Chapter 3: Surprise Attack
The seventeenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar.
Early morning, bitter cold.
When Zhuo Donglai got out of bed, Sima Chaoqun was already in his small outer room, waiting. He sat on the violet sable-skin covered seat, drinking red wine from the crystal cup.
Sima Chaoqun was the only person who could do this. One time a girl, thinking Zhuo Donglai couldn’t bear to part with her, had sat down on his chair. She ended up being thrown outside naked into the snow.
Everything that belonged to Zhuo Donglai was completely off-limits to others, with Sima Chaoqun being the only exception.
But, Zhuo Donglai made him wait outside for a long time before draping a long, wide robe over himself and walking barefoot out of the bedroom. The first thing he said was, “You’re here so early. Are you anxious to know why I let Zhu Meng go yesterday?”
“Yes. I know you have a reason, but I just can’t figure it out.”
Zhuo Donglai sat down on folded violet sable skin. Usually when in Sima’s presence, he would be immaculately dressed, and would act extremely respectful and formal. He never sat with him as an equal.
This was because he wanted others to view Sima Chaoqun as someone above the masses.
But now, in his own room, there were only the two of them.
“I couldn’t kill Zhu Meng,” said Zhuo Donglai. “First of all, because I didn’t want to. Second of all, I wasn’t confident I would succeed.”
“Why didn’t you want to kill him?”
“He rode his horse alone into our territory, calmly beheaded one of our high-ranking officers, and could have gotten away with no problem. Instead, he stayed behind to drink with a friend. If I killed him,” he said coolly, “people in Jianghu would forever say that ‘Fierce Lion’ Zhu Meng really is worthy to be called a courageous man, a true friend and brother.” He laughed coldly. “Wouldn’t killing him be helping him to achieve his goals?”
Sima Chaoqun gazed at the wine in the crystal cup. “I knew you would have a reason, but I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t be confident. You took a lot of men with you, experts. You really couldn’t handle three people?”
“It wasn’t three, it was four.”
“Who was the fourth person?”
“I couldn’t see. But I could sense him standing outside the window behind me. Even though he stood far away outside, it was as if I could feel him breathing down my neck.”
“He carries an aura of death. In my whole life, I’ve never felt such a horrible deathly aura.”
“You didn’t turn around to look at him?”
“No. I knew he was staring at me the whole time, and it felt as if he were giving me some kind of warning. If I made the slightest move, no matter what it was, he would attack. And even though I didn’t see him, Gao Jianfei did.”
“How do you know?”
“Gao Jianfei was sitting across from me, facing the window. As soon as I felt the aura of death, Gao Jianfei’s face suddenly changed. It looked as if he’d suddenly seen a ghost.” He continued, “Of the new generation of swordsmen, Gao Jianfei is definitely the greatest master. Unless there was some special reason, why would he be so terrified of a stranger?”
Sima Chaoqun suddenly let out a laugh. A hearty laugh.
“And so you were also scared.” His laughter was full of derision. “I never thought that when the day came that Eastern Violet Clouds Zhuo Donglai felt scared, he would be scared of someone he couldn’t even see.”
Zhuo Donglai looked at him stonily. He waited for him to finish laughing before calmly continuing, “Even though I couldn’t see him, I knew who he was.”
“Who was he? Don’t tell me he’s the assassin who killed Yang Jian?”
“Yes. That’s exactly who he was. This person is familiar with Jianghu, and whoever he is, he definitely has some special relationship with Zhu Meng. And yet, he isn’t Zhu Meng’s subordinate. He uses some kind of incredibly fearsome weapon that no one has ever seen, something that can unleash the power of multiple weapons.”
“What else?” asked Sima Chaoqun.
“This is all you know?”
“This is all I know for now. I don’t even know what the general shape of the weapon is. But,” he said coolly, “this little bit I know is more than most people know.”
Sima Chaoqun wanted to laugh, but couldn’t.
Zhuo Donglai was his friend, a friend with whom he had shared many life and death struggles. Zhuo Dong Lai was also his most capable assistant.
But no one would guess that when they were alone together he and Zhuo Donglai would be diametrically opposed. It was as if he looked for every opportunity to hurt his friend.
Zhuo Donglai never fought back, never even offered up any sort of reaction.
Sima Chaoqun drank another glass of wine. Then he asked, “Sun Tong is dead. What about Guo Zhuang?”
“Guo Zhuang is gone.”
