Book 12 Chapter 1 – Free Talk Between Major Powers
The three had never expected they would encounter Li Mi in this place; immediately their carefully laid out plan went out the window.
Li Mi was among the world-renowned martial art masters; his fame for fighting prowess was even above Du Fuwei’s, the number of capable people under his command was countless. Even though the three of them had high self-confidence, the only thing in their mind right now was how to slip away quietly, and not how to settle their score with Qian Duguan.
According to reason, if Qian Duguan wanted to entertain such an esteemed guest, he ought to have his household maids and servants lining up in formation. Yet presently he did not even send anybody to clean up, plus the preparation was severely lacking. No doubt Li Mi’s visit this time was strictly confidential. Unfortunately the three men accidentally found out about it.
What could be so important that they had to discuss it?
Li Mi was a man skilled in military tactics and trickery, his scheme to have Zhai Rang murdered was just ‘one spot on the leopard’. Yet despite his busy schedule he still made time to see Qian Duguan. Whatever it was, it must be something extremely important.
Ba Fenghan called out in low voice, “Let’s go! They are coming here.”
Kou Zhong swept his gaze. Finally his eyes stopped at a large wardrobe standing at the corner of the study room. He said, “You go find a place to hide outside, I want to listen to whatever they have to say.”
Fast as lightning he moved to the wardrobe, which reached up to eight chi in height, opened the door, and saw that the inside of the wardrobe was stuffed full of rolls of paper; there was no way Kou Zhong could fit himself there.
Kou Zhong did not dare to be negligence. He picked up one large roll of paper and stuffed it in Xu Ziling’s bosom, who had just come to his side.
Ba Fenghan understood immediately; he also rushed over and picked up another large roll of paper, and then the two of them, carrying rolls of paper that weighed approximately a hundred catty, left from another window on the side.
Kou Zhong barely had time to find a place where he could fit in and closed the door when Qian Duguan pushed the door and came in. It was indeed a hairbreadth escape. Were it not for the fact that the three men were superior martial art masters, it would be strange indeed if Li Mi did not detect their presence.
Inside the wardrobe, took a deep breath and restraint the qi within his body, entering the breathing system of the ‘Secret to Long Life’, so that his bodily function slowed down considerably to avoid Li Mi’s perception.
Qian Duguan’s voice was heard on the outside, “Mi Gong [Duke Mi], please sit down!” Followed by the sound of everybody sitting down.
Kou Zhong pricked up his ear and listened carefully. Judging from the sound of the breathing, there were only five people inside the study room. Needless to say, the other three must be extraordinary characters.
He could not help feeling very proud of himself, thinking that although Li Mi’s perception was higher than the heavens, he still did not imagine that there was someone else a step ahead of them hiding inside the study room. His only hope right now was that Xu Ziling and Ba Fenghan also evaded their detection.
Li Mi’s breathing was strong, fine and long, and relaxed. The other two’s breathing seemed to be there, yet seemed to be nonexistent as well; a clear sign that these two’s martial art skill was not too far below Li Mi’s. Simply this one discovery was enough to shock Kou Zhong.
Li Mi’s firm, yet deep and low voice was heard outside the wardrobe, “This ‘Hidden Clarity’ courtyard is elegant and secluded,” he said with a laugh, “It is like the outer-worldly Peace Blossom Spring in the midst of bustling marketplace. Qian Xiong really knows how to enjoy life.”
Qian Duguan laughed aloud and said, “Mi Gong indeed have singular insight; in just one glance you already see through Xiaodi. Since childhood I am the kind of person who lack ambitions, my only hope was to live in gentle and soft village, simply going through life in happiness. Gentlemen please do not laugh at me.”
Kou Zhong cursed in his heart, because if Qian Duguan was really that kind of person, he would not have become the City Master of Xiangyang. And the previous day he would not have besieged Xu Ziling and him.
What he said was to declare his position; on one hand, he told Li Mi that he would not contend for the world against Li Mi, on the other hand, he wanted to put himself in a more favorable situation in the upcoming negotiation. Killing two birds with one stone; a rather effective strategy.
