Chapter 100. Chouchu (01:00-01:59) Part 1
Li Bi quietly stoop down, leaving only the upper half of his head above the water.
The sound of waterwheel turning would drown out most of the noises he'd be making while moving.
From this dark position, he had an exceptionally clear view of areas lit by torches.
Chouchu, 15th of the first lunar month, Tianbao Year 3, Tang Dynasty.
The Xingqing Palace, Chang'an.
The Ba-lantern celebration scheduled for Chouzheng (02:00-02:59) of the fourth night-watch was only an hour away. Several hundred large torches burning pine oil, which were wrapped in multicolored silk and positioned on the perimeter of the square, were lit, turning the night into day. Soldiers of the Mighty Dragon Army started unblocking the passages in good order, letting citizens enter the square in batches.
The square to the south of the Xingqing Palace was very spacious, and there were lines drawn with lime on the ground to divide it into a number of areas. Citizens, after entering, were required to stay in the area nearest to the passage through which they gained entry. Those who crossed the line would be subject to punishments ranging from a warning to flogging. Amid safety concerns, soldiers of the Mighty Dragon Army wouldn't mind at all beating a couple of citizens to death.
Apart from areas designated for spectators, there were also over twenty large areas in the middle of the square. Gorgeously-decorated Ba-lantern carts escorted by big crowds of fans, after half a night's fierce competition, drove into the square and parked in these areas. They were all winners of the Ba-lantern qualifier, and each of them had defeated at least a dozen rivals. All of them were in high and vigorous spirits.
These colorful Ba-lantern carts would stay here waiting for the final showdown scheduled for Chouzheng, when they would go all-out to win the greatest honor.
But entertainers were not just sitting there doing nothing. They knew that on the Industriousness and Pragmatism Pavilion not far away, most officials had had their fill of food and drink and walked from their tables to the balustrades and were now looking down at the whole square. If with this opportunity they managed to take one or two of those officials' fancy, they wouldn't have to worry about money for the next several years. As a result, these entertainers continued to employ all their skills trying to catch people's attention, pushing the boisterous atmosphere to a new high.
Their efforts threw both the square in front of the Xingqing Palace and the Industriousness and Pragmatism Pavilion into uproarious revel, turning them into a forest of waving hands and a sea of wiggling heads. Cheers, beat of drums and gongs were mingled together, accompanied by cascades of fireworks, innumerable lanterns ablaze with festive light and deafening music. Everybody's view was filled with colorful light. The scene was of utmost splendor and prosperity, as was the fortune of Tang.
The Taishang-xuanyuan Grand Lantern Pavilion was the only thing dark and quiet in this jollification, but it raised no concerns. Everybody was eagerly anticipating the arrival of Chouzheng when this building would blow their mind with the grandeur it was meant to display.
People in the Taishang-xuanyuan Grand Lantern Pavilion at this moment, however, were having very different thoughts from those of people outside.
After Li Bi left, Zhang Xiaojing was noticeably more relaxed. As if having rid himself of a heavy burden, he started asking about the details of the plan on his own account. Xiao Gui, who was now totally unsuspicious of his old comrade-in-arms, naturally answered his every question without keeping anything back.
But the time for the celebration was drawing near, and the replacement of Kylin Arms conducting by members of the Termite was not progressing as quick as imagined. Seeing this, Xiao Gui began to fidget.
No plan could go as smoothly as imagined, and Xiao Gui had some time ago made preparations for this eventuality. But unlike other components, Kylin Arms were filled with heated mountain tallow. Once its temperature dropped below the threshold after a certain amount of time, it would lost its explosiveness. As a result, Xiao Gui had to personally supervise those working in the areas where the replacement was going slow.
Seeing their leader standing behind with a sepulchral face, those members of the Termite also went nervous. Suddenly, one of them accidentally lost hold of a Kylin Arm, which fell off the plank he was standing on. The bamboo tube dropped into the darkness beneath his feet, and after quite a few moments, a clunk came from the ground.
Xiao Gui unhesitatingly whipped out his saber and deeply slit the man's face, blood splashing around. The man let out a pained screech but didn't dare dodge. Xiao Gui said in a menacing tone, "You still have your hands because the replacement requires them. One more mistake and you'll find yourself falling off."
The man repeatedly mumbled "yes, yes" in fear, picked up a Kylin Arm and resumed the replacement.
Zhang Xiaojing drew Xiao Gui to the side. "Is there a quicker way of replacement?"
Xiao Gui shook his head. "This is Master Mao's work. Who could possibly be more intelligent than him?"
"That means nobody could tell if Master Mao is keeping anything back from us……" Zhang Xiaojing squinted his only eye and reminded him, "He's not doing this of his own volition, after all."
These words brought a thoughtful look to Xiao Gui's face. Mao Shun was not a member of the Termite. The reason why he was cooperating with them was that there were knives held to the throats of his family, so it was possible that he might play some little tricks during his cooperation with them.
"Mao Shun is the only one having enough knowledge of how this works. If he is deliberately keeping from us a better way of replacement, it'd be very difficult for us to find out. By doing this, he could keep up the pretence of being cooperative and at the same time secretly thwart the plans of us without incriminating his family." Zhang Xiaojing had started to use the word "us" when talking with members of the Termite.
Xiao Gui nodded and twisted his head to look in the direction of the pivotal spindle, beside which Mao Shun was still crouching, totally unmoved, his stooping back giving little away. He was just about to walk up to the old man when Zhang Xiaojing clasped his shoulder and said, "I'll handle it."
