When they departed the Bamboo Tea House, Meng Zhi and Mei Changsu both left the way they had come, one in a green-cloth palanquin, and one riding a fiesty, tan horse, followed by a few imperial guards and two servants sent by Xie Bi. The entourage avoided the busy main streets, choosing to return by a quieter side street. When they left the small alley and arrived at a crossroad, one of the mounted soldiers of the imperial guard rode over to convey a message that the Emperor had summoned the commander into the palace. Meng Zhi hesitated a moment, but Mei Changsu had already drawn aside the curtain of his little palanquin to say, “I am much indebted to the commander’s great kindness, and now since there is this summons from His Majesty, I dare not disturb you any further, but will bid you farewell here, and come to thank you in person another day.”
“Mister Su is too modest.” Meng Zhi saluted, turned and ordered his imperial guards to carefully escort Su Zhe back to the Xie residence, then bid his farewells and rode away towards the palace.
He had ridden a good distance when Meng Zhi suddenly remembered that the set of uniform he kept in the duty room had lost the jade pendant on its belt, and though it wasn’t very obvious, this was a royal summons to see the Emperor and appearances were very important, so he slowed his horse, preparing to order the guard who had passed along the message to go to the commander’s residence to bring him a new belt, but when he turned around, he discovered that the messenger was nowhere in sight, and suddenly, a great suspicion rose in his heart. He took in everyone riding beside him at a glance, and they were all indeed his own people, but the messenger had bowed low to the ground when delivering his message and only spoken a few words, and so he had not look at him very closely, and now that he thought about it, it was very likely that it had been someone else masquerading as an imperial messenger.
If this summons to the court was false, it would be discovered as soon as he entered the palace gate, which meant that the objective of the enemy was not any harm aimed at himself, but was merely to lure him away from the main target¹.
At this point, Meng Zhi’s heart sank, and he hurriedly turned his horse and raced back along the road he had just ridden, whipping and urging his horse faster as he shouted with his inner strength for those in his path to move aside, cursing the fact that he had not been born with wings and hoping that Mei Changsu had not come to any harm.
When he arrived at the crossroad where they had parted, it had long since become deserted, and as there were two different paths leading away to the Xie residence, Meng Zhi halted and turned his horse in several circles, unable to decide which way he should take, and he was just standing there at a loss when, suddenly, muffled shouts drifted from a distance, picked up by his keen hearing. After quickly pinpointing their location and distance, Meng Zhi sprang off his saddle onto the flat roofs of the nearby buildings, and with a few nimble steps, his figure flew through the air like an arrow leaving its bow, and a few moments later, he had arrived at the chaotic scene, and as he glanced around, his heart filled with fear and fury.
Mei Changsu’s little palanquin lay on its side on the road, the roof of the palanquin shattered into powder on the pavement, and the porter and attendants lay around it, whether unconscious or dead it was hard to tell, and even the few guards he had personally left behind were no exception. In the center of the street, Fei Liu was exchanging furious blows with a person dressed in yellow, their fighting strokes so ferocious that the guards standing around had no chance to join the fight.
Meng Zhi had no time to look any closer and quickly scanned the road all around him, but found no trace of Mei Changsu, and in a frenzy of worry, he leapt down with a shout, sending out his fiery ‘Waterfall of Light’ and preparing to join Fei Liu in bring down the enemy. But who could have expected that, although this move made the enemy hurriedly retreat away, Fei Liu was extremely unhappy and immediately turned and raised his wrist to block it.
“It’s me!” Meng Zhi knew that if he started fighting with Fei Liu now, it would give the enemy the perfect opportunity to escape, but Fei Liu was simple in nature and often made errors in judgement, so he didn’t waste any time with words but quickly flipped over to the other side to block the yellow-robed person’s escape route.
Fei Liu saw him go and didn’t pursue, but turned again and sent another wave of attacks against the person in yellow. He had switched targets twice in the blink of an eye, but the whole process had been natural and smooth, his breathing showing no sign of disturbance, and the yellow-robed person couldn’t help letting out a sound of surprise.
Meng Zhi had already shifted his position, and was about to enter into the fight again when he suddenly heard a faint call off to one side, “Meng dage….” When he turned to look, it was Mei Changsu, standing under the eaves of a building on the adjoining street, beckoning him over, and when he looked a little closer, he realized it was a spot which had been obscured by another building from the view of the rooftop he had been standing on before, which was why he had not immediately noticed Mei Changsu there.
He bounded over and grabbed Mei Changsu’s wrist for a quick inspection, then looked him up and down, and seeing that, though his face was pale as white jade, he didn’t seem to have suffered any new injuries, he finally let out a sigh of relief.
“Fei Liu is in no danger at the moment, don’t get involved for now,” Mei Changsu said lowly, his gaze locked on the two figures flying around the street.
“I’m glad you’re alright. With Fei Liu’s skills, I’m not worried….” Meng Zhi broke off abruptly. Just now, he had been too anxious, and when the person in yellow retreated so quickly after his appearance, he had not paid much attention to his fighting skill, but now, on closer examination, he was quickly growing alarmed.
With Fei Liu’s talent, he could easily be counted among the top ten experts in the world, though where exactly on the list he should be placed it was hard to say, as Xuanjing Officer Xia Dong herself had lost to him, and even he himself, the so-called first-ranked martial arts expert in Da Liang, could not afford to be distracted or careless but had to put in all his energy and strength whenever he fought against the youth. So who could have thought that this ordinary-looking person in yellow could actually hold his own against the full strength of Fei Liu’s attacks?
Mei Changsu looked on silently for a few moments, then his brow furrowed as he made up his mind, and he exchanged a glance with Meng Zhi, confirming that they had reached the same conclusion, before stepping forward and saying in a clear voice, “General Tuoba, you have come from afar to be our guest, it’s alright to exchange a few moves, but now that Commander Meng Zhi is here, why not stop and let us find a place to talk?”
The person in yellow had been found out, and hearing that the person he had just exchanged blows with was Meng Zhi, he knew that even if he kept fighting and defeated this nameless young expert, it would do him no good, and so he could only step back and retreat from the fight. Fei Liu, hearing Mei Changsu’s voice, also did not continue attacking, but stood still, glaring at the yellow-robed person with his fierce, cold gaze.
Knowing that the person before him was the much revered third-ranked martial arts expert of the Lang Ya Lists, Meng Zhi purposefully walked out in front, putting Mei Changsu behind him, and cupped his hand in greeting, saying, “General Tuoba, the emissaries of your honorable nation have left our capital many days ago, how is it that the general has chosen this time to grace us with your presence?”
Tuoba Hao stood there silently, and because he was wearing a mask over his face, his expression could not be seen, but after a brief cold silence, he raised his fist to his chest and bowed. “The embassy of my country returned in defeat from your noble nation, and Baili Qi, the brave warrior handpicked by our fourth prince, received a hard lesson at the hands of this Mister Su, and is still missing to this day, and I would have no face indeed if I did not come myself for a look around.”
Hearing this, Mei Changsu said with a smile, “Could it be that the general has come this time to teach me a lesson on behalf of Warrior Baili? In that case, you have truly wronged me, at the time, I tried a hundred ways to decline, but I could not defy an imperial order, and the officials of your honorable nation spoke up and aroused the situation, and so I could only reluctantly oblige with a few of my little tricks. I must humbly beg the general’s great forgiveness.”
Tuoba Hao scoffed coldly. “I tested Baili Qi’s martial arts before he left. So before I came, I also said that you had no real martial art skill, but had merely resorted to tricks to gain a victory, but after today’s fight….” He glanced over at Fei Liu. “To have such an expert by your side as a nameless bodyguard, I think you must have some outstanding talent.”
Mei Changsu smiled ruefully. “Fei Liu is still young, how could he be a worthy opponent for General Tuoba? And if I had any outstanding talent, I would not have so shamefully retreated in escape as the roof of my palanquin was shattered by the general….”
Hearing this, Meng Zhi’s face darkened. “General Tuoba came to our Da Liang without invitation and carelessly attacked a guest of our nation, what explanation do you have for this?”
Tuoba Hao choked for a moment, not knowing how to reply. He had relied on his nigh-unbeatable martial artistry to enter secretly into the capital of Da Liang for a look at this Su Zhe who had beaten Baili Qi with a few children, and originally had truly not intended to hurt anyone, only wanting to get a measure of the man before leaving quietly, but who could have guessed that Su Zhe would have an expert like Fei Liu by his side, who had tangled him up in a fight before the first-ranked expert of Da Liang, Meng Zhi himself, had also appeared, and so he had not only been unable to leave, his identity had been revealed as well, and so he had now come to this embarrassing situation which he was finding difficult to explain.
But although he was in the wrong, Tuoba Hao did not want to appear weak, not to mention that he was ranked third on the Langya List of Martial Arts Experts, and Meng Zhi was ranked second, but the two had never fought personally, and he had never understood how the master of Langya Hall had come up with such a ranking, so had always harboured some anger in his heart, and now that he had been caught, why not take the opportunity to have a match and avoid the awkward explanation? He raised his sword to his chest, and declared coldly, “This is Commander Meng Zhi’s territory, what have I left to say? Make your move!”
Mei Changsu wanted to stop him, but then changed his mind, turning and retreating to a distance to watch the fight. Fei Liu followed by his side, and though he remained expressionless, there was a hint of excitement deep in his eyes.
The second- and third-ranked of the Langya List of Martial Arts Experts were currently exchanging blows in an alleyway in the capital of Da Liang – if this news had been spread, half of jianghu would have squeezed in for a look, and the only reason the other half would not have come was because they knew they wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near the scene. It was a pity that everything had happened too abruptly, and there was no time now to spread the news and sell tickets to the event, and so the only ones who had the great honour and privilege of witnessing the fight were Mei Changsu and Fei Liu, standing off to the side.
Long ago, a certain court minister in Northern Yan had grown too powerful and decided to force the Murong imperial family to abdicate in his favour. Lord Tuoba seized his opportunity to strike during the abdication ceremony and killed the scheming court minister. His sword flashed cruel and lonely in the hall filled with soldiers, striking left and right and killing all those who stood in his path, until, with robes soaked in blood, he escorted the Murong family back to their rightful place on the throne. From that day forward, the Tuoba clan was heralded as the greatest swordsmen in Northern Yan, and generation after generation had never failed to produce exceptional masters.
Compared to Tuoba Hao’s legendary family history, Meng Zhi’s reputation was much more down-to-earth. Both his inner and outer strength had been trained in the Shaolin style of martial arts since he was young, and there was absolutely nothing mysterious about his martial artistry. He had climbed the ranks to his current position by the strength of his hands and feet, nothing more. Unlike the fight between Tuoba Han and Fei Liu just now, which had been built on speed and reflex, Meng Zhi’s every move was steady and firm, and it seemed as if Tuoba Han’s sword flashed in ten different strokes while he only slowly returned one of his own. But though they fought at different speeds, their strokes met at the same point, and while Tuoba Hao’s sword strokes flashed by like streaks of light, Meng Zhi’s slow moves seemed to form a thick, impenetrable wall. When the blaze of light met the thick wall, they produced the kind of dazzling shower of sparks that could only be found in fights between two masters of this caliber.
As one of the only first-hand witnesses of this historic fight, Mei Changsu didn’t seem to be treasuring his opportunity, as his gaze kept wandering off as if he was distracted, and now and then he would lower his head in deep thought. He plainly was not watching seriously, until the blurred figures suddenly separated and the two each took a few steps back, watching each other carefully, and then he suddenly seemed to remember his responsibilities as an audience member, and hurriedly applauded and cheered.
On the surface, it seemed as if there was no clear victor and they would have to continue for a while longer. But as Mei Changsu came forward, all the while smiling and saying, “Wonderful!”, Meng Zhi did not tell him to step back, but rather gathered up his energy, as if taking the opportunity to end the fight. Tuoba Hao’s expression was hidden beneath his mask, but because the mask was thin, it was clear that he was grinding his teeth, and that his eyes had become red. But finally, he regained his composure and released the sword in his grasp, scoffing coldly.
¹literally ‘lure the tiger away from the mountain’