The new formation was as fine as the weather. The journey was surprisingly smooth. I was going to invite the blacksmith to play dice with me, but I saw someone I didn’t expect to see. Lyu Yaoqin somehow ended up hanging around with our imperial doctors.
“Miss Lyu… why are you still here?”
Lyu Yaoqin dimpled: “I want to go home; however, I just received a letter from Father, saying they have gone to Taihu Sword Island. My family was separated during the chaos at Bishui Town. I have you and your friends to thank for escorting me to Canhu Town.”
“D-don’t worry about it.”
That was a bizarre outcome. Lyu Chunyang was sick of his four useless sons and treated his only daughter as a precious treasure. Assigning her to deliver wine and food to me was out of character. Leaving her behind to go on ahead was just bewildering.
“Is that all your father said?”
“Yes. Oh, he did say to ask you for help if anything came up. He said it would be for the best of Night Fortress’ master could take care of me.”
I bloody knew it! Lyu Chunyang attempted to put his daughter in front of me for self-explanatory reasons. She was a pretty maiden, but I doubt he knew Young Master Zhong’s mistress, Su Xiaoxiao, trumped her in the beauty department. Su Xiaoxiao’s face and b-, ahem, Lyu Chunyang was attempting something futile.
Face glowing red, Lyu Yaoqin stammered, “Young Master Ming, umm… umm… Mr. Fangzhang…”
Why are we talking about abbots again? Did that bald monk come here?! Damn the monk! I knew he’d eventually come after me if he found out I returned to the pugilistic world. Damn bald bugger must want the ‘donations’ I owe him.
Head titled, Lyu Yaoqin stressed, “Mr. Li Fangzhang.”
Hmm… Now, where have I heard that name before…? Oh, that was the name I gave Emperor Yuansheng. Your Majesty, I had no idea you were a fan of the name. I see you’ve been using the name behind my back.
Lyu Yaoqin began to tap her face: “I want to know more about Mr. Fangzhang.”
“I assume you heard we’re not that close. The escort is his, so I don’t know too much about him.”
“That is fine. I wanted to ask…” Voice quieter, Lyu Yaoqin inquired, “Is Mr. Fangzhang married and have children?”
Only seven sons, three daughters and eight wives – not including his concubines. If we include the pretty maids in the palace and others, I suppose several hundred?
Lyu Yaoqin’s fidgeting really piqued my curiosity. I wanted to know why the question, but I was afraid of learning why.
Oh, I know what this is about now. Your Majesty, you seduced her after I left for only a brief period! Man, oh, man, you must be getting addicted to this crime of yours.
“Why doesn’t he join the deities and sun?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why won’t he go die?!”
Heavens, are you seeing this? His Majesty has started seducing maidens in Jiangnan. He’s cheating on Her Majesty!
Meanwhile in Emperor Yuansheng’s carriage, he was in a meeting. He sat inside with his three bodyguards. The new formation was actually more lax than the previous one. Well, there wasn’t any real need to be so vigilant because they weren’t too far from Canhu Town.
Besides Long Zaitian, who Emperor Yuansheng had a grudge with after the flooding incident, Dugu and Tie Hanyi had served Emperor Yuansheng for over a decade. Jumping over so many hurdles just to talk to his trusted aides in private was a sign their discussion was something secretive and important.
In front of Emperor Yuansheng were a small table and several bamboo slips. He carved the names of the various clans, associations and so forth he had encountered thus far onto the bamboo using a small knife.
“None of them are weak, especially Qian Clan and Tea Lake Manor. They’re so wealthy that they could rival Gold and Silver Sect’s wealth if they combined their wealth. Today was my first time meeting all of them.” Emperor Yuansheng opened his eyes and hiked up the corner of his lips: “Zhong Hualiu’s son Zhong Ming’s name is enough to have them come running to him? Hah, they must think I’m a fool.”
In a stifled voice, Long Zaitian opined, “Your Majesty, although Zhong Hualiu does have brothels all over the lands, he only has one son, the one who performed the act of treason and is now missing, Zhong Ning. Your subject has never heard of anyone called Zhong Ming. He is sure that punk made the name up.”
“It wasn’t a bad idea when we were attacked the other night, but it made me question things afterwards. Tie Hanyi, do you have something to say?”
Tie Hanyi bowed his head: “Indeed, it is bizarre, Your Majesty. Your subject scoured for information when we stopped for a break. He heard they received news Night Fortress’ master asked for a favour because he was on his way to Huzhou. The people who came with gifts were offering them to Night Fortress.”
“That’s what I heard from Miss Lyu. We can safely infer Zhong Hualiu is a fake and Master Ming is the real individual moving the pieces.” Emperor Yuansheng adopted his thinking pose: “The presents were delivered to Zhong Ming, though. Dugu, what’s your take?”
When Dugu touched his nose, his gaze changed: “I agree that there is something odd about him. When I entered the rundown shrine, I saw him interrogating Mountain Monster. Mountain Monster’s injuries did not seem fake, but Mountain Monster was slightly afraid of him. Based on what we have seen, Mountain Monster has not shown any sign of submitting even though she has surrendered. For her to fear him, there must be something about him we are unaware of.”
Emperor Yuansheng continued carving as he responded, “His surname coincides with Night Fortress’ master’s surname… He claims to be a disciple of Mount Daluo, yet I have never seen him use their skills. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence.”
Tie Hanyi: “That certainly is suspicious.”
“Do any of you know much about Night Fortress?”
For once, Long Zaitian looked serious and astute: “Jiangnan’s martial world’s power balance has changed drastically in recent years. The Seven Champion White Princes rose as our dynasty’s main force in the martial world. Howbeit, it got to a point where they could not keep up with their desire to expand. As such, various sects, or rather, sects not under any banner formed alliances to grow their influence.
“There were once a few gentlemen in the pugilistic who theorised who would raze Jiangnan’s martial world, rise from the ashes and replace the Seven Champion White Princes if the latter were no more. They deemed there were five possible factions in Jiangnan that could claim sovereignty over Jiangnan in that scenario based on the status quo in Jiangnan. The five of them were called Nan’s Ember Five Palaces. Among them, Night Fortress was ranked as having the biggest chance.
“The claim caused a huge stir, yet hardly anyone dared to get on their bad side for some reason. Not even the Seven Champion White Princes bothered with Night Fortress. Night Fortress’ master supposedly defeated anyone who challenged them. Sadly, nobody remembers what is considered small-scale fights. There is still no explanation as to how Night Fortress’ master has that much credibility.”
“He seems enigmatic…” Emperor Yuansheng nodded as he picked up a bamboo slip and carved small characters on. He continued, “Launch a thorough investigation into him. One, check his connection to Night Fortress. Two, see if you can authenticate his membership with Mount Daluo and knows their skills. Third, and most importantly, see if he is loyal to the imperial court. Irrespective of who a man is, if he’s not loyal to the imperial court, he can’t stay. Since he has connections with Jiangnan’s martial world, be very cautious when you investigate. If he shows any signs of designing treason, you have the authority to eliminate him!”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
The three characters Emperor Yuansheng carved were “Ming Feizhen”.