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Jaya, Anh, DongBin, Chua, you are welcome. Xiaohu, I think I agree with Hungry, it was you who keep mentioning Zhai Jiao, which leads me to believe that she holds a special place in your heart. Frankly, I am happy for you. As I said before, Huang Yi's women are all 'unparalleled' and 'touching', so it's refreshing to have 'normal' girl like Zhai Jiao. Sky, nope, not this time. Nutshell, perhaps they are distant cousin, from different family …

Book 19 Chapter 8 - Immortals Crossing The Sea

After changing into imperial guard uniforms, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling galloped their horses to Man Qing Yuan's main gate and shouted, "Has Miss Xiufang's carriage left?"

The guards at the door promptly open the gate and replied, "Two Guan Ye [master officers], Miss Xiufang is still making herself presentable, but the carriage is ready, it can leave any moment."

Putting on his official air, Kou Zhong said, "Show me the way!"

And then the two jumped off the horse, and followed the guard leading the way into the inner courtyard. Along the way Kou Zhong indirectly made inquiries, and very quickly he found out the procedure Shang Xiufang took whenever she went out to a party, including the number attendants that usually came with her, so he made a plan in his heart.

The sky was still dark with the clouds, but no rain. The suffocating atmosphere was so depressing, even the flowers and plants and the trees in the courtyard seemed to lose their color.

By the time they arrived at the small courtyard where Shang Xiufang was staying, her more than a dozen attendants were busy wiping the carriage and the horses in preparation to set off.

After sending the guard away, Kou Zhong pulled the leader of the attendants, a man called Bai Sheng, to the side and said, "Xuanying Taizi [crown prince] specially sent us here to protect Miss Xiufang. Bai Xiong ought to know about incidents that happened frequently in the Eastern Capital!"

Bai Sheng looked at the two men up and down for a moment before saying, "Two officers' faces look very unfamiliar."

Pretending to be very mysterious, Kou Zhong lowered his voice and said, "These days we were with Xuanshu Gongzi in Yanshi on business, that's why we rarely meet each other. But last time Miss Xiufang went to Shangshu Mansion, didn't I see Bai Xiong? It's just that I was on guard duty inside the Mansion. I still remember Miss Xiufang's first song, 'young Gongzi bears much favor' something like that. Hey! I only remember that one line, I forgot the rest!"

He was telling the truth, Ba Sheng's misgivings vanished completely. But he was still frowning when he said, "I also heard about the Eastern Capital not being too safe. Xuanying Taizi is indeed considerate, but Miss usually does not like ostentatious display. If two officers are escorting on either side, I am afraid Miss will be displeased."

Standing on the side, Xu Ziling was amused inwardly, thinking that with more than a dozen attendants escorting at the front and rear, wouldn't it be ostentatious display? But this Bai Sheng was obviously only making excuses. Or perhaps Miss Shang Xiufang wanted to give the impression that she was ordinary people, hence was unwilling to be openly associated with government officials.

This was precisely what Kou Zhong wanted. Patting Bai Sheng's shoulder, he said, "That's easy, we'll take off our uniforms, and we can follow the party from a distance!"

Bai Sheng had nothing more to say, he had to agree.

This moment, Shang Xiufang, in splendid attire, helped by two pretty maids, came out. Hastily Kou Zhong 'tactfully' pulled Xu Ziling aside. He spoke in heavy voice, "Now, if we could pass the Imperial City's main entrance, we would be like the immortals crossing the sea!"

※ ※ ※

Shang Xiufang's entourage went out of Man Qing Yuan, heading toward the Imperial City.

Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong brought up the rear, putting on an act of looking forward and back cautiously. Everybody constantly looking up to the sky, afraid that the accumulated moisture in the air would turn into heavy rain at any moment, hence subconsciously they increased their speed.

They have not gone far when from the rear came the sound of hoof beats. Being on guard, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling looked back, and immediately they groaned inwardly. Because the ones running after them were unexpectedly Li Shimin, Pang Yu, Zhangsun Wuji and Yuchi Jingde, four men.