“I saw him yesterday morning. Why is he gone?”
“Because early yesterday morning I had already told him to get to Luo Yang as quickly as possible. If he travels at double speed around the clock, he should be able to get there one day before Zhu Meng arrives.”
Sima Chaoqun’s eyes shone. “He can definitely get there on time?”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“Then I sent him to Luoyang to his death. He won’t be returning.”
Sima Chaoqun didn’t ask Zhuo Donglai why he sent Gao Zhuang to Luoyang, or what he would do there.
He didn’t need to ask.
He already understood Zhuo Donglai’s plan, and his actions.
—With Zhu Meng returning from so far away, his officers would surely meet him somewhere on the road to accompany him. The men left behind to defend the “Lion Clan” headquarters would definitely be off guard. It was a perfect opportunity to launch a surprise attack.
—As long as it really was at the right time, one surprise attack would be more effective than ten bitter battles in the open.
This was Zhuo Donglai’s preferred strategy.
This plan was definitely vicious and bold, it really was Zhuo Donglai’s style.
Sima Chaoqun’s next question was, “You only sent one person? Gao Zhuang?”
“We have people in Luoyang,” said Zhuo Donglai. “And Gao Zhuang didn’t go alone.”
“Who else went?”
“Wooden Chicken?” Sima Chaoqun looked surprised. “You didn’t kill him?”
“He’s a useful person, even to us. Why would I kill him?”
“Aren’t you worried the people Zhu Meng sent to kill Yang Jian might betray us?”
“The person he wants to kill now isn’t Yang Jian, it’s Zhu Meng.”
“Because he knows that Zhu Meng was just using him, using him as a distraction, deliberately sending him to his death. He knows that Zhu Meng never intended for him to succeed. He doesn’t mind being used by people, but he can’t take being insulted.” Zhuo Donglai continued, “In any case, I’m paying him much more than Zhu Meng paid him.”
Sima Chaoqun looked at him, his eyes filling with a derisive smile.
“And now I know why you didn’t kill Zhu Meng. You want him to live so that he can see with his own eyes the bitter lesson you’ve prepared. You want him to know how powerful you are.” He looked at Zhuo Donglai smiling. “You’ve always been this way. You just want people to be more and more frightened of you.”
“Correct. I want Zhu Meng to be frightened. So frightened that he will never again do something stupid. However, the person I want him to be afraid of isn’t me, it’s you.” His voice became soft. “Other than us, no one knows that this plan was executed by me and not you.”
Sima leaped up, his veins on his forehead pulsing.
“But I know!” he shouted. “You do something like this, how could you not even mention it to me? Not even ask me about it? Why do you wait until it’s already done before telling me?”
Zhuo Donglai’s bearing was still as calm as before. He gazed at Sima Chaoqun softly.
“Because you don’t like to do things this way. You like to accomplish big things, be a big hero in Jianghu, make great achievements in the martial world.”
Sima clenched his fists and glared at him. After a long time, he let out a sigh and loosened his fists.
Having already stood up, he slowly turned to leave.
“Gao Jianfei is still in the Chang’an area,” Zhuo Donglai said. “He’s waiting for your response. Are you ready for the duel?”
Sima Chaoqun didn’t look back.
“Whatever you want,” he said, his voice empty. “I know that you’ve already planned everything out. Whenever the duel is, he won’t stand a chance, because you won’t give him a chance. So,” he continued coldly, “you don’t need to ask me about it again.”
When Gao Jianfei woke up, his hands and feet were almost frozen solid.
His cramped room at the cheap inn had a small brazier in it, but the charcoal had long since burned out.
He stood up in the bed and performed six or seven very strange movements, his body seemingly following his thoughts to twist and distort like a noodle. After he reached the eleventh position, his body was beginning to feel warm, and by the time he finished, his spirit was roused, his face glowed, and his mood very happy.
He fully believed that today he would be able to find the person carrying the solitary box.
After leaving the teahouse last night, he’d seen the person three times. Once next to a small frozen brook; once at the foot of a hill; and once in a small, dirty Chang’an alley.
He’d seen very clearly.
Even though up to now he hadn’t seen the person’s face, he had very clearly seen his gray, cotton robe and the solitary brown, oxhide box.
Unfortunately, every time he caught sight of the man, he would disappear like air.
So he’d decided to cease his pursuit, and come back to sleep for a bit.
