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The Phoenix Dances in the Nine Heavens Chapter 1

CSI

Chapter 1 – Thin Blade

A hundred and three astute, capable and experienced Wulin [martial art world] martial art masters, plus thirty-five million taels worth of gold, pearls and jewels, unexpectedly all mysteriously disappeared in one night.

The repercussion of this matter reached far and wide, not only it affected the honor and disgrace, as well as the survival, of Central Plains’ thirteen biggest escort agencies, there were at least seventy or eighty distinguished men that very soon would have their families bankrupt, ruined and have their reputation swept away.

What had actually happened that night?

In this whole wide world, only one person knew this secret!

If Cui Cheng knew that now he had become this important, certainly he would have felt that his life was not in vain.

But he did not know at all. He has been unconscious for three whole days.

These hundred and three men were the elite warriors of the Central Plains’ escort agencies; they were escorting the biggest shipment since the beginning of history. From Taihang, out of Tongguan, but suddenly disappeared in a small town at the foot of Taihang Mountains [on the border of Hebei and Shanxi].

Cui Cheng was a helper[1] during the trip of these escort agencies’ warriors; he was also the only survivor in this particular incident.

According to Xiong Tianjian, the head of search party team, which was sent out a day after the emergency call, “We found him holed up in a local inn, he was already unconscious and was dying.”

According to Ye Xingshi, a famous doctor who accompanied the search team to Taihang, “He has on his body a total of six saber cuts. Although he is unconscious due to excessive bleeding, fortunately his injury is not life-threatening; as long as we can find a safe place for him to recuperate three to five days, I guarantee he will recover and be awake.”

According to Ying Yan Laoqi [lit. Hawk Eye the seventh], “Right now he has been taken to an absolutely safe place to recuperate, without our approval, even a housefly cannot fly in.”

Xiong Tianjian was a hero of the Central Plains, he also happened to be the maternal uncle of Situ Gang, the Zongbiaotou [Head Escort] of the Qunying [lit. crowd of warriors] Escort Agency. He was chivalrous and upright, people of Jianghu [lit. rivers and lakes, martial art community] had always looked up to him.

Ye Xingshi was the sole lay disciple of Tiejian Dashi [lit. (grand) master (usually Buddhist) iron shoulder] of Shaolin, also one of the four famous doctors who had enjoyed flourishing reputation in Jianghu for a long time. His medical expertise was publicly known throughout the land under the heavens.

Ying Yan Laoqi was the Zongpiaobazi [head honcho/big boss] of the Twelve-Dock Alliance. Twelve-Dock Alliance’s influence reached far beyond the Great Wall, even in both ‘black and white’ ways [referring to criminal/underground and legitimate worlds] there were disciples and subordinates of his. In the escort job this time, among the forty or so escort warriors, there were at least five or six men that were either his disciples or had been working under him in the past.

They were incriminated in this matter just because they were the guarantors of the thirteen escort agencies.

The origin of this escort job was indeed not a small matter, so much so that even the power that be had heard about it. If they could not find it back, not only all guarantors would be difficult to escape from criminal charge, even the Taiping Wangfu [prince’s mansion] who entrusted this escort job to them would not be able to avoid responsibility.

Naturally all guarantors were public figures with high standing in Jianghu. Among the members of the nine big clans [bang] and seven big sects [pai] of the wulin world of Central Plains, nearly each one had people who were involved in this matter.

The day they found Cui Cheng was a day before the Duanyang [dragon boat festival, fifth day of the fifth month of lunar calendar], and today was the eighth of the fifth month.

According to Cheng Zhaizhu [lit. stronghold/fort’s master], the leader of the third stronghold of the Twelve-Dock Alliance, who was responsible for taking care of Cui Cheng, “Last night he has been waking up once, drank half a bowl of ginseng soup, and defecated once. After we replaced his medication, he went back to sleep.”

According to Xiao Hongzhu, a concubine of Ying Yan Laoqi, “There is already no trace of blood in his stool, this morning he was already able to talk, asking for water to drink, and when he saw me he smiled.”

Cheng Zhong and Xiao Hongzhu were Ying Yan Laoqi’s most trusted people, they were the only ones who could get close to Cui Cheng.

Based on the condition of Cui Cheng’s injury, although now was not the right time to tire him, but this matter was a lot more important than his well-being; as long as he could talk, they could not afford to wait any longer.