A young sounding male voice laughed and said, “Qian Chengzhu [city master] really know how to be modest. I hear that Chengzhu has ten-thousand matters to attend to in daily basis, that one time you have work nonstop without sleeping for seven days and nights, without leaving your office for even half a step. Your energetic vigos is truly admirable.”
Surprisingly, it was Xu Shiji’s voice.
On the surface it sounded as if he was flattering Qian Duguan, but he actually hinted that they knew Qian Duguan’s situation like the back of their hands, and thus suggesting Qian Duguan not to play games with them.
Clearing his throat, Qian Duguan said in amazement, “That was when the Ol’ Qian has just taken over Xiangyang; I am surprised that Xu Junshi [military counselor/advisor] has such a fast and abundant news network.”
Li Mi spoke indifferently, “That is because we have extremely high expectation of Qian Chengzhu, hence we pay close attention to Chengzhu’s affair.”
Qian Duguan laughed aloud and said, “To be able to catch Mi Gong’s attention, Ol’ Qian is deeply honored. My only hope is that the Ol’ Qian will not disappoint Mi Gong.”
And then, heaving a deep sigh, he went on, “Ol’ Qian was hoping that meeting Mi Gong this time I can offer you two great gifts; it’s a pity that the enterprise is ruined for the sake of one basketful, unexpectedly those two kids slipped away.”
Two cold snorts were heard simultaneously; one was sharp, the other deep and low, but both were brimming with disdain. Evidently these were the other two people who had not spoken yet.
Even inside the wardrobe, Kou Zhong’s ears were buzzing from the snort; clearly these two were martial art masters of internal energy, and their skill level was quite superior.
Obviously Qian Duguan was a bit unhappy; his voice turned cold as he said, “Fortunately now the Changbai Pai [Changbai is a mountain range northeast of China] two teachers Fu Zhen and Fu Yan whose names shook the northern desert [or Outer Mongolia] have personally arrived; in my humble opinion, these two despicable fellows’ days are numbered.”
While Kou Zhong was speculating who in the world were Fu Zhen and Fu Yan, Li Mi changed the topic by saying, “I hear Ba Fenghan is hanging around with them. This Tujue man is the Western Region’s most outstanding and brimming-with-talent martial art master after Bi Xuan. Also he is very ruthless; killing people as easy as breathing, so relaxed, free and easy. Hence we must tread carefully.”
This man spoke in a way that was neither servile nor overbearing; not only it demonstrated his vision, it also showed modesty in his prudence. He truly deserved his reputation as the most charismatic and respected leader of the present age.
The man with the sharp voice spoke coldly, “Mi Gong, please set your heart at ease. In dealing with anybody, we, two brothers, have never been negligence of our heavy responsibility.”
Kou Zhong shivered in fear; inwardly he wanted that man to look down on him, which would make dealing with them later a lot easier.
Li Mi said cheerfully, “With Fu Zhen Laoshi [teacher] giving us his words, those three boys are dead for sure! Qian Chengzhu, do you have any valuable advice you could offer the two teachers?”
With these words, not only he flattered both Qian Duguan and the Fu brothers, he also reduced the distance between the two, Qian and Fu, parties, and built a bridge connecting the three men. Indeed Li Mi was an outstanding leader.
Qian Duguan sighed and said, “Not that I want to exaggerate the two kids’ power and prestige, but the most formidable thing about them is that their style is highly unconventional with constant permutation; strange technique and ultimate skill emerged one after another. Their powerful spiraling true qi is even more difficult to deal with.”
Xu Shiji ruthlessly said, “Killing them demands immediate action. Because there has never been anybody who trained the ‘Secret to Long Life’ could produce martial art like they do, and they are improving every day. If we do not seize this opportunity to kill them, and they divulge the secret of ‘Duke Yang Treasure’ to Li Shimin, it will cause no end of trouble for us.”
A big question mark suddenly appeared in Kou Zhong’s heart: why would Xu Shiji think that he might divulge the secret of ‘Duke Yang Treasure’ to Li Shimin?
Fu Yan spoke in his deep and low voice, “My Dage is an expert in tracking skill, even that treacherous banding Wang Bo has to step down gracefully. As long as we can follow their trail, I guarantee Mi Gong will have nothing to worry about.”
