The seventh day of the second month of the lunar calendar.
Cai Chong sat on a stool made from four pieces of wood and a strip of canvas. He looked at the crowds of people on the street, his face gloomy. Anyone could see that he wasn’t in a good mood today.
Little Gao had been a turtle in a jar, a fish in a net. Who could have imagined that at the very last moment he would slip from his grasp?
Maybe it was because everything Cai Chong did usually went so smoothly, and succeeded so quickly. Therefore it led to this kind negligence.
Actually, during this period of time, he hadn’t forgotten about Zhu Meng.
He knew Zhu Meng hadn’t left Luoyang. If he really went looking, he could find him.
But he didn’t go looking, not because he was ashamed, but because he didn’t dare.
Even though he had assumed Zhu Meng’s position, he still had an unspeakable fear of him deep in his heart.
This fear had taken root in his heart during his years of service under Zhu Meng.
Even now, when he thought of Zhu Meng, his hands and feet would grow cold, and his body would break out in sweat. Sometimes he would be woken by nightmares in the middle of the night, then lie alone in bed drenched with sweat, trembling.
He wanted Zhu Meng to come looking for him.
He had already filled the entire street with deadly traps and ambushes. A word from him, and everything would be sprung. Even if Zhu Meng was at the top of his form, he still wouldn’t be able to escape.
And so, early every morning, he would sit there selling sliced sweet cakes, using himself as bait to lure in the big fish Zhu Meng.
Even though this was dangerous, as long as Zhu Meng was alive he would never be able to get a good night’s rest for the rest of his life.
It was a busy street, filled with teahouses, flower shops, and food stalls. Even early in the morning it was very busy. Right now it was early, and packed with people, just as it had been the past two days. About half of the people filling the street were waiting in ambush. Among them were members of the Lion Clan, but some were also mercenaries from distant places. (1)
These people would do anything for money.
Zhu Meng had never seen any of them before, and they had no feeling whatsoever for him.
Even if some of the old members of the Lion Clan were like Cai Chong, fearful of Zhu Meng, and hesitant to make a move at the moment of truth, these mercenaries had no family and were desperate.
When he thought about this, Cai Chong felt a little more at ease. And at that same moment, he saw someone walking down the street.
“Little Gao, Gao Jianfei!”
Cai Chong could barely believe his eyes.
The person who had narrowly escaped death yesterday was now coming back especially to deliver up his life.
Little Gao wore only a coarse pair of trousers. He had thrown his gown over his shoulder.
Face flushed, eyes bloodshot, he clearly hadn’t had much sleep.
But he seemed in good spirits, calm and unruffled, not very much different from the people nearby who had come to have morning tea.
Those who recognized him stared in shock, their eyes filling with murderous intent.
Little Gao didn’t care a whit.
Many were already preparing to make a move, but strangely, Cai Chong didn’t give the signal, even as Little Gao walked up right in front of him.
Little Gao stood in front of Cai Chong’s cake-filled wooden table. There were several layers of cakes on the table, each covered with coarse cloth. Little Gao threw two coins onto the table and looked at Cai Chong.
“I want to buy two coins worth of sweet cakes. I want the kind with dates.”
Cai Chong looked at him for a long time, then laughed. “You really came to buy sweet cakes?”
“What you’re selling is sweet cakes, of course what I’m buying is sweet cakes. What’s strange about that? What’s funny about it?”
“It’s definitely not funny, not funny at all. It’s definitely something to weep about.”
“Then why aren’t you crying?”
“Because the one who should be crying is you.”
“You’re still alive.” Cai Chong asked him coldly, “Do you know why you’re still alive?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because I want to ask you something,” said Cai Chong. “Why did you come here? Are you here to speak for Zhu Meng? Give me his requirements? Beg for leniency?”
Little Gao looked at him, for a long time, and then sighed. “I guess people can’t hide their true intentions from you.”
Cai Chong laughed again.
“Actually, Zhu Meng can come himself. No matter what, we are still brothers.” Cai Chong seemed to be very sincere in what he said. “As long as there aren’t any excessive requirements, I’m willing to comply with anything he requests.”
“Of course. I really don’t want to beat around the bush with him. His lair was turned upside-down, everyone’s exhausted and has suffered losses. Having outsiders come to take advantage doesn’t do any good at all, right?”
“You’re right, there’s nothing good about it at all.”
“So you might as well go back and tell him that yourself. I’m sure you can tell that I’m acting in good faith.”
“Of course I can tell. I just think it’s a bit strange.”
“Don’t tell me you never thought that I might have come here to kill you for Zhu Meng?”
Cai Chong smiled, and his narrow, knife-like eyes seemed to be filled with amusement. “You’re a smart person. How could you do something like that? This street is filled with my people. If you make a single move, any and all of them could kill you. There’s no way you could escape death.”
“I believe it,” said Little Gao. “I can see exactly what you’re talking about.”
“You’re still young, you have a lot of bright prospects. You don’t have a very deep relationship with Zhu Meng; why would you give up your life for him?” Cai Chong smilled and shook his head. “You definitely wouldn’t do something like that.”
Little Gao also smiled. “You’re completely correct. Even the stupidest idiot under heaven would do something like that.”
Cai Chong smiled, a smile filled with joy.
And as his smile was the most joyful, he suddenly saw an undulating flash of light, and then a sharp sword stabbed into his heart.
The smile froze, just like the smile on a poorly constructed wooden mask.
In that exact moment, all the sound and movement on the street seemed to freeze. And then in the same moment, everything seemed to explode, as if the street had turned into a pot of boiling congee on a burning oven.
The only person who could maintain their calm was Little Gao.
What he had come to accomplish, must be accomplished, regardless of the prospects of success or defeat, regardless of the prospects of life or death. He hadn’t thought about those things.
Now, his mission was accomplished. He had seen with his own eyes the traitor receive his just reward. He didn’t care about anything else.
But, even though he didn’t care, others cared.
The crowds of people, in turmoil, still hadn’t made a move. Suddenly, a huge shadow filled the sky as a person dropped down next to Little Gao and grasped his hand.
“This is my friend,” Zhu Meng roared like a fierce lion. “Touch him over my dead body!”
(1) The word I’m translating as mercenary is usually translated as desperado or outlaw. I think in this context mercenary is a better translation, but the implication is that they are lawless desperate Jianghu wanderers.
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