Therefore, right now, everybody who had any connection in this matter had already arrived at the Twelve-Dock Alliance headquarter, even Taiping Wang’s [king/prince of Taiping] heir apparent, accompanied by his personal guards, had come.

Of course now Cui Cheng must not die!

Almost no one in Jianghu has ever truly understood what kind of place this Twelve-Dock Alliance was. Actually, it was not only a place, but an enormous organization.

This organization’s power spread over a vast region, its structure was very complex, they even had influence in both black and white ways; but all of them had always adhered strictly to one principle:

“Do not offend Heaven and reason; do not take advantage of people in danger; do not bully the elderly, women and children; do not harm the poor, the sick, widows and orphans.”

This was perhaps the biggest reason why they could exist thus far.

The Twelve-Dock Alliance had twelve strongholds, from the outside they did not look any different than ordinary village or mansion, while in fact their security was extremely tight, their organization was even more structured; without any badge [orig. ‘tablet/medal hanging on the waist’] and password, nobody, no matter who, would find it difficult to enter their mountain area.

The Zongpiaobazi Ying Yan Laoqi’s headquarter was called ‘Ying Yan’ [Hawk Eye], the operation of, as well as commands to, the Twelve-Dock Alliance’s subordinates were directly controlled and issued from this ‘Hawk Eye’.

By Duanyang day, at noon, Cui Cheng had already been delivered to a secret chamber inside the ‘Hawk Eye’. To enter this secret room, one must go through five heavily guarded iron gates. Only Cheng Zhong and Xiao Hongzhu had free access to this room. Right now the two of them happened to be in the room to accompany Cui Cheng.

Cheng Zhong was experienced and knowledgeable, plus he had some medical expertise. Xiao Hongzhu was gentle and soft, as well as smart and meticulous. All four sides of the secret chamber were walls, not ordinary walls, but blocks of granite. Not only the iron door was heavily guarded around the clock, the lock was large iron lock specially manufactured by a famous craftsman. Other than with the two keys kept inside the inner pocket of Xiao Hongzhu and Ying Yan Laoqi, two people, nobody else would be able to open the door.

This kind of security, even Prince Taiping’s Heir Apparent could not feel dissatisfied; he laughed and said to Ying Yan Laoqi, “You were right, even a housefly cannot fly into this place.”

However, after passing through five iron gates and entering the secret chamber, they discovered that Cui Cheng had already died!

Xiao Hongzhu and Cheng Zhong were also dead!

There was no scar nor any trace of blood on their bodies, yet the bodies were ice-cold and stiff.

According to Ye Xingshi’s observation, “They had died at least for an hour, they were killed by a very thin and fast blade; one stab and their lives were gone!”

“Because the blade was extremely thin, the movement was extremely fast, it did not even leave any wound.”

“Undoubtedly the fatal stab went into the lower end of the lung. The blade penetrated in, immediately the blood burst into the thoracic cavity; therefore, no blood flowed outside.”

What an accurate blade, what a fast blade!

Obviously not only the murderer was an expert in fast blade, he must have had a very rich experience.

The people who guarded the secret chamber have been working under Ying Yan Laoqi for ten years or more; they all were his extremely trusted aides.

They pointed to the sky and swear by the sun, “Within the last four hours, other than Madame Xiao and Cheng Zhaizhu, definitely there was not a third person coming in and out.”

There were thirty-six men on guard duty; thirty-six men all said the same thing, definitely it was not a lie.

In that case, how did the murderer come in?

With a cold laugh Prince Taiping’s Heir Apparent said, “Based on what you said, he must be an invisible man!”

High noon.

The exquisitely-decorated main hall was oppressively warm, even the breeze had seemingly refused to blow, the messy hair drooped down from their heads, as if it was glued together by perspiration. Although there was a continuous supply of drinks, everybody still felt their lips parched, their mouths tasted bitter.

Ying Yan Laoqi looked even more haggard, he looked sad and weary.

Originally he was a vibrant person, someone who appeared to be very young. But in this short moment, he seemed to have aged a lot.

“How did the murderer get in? There is no such thing as an invisible man in the world.”

He did not understand. In fact, nobody did.

They all only knew one thing: if they could not recover this thirty-five million taels worth of escorted goods, they would have to compensate.