He’d come to the realization that this person wanted to meet him, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t have appeared three times.
The man was definitely feeling him out, testing his martial arts, getting a sense of his intentions.
Little Gao felt convinced that even if he didn’t continue his pursuit, the man would show his face sooner or later.
It had stopped snowing, but the weather was even colder than before. Little Gao decided that he needed to eat some hot noodle soup.
Once he reached the little noodle shop he frequented, he saw the man with the solitary box. As expected.
It wasn’t lunch time yet, so there weren’t very many customers in the little shop.
The person sat in the same corner Little Gao usually sat in, quietly eating a bowl of noodles, the same type of noodles Little Gao usually ate.
His box sat next to him. It was a flat, solitary box, about one foot wide and two feet long.
—What rested inside this solitary box? How could such an ordinary box be the most fearsome weapon under heaven?
Little Gao wanted to dash forward and grab it, then open it up and take a look.
But, he restrained himself.
No matter what happened, this time he would finally get to see the person’s face clearly.
It was a flat, waxen yellow face with a pair dull expressionless eyes and a listless air. This person looked as if he had been afflicted with some sort of serious disease for many years, and could pass away at any moment. (1)
Even though there were many open seats in the noodle shop, Little Gao summoned up his courage, walked forward, and sat down across from the person. He ordered a bowl of noodles, and then said, “I’m surnamed Gao, like from the expression ‘High Mountains and Flowing Waters.’ (2) My full name is Gao Jianfei. As in, I want to gradually fly up into the air.(3)”
The person had no reaction at all, as if they hadn’t even noticed someone had sat down in front of them.
The dark brown, oxhide box sat on the other side of the table. Little Gao could just reach out his hand and grab it.
If he really reached out and grabbed the box, then ran away, what would happen?
Little Gao wasn’t willing to try.
He was a courageous person, and there weren’t many things under heaven that he wouldn’t try.
But this seemingly sick, dying person seemed to have some sort of unfathomable power that made people incapable of making any move to annoy or encroach upon him.
Little Gao stared at him for a long time, then lowered his voice so that no one else could hear, and said, “I know who you are. I know that you killed Yang Jian.”
The person finally lifted their head and looked at him, his previously expressionless eyes suddenly flashing. It was as if lightning had suddenly fallen from a murky gray sky.
And yet after the lightning fell, no sound of thunder rang out.
The listless expression returned. He slowly put some coins onto the table, lifted up the box, and left.
Little Gao followed.
Surprisingly, the person didn’t vanish like he had the previous three times.
He walked ahead, very slowly, as if afraid that Little Gao couldn’t keep up.
After walking for a long time, Little Gao suddenly realized that they had returned to the same little dirty alley as the night before.
There was nobody in the alley, which was actually a dead end.
Little Gao’s heart suddenly began to beat harder and harder.
—Could it be that because he knew the man’s secret, he’d brought him here to silence him using his mysterious box?
Little Gao didn’t know what kind of weapon this box was, and he didn’t know if he would be able to use the sword in his hand to defend against it.
And because of this lack of knowledge, his heart filled with a kind of dread that he had never felt before.
But, it didn’t seem that the person planned to kill him. He didn’t look like he could kill anybody, actually.
He turned around and faced Little Gao. A long time passed. Then he spoke, in a mild, hoarse voice. “Do you know who I am?”
“Before the 15th day of the lunar calendar, had you ever seen me?”
“Do I look like someone who can kill people?”
“Have you ever seen me kill anyone?”
“Then why do you think I killed Yang Jian?”
“Because of your box,” said Little Gao. “I know that there’s a mysterious, fearsome weapon in it.”
The person stared at him.
Little Gao’s expression, bearing, posture, breath rate, the material of his clothing, the cloth-wrapped sword in his hand, every part of his person from top to bottom, was taken in by his gaze.
His gaze appeared to be more attentive than Zhuo Donglai’s, and the gray, expressionless eyes seemed to contain the ability to see any type of secret hidden weapon a person might be concealing.
He used the same mild, raspy voice to ask Little Gao, “You said your name is Gao Jianfei?”
“Where are you from?”
“Was it a very high mountain? The place you lived, did it have a cool spring and an ancient pine tree?”
“The clothes you’re wearing, are they made from hemp that you grew on the mountain and spun into cloth?”
Little Gao was very surprised. This man seemed to know more about him than anyone.
