Chapter 7 - Assassination Operation
Kou Zhong's proposal to assassinate Rong Fengxiang was not a spur-of-the-moment emotion, but an action after careful deliberations.
Rong Fengxiang's, which was actually the old demon Pi Chen - position was dubious; he unceasingly struck water right and left [idiom: reaping benefit from both sides], separately colluding with two major powers of the demonic schools. Furthermore, in general terms, it could be said that he controlled the commerce organizations of the north [i.e. north of the Yellow River]; his influence on the political and economic situation was certainly no small matter.
If Kou Zhong did not remove this person, he would definitely eat bitter fruit in the future. But to kill Rong Fengxiang in Luoyang was like pinching flea or louse on the tiger's head. As the biggest gang on the north, Luo Shui Bang's power was solid [note: previously it was Luoyang Bang].
The other day they were able to drive Shangguan Long down from his position, it was because they were successful in uncovering his identity as Yin Gui demon, and within that delicate situation, they only launched one strike and were successful.
With his many years' experience in running business in the gambling industry, his image as the hegemon has entered deeply into the people's hearts; simple rumors would not be effective against him.
Were it not for the face-and-heart-do-not-match situation between he and Wang Shichong, plus Kou Zhong previously revealed to Wang Shichong that Rong Fengxiang was harboring unfathomable motives, plus Wang Shichong had some kind of conspiracy going on with Kou Zhong, even if they successfully assassinated Rong Fengxiang, afterwards, their only way out was to run away as far as possible.
Kou Zhong, Xu Ziling and Tuli craned their necks from behind the slope of the roof ridge, looking into the distance toward the brightly lit Man Qing Yuan across the street.
In this kind of situation, they felt like it was an easy drive on a familiar path, the feeling was like history was constantly repeating itself.
Kou Zhong spoke in low voice, "If we don't enter Man Qing Yuan from the main gate, and we don't drink with the hundred prostitutes inside, we ought not stir up our brothel bad luck, right?"
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling responded, "Tell me, how should I answer you?"
Kou Zhong lightly elbowed Tuli on his left, saying, "Your brothel luck is certainly better than ours, why don't you plan the operation?"
Knitting his brows, Tuli said, "I am accustomed to use saber and spear openly on the battlefield. Although I am no stranger to ambush and sudden assault, this kind of assassinating-one-person-among-the-crowd-of-martial-art-masters, at-banquet-under-brilliant-lights, I have no idea what to do. I'm afraid we'll have to rely on your, LaoGe's brains."
Kou Zhong turned to Xu Ziling, "Ling Shao, do you have any good idea?"
Xu Ziling spoke heavily, "Assassination is nothing more than examining the situation, making the approach, and launching surprise attack, three major steps. Examining the situation is undertaken by Old Fu, the last step of launching surprise attack naturally falls unto the two of us to operate the saber. The only thing remains now is the crucial point of how to get close to Rong Fengxiang."
Tuli was not offended that Xu Ziling only included himself and Kou Zhong in the execution of the assassination, simply because the tacit understanding between Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong has already reached the seamless heavenly clothes realm, and it has been well known throughout the world.
Frowning, Kou Zhong thought aloud, "If we say this matter is difficult, it is not; but if we say it's easy, it's not either. If there were any confusion during the time they are leaving their seats to propose a toast, our operation would be a lot more convenient."
Tuli was accustomed to this kind of banquet occasions; shaking his head, he said, "Usually the host proposes a toast to everybody present, and then the representative of each group of the guests would respond, so it's unlike a birthday celebration of wedding reception, where every table proposes a toast to express their thanks."
With a light gust of wind, Fu Qian - wearing black tight nightwalker outfit - came to Xu Ziling's side and said, "I don't know whether Rong Fengxiang already guessed that you guys can't possibly let him get away, but not only he is deploying his men to guard every major gateway inside the courtyard, he also has two rough-faced men by his side. Looking at their bearing and mannerism, I have no doubt that they are martial art masters. Do we still want to take the risks?"
Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Wangzi, please don't tease me. Just by looking at your attire, I know that you will be the first to refuse to shrink back."
Fu Qian laughed cheerfully and said, "Fortunately Mofei is attending the banquet tonight on my behalf. Therefore, we could completely grasp the situation of the assassination site through him. I have two proposals for three gentlemen's considerations."
And then he produced a roll of diagram showing the layout of the banquet site, complete with the tables' position and the location of the doors and windows. Although it was simple, it was enough to be recognized at a glance.
Fu Qian said, "If Shao Shuai and Ziling Xiong have enough confidence to take Rong Fengxiang's dog life within a brief face-to-face moment, we could use thunderbolt-fails-to-reach-the-ears method to forcefully crash our way into the banquet hall. With Tuli and I pinning down the martial art masters by his side, Shao Shuai then could pair with Ziling to go all-out to kill the Old Demon Rong."
"Why not wait until he left and assassinate him on the street?" Tuli asked.
"That thought did cross my mind," Fu Qian replied, "Problem is, he came by a horse, presumably he will also leave by riding a horse. At that time his men would crowd around him, left and right, front and rear, so it will only become a chaotic battle."
Kou Zhong suddenly asked, "Is Rong Yaonu attending the banquet?"
Fu Qian shook his head, "No, she isn't," he replied, "Other than Wang Shichong, father and sons, everybody with head and face in Luoyang is here, including Wang Shichong's trusted aides Lang Feng and Song Mengqiu."
Xu Ziling said, "Crashing forcefully and launching surprise attack are a way-in-the-midst-of-no-way, it's not exactly without any choice, and definitely not simply taking a risk. Rong Fengxiang is ranked among the Eight Major Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Way, his demonic power is profound, the worst thing is that we have not grasped clearly what is true and what is false of his foundation; on top of that, he is on elevated vigilance, once we failed, they might take advantage of us instead. What is Fu Xiong's other proposal?"
Fu Qian replied, "The other scheme is disguising ourselves as the servers holding up the meat dishes and delivering them into the banquet hall. If anybody recognizes us, we gain the initiative by striking him down first. As long as we can sneak in, we will see the opportunity and act to carry out the grand plan."
Kou Zhong cheerfully said, "That's the best scheme to my liking. Let's do it this way."
Xu Ziling's gaze fell on the diagram spread out on the roof. Frowning, he said, "Rong Fengxiang and Mohe'er's main table is located at the north end, while the servers bringing the food in will enter from the south end. From the entrance to the main table, there is at least a twenty-pace distance. Do you think we could hide from Old Demon Rong's overly suspicious eyes that long?"
The banquet hall was located at the southern end of the Ting Liu Pavilion. The doors and windows on the north end were facing the square garden with the big fishpond right in the middle, where Kou Zhong defeated Shangguan Long. But because Luo Shui Bang was guarding that side, to enter in with the-gods-did-not-know, the-ghosts-did-not-perceive would be quite an impossibility. Even if the four of them changed their appearance, due to their outstanding builds, it would be a joke for them to pretend to be the servants who delivered the food. Hence the reason Fu Qian proposing to gain the initiative by striking first and see the opportunity and act accordingly.
The key was to get as close as possible without being noticed.
Fu Qian said, "We have to create a situation where everybody's attention is drawn away from us, only then would our disguise have a chance of success."
Kou Zhong smiled and said, "I have an idea!"
The Ting Liu Pavilion of Man Qing Yuan's imposing style came from its structure, which consisted of four high-rise buildings linked together with open space in the middle, creating magnificent scene, which other pleasure houses could not imitate.
Since Man Qing Yuan belonged to the Luo Shui Bang, assassinating the Luo Shui Bang's big boss in such a place was akin to penetrate a tiger cave deeply to steal the tiger cub. One wrong step would result in exposing their track, and then they would fall into the enemy's heavy siege that would be difficult to escape. Fortunately Fu Qian was a big grand guest at Man Qing Yuan; he was accustomed to spending the night here in music and song. Under the current situation this evening, although he did not appear personally, he could still reserve, via his subordinate - a room on the upper floor, north of and adjacent to Rong Fengxiang's banquet room.
