Chapter 31: The Fearful Vermilion Bird
Translator: Transn Editor: Transn
On the 6th year of Tianqi era, during wartime between the Tang Empire and the Yan Kingdom, the right-wing troops led by General Xia Hou missed their appointment. In the face of admonishment from the imperial court, Xia Hou defended himself by claiming that they were ambushed by Yan cavalry at Huangfeng Ridge, and his right-wing troops had to exterminate the enemy before setting out again, and that was how they were delayed.
What the people in Chang'an were unaware about was that, the Yan troops that Xia Hou's right-wing troops supposedly exterminated were border civilians of the empire who lived around the Huangfeng Ridge area. Several villages were wiped out by the right-wing troops, and the heads of the adult men were used by Xia Hou to pose as those of Yan cavalry leaders, so they could blame Yan Kingdom for the massacre.
The extermination of an entire village would top the headlines anywhere, especially at Tang Empire. The imperial court didn't necessarily buy Xia Hou's justification, and they did send competent investigators to verify the incident. However, by then the villages had been completely wiped out leaving no witnesses behind. Moreover, the investigators were not entirely clean either, so the imperial court ended up with the conclusion that Xia Hou was telling the truth after all.
As punishment for wiping out these villages, Yan Kingdom had to compensate Tang Empire with a large fertile territory of the Hexi Area, and even sent their crown prince as a hostage to ease the anger of Tang Empire. Nevertheless, not many had any idea of the cries of pain and injustice suffered by those villagers who were wrongfully slaughtered and burnt, nor did anybody know that a scrawny and dark-skinned young boy managed to escape from the village.
That boy was Zhuo Er.
He and Ning Que met at Min Mountain back in the days, where he left with a cultivator, until today.
"Hey! Which state have you achieved by now? Is it No Doubts State or Seethrough State?"
"Well, I didn't expect you'd have any idea about states of cultivation!"
"Sure, since cultivation is such a simple and silly thing anyway."
Actually, Ning Que just enjoyed showing off his newly acquired knowledge in front of a friend whom he hadn't seen for such a long time.
"Seethrough State my ass! My poor but dear master only barely managed to achieve No Doubts State on the day of his demise, and as of poor little me, I'm still struggling in the Initial State! I wouldn't need to go undercover if only I were more powerful!"
Ning Que looked at him with mocking face and said, "I don't understand what the poor old man saw in you back in the days, and I'm still intrigued that he insisted on taking a thick-skulled lad like you instead of me!"
To his surprise, Zhuo Er remained quiet for a long time and finally admitted. "In the end I've always wondered whether it would have been a better idea if my master took you with him rather than me, since you're so smart, and you wouldn't have ended up like me, still unable to get anywhere close to General Xia Hou after spending so many years in the army, and not even capable enough to get any valuable intelligence."
Looking at him quietly, Ning Que burst out laughing. "Who says you haven't got any valuable intelligence? At least we now know how many times Xia Hou goes to the toilet each day, don't we?"
"Well, such intelligence won't help towards killing him."
"It does help," said Ning Que with a serious face and looking right into his eyes. "On my way here, I killed one of Xia Hou's assassin crews, and it was all thanks to the intelligence you have gathered for me throughout these years."
Zhuo Er knew very well how strong these assassin crews were, and he looked at his young friend in shock, unable to fathom what kind of adventures he must have gone through over these seven years to be able to do that! However, he didn't voice his doubts and simply smiled as he asked, "So how does it feel to kill Xia Hou's people for the first time?"
"It feels good," remembering the way his podao was slashed, Ning Que answered slowly. Then he suddenly stared at Zhuo Er's dark face and frowned, saying, "It wouldn't be good if anyone found out about our relationship."
"Chang'an is huge, I don't suppose we would bump into the enemy anytime. But you must be clear about one thing. For those important people up there, no one of General's Mansion survived, nor did anyone escape from my village. Therefore, we're not supposed to exist, so who would ever pay attention to us anyway?"