Xiao Gui was slightly surprised. Zhang Xiaojing chuckled at him, "I've been the General of the Indecent for nine years in Chang'an, and I learned much more during the process than I did during my ten-year stint in the army in the Western Regions."
Xiao Gui also chuckled, playfully smacking a fist onto his shoulder. "Then I'll leave it to you, Big Head."
Zhang Xiaojing walked up to Mao Shun, directly grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and raised him to his feet. Mao Shun, caught flat-footed, was taken aback by this suddenly change. Without uttering a word, Zhang Xiaojing dragged Mao Shun all the way to the edge of the lantern pavilion, lifted the brocade cover and pushed Mao Shun outwards.
Guards looking on at the side exclaimed in astonishment and subconsciously attempted to stop him, but Xiao Gui blocked their path and motioned for them to show patience. Zhang Xiaojing took an outward stride, stepped on a diagonally fixed bamboo rail and gripped the lower hem of Mao Shun's robes just in time to stop him from falling off.
Thus, both of them's upper bodies were leaning out of the lantern pavilion into the night sky. Their balance depended solely on Zhang Xiaojing's leg. Once he released his grip or withdrew his leg, Mao Shun would fall off the lantern pavilion and dashed to bloody mush.
Panic-stricken, Mao Shun struggled but found all his efforts in vain. He had much more brain but much less brawn than Zhang Xiaojing did.
"Wha——What are you doing?!" Mao Shun yelled, his gray hair fluttering in night breezes.
Staring at him, Zhang Xiaojing demanded aloud, "How do we replace Kylin Arms quicker?"
Mao Shun snapped, "I've already told you!"
"What I want to know is a quicker way."
"There isn't one. This is the quickest way!"
"Oh, so you are telling me that you are useless now?" Zhang Xiaojing briefly released his grip letting Mao Shun lean lower. The old man in fear was reduced to screaming, his voice echoing through the whole Tianshu Floor. Someone asked what if Mao Shun died. Xiao Gui waved his hand and told them to just wait and see.
Zhang Xiaojing withdrew his arm pulling Mao Shun slightly upwards. "Did this help you remember anything?"
Mao Shun, panting heavily, shook his head despairingly. Zhang Xiaojing pressed his foot a little harder down on the bamboo rail, which started crunching under the strain, as if about to break. Mao Shun's pupils contracted drastically and he cried, "Don't do that! It'll collapse!" He didn't like the idea of him dying beneath his own work at all.
"Then we might as well go somewhere with more fun. Maybe you'll recall something there." Zhang Xiaojing's voice was heavy with malice. He drew Mao Shun to his feet and marched him along a plank into an outer lantern chamber on the side.
This lantern chamber happened to be the "Wuwei" which was next door to the "Shadbush". The theme of the scenery inside was Li Jing recovering the Yinshan Mountains, so artisans had made a small mound shaped like the Yinshan Mountains with row cowhide, on which were two lantern figures of Li Jing and Khan Jieli on horseback, the former advancing with a spear raised high, and the latter fleeing looking backwards in fear. Once the lantern pavilion started functioning, Li Jing would automatically brandish his spear up and down, and Khan Jieli would kept glancing backwards showing fear. Inside the mound covered with cowhide were also rows of small flags, which, seen from the distance, would look like numerous flags of Tang army once the lanterns were lit.
Zhang Xiaojing drew Mao Shun into the lantern chamber, sneaked a backward look and saw that there was a straw-curtain between this lantern chamber and the main body of the pavilion, which happened to block the view of other people. He forced Mao Shun to the edge of the chamber, gave his head an outward push to make Mao Shun's upper body lean beyond the edge, pretending to be threatening him, and then craned over to his ear and whispered, "Don't be afraid. I'm here to save you."
Sure enough Mao Shun didn't believe him. Thinking that this was nothing but another trap of some kind, he angrily shook his head. Zhang Xiaojing heavily held Mao Shun's chin in a vise-like grip, keeping him from making any sound. "Listen, I'm Zhang Xiaojing, a commandant of Jing'an Department. I infiltrated into the Termite to foil their plot."
There was still disbelief in Mao Shun's eyes, but he was struggling less hard. After all, there was no need for Zhang Xiaojing to tell a lie like this. Zhang Xiaojing said under his breath, "I know you did this because the Termite abducted your family leaving you no choice. I'll do my best to ensure you and your family's safety, but you must cooperate with me."
Mao Shun made a few muffled groans in response. Zhang Xiaojing said, "Now I'm going to slowly release your mouth. I want you to let out a despairing scream for them to hear. I'll maintain this position so that they won't suspect us." Then he slowly loosened his grip on Mao Shun's bottom jaw. Mao Shun took a deep breath and gave a plaintive shriek on the top of his lungs as Zhang Xiaojing violently pressed him downwards pushing him further outwards.
"Good, very good." Zhang Xiaojing consoled him in an undertone. "Next, I need you to tell me about one thing."
"What is it?" Mao Shun asked vigilantly, still a trifle suspicious.
"How do I disable the Taishang-xuanyuan Grand Lantern Pavilion? I want the quickest way."
This was a fundamental solution. Once the Taishang-xuanyuan Grand Lantern Pavilion was disabled, the plot of the Termite would be thwarted. Zhang Xiaojing had stressed that he wanted to know the quickest way, because the final moment was imminent and he had no helpers.
Mao Shun hesitated for a few moments, feeling as though he had just been asked to kill his own child. Zhang Xiaojing said coldly, "We're running out of time. You don't want them to blow up the whole imperial court of Tang with something made by you, do you?"
Mao Shun shuddered. This would definