Now she left, closing the door behind her, not wanting to disturb him.
As she left, tears streamed down her face.
Sima poured himself another cup of alcohol.
He’d long since passed the first cup. This was the twenty-seventh cup.
What he was drinking wasn’t wine, like Zhuo Dongli drank, but baijiu (13). Even though it was colorless and flavorless, when you drank it, it burned like a fire in your stomach.
But he didn’t drink this cup.
The door quietly opened again. This time the person who entered wasn’t Wu Wan, it was Zhuo Donglai.
Sima lifted his head and placed the cup underneath his chair. He looked at the shadow of Zhuo Donglai in the doorway.
“Is it time for me to go out?”
The outer courtyard was illuminated brilliantly and resounded with the clamor of voices.
Little Gao squeezed his way through the crowd. He wasn’t one of Sima Chaoquan’s invited guests, so he couldn’t enter the main hall, where the lamplight shone even more gloriously.
People also packed the inside hall, but they were all famous, with status, positions and power.
In addition to these famous individuals, there were also several strapping men dressed in dark green gowns of satin and sheepskin. They were strong and nimble as they received the guests, and their eyes shone. They definitely would not allow anything improper to happen, no matter how small.
Suddenly the voices grew quiet.
The chief of the “Steward of the 39 Northern Roads Great Protection Agency,” the most powerful person in the martial world, the forever invincible Sima Chaoqun, had finally appeared.
Sima Chaoqun walked out wearing a black and white garment, carefully tailored to make him look even more powerful and tall than normal, and younger than his actual age.
He greeted the guests in a forthright and honest fashion, and even walked to the stone steps at the front of the hall to wave at the crowd in the outer courtyard.
Amidst the ear-spliting cheering that followed, Little Gao wasn’t paying attention to Sima Chaoqun, but two other people.
Their clothing and features were quite ordinary, but their eyes were cold and fearsome, filled with murder.
They didn’t stand together, or even look at each other, but each of them had a group of eight or nine people close by, observing them, careful to maintain a suitable distance.
Little Gao smiled.
He could tell that these two people were here for Yang Jian, first class assassins dispatched by Zhu Meng.
He could also see that Sima Chaoqun and Zhuo Donglai had assigned him the same status as them, as there were people keeping an eye on him as well. Actually, there were a lot of people watching him. Zhuo Donglai must suspect him of being the most dangerous of them all.
“But Zhuo Donglai made a mistake this time!” Little Gao smiled to himself. “Assigning people to watch me is really a waste of manpower.”
Two huge red candles sat burning on a long table in the middle of the great hall.
Sima Chaoqun sat in front of the table on a violet-red sandalwood chair, over which was draped a tiger skin.
A red felt spread out in front of the chair, upon which rested a violet satin prayer mat.
The grand ceremony was about to start.
The two men with the murderous eyes had already begun to move forward slowly. The men watching them followed, their hands reaching underneath their robes.
Obviously they had deadly weapons hidden in their garments.
If these two took any action, the men’s hands would spring forth with weapons and slaughter them in a split second, before they even reached the great hall.
Little Gao was certain these two wouldn’t succeed.
—There was definitely a third person, and this was who Zhu Meng had actually sent to assassinate Yang Jian.
It turned out Little Gao thought the same way as Zhuo Donglai. The only difference was that he knew the third person wasn’t himself.
—Who was this person?
Little Gao’s pupils suddenly constricted.
He’d caught sight of a person who normally wouldn’t attract any attention, dodging through the crowd.
And an ordinary, old-fashioned box, which definitely wouldn’t attract anyone’s attention.
He wanted to push his way forward, but the crowd was too packed. The star of the grand ceremony had just entered the main hall.
Yang Jian’s pale, sallow face wore a smile.
Six people escorted him in.
Little Gao didn’t recognize these six men, but almost anyone who had any experience wandering in Jianghu would know them. Most of them were famous experts in the Protection Agency industry, but even more impressive was that one of them was “Cloudy Sky,” the notorious bandit who in recent years had run amok on the Guanluo Road. (14)
Under the protection of six experts like this, who could possibly harm Yang Jian?
He had already reached the red felt, and stood in front of the violet mat prepared especially for him to bow to Sima Chaoqun. (15)
In that very moment, the outer courtyard burst into motion. There were already twenty people amidst the crowd on the ground, bleeding and screaming miserably.
The people who had fallen were not just Zhuo Donglai’s subordinates. Many were just random innocents.
This was the plan set upon by Han Zhang and the Wooden Chicken.
They obviously knew people were watching them, so before they made their move, they would try to throw the crowd into chaos by shedding innocent blood.
Amidst the chaos, they would fly forward and pounce on Yang Jian.
Little Gao didn’t even glance at them.
He knew that no matter what method they used, they wouldn’t succeed. He kept watching the person with the box.
Except, this person had already disappeared.