The only thing they could do at this moment was to pray to Heaven, hoping that Li Shimin did not know every single one of Shang Xiufang's attendants; otherwise their identity would be unmasked.

Li Shimin and the others were not like Bai Sheng at all; how could they be easily deceived?

The two promptly separated to the front and the rear, while also applying their internal strength to restraint the essence of their qi, and hunching their back a little, so that they would not arouse Li Shimin and the others' alertness. Inwardly they were glad that if they were not riding on the horse, merely their tall and straight physiques would easily attract the enemy's attention.

Taking the lead Li Shimin was the first to pass them, but it seemed like his mind was on other important matters, he did not cast a single glance toward the two boys. One after another Bai Sheng and the others saluted, but Li Shimin only nodded and smiled in return. Pang Yu and the others followed Li Shimin closely, they did not pay any attention to the two boys either.

As he reached the carriage, Li Shimin slowed down to match the vehicle's speed; he said, "Miss Xiufang, how are you? Shimin is late!"

The two cheered inwardly. Turned out Li Shimin has agreed to come with Shang Xiufang to the Palace.

After returning the greeting from behind the hanging curtain of the carriage, Shang Xiufang spoke in astonishment, "Qin Wang has always been punctual, why did you unexpectedly arrive late today? Siufang has no intention to blame at all, just curious!"

Li Shimin looked up at the pitch-black sky, he rode silently by the carriage's side for quite a while before sighing and said, "Miss Xiufang, do you happen to remember Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling?"

Riding at the back, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling pricked up their ear and listened carefully. Hearing Li Shimin mentioning their names to Shang Xiufang, they were greatly interested. On one hand, they were wondering what Li Shimin coming late had to do with them; on the other hand, they also wished to know how this beauty and skillful-in-art beauty would respond.

Shang Xiufang suddenly went silent. It was quite a while later that she started to speak gently, "About Kou Zhong! Twice has Xiufang had the destiny to sit with him on the same banquet table. He made quite an impression on me, I always feel that his personality traits are different from other people. As for Xu Ziling! I only caught a glimpse of him from a distance at the Tingliu Pavilion; I haven't had any opportunity to know him. Could it be that Qin Wang is coming late because of them?"

Her voice was suave, pleasant to listen to, and straightforward. The most attractive aspect was that within her intonation, there was some kind of seeing-through-the-worldly-affairs free-and-easy and languid feeling. This moment, since no one could see her but could only listen to her singing voice, that feeling was even more intense.

Through the cadence and rhythm of her intonation, the listeners could also make associative connection to, as well as reflect on, her touching singing voice. In the melancholy of sorrow and sighing swaying gently across the desolate desert and lowly plains, there was a trace of joy that all things are looking forward to, creating an extremely unique charm.

Smiling wryly, Li Shimin said, "Does Miss Xiufang know that Shimin and they were originally good friends, but now we have become mortal enemy that must fight between life and death?"

"Ah!" Shang Xiufang cried out tenderly. It was quite a while later that she spoke in low voice, "In that case, was it because of this matter that in recent days Qin Wang's body and mind are always occupied?"

Li Shimin did not give her straight answer; changing the subject, he said, "Just now I was rushing about for them, turns out it was just a misunderstanding."

Surprised, Shang Xiufang asked, "Isn't Kou Zhong working for Wanggong?"

Li Shimin sighed and said, "That was something in the past. Miss Xiufang should not let the you-hoodwink-me-and-I-cheat-you of the mundane world contaminating your ears."

Appearing to be probing further, Shang Xiufang said, "Although those two have outstanding martial art skill, and both are exceptional heroes, but if they wanted set themselves against Qin Wang, aren't they overestimating their capabilities too much?"

The sound of hoof beats changed as the carriage and horses entered the main street along the river leading toward the Imperial City.

Boats and ships coming and going along the Luo River, vehicles and horses streaming continuously along the street; water and land traffic set each other off nicely.

Because of her touching voice, everybody seemed to forget the darkened sky.

