Li Mo then told Yun Ruoyan that many a thief had tried to steal the all-seeing mirror, but each had met a disastrous end. Yun Ruoyan now understood why Li Mo had been so unconcerned about the attempt, but she wasn’t fully convinced.
“Since that black-robed man was able to sneak into Kongming Academy, he can’t be an ordinary cultivator.” Yun Ruoyan thought back to his red sword aura; he had to be at least an eighth-rank blademaster.
An eighth-rank blademaster was superficially similar to Yun Ruoyan’s current rank as a peak seventh-rank blademaster, but the separation between ranks grew more and more extreme after fifth-rank. This was especially true for the gap between seventh- and eighth-rank, because only at eighth-rank could blademasters learn to soar on their swords. 
The common distinction of rank was a measure of accumulation of spiritual energy. Only when blademasters reached eighth-rank and could resonate with their blades would they be considered true blademasters. There were many of those who studied the way of a blademaster, but few who could claim to be true blademasters. That black-robed man had seemed to be a rather strong blademaster in his own right.
“Not only is that black-robed man a blademaster, he was easily able to bypass the wards around Kongming Academy. Clearly, he must be familiar with the area, and he might even have an accomplice within the academy itself,” Yun Ruoyan continued. “In that case, how could he not know that the all-seeing mirror is protected by its own defensive array?”
Yun Ruoyan took a deep breath, then continued, “Furthermore, the black-robed man even sent out two medicinal puppets to help Li Furong get into the academy successfully. This implies that all this had to have been planned out quite some time in advance. Surely this seemingly well-informed and high-ranking cultivator wouldn’t have such an obvious flaw in his plans?”
Li Mo was very satisfied by Yun Ruoyan’s serious appearance. “Yan’er, your analysis is quite reasonable. If there’s truly a traitor in the ranks of Kongming Academy, then I’ll surely root them out.”
In the dark of the night, within a quiet, isolated corner of the southern college, Cang Song anxiously waited for someone’s arrival.
“Why did you contact me in such a hurry?” the black-robed man asked as soon as he entered.
“Did you go and find Li Furong last night?” Cang Song asked, his tone harsh.
“What’s the matter? You were the one who sent me a signal, so I went over to her cottage.”
“You were tailed, and you didn’t even know! Yun Ruoyan, that girl that Li Mo took as disciple, saw your sword aura and caught every word of your conversation with Li Furong!”
Only then did the black-robed man seem to realize how serious the affair was. “No wonder I kept thinking there was someone outside the door… But no one was there when I went outside to look—this Yun Ruoyan must be quite adept at retracting her aura, to be able to fool even me!”
“Luckily neither the first elder nor Li Mo were present yesterday, and she told me about the affair instead. I’d planned on killing her at the plaza today, but Li Mo came back right in the nick of time! Now that Li Furong’s exposed, we have to change the plan. She can’t stay here any longer!”
The black-robed man immediately objected. “No, that can’t be! Li Furong’s a pawn I’ve groomed for this very occasion.”
“But now she’s exposed! I can only keep this a secret for an additional night. I have to report it tomorrow morning, or I’ll arouse suspicion. Once I do so, I’m sure the first elder will take preventive measures against her. Unless you kill her immediately, your identity might even be divulged!”
“No, there’s no chance of that.” The black-robed man shook his head. “She doesn’t know my secret identity within Kongming Academy. Even if she’s caught, she can’t rat me out.”
Cang Song snorted. “You can’t bear to get rid of her, can you?”
“She’s only a sacrificial pawn that I’ve employed for stealing the all-seeing mirror. Why wouldn’t I be willing to get rid of her? I just need her to start a diversion to lure the first elder away. Otherwise, I won’t be able to sneak into the bottommost floor of the southern tower and steal the manual of heavenly dragons’ tactics.”
The black-robed man looked at Cang Song, ardor in his gaze. “You know that the Farsighted King has been planning to take over the Chenyuan continent for decades, and this manual is the last item he needs for his plans. I have to seize it for the Farsighted King to help him accomplish his life’s mission!”
Cang Song sighed. “In that case, what are you planning on doing?”
“Li Furong thinks that my objective is the all-seeing mirror, as does Yun Ruoyan. Report Yun Ruoyan’s words fully, and you’ll be able to confuse the first elder and Li Mo all the more.”
The black-robed man quickly came up with measures against Yun Ruoyan. “As you know, the old codger and Li Mo both think themselves clever. They’ll surely wait for Li Furong to try to carry out her objective, then catch her in the act. According to plan, I’ll use her as a diversion and steal that manual!”
Cang Song mulled the black-robed man’s idea over for a few moments before finally nodding. “In that case, you better execute your plan as quickly as possible, in case any further complications arise.”
The black-robed man nodded, then chuckled. “Don’t worry. The moment the Farsighted King unites all of the Chenyuan continent will be the moment you become the first elder.”
After the black-robed man left, Cang Song tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep. Many years ago, when he’d met the Farsighted King through a chance encounter, they found a kindred soul in each other. Both men had been squashed underfoot and unable to obtain true power for themselves. At the same time, they both had a reputation for being carefree and easygoing. Underneath that mask, however, they lusted for authority.
Cang Song’s cultivation had stalled. Not only could he not get to the apex of power, he was even unable to become an elder of Kongming Academy. As for the Farsighted King, his mother’s status was inferior to Li Xiu’s, so he was unable to succeed the throne even though he was the eldest son.
After the chance encounter, the two of them became as thick as thieves. Even after they separated, they exchanged countless letters with each other. Three years ago, the Farsighted King revealed his intention to seize the throne of the Li kingdom and hence unite the Chenyuan continent, and he had invited Cang Song to join him.
Cang Song was a member of Kongming Academy, which had long had a policy of non-intervention with the secular world. Cang Song had initially refused, but the Farsighted King then made him an offer that he couldn’t reject.
The Farsighted King had claimed that what he wanted wasn’t just the Li kingdom, but the entire Chenyuan continent! He wanted his name to be recorded in history, and his wild ambition had overwhelmed Cang Song in fervor.
The Farsighted King had even claimed that the only reason Kongming Academy could remain superior to the four kingdoms was because the four kingdoms formed an intricate web of checks and balances between themselves. If he were to unite the four kingdoms and hence become the sole ruler of the Chenyuan continent, his next step would be to take control of Kongming Academy, and Cang Song would be his choice for the new first elder.
Cang Song’s lofty ambitions meant that he had no choice but to accept. As a result, he became a spy for the Farsighted King. Slightly more than a year ago, the Farsighted King had discovered that in the bottommost floor of the southern tower of Kongming Academy was kept a legendary treasure, a manual of war tactics. Allegedly, the one who possessed this manual would be able to win any battle without fail.
However, the southern tower was where the first elder cultivated, and he hadn’t left Kongming Academy for many years. Unless there were something urgent happening in Kongming Academy, the first elder wouldn’t even leave the southern tower.
The Farsighted King had sent the black-robed man over to find a chance to steal the manual with Cang Song’s help, but they had never found a good opportunity. It was only later, when the black-robed man thought to rope in his disciple who was skilled with thievery, Li Furong. With her as bait to lure away the first elder, the black-robed man would be able to seize the opportunity to steal the legendary manual.
He and Cang Song had then concocted a plan to get Li Furong into Kongming Academy. Everything had been going as anticipated until a curious variable had emerged: Yun Ruoyan. This made Cang Song very uncomfortable.
After the black-robed man left Cang Song’s cottage, he went straight to Li Furong’s residence. Li Furong was sound asleep, and the black-robed man jumped in through a window.
“Who is it?” Upon feeling a mysterious man’s presence, Li Furong immediately jumped out of bed.
“It’s me!” the black-robed man whispered.
“Master, why are you here? I didn’t send you a signal…” Li Furong immediately let down her guard and let out a yawn.
“Darling, I missed you. Aren’t you happy to see me visiting you from time to time?” The black-robed man chuckled as he sat by her bed. Despite their master-disciple relationship, they seemed to behave far more intimately than was appropriate. Although they hadn’t crossed the line physically, their conversations were unctuous and cloyingly sweet.
Li Furong was indeed a little suspicious by her master’s suddenly intimate behavior. “Master, do you have a task that you need me to perform?”
The black-robed man nodded. “Yes, the plan has been moved forward.” He leaned against Li Furong’s ear and whispered a few details to her.
“Really?” Li Furong’s face was filled with glee.
“Of course! As soon as you succeed, I’ll recommend you to the Farsighted King himself. Given your looks, I’m sure he’ll be pleased with you. After that, you’ll have a full life of wealth and riches lying ahead!”
Naturally, Li Furong was unaware that she was only a sacrificial pawn. Like an ignorant piglet, she dreamt of an impossible future even as she was led closer to her slaughter.
In her cottage by the cliffside, Yun Ruoyan was learning a fire-attuned spiritual technique from Li Mo. As he raised his hand, spiritual energy quickly exuded from his palm and took on the shape of a fireball.
“This is a low-rank fire-attuned external spiritual technique,” Li Mo explained, revolving the fireball in his hands. “This technique specifically counters the icy daggers that Rong Yueshan used on you today.”
Li Mo had long known that Yun Ruoyan was most suited to fire-attuned techniques, but he had refrained from teaching them to her before she advanced further with her internal cultivation techniques. However, after today’s bout, it was clear that she needed to be trained in the subject.
1. True masters of the blade can partake in swordflight and literally steer their swords. This is a somewhat subtle point in translation: ‘blademaster’ corresponds to the Chinese 御剑师 (‘wield-sword-master’). Abstractly, 御 can be interpreted as some combination of wield/manage/govern; more literally, it can mean drive/steer. ‘Blademaster’ captures the abstract sense of 御, but not its literal sense. Incidentally, the choice of ‘blademaster’ rather than ‘swordmaster’ is because cultivators do not seem restricted to using swords, and blade is a more generic term.