"Now that I think about it, how did an assistant to the great General Xia Hou's chaperon end up becoming the number one bouncer of... what did you call it again?... the Gold Fish Gang?"
"I came back to the capital with my superior as he came to report his duties, but I didn't know that the military ministry asked to transfer me as a spy. Also, our gang is not the Goldfish gang, but the Fish-dragon Gang. My superior asked me to watch over our gang leader, because they suspected that he had some connection with the Yuelun Kingdom. As you know, many of the nobles of the imperial court have business affairs and even military shipments require the assistance of these gangs to manage and keep a good order of things. In that case, it would be a major crisis if they colluded with the enemy.
"Our gang leader?" Ning Que frowned at him and said, "This isn't a good sign, the way you refer to him shows that you respect this gang leader, and you're already seeing yourself as his top entourage. Blackie, you need to stay alert... even though I've never worked undercover, I've seen a lot of the sort, and I know very well that one should never become emotional when working undercover, because when you do, what awaits you is a horrible death."
"Our gang leader is a nice man." Zhuo Er lowered his head and stayed quiet for a long time, and then he looked at Ning Que and said with a sincere tone, "The truth is that, he probably already found out about my identity, and yet he hasn't done anything to me."
Before Ning Que could say any more, Zhuo Er raised his right hand firmly and refused, saying, "He's my big brother, and I respect him. You should say no more. Nevertheless, I'd like a favor from you. If anything ever happened to me in the future, I hope you could help me return my gratitude to my big brother, at your convenience."
Ning Que said nothing and looked at him quietly. He didn't know what his friend had gone through in the largest gang of Chang'an, but he could feel how serious and sincere Zhuo Er was at this moment, and he couldn't help but wonder what his big brother must be like, and what kind of gang leader would be so charismatic that Zhuo Er would worry about showing gratitude even after he died?
Towards the end of their first conversation after seven years, the two of them briefly told each other how they were doing.
Hearing about the assassination at the Northern Mountain Road, Zhuo Er was shocked and asked, "You had such a great chance to work with the princess, and you didn't do anything?! Even though her class may be way out of our league, if only you tried hard enough, I believe no one could turn you down!"
Shaking his head, Ning Que said firmly, "No way, Her Highness might look wise and resourceful, but she's really nothing but a naive and silly idiot. Following her lead could easily kill me."
They parted at the restaurant, and Ning Que and Sangsang left first. They asked for their way back again and again, and as they were just about to arrive at the market where their hostel was located, it started to rain.
Zoom! The big black umbrella spread open above them just like a black lotus, shielding them from the falling rain. Sangsang held the handle of the umbrella firmly and asked, "Why do you always call the princess an idiot? Isn't she a pretty nice person?"
"Really nice?" Ning Que looked at the path in the rain and shook his head slowly.
The Vermilion Bird Avenue leading straight towards the Imperial Palace in the north was originally grayish, but it turned black after being soaked in rain. It looked like a long, straight and black ribbon from Ning Que and Sangsang's point of view as they stood by the path, worn on the chest of the vast Chang'an, looking so pure and solemn that it was heart-throbbing. What stood out, in particular, was the Vermilion Bird portrait engraved in the center of the avenue, with its eyes glaring at them with such austerity, it almost felt like it could fly out from the rocks to exterminate them right away.
Both of them felt that ancient and fierce sense of vehemence, horror were seeping out from the greatest depths of their bodies, and as they held each other's hands, it felt so cold that they could hardly move an inch of their muscles.
So they stood by the path in great difficulty, under the shade of the big black umbrella, for God knows how long, and they didn't get their very consciousness back until the storm ceased, the sun shone upon the street, and the pedestrians reappeared.
Finally able to stare back, they found nothing out of the ordinary from the Vermilion Bird portrait deeply engraved on the royal path.