Li Shimin breathed out a sigh and said, "These two men cannot be described simply by their outstanding martial art skill. They may be the most talented, peerless martial art masters since the beginning of history. Rarer still, they are both intelligent and brave. Therefore, until today, nobody is able to do anything to them. Even Li Mi, who wanted them dead, finally fell head first under their hands. From this, you can infer the rest of the story."

The tone of his voice was brimming with high level of frustration and injury, giving the impression that he valued and treasured these two formidable opponents very much.

From the way he esteemed his adversary, one could see his broad vision and positive outlook, as someone who would not deliberately disparage his opponents.

A peculiar feeling emerged in Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling's hearts; they never expected Li Shimin to think this highly of them. No wonder by hook or by crook, Li Shimin collaborated with Wang Shichong to annihilate them.

Shang Xiufang asked in low voice, "Are they still in the Eastern Capital nowadays?"

"That is very hard to tell," Li Shimin replied, "When those two are conspiring in the dark, everybody feels that it is difficult to guard against and plan countermeasure!"

This moment the entourage has reached the Chengfu Gate. The guards at the gate all raised their spears in salute, letting the entourage sped through the gate.

Finally Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were able to put down their high-strung heart.

Li Shimin and Shang Xiufang stopped talking. Under escort of the imperial bodyguards, they passed by Taichang [Minister of Ceremonies] Ministry and the Sinong [agriculture] Ministry, and turned left in front of the Shangshu Mansion, entering the Dong Taiyang Gate, following the horse path along the inside wall of the Palace City, straight toward the Heavenly Gate, the main gate of the inner palace, and entered the imposing and grand Palace City.

Inside the Palace City, the halls were interlinked with each other, balconies stood in great numbers. All palace halls had high walls on all sides, with portals between the walls, so that the halls were like interconnected chain.

This was the first time Xu Ziling set his foot inside the Palace City. Although last time Kou Zhong was escaping into the Palace City, he was like viewing flowers from horseback, plus he was not in the mood to enjoy the scenery, hence they both felt that this was an eye-opener occasion.

Just by looking at this Heavenly Gate, they could see how much manpower and physical resources the Emperor Yang of Sui threw away to build this city.

To the left and right of this gate were imperial city watchtowers, which reached twelve zhang high, supplemented by battlement storied-building. The gateway was more than ten zhang deep, with eaves and corners sticking out. The walls and the imperial city watchtowers reflected each other, and thus bringing out the towering and magnificent main part of the Palace.

Upon entering the gate, they arrived at an intersection; on the central axis there were altogether three gates and two palace halls. The gates were Yongtai Gate, Qianyang Gate, and Daye Gate. The palace halls were Qianyang, and Daye.

Qianyang Palace Hall was the main hall of the Palace City, where ceremonies and reception of foreign diplomats were being held.

A multi-storied building was built above the Qianyang Gate, with tall pavilion and the corridor all around it, extending to the east and west, circling the wide-open space outside the main hall. This moment there were already several groups of vehicles and horses parked outside the palace hall's gate; evidently an event was being held inside the palace hall.

Qianyang Hall was worthy to be called the chief among various palace halls. The foundation itself reached several zhang high, from the ground to the owl-tail shaped of the top of the palace hall was nearly twenty zhang. The tall pavilion corridors all around were full of imperial bodyguards; the security was very tight. There were large wells left and right of the front courtyard of the palace hall to supply water for the sacrificial offering of the imperial palace. The southeast corner of the front courtyard, there was a multi-storied building facing south, where a bell and a drum were hung. Downstairs was a water clock, which at some point would toll the bell and beat the drum to indicate the correct time.

In itself, the style and structure of the Palace Hall was even grander; there were thirteen lateral spaces between two pairs of pillars, twenty nine frames, three-step pavilion with a view, twenty large pillars on all sides, finely carved door sills, snow-white crossbeams and elegant pillars, hanging down ceiling in the shape of a lotus, bright color like flowing flying rainbow, dazzling to the eye. [Translator's note: all these are beyond my ability to translate properly. Those of you with better understanding of the text, please feel free to offer your help.]

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