“Was there an old man on this mountain who loved to drink tea?” he asked Little Gao. “He liked to sit underneath the ancient pine and make tea with the spring water?”
“Yes,” said Little Gao. “He was the one that told me about this solitary box.”
“And did he tell you about me?”
He stared at Little Gao, his dark gray eyes flashing. “He never mentioned me? Not even one time?”
“Never. He just told me that the most fearsome weapon in the world is a solitary box.”
“Did you tell anyone else about this?”
“Does anybody know about your past?”
“No. Zhuo Donglai tried to investigate my clothing. He thought he could figure out where I came from by analyzing the material. But he couldn’t figure out a thing.”
He had grown the hemp himself, weaved the fabric himself, sewn the clothing himself. The mountain was not famous; other than he and the old man, no one had ever set foot on it.
Little Gao laughed. “Even though Zhuo Donglai has some amazing abilities, he couldn’t figure out anything about my past.”
“And your sword?” the person asked. “Has anyone seen your sword?”
“A few people.”
“A few people? What kind of people.”
“A few dead people. Everyone who has seen this sword of mine has ended up dying under it.”
“Is there something special about your sword?”
“On the back of the blade are some strange marks. They look like exactly like tearstains.”
A strange and mysterious look suddenly filled the eyes of the person with the box.(4) The expression was indescribable, as if it were filled with both sorrow and happiness.
“Tearstains, tearstains,” he said quietly. “So it turns out this sword really does exist. Why does a killer’s sword have tearstains on it? Why does the world have a sword like this?”
Little Gao didn’t know how to answer.
It was a really strange question, and perhaps no one could provide an answer.
Little Gao couldn’t hold back from asking, “So, can you finally tell me who you are? How do you know so much about me?”
The person said nothing. He placed his thumb and first finger into his mouth, and a piercing sound rang out.
Little Gao suddenly heard the sound of carriage wheels and horse hooves.
He turned around and caught sight of a black horse and carriage, waiting just outside the dirty alley.
The man with the box walked over, opened the carriage door, and sat down. Then he looked at Little Gao. “Are you getting in?”
—Where did this carriage come from?
Little Gao didn’t know.
—Where was the carriage going?
Little Gao didn’t know.
But he got in. Even if he knew that the carriage had come from hell, and would deliver him back to hell, he would still get it.
The inside of the carriage was spacious, comfortable and luxurious. Its moved extremely quickly and stably; the four horses that pulled it, as well as the driver, had all received excellent training. The yoke and the carriage itself were extremely well constructed; even the stable of a wealthy nobleman wouldn’t have a carriage as fine as this.
How could this ordinary looking person, wearing homespun clothes, have such a resplendent carriage?
Little Gao had many questions he wanted to ask, but as soon as he entered the carriage, the man closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.
The mysterious box sat next to him.
Little Gao’s heart starting pounding again.
—What would happen if I just opened it and took a quick look? Even if I took a look and he noticed, it wouldn’t be a big deal.
The temptation was just too much, too much for anyone to resist.
Little Gao couldn’t hold back any more. He reached out his hand.
His hands were extremely dexterous, and had received extremely strict training. One time during a test, he had picked eleven locks crafted by different master craftsmen, all in a row.
Most people would have a hard time opening those locks even if they had the key, but all he used was a slender metal wire.
He quickly found the lock spring; a “geng” sound could be heard as it released.
The owner of the box still slept soundly.
—What exactly was in the box? Why was it the most fearsome weapon in the world?
The secret would finally be revealed. Little Gao’s heart beat faster and faster.
Slowly and carefully, he opened the lid. Inside were a set of strangely shaped metal tubes and pieces. There seemed to be about thirteen of them, each one a different size and shape.
Unfortunately, Little Gao couldn’t see them all clearly.
When the box opened, he suddenly caught scent of a fragrance like that of jasmine.
And then he passed out.
(1) The narrative literally says that it looked like the person had been sick with a disease for 17 or 18 years.
(2) This is a Chinese idiom which contains the same character “Gao” as his surname. Here is a link if you’d like to learn more about it: http://goo.gl/05FtNo
(3) Don’t forget that the character from his name “jian” means “gradually” and “fei” means to fly.
(4) As I’m sure most of you know, Chinese contains measure words for everything. Sometimes Gu Long uses the measure word for box to describe it specifically as ONE box. It’s in these situations that I’m describing it as the solitary box. Other times he leaves out the measure word and just describes it as a box.
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