Li Mi spoke heavily, “In that case I will have to request two teachers to do just that. But it would be best if we could catch up with them before they reach Luoyang. Otherwise, once they entered Wang Shichong’s sphere of influence, it would be difficult for us to gather manpower to hunt and kill them openly.”
Fu Zhen and Fu Yan loudly gave their promise.
Li Mi let out a powerful but sweet-sounding laughter. And then he sighed and said, “To be able to unload my mind freely with Qian Chengzhu is a pleasure in Li Mi’s life. Come! Let Li Mi toast Qian Chengzhu a cup first.”
Kou Zhong knew Li Mi was going to pour out even bigger scheme; his spirit was greatly aroused. Hastily he focused his mind to listen carefully.
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling and Ba Fenghan were hiding inside the dense foliage of an old locust tree. From their vantage point, they were able to see the tightly guarded study room far below. They put the two rolls of paper inside underbrush under the tree.
It was the first time that Xu Ziling was alone and in close proximity with this Tujue martial art master; a strange and complicated feeling grew in his heart.
The relationship between them was quite subtle. They were close, yet it also felt so far away; it was the case of people of talent appreciates one another, but there was also a feeling that they were in competition with each other, so much so that there was a sense that they were enemies. Perhaps nobody could explain clearly the real situation between them.
Ba Fenghan whispered in Xu Ziling’s ear, “Don’t you feel strange? The main hall, the side hall, or any other halls of the building in the inner courtyard are so much better suited to receive the guests, yet he came to the beloved concubine’s study room to have a high level talk. This does not make any sense at all.”
Xu Ziling replied indifferently, “This is called ‘catching other people by surprise’. It can be clearly seen that Qian Duguan is afraid his meeting with Li Mi would be leaked out; hence even the maids and the servants are told to make themselves scarce. It is even clearer that what they are talking about tonight may have serious implication to the situation in all other places. This must be bad. Perhaps Qian Duguan is about to get his entire city razed down and its people exterminated.”
Ba Fenghan laughed involuntarily and said, “He will be dead all right! Because your brother will not show him the least bit of pity, and will definitely not lend a hand to rescue him.”
Right this moment, almost at the same time the two boys were startled, and turned their heads to the building to their left. What happened was that there was originally lantern light at the small upstairs room in the middle, but now the light suddenly went off.
Ba Fenghan smiled and said, “That must be Bai beauty’s room. If I guess correctly, this Bai beauty is definitely not a simpleton, I even dare to say that she may be a spy sent by Yin Gui Pai to penetrate Xiangyang.”
Xu Ziling could not help thinking about Yuan’er, the spy Li Tianfan sent to the Flying Horse Ranch; both had exactly the same motives and used exactly the same means. Evidently beauty was still considered the most powerful weapon, and not many men could pass this obstacle.
Chapter 1 - Part 2
“Has Ba Xiong seen her?” he asked.
Ba Fenghan nodded. “I’ve seen her once,” he replied, “But it was only after seeing Wanwan that I had this strange idea. Because Bai Qing’er has some kind of peculiar characteristic; she very much resembles female demon Wan.”
Xu Ziling shivered inwardly, because he knew that Ba Fenghan’s perception was terrifyingly sharp.
Ba Fenghan sighed and said, “Although her beauty cannot match Wanwan’s, there is a troubling, bone penetrating charm in her, which is bewitching the spirit and itching the heart. That’s why even a Jianghu veteran like Qian Duguan who are accustomed to see beautiful women also fell under her control.”
Xu Ziling turned his gaze back to the study room. Suddenly he noticed that the Fat Demon Jin Bo and Gold and Silver Spear Ling Feng have appeared among the guards; however, as if nothing happened, he commented, “Perhaps we need to tell Qian Duguan about Fang Zetao’s tragic fate, maybe he would be awakened.”
Ba Fenghan bitterly said, “I still don’t understand how did the Jianghuai Army, the Tiele people and Yin Gui Pai, three different factions, forge an alliance to join hands in this power struggle.”