Sima Chaoqun sat tall in the violet-red sandalwood chair. His countenance and facial expression did not change.
The assassins had already been contained outside of the main hall.
Yang Jian had already been whisked away by the six masters, out through a door in the back of the main hall.
Little Gao had already determined which direction the door faced.
The men following being distracted, Little Gao suddenly dashed forward into the main hall, and then used a strange and indescribable martial arts move to slide across the wall and out a window.
The window and the door both faced the same direction.
Outside the window was a small courtyard filled with the fragrance of plums and pine trees, a scent that would cause anyone to feel extremely happy. Black-garbed guards packed the long, gloomy walkway on the side of the courtyard. Long blades hung from their waists.
At the end of the walkway was a door.
As soon as Little Gao shot out of the window, he caught sight of Cloudy Sky and the others carrying Yang Jian through the door.
And then the door shut.
The black-garbed guards had already unsheathed their long blades. The blades gleamed, and ten of the guards charged toward Little Gao.
They didn’t ask who Little Gao was? They didn’t ask why he was here?
No. Because they had received orders: if any stranger entered the courtyard, they were to kill on sight, no questions asked!
Little Gao didn’t explain why he was here, or what the circumstances were. It was already past the time when words could be used to make explanations.
At the moment, the only thing he could do was attack first, using his fastest techniques.
He had to get to the door at the end of the walkway, as quickly as possible.
Light of shimmered forth from the blade, despite the fact that Little Gao’s sword was still wrapped up in cloth.
He didn’t draw the sword. Using only the rough cloth sheathing, he had already flicked aside four blades, and knocked down four people.
In a flash, he entered the walkway. Seven or eight more men attacked him. He knocked them down and dashed toward the door.
But Zhuo Donglai had already reached the door.
He had been hiding behind the scenes the whole time. Upon any sudden change, he could appear at a moment’s notice.
Little Gao looked at him and let out a long breath. “I thought I would make it on time, but sadly I’m late.”
A blade flickered behind him, but Little Gao didn’t look back. Zhuo Donglai waved a hand and the descending blade light suddenly disappeared.
“Why are you here?” asked Zhuo Donglai coldly. “What do you want?”
“I just want to see someone.”
Zhuo Donglai smiled coldly. “No one can kill anyone here.”
“They can,” said Little Gao. “There’s one who can.”
Zhuo Donglai’s expression suddenly changed, because he had just noticed the faint reek of blood.
Shockingly, the smell of the blood emanated from behind the door.
Zhuo Donglai turned around and pushed it open, and in that moment, it seemed as if he had fallen into hell.
Behind the door was what used to be a delicate, resplendent room. As of now, it had been turned into hell.
Hell does not contain living people, and neither did this room.
The seven living people who had just entered the room would never live again. Some had throats cut open, some had hearts impaled, stabbed through from front to back.
The most miserable of all was Yang Jian.
His head was nowhere to be seen, and scattered next to his body were a handful of paper cards. Written on each card were eight characters: “This is the end fate of a traitor!”
There were four windows in the room, all open.
Where was the killer?
The stars twinkled outside the open windows, and from far off could be heard the raucous sound of drums and gongs. Tonight was the night of the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar, so the night curfew had been lifted. (16)
Zhuo Donglai stood sliently for a long time, the cold wind blowing on his face. Surprisingly, he didn’t dispatch people to pursue the assassin. Instead, he turned around and stared at Little Gao.
“You knew killers had been sent here?”
“If I knew, then you should have known as well.” He sighed. “I’ve been wanting to see that person for a long time.”
“But there wasn’t just one killer.”
The throats had been cut with a slender, sharp blade. The hearts had been pierced with an extremely sharp-tipped spear.
And Yang Jian’s head had been lopped off with some sort of ax.
Zhuo Donglai seemed calm again. Calm and composed.
“You should be able to tell that there were at least three people here,” he said. “There is nobody who can use three different methods, and completely different weapons, to kill people.”
“Yes, there is.” Little Gao’s response was completely heartfelt. “There’s one.”
“You really believe that there is a person like this in the world? Some expert who can use three different weapons at the same time to kill seven people?”
“Yes!” said Little Gao, with complete confidence. “Who knows, maybe there’s even two people. But definitely at least one.”
“Who is this person?”
“I don’t know.” Little Gao sighed again. “If you hadn’t blocked my way just now, I might have had a chance to see him.”
Zhuo Donglai continued to stare at him. His palms felt as if they were sweating.
“Alhtough,” said Little Gao, “I actually didn’t know he was here in Chang’an. And I never imagined that he would be working as an assassin for Zhu Meng.”
Zhuo Donglai continued to stare at him for a long time. He stared at his facial expression, his bearing, the way he stood, the cloth-wrapped sword in his hand. He suddenly said, “I believe you. If you want to leave, you can leave.”