If they jumped down from the window facing the pond, they could go through the window into the corridor and enter the room where Rong Fengxiang was sitting with his back toward the window, to launch a surprise attack.
Following the plan, Fu Qian's men already notified the manager of Man Qing Yuan not to send anybody in unless they were called in, hence Fu Qian and Kou Zhong were able to calmly entered the empty room, waiting for the arrival of the assassination moment.
The two looked down through the window, and saw a total of eight warriors guarding and patrolling the half corridor of the lower level, every one of them looked as if they were facing powerful enemy. This gave them big headache, because concealing their movement in entering in and executing their assassination operation from these eight martial art masters' eyes and ears was an absolute impossibility.
As soon as Rong Fengxiang realized what was going on, the assassination would fail.
Luckily they had another brilliant scheme; otherwise, they would have beaten the return drum at this moment. Fu Qian spoke in low voice, "Right now they ought to serve the fourth course. Man Qing Yuan's honored guest banquets altogether have nine courses. It would be best if we wait until Rong Fengxiang has finished eating and drinking until he's full and intoxicated, so that the punishment would be a bit more convenient, and when he died, he would not become a hungry ghost."
Inside their darkened room, Kou Zhong smiled and said, "I never thought Fu Qian Xiong is so funny."
His gaze fell onto the pond in the garden, remembering the day when, under the crowd's eyes he put his divine might on full display as he defeated Shangguan Long in just several moves. Ten-thousand-fathom heroic feeling bubbling forth in his heart, he said, "Luo Shui Bang may be destined to meet their end at the Ting Liu Pavilion of Man Qing Yuan, otherwise, how could their two successive Bangzhu fall head first in here?"
Sensing Kou Zhong's strong confidence, Fu Qian responded with a smile, but did not say anything.
Kou Zhong casually asked, "Fu Qian Xiong's trip this time, other than to find Shi Zhixuan to settle the account, is there any other purpose?"
Fu Qian replied, "While I am at it, I need to look at the situation in the Central Plains. Presently, our Tuyuhun's greatest danger is from the Eastern Tujue Xieli Khan. This man has enormous ambition, his method is savage, and is extremely difficult to deal with."
Delighted, Kou Zhong said, "Tuli Khan should be an unexpected reward for Wangzi!"
Under the moonlight from the outside penetrating the window, Fu Qian's eyes were flickering brightly; he spoke in heavy voice, "If Tuli can return to the Khanate Court, he will be the crucial point for the Eastern Tujue, which is in decline due to the split. Apart from Xieli, Tuli is the Khan of the Eastern Tujue with the most power; he himself is an unrivalled commander-in-chief, with elite troops and good generals serving under him. Therefore, no matter how much price I have to pay, I simply must protect him to return to the north safely."
It was only then did Kou Zhong understand why Fu Qian would disregard everything in helping them to deal with Rong Fengxiang. Not only it was because of shady relationship between Rong Fengxiang and Shi Zhixuan, but also because killing Rong Fengxiang was tantamount to severing Shi Zhixuan's eyes and ears in the north, so that it would be difficult for Xieli's side to find out that Tuli was returning to the Khanate Court.
Fu Qian spoke heavily, "In the north, Xieli is not without any opponent. While admittedly the Western Tujue are at loggerheads with them, there are also various Chile tribes on the north, among these are Xue Yantuo and Huihe, two big tribes, who are quite rich and powerful these days. Currently although on the surface they pay tribute to Xieli year after year, but Xieli is avaricious and insatiable; he constantly demands for more. As soon as the Tujue is internally unstable, these two tribes would probably raise their arms to revolt. Therefore, I very much agree with Shao Shuai's analysis; no matter how, Xieli would use a thousand ways, a hundred plans, not to let Tuli returning alive, all because he holds the key to the entire Eastern Tujue's rise and fall."
Sucking in a mouthful of cold air, Kou Zhong said, "Turns out unexpectedly Ling Shao and I are being drawn into such an important struggle outside our country."
And yet, he could not help asking, "Aren't your Tuyuhun in the Qinghai region, outside Yongzhou and Liangzhou on the western border? With the Eastern Tujue you are at least separated by the Western Tujue; why do you still have such misgivings toward the Eastern Tujue?"
Fu Qian replied, "In the long run, I am afraid Eastern and Western Tujue might be unified under Xieli. In the short term, I am afraid Xieli would directly attack us via your Han people's northwest territory, in which case there won't be any barrier at all."
After a short pause, he smiled and went on, "Frankly speaking, if you, Han people, grow strong, you might become our barrier, and then I would not need to mobilize the weapons of war. Otherwise, we might have to take the initiative by striking first by expanding our territory toward the Central Plains, by capturing Wuwei, Zhangye, Dunhuang [all these three in Gansu province], that kind of fortified strategic towns, in order to combat Tujue's elite cavalry. Therefore, I must personally come to the Central Plains to set a policy for the future. Whether you and us can live together in harmony, it will depend on you!"
This moment Tuli's full-of-power-and-grandeur voice rang on the lower level. The two promptly lowered their hood to completely cover their face, exposing only their pair of eyes, focusing their attention and storing up their momentum to wait quietly.
The moment Tuli entering the south hall of the Ting Liu Pavilion has been carefully calculated; not only he appeared suddenly, it was also during the energetic song and vigorous dancing, during the fifth course of the banquet.
By this time the wine has been flowing freely, the atmosphere has been pushed to the highest peak.
The precise moment when the eighteen members of singing and dancing troupe, dressed like colorful butterfly, in lithe and graceful postures, were stepping in cadence with the music, like a clump of rosy clouds - were retreating toward the main door, Tuli suddenly appeared on the main door. With the Subduing-Eagle Spear on his back, with imposing attitude full of mighty beauty and heroic aura, he immediately attracted the attention of over a hundred guests inside the hall.
The beautiful female entertainers departed from his left and right. The Luo Shui Bang martial art masters guarding the door were intimidated by his imposing momentum; moreover, since they recognized him as Tuli Khan, nobody dared to stop him.
In such a big hall, there were altogether eighteen banquet tables; each table seated about ten people. The round tables were distributed on all four sides, leaving a wide, empty space in the middle as the song and dance venue.
Rong Fengxiang and Mohe'er sat on the main banquet table, located to the north of the main door, about thirty paces away from the entrance.
Throwing his head back, Tuli let out a shaking-the-heaven long laugh, before speaking in loud and clear voice, "Rong Laoban [boss] please forgive Tuli for turning up uninvited, simply because I hear that Cishe is here. Not only I am impatient to see him, I also want to come to join the fun."
Rong Fengxiang immediately revealed an alert, be-on-guard expression. But Mohe'er, greatly surprised, immediately stood up and said with delight, "When did Khan arrive?"
Mohe'er was only of medium build, about twenty-six, twenty-seven years old, but he looked very much thick and solid. His face square [orig. looks like a 国 'guo' (country) character], yet full of neatly trimmed short iron-needle-like beard, which extended to the edge of his temples; his eyes deep, his nose high, his eyes were sparkling spiritedly, he carried quite a domineering aura.
The four men who came with him also stood up from the two banquet tables on the left and right to pay their respects, further distinguishing Tuli's honorable identity.
Only then did Rong Fengxiang stand up to salute. Flaunting his poise as the host, he chuckled and said, "Khan honored us with your presence, Rong Fengxiang welcomes you too late, I am the one who should be punished."
Tuli swept his gaze around. He found out that among the guests in the hall, he had seen most of them before. Wang Shichong's trusted aides, the high-ranking military officer Lang Feng and Song Mengqiu were sitting on the main table. Meeting Tuli's penetrating, acute eyes, they forced themselves to smile and cup their fist to salute.
Tuli only smiled in return. His attention fell to the other two men. These two separately sat on two banquet tables to Rong Fengxiang's left and right. From their tables' point of view, they could watch the door and windows on the north and south, two sides. When their eyes met Tuli's, immediately they emitted fierce and severe look, a clear sign that not only they knew that Tuli did not come with friendly intention, they were also amassing their power, ready to deal with any sudden change.
Tuli was a hundred-percent sure that these two were demonic school's men, simply because just like Rong Fengxiang, their eyes emitted a different, heretical flavor.
This moment the servants bringing the soup entered the hall, one after another. Xu Ziling's voice rang inside Tuli's ears, "Old friend! It's time!"
Immediately Tuli straightened his spine. Patting the Subduing Eagle Spear on his back, he strode forward toward the main banquet table. Shaking his head, he sighed and said, "Rong Laoban really knows how to play dumb. You practically knew when this Khan arrived in Loyang, yet you pretended not to know. Indeed you must be punished."
The originally whispering guests immediately quieted down so that in the hall, the crow and peacock made no sound, leaving only the sound of the servers' footstep around the hall.
Anybody could see that Tuli's visit was not as simple as joining the fun. Stunned, Mohe'er stared at Tuli; his eyes shot him a questioning look.
The divine light in Rong Fengxiang's eyes severely flared up; knitting his brows, he said, "What does Khan mean?"
All attentions, including those two supposedly demonic school's Laojun Guan [Taoist Monastery] martial art masters - were focused on Tuli, nobody noticed Xu Ziling, disguised as a lowly servant - entering the hall from the south.
Wearing Kou Zhong's ugly-man mask, Xu Ziling concealed his handsome face; he had stricken one of the servants at the least expected moment, and pulled him into a secluded place, and swapped his clothes with his. Taking advantage while everybody in the kitchen was the-sky-grew-dim-the-earth-darkened busy, he crossed the sea by a trick [idiom: to achieve one's aim by underhanded means] and mingled among the servers bringing in the dishes, carrying a tray of boiling-hot soup into the banquet hall.
He did not pick his victim randomly. The servant he selected to be replaced [lit. the plum tree withers in place of the peach tree: to substitute one thing for another] was not only the tallest, the section he served actually included Rong Fengxiang's main banquet table. As long as Tuli was able to catch the men on Rong Fengxiang's side's attention, even if there were others who realized that one of the servers was suddenly being replaced with a new one, they could not possibly grew suspicious all of a sudden.
Hanging his head low, Xu Ziling assumed a humble, did-not-dare-to-look-directly-at-people - respectful look. Upon entering the door, he avoided the center of the hall and headed toward the main banquet table by walking around the banquet tables.
He also restraint his power as much as possible, his footsteps were empty and floating. Even if someone paid him attention, he would think that this servant did not know martial art, hence he could not possibly be on guard against him.
In order to cover Xu Ziling, the real assassin, Tuli suddenly increased his pace ever so slightly; so slight that it was barely perceptible. Unless it was a martial art master, it would be very difficult to detect.
Rong Fengxian was naturally a martial art master; moreover, Tuli was coming straight toward him, inducing a reaction within him, so that he moved sideways a little to leave his seat and slightly moved backward. His expression turned fierce, he shouted coldly, "Khan has not answered me?"
Tuli secretly calculated the exact moment Xu Ziling would reach the attack position. Suddenly he stood still; throwing his head back, he let out a long laugh and said, "I wonder if Rong Laoban dare to answer one question from this Khan first."
This moment he was still about a dozen paces away from Rong Fengxiang, plus they were separated by a table and the guests who sat on the other side of the table; moreover, he still had not revealed any sign of flashing his weapon or using any force, therefore, there was no serious threat toward Rong Fengxiang. Yet the two Laojun Guan martial art masters, who were sitting on the left and right, two separate banquet tables, already arose and left their seat, and flashed away to stand behind Rong Fengxiang.
Anybody in the hall with a little bit of discerning eye would know that Tuli specifically came to pick a quarrel against Rong Fengxiang. Immediately the atmosphere was brimming with swords-drawn-and-bows-bent, fight-could-break-out-any-moment air.
Mohe'er was put into the most awkward situation. He was profoundly aware of Tuli's overbearing and brave style; whenever he wanted to deal with anybody, even the Tianwang Laozi [lit. old man, the king of heaven] would be unable to stop him.
None of the other guests in the main banquet hall was not either an old Jianghu figure, or rich, influential businessman; nobody was not afraid of the disaster falling into the fish in the moat. One by one they left their seat and moved aside; momentarily the situation was chaotic.
There was no shortage of leadership figures from the Luo Shui Bang, Tangzhu [hall master] level and above; more than a dozen men stood up at the same time with weapons in their hands, just waiting for Rong Fengxiang's order to surround the enemy.
Rong Fengxiang laughed aloud and said, "Khan's remark is extremely ridiculous; what question would I, Rong Fengxiang, be afraid to answer?"
Lang Feng, who had retreated to the side, looked all around. After failing to see Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, he interjected, "Everything can be discussed; if Khan has any grudge against Rong Laoban, we could ask our Lord to mediate, he will definitely be able to solve it."
Following Fu Qian's instruction, Xing Mofei, who was sitting on the third table to the right of the main table - maintained a low profile; he simply copied most of the other guests' action by remaining on his seat, quietly watching the changes.
This moment Xu Ziling already moved to stand behind Lang Feng and Song Mengqiu, hiding quietly, while secretly amassing his power. He only need to flash out, and would immediately occupy the optimum position to launch an attack.
The situation in the hall appeared to be chaotic, but in reality it was the situation where two troop formations were standing face-to-face against each other, and the line has been distinctly drawn.
With the two martial art masters from his own side protecting his left and right flanks, Rong Fengxiang occupied the position between the main banquet table and the north door leading into the square garden. The guests on the main banquet table retreated to the left and right to let the two sides have a clear view as they stood opposite each other, separated only by an empty banquet table.
As for the other leaders of Luo Shui Bang, none did not leave their seat. Although they have not rushed forth toward Tuli, who was standing in the middle of the hall, they were in position where they could rush forward to intercept in case Tuli launched an attack toward Rong Fengxiang.
From outside the main door, the seven or eight Luo Shui Bang martial art masters guarding the door also rushed inside; they stared at Tuli's majestic back with glaring eyes, ready to fight at any moment.
The guards on the north door originally wanted to enter the hall to protect their leader, but Rong Fengxiang signaled them to remain outside the north door to guard the half corridor, to guard against the enemy attacking from behind.
In addition to this, there were more than a dozen serving waiters who had no room either to advance or to retreat; they had no choice but to stand blankly. Among these was Xu Ziling, dressed as a servant, who was still holding the hot soup with both hands.
Tuli assumed a bewildered, not-sure expression; his crossbow-shaped eyes continuously sizing up the two demonic school martial art masters standing behind Rong Fengxiang to his left and right, but his mouth said, "Rong Laoban indeed has heroic spirit. Tell this Khan then, what actually is Rong Laoban's relationship with the 'Xie Wang' [demonic king] Shi Zhixuan?"
Apparently the vast majority of the people in the hall have never heard the name of Shi Zhixuan; they were all greatly astonished.
Rong Fengxiang's eyes narrowed. It was half a day later that he spoke word-by-word, "I have never heard this name 'Shi Zhixuan' before. Khan, why do you say such thing?"
Tuli's reaction was even more beyond everybody's expectation. Shrugging his shoulders, he laughed and said, "In this case, just consider it a misunderstanding. Please forgive this Khan for rudely crashing in the banquet."
Just like that, he turned around as if he was going to leave.
"Hold on!" Rong Fengxiang shouted sternly.