His eyes also fell to the same place, but naturally he did not recognize Jin Bo and Ling Feng. Slightly startled, he said, “The number of martial art masters within Li Mi’s men is certainly as numerous as a cloud; assassinating Li Mi is definitely not an easy matter. They say that Wang Shichong offered ten thousand tael of gold for successful assassination of Li Mi!”
Xu Ziling suddenly had a premonition; turning his gaze back to the small upstairs room, he was finally able to see the Bai beauty. Immediately he understood the stunning peculiar feeling Ba Fenghan said he experience the first time he saw Bai Qing’er.
※ ※ ※
Li Mi slyly said, “Du Fuwei has taken Jingling, within the next few days he will go up north along the river, but Xiangyang has become the only thing in his way. What will Qian Chengzhu do in this situation?”
Inside the wardrobe, Kou Zhong cried in his heart, ‘Formidable!’ Li Mi went straight to the point. In just a few words, he has hit Qian Duguan’s vital point, making it difficult for him to sidestep or have the strength to withstand.
Sure enough, even an old fox like Qian Duguan was stumped that he stared blankly for half a day before finally smiling bitterly and said, “Relying on the power available to Ol’ Qian in the city, naturally our prospect is not too good. However, there is one thing that Ol’ Qian does not understand; I wish to ask for Mi Gong’s enlightenment.”
Astounded, Li Mi asked, “Qian Chengzhu, please speak forthrightly.”
Qian Duguan spoke in heavy voice, “The reason Jingling fell was simply because the Flying Horse Ranch was facing the Four Big Bandits’ attack at the same time, and thus was powerless to render any help. Moreover, from the intelligence the Ol’ Qian gathered, the Four Big Bandits have inseparably close relationship with Mi Gong. If this matter turns out to be true, why did Mi Gong let the Four Big Bandits did a big favor to Du Fuwei?”
As a matter of fact, Kou Zhong, who was hiding in a secret place, has already thought about this question. Plus he knew for a fact that in the Four Big Bandits’ attack to the Flying Horse Ranch, Li Mi’s heir apparent, Li Tianfan and the pretty Junshi the ‘Serpent And Scorpion Beauty’ Shen Luoyan were involved in the case.
At first, just like Qian Duguan, he was unable to penetrate this mystery either, but now that Li Mi has personally arrived in Xiangyang, just like being awakened from a dream, it suddenly dawned on him the subtlety of this matter.
Li Mi was a master strategist whose prestige shook the heavens; his ultimate goal was, quite naturally, the world [tianxia]. But the most pressing problem in his face right now is how to overcome Luoyang’s Wang Shichong, and then consolidating both powers, he wanted to attack the Li Clan’s father and son of Guanzhong. In this way his claim of the rivers and mountains would be decided.
Nowadays, although Li Mi had occupied Xingyang, his route to advance to the west, either by land or along the Yellow River, was cut off by Wang Shichong, so that Li Mi was unable to move a single step. Moreover, with Wang’s army impeding him, Li Mi was powerless to attack the other militias.
In the north, Liu Wuzhou and Dou Jiande’s powers were dominant. The former even had the support of Tujue’s main forces, while the latter’s prestige was not inferior to Li Mi’s. If without careful consideration he started a war with them, he would only benefit Wang Shichong, by letting Wang Shichong to take advantage of the lapse in the power balance.
Therefore, the most important thing for Li Mi right now was how to defeat Wang Shichong, how to take the Eastern Capital Luoyang; other matters would be secondary.
Trouble is, Luoyang was well known throughout the world as having solid city walls, and the route toward it, both by water and land, was dangerous. On top of that, Wang Shichong’s martial art was outstanding, and he was an expert in the art of war, plus the Dugu Clan was behind him. The officers and soldiers serving under him were, for the most part, came from the former Sui army; they were very well-trained. Therefore, although Li Mi was highly capable, up until now, he was unable to do anything to Wang Shichong.
Under these circumstances, if Li Mi wanted to take Luoyang, he must do so in a totally new situation; namely, he had to isolate Wang Shichong, turning Luoyang into a lone city, and then Wagang Army would have hope in succeeding.
Li Mi was worthy to be called a brilliant military strategist; he took a risk by secretly directed the Four Big Bandits to coordinate their operation with Du Fuwei, to break the relationship between the Flying Horse Ranch and Jingling, which was as close as lips and teeth, and as stable as iron bucket, and thus Jingling had fallen.