This shocked the standers-by. This was not Zhuo Donglai’s style. He had never let someone off so easily.
The only reason he would do something like this was if he considered Little Gao to be very dangerous. Under such circumstances, he wouldn’t want to give rise to any more trouble.
Little Gao laughed.
“I know that I can leave any time I want,” he said. “The thing is, I don’t want to go.”
“Because there’s something I need to tell you.”
“My surname isn’t Li, and my given name isn’t Huicheng. Furthermore, I didn’t come here for Yang Jian.”
“I know,” said Zhuo Donglai. “Because of that, I’m letting you leave.”
“Actually, there are a lot of things you don’t know.” Little Gao laughed. “And because you don’t know, I’m not leaving.”
Zhuo Donglai’s hands clenched into fists.
He suddenly realized that this young man had a streak of unruliness that was at first difficult to detect. He was like a wild animal that had just wandered down from the deep mountains, not the least bit afraid of anyone or anything.
“I’m surnamed Gao, and I came here for a person.”
“For Sima Chaoqun. The invincible Sima Chaoqun.”
Within Zhuo Donglai’s clenched fists, cold sweat sprang forth.
“You’re Gao Jianfei (17)! The young swordsman Gao Jianfei who in three months time assassinated the four greatest masters of the sword sects Kunlun, Huashan, and Kongtong!”
“Yes,” said LittleGao. “That’s me.”
The night grew darker, the wind blew harder.
“I don’t kill people in secret,” said Little Gao. “So set a date, and a place. I want to find out if Sima Chaoqun really is invincible.”
Zhuo Donglai laughed. “I guarantee that you will find out. I just wish you didn’t have to.”
There was no curfew on the long street. The flower markets and festive lanterns were very picturesque.
There were all types of lanterns and all types of people. But it seemed as if Little Gao didn’t notice them at all.
Zhuo Donglai had promised to offer a response within one month, and had promised to give him a chance at a fair fight with Sima Chaoqun.
This was why he had come to this place, and yet it seemed as if he was not very focused on the matter.
As of now, his mind was focused on a solitary person, and a solitary box.
—Exactly what kind of person was he? Exactly what kind of fearsome weapon was this box?
At the same moment, amidst the black of night and the cold blowing wind, a solitary person, carrying a solitary box, quietly left the ancient city of Chang’an.
(1) Chang’an is of course modern-day Xi’an in Shaanxi Province.
(2) Zhuo Donglai’s name in Chinese is 卓东来zhuō dōng lái. “Donglai” literally means “comes from the east.”
(3) In this passage and the following passage, there are many color-related descriptions which all use the same Chinese character for the color purple. But most of these things, when translated into English, are actually the color red. So I’m going to consistently translate these things as violet.
(4) Sima Chaoqun’s name in Chinese is 司马超群 Sīmǎ chāoqún. Sima is a (commonly) uncommon Chinese surname. Chaoqun literally means something outstanding or extraordinary.
(5) He Shuo refers to the region north of the Yellow River in the Central Plains of China
(6) What I am translating as “Lion” is actually “Male Lion.” But… it doesn’t sound very cool in English so I will just leave it as “Lion.”
(7) What I translate as “overthrow him” literally means “to move the protection agency flag.”
(8) Die Wu’s name in Chinese is蝶 舞Dié wǔ. The first character is the character for “butterfly” and the second is “dance.”
(9) In Chinese just as in English, one of these guys has a normal name, and the other has the extremely strange and perhaps comical-sounding name “Wooden Chicken.”
(10) The cabbage references here is of course the classic “bai cai” or in Cantonese “bok choy.”
(11) Okay, the original text here uses some classic Chinese use of double negatives. Or triple? Or quadruple? Sima Chaoqun literally says, “The places that we haven’t been too, the people who have been to those places are not very many.” In Chinese it’s pretty simple and direct, I think my English translation carries the succinctness.
(12) As some of you know, in Chinese you can turn any word or phrase into an adjective very easily, but not so in English. As such, this passage was difficult to translate, but hopefully the meaning carries through.
(13) What he is drinking is specifically a kind of alcohol called “shao dao zi.” After some research I found out that this is basically a type of baijiu, which of course is the colorless distilled liquor that could probably be considered the national drink of China.
(14) Guan Luo refers to a region in North China somewhere between Shaanxi and Luoyang. Later on you will find out that most of the story takes place in Chang’an and Luoyang.
(15) The word here literally is “拜师” bai shi, which means for a person to formally bow before a master to become their pupil or disciple. It doesn’t mention Sima Chaoqun by name, but for clarity’s sake I’m adding his name in there.
(16) The fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar is Lantern Festival, or in Chinese “yuan xiao jie” and marks the official end of Spring Festival.
(17) Gao Jianfei’s name in Chinese is高渐飞 Gāo jiàn fēi. “Jian” means to do something gradually and “fei” means to fly.
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