It was enough to make each and every one of them to lose their family fortune! Even after losing their family fortune, they might not necessarily be able to compensate in full!

Based on their status and reputation, naturally they must not renege on a debt.

Fortunately, Prince Taiping’s Heir Apparent was not an unreasonable man at all, “I may give you a forty-day deadline, to let you recover these jewels, otherwise …”

He did not continue, but he did not need to. The serious consequences, everybody understood clearly in their hearts.

Finished speaking, he took his personal guards and left. No matter what, forty-day deadline cannot be considered short.

It’s just too bad that in this matter they did not have the least bit of clue.

Ying Yan Laoqi stood up and sat back down. He sat down and stood back up. Xiong Tianjian was sweating all over, three layers of his clothes, inside and outside, were drenched. For some people, when they were sweating, only their nose was wet; drops of sweat were trickling down from the tip of their noses.

All these people were great wulin warriors who were the leader of their respective regions, normally they gave orders and made decisions at will, yet this moment they were all at a loss, unexpectedly nobody was able to come up with the least bit of idea on how to deal with this situation.

Ye Xingshi suddenly said, “This is not the first time.”

Nobody understood what he was talking about; they could only wait for him to continue.

Ye Xingshi said, “End of last month, Changjiang Sui Shang Fei [flying over the Yangtze River] suddenly died under water during one his routine daily patrols. I was invited by his Clan’s disciples to help determining the cause of his death.”

Xiong Tianjian immediately asked, “The cause of his death is the same as Cui Cheng’s?”

Ye Xingshi nodded. He said, “His body was completely without scar or bloodstain. I spent three whole days before finding out the blade cut at the bottom of his lung. Same thing, one stab is all it takes to take his life!”

“He was stabbed under water?” Xiong Tianjian asked.

“Correct,” Ye Xingshi replied.

Xiong Tianjian’s countenance turned even heavier. Sui Shang Fei’s water skill was known to be the first under the heavens. The assailant was able to stab his vital point under water, his water skill must be even more exquisite than Sui Shang Fei’s.

He was deep in thought for a long time before finally said slowly, “I also remembered something.”

“What is it?” Wang Yi, the young master of the family head of Huainan wulin community, whose eagle-claw power was widely known, quickly asked.

Xiong Tianjian said, “At the beginning of this year, when the old master of Iron Sword Manor in Song Yang was training his sword in a secret sword room, he died suddenly, and until today nobody knew the cause of his death.”

He heaved a deep sigh, “Only now that I thought about it, there is a good chance that he was murdered by the same assailant!”

Song Yang’s Guo Family’s sword technique has always been passed on in secret. When the Old Manor Master Guo practiced his sword, he would never allow any outsiders to peek.

His secret sword room was built just like ‘copper wall, iron bastion’, no matter who, it would be difficult to come close even for one step. Much less his swordsmanship was superb, when he was unleashing the Iron Sword technique handed down in his family for generations, absolutely nobody would be able to get close to him.

Knitting his brows, Ye Xingshi said, “If he really was stabbed to death when practicing the sword, the assassin’s blade is indeed too frightening.”

Suddenly Ying Yan Laoqi let out a cold laugh and said, “In that case, shouldn’t we just sit here and wait for him to come and kill us all one by one?”

Nobody argued with him, his most beloved woman had just been assassinated, no matter who would not be in a good mood.

Ying Yan Laoqi clenched his fists, the blue veins on his forehead were bulging as he said in a loud voice, “Even if this assassin really has three heads and six arms, really is an invisible man, I am going to find him!”

Question is: how would he find him?

After thorough deliberation, everybody finally agreed on three countermeasures for dealing with this situation. The available manpower would be divided into three groups, and each group would separately handle one task.

The first group, under Xiong Tianjian’s leadership, would return to the little town at the foot of Mount Taihang, to investigate the inn where the escort warriors spent the night, to see if there was any ‘spider thread and horse track’ remained. Their main task was to carefully question every local house and family, to see if by any chance they saw any suspicious stranger visited the place within a few days before the incident.

They also made a list of wulin experts, who were adept at using blades, and the second team under Ye Xingshi’s leadership was tasked to investigate. The most important task was to find out between the early morning of the fifth month’s Duanyang until noon that day, a period of four hours, where were these people?

The third group was led by Wang Yi; they were to go everywhere to raise funds, to find a way to scrape together thirty-five million taels.

These things were obviously very difficult to do; they all could not refrain from asking Ying Yan Laoqi, “And what are you going to do?”

“I am going to look for Lu Xiaofeng.”

“You mean the Four Eyebrows Lu Xiaofeng?”

Ying Yan Laoqi nodded, “If there is anybody in this world who could find that assassin for us, it must be Lu Xiaofeng.”

He spoke with confidence. After going through the case of the Mansion of Spirits, he had full confidence of Lu Xiaofeng’s resourcefulness and capability.

“I hear that this man is a wanderer, he roams about to the other end of the world, regarding all four corners of the world as home. Where are you going to look for him?”

“Where there is the best zongzi[2], that is where I am going to go to look for him.”

About this little fact, he was also very confident.

He knew that not only Lu Xiaofeng loved to eat, Lu Xiaofeng also knew how to eat. If he did not eat zongzi during the Dragon Boat Festival, wouldn’t it be like ‘damaging beautiful scenery?

Rumor has it that the owner of Wo Yun Lou [Crouching Cloud Building (‘lou’ usually refer to two-story building)] employed a master chef whose Huzhou zongzi was exceptionally good, that each year local authorities always sent some to the Capital via urgent courier using ‘eight-hundred li fast horse’. Plus, he also heard that the owner of Crouching Cloud Building was an old friend of Lu Xiaofeng’s.

“I am going there.” Ying Yan Laoqi stood up, “The master of Crouching Cloud Building has always been hospitable. Duanyang was only three days ago; he can’t possibly let Lu Xiaofeng go yet.”

Too bad he was still one step too late.

In the old days, the master of Crouching Cloud Building was widely known in jianghu as a handsome man; presumably because for the past few years he had eaten too much of a good food, his belly was gradually bulging outward. No doubt that this fact had been disturbing him very much; therefore, while talking, he would often unconsciously pat his own belly.

“Lu Xiaofeng indeed came here. Almost every year before and after Duanyang he would stay for a few days.”

The master of Crouching Cloud Building personally accompanied Ying Yan Laoqi drinking wine. “This is the Green Bamboo Leaf wine that I picked especially for him; what do you think?”

Although Ying Yan Laoqi did not come to drink wine, he still downed the cup of wine in one gulp. “And now where is he?” he immediately asked.

The master of Crouching Cloud Building sighed and said, “It seems to me that this year his mood is not as good as in previous years. He seemed to be a little preoccupied; without even finishing this jar of wine, he insisted on leaving. Even I can’t hold him back!”

Apparently he was very concerned over Lu Xiaofeng. Shaking his head, he sighed again before saying, “He always meddled with everybody’s business, even when he ought not to meddle he still loved to meddle, but he always forget about his own business. When a man reached the age of thirty and has not settled down and got married, how could his mood be good?”

Ying Yan Laoqi could only laugh wryly. Then he asked, “Do you happen to know where he is heading?”

The master of Crouching Cloud Building thought for a moment before saying, “I think I heard him saying that he wanted to go to the sea to relieve his boredom.”

Instantly Ying Yan Laoqi’s countenance turned yellowish like a candle, “Did you say he is going out to sea?”

The master of Crouching Cloud Building looked out the window toward a distant white cloud; he said slowly, “I think by this time he is already out at sea.”

Ying Yan Laoqi picked up his wine and started drinking. In one breath he drank eight big bowls of wine, and then he stood up and left.

The master of Crouching Cloud Building did not try to hold him back; he only walked him off to the door. “He might return late autumn, and he always comes here to eat my moon cake. If you have anything, I can pass it on to him.”

“By that time,” Ying Yan Laoqi said, “I’ll only have one thing I want him to do.”

“What is it?” the master of Crouching Cloud Building asked.

“I want him to carry a coffin,” Ying Yan Laoqi replied.

The master of Crouching Cloud Building knitted his brows, “Whose coffin?” he asked.

Ying Yan Laoqi replied, “Mine.”

[1] Orig. ‘tang zi shou’, a helper who acted as a herald in front of the traveling party.

[2] Zongzi – glutinous rice and choice of filling wrapped in bamboo leaves and boiled.

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