At first Li Mi was counting his chickens before they were hatched; with his support, he let the Four Big Bandits occupied the Flying Horse Ranch and the several big cities in its vicinity, and thus controlling Du Fuwei’s Jianghuai Army; however, there was a change beyond his control: Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling spoiled his grand plan. With just this one thing, the entire north-south situation suddenly changed.
Du Fuwei had acquired strong and solid foothold on the north; advanced he could attack, retreated he could defend. Even more, he could pose a direct threat to Xiangyang and Wang Shichong’s terriroty as well.
Previously, Qian Duguan was able to maintain Xiangyang’s independence and autonomy, simply because all the major powers were at a stalemate, so that he was able to survive exploiting the gap while all sides were too busy with the power struggle. But now the situation was changing, fast. Qian Duguan was forced to take refuge to one of the major powers, to throw his lot to one who could offer him protection, and thus he no longer able to strike water right and left [i.e. reaping benefit from both sides].
This was precisely the situation Li Mi wanted to create; he wanted to force Qian Duguan to pick side, by luring him with huge profits, so that Li Mi, without shedding blood on the men’s swords, would be able to obtain Xianguang, which would become a significant military base just south of Luoyang.
In attacking Jingling, Du Fuwei’s loss was quite disastrous; for the time being he would not be able to advance north. But he would not give up nibbling on the other territories around. Therefore, as soon as Li Mi acquire Xiangyang, Wang Shichong would feel the enemy’s pressure on both sides, while at the same time he would have to deal with the battlefronts at the southeast. This would give Li Mi great benefit.
This scheme of Li Mi’s was definitely ruthless, but absolutely necessary.
Hence the reason Li Mi had to personally come here.
Pretending to be surprised, Xu Shiji said, “Surely Qian Chengzhu does not believe the rumor that we are helping Du Fuwei?”
Letting out a cold snort, Qian Duguan said, “The wind from an empty cave must have its cause. That’s why the Ol’ Qian wish for Mi Gong to personally clarify this matter.”
“Wagang Army and the Four Big Bandits have no direct relationship,” Li Mi explained, “However, we were already aware of the Four Big Bandits’ plan of attacking the Flying Horse Ranch for a long time, and we even know who the provocateur was. Trying to exploit this opportunity, we wanted to carry out certain operation; unfortunately it was spoiled by those two despicable kids, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling.”
Listening to this, Kou Zhong could not help giving himself a kick in the butt inwardly. Now he was unsure if Li Mi did have any relationship with the Four Big Bandits or not, much less Qian Duguan?
Very faint footsteps suddenly appeared in the hall.
Qian Duguan delightedly said, “Shiru has finally arrived. Come and see Mi Gong!”
In his heart, Kou Zhong was greatly alarmed. This newcomer’s footsteps were very light, a clear sign that in qinggong department, he must be rather superior; he could even be considered a top ranking martial art experts.
Li Mi laughed aloud and said, “I’ve heard about the “Henan [province] Mad Scholar’ for a long time; today I finally see it.”
After a strong, long laughter, Zheng Shiru slyly said, “Mi Gong praised too much, Zaixia is ashamed and dare not accept the honor.” And then there were some polite exchanges as they met each other for the first time.
Kou Zhong wondered in his heart; listening to this Zheng Shiru, not only there was not the least bit of madness, he was rather modest and quite polite. Then why did he obtain the nickname ‘Henan Mad Scholar’? It seemed like the nickname was inconsistent with his character.
He also blamed himself for not having enough knowledge and experience that he had never heard about this person’s name. Moreover, he was unclear what relation this person had with Qian Duguan.
After everybody in the hall was seated and after a round of toast, Qian Duguan briefly recounted his recent discussion with Li Mi. Zheng Shiru calmly said, “Despite your busy schedule, this time Mi Gong personally came here; I wonder if your desire is in Luoyang, your aspiration is in Guanzhong?”
Delightedly Li Mi said, “Zheng Xiong is certainly fast-thinking, fast-talking, but it’s no more than ‘obtaining Gansu while desiring Sichuan’ [Translator’s note: I am not too sure about this, but I believe it means ‘insatiable greed’. Li Mi has always followed the prescribed order; I will definitely not be reckless.”
Zheng Shiru spoke indifferently, “There is one thing Zaixia does not understand. In the past Mi Gong inflict heavy losses on Luoyang Army, your advance route to the west was unimpeded with nothing in the way; why didn’t you direct your army straight into Guanzhong, like Qin Shihuang establishing his stronghold at Guanzhong Mountain’s three rivers, and gained his supremacy as the Emperor? Wasn’t it a waste of a good opportunity?”
Only now did Kou Zhong start to understand the origin of the nickname ‘Mad Scholar’; he also guessed that Zheng Shiru must be Qian Duguan’s think-tank. Unless Li Mi could convince him that Li Mi was the sole material for the hegemony over the world, Qian Duguan would maintain his wait-and-see attitude.
However, his question was really not easy to answer.
Li Mi laughed aloud and said, “Mr. Zheng asked a really good question. The answer is not that I did not have the desire, rather, it’s because I did not have the ability. The matter of entering Guanzhong, I have considered it for a long time. But at that time the muddle-headed ruler was still alive; engaging the troops is like involving the people. Most of Wagang troops are from Shandong; since Luoyang has not yet fallen, who would be willing to go the far away west to enter Guanzhong? If I presumptuously entered Guanzhong, I am afraid I might lose Henan and Shandong. If that happened, although I gained Guanzhong, but what do I have to contend over the world?”
If this remark was heard by someone who did not know the inside story, he would definitely be at a loss, and was not able to make head or tail of it. However, Kou Zhong understood thoroughly.
At that time, Li Mi’s biggest obstacle was Zhai Rang. Even if Li Mi wanted to enter Guanzhong, Zhai Rang would want to remain in Henan as his garrison. When that happened, how could Zhai Rang let Li Mi go? As soon as he attacked Luoyang, the Sui Army at Luoyang would cut Li Mi’s return route. And then not only Li Mi could not occupy Guanzhong, he would be trapped in Guanzhong instead.
Xu Zhiji joined in, “Another reason was that the muddleheaded ruler and his main force was already in Jiangdu. At that time Guanzhong would lose its role as the core site. The one we ought to attack should be Jiangdu and not Chang’an.”
Zheng Shiru was indifferent, “The situation at that time was exactly like Mi Gong and Xu Junshi said. But let’s take an overall look on the major powers nowadays: speaking about prestige, nobody can match Mi Gong. But speaking about situation, the Li Clan’s father and son still dominates, since they occupy the position where they can just sit on the mountain and watch the tigers fight.”
Li Mi snorted coldly and said, “Li Yuan is just a dirty old man. Only Li Shimin has a bit of prospect. When Li Yuan raised his troops at Taiyuan that day, he wanted to hunt deer in the Central Plains [i.e. attempt on the throne], and he only had two routes to take: one was to the west into Guanzhong, the other was going south to Henan. But even if he had gargantuan guts, he would not dare to invade my territory. So his only way was to enter Guanzhong. It’s just that this fellow has always been a bit lucky; having already obtained Tujue’s support, it was also the time when Guanzhong’s troops were out of their nest to the east to attack me, that he was able to exploit the weak spot and entered in. Otherwise, how could he even have the opportunity to content for supremacy against me?”
These words revealed a strong confidence, he was really worthy of his status and authority as an overlord, so that not only he aroused other people’s admiration, he also showed his charm in intimidating their hearts.
Xu Zhiji added, “Presently our Wagang Army has just defeated Yuwen Huaji, our reputation enjoyed great boost. If we can take Luoyang, what can the Li kids of Guanzhong do about it? This time Mi Gong came to Xiangyang, is precisely to talk with Qian Chengzhu. As soon as Chengzhu give us a nod, I guarantee that after Mi Gong obtains the world, he won’t treat gentlemen meagerly.”
Kou Zhong thought that finally they came to the point. Only how would Qian Duguan’s response be, he wondered.
 Again, please see Jin Yong’s Deer and Cauldron, Chapter 1, translated by yours truly. 5 Best Chinese Romance Books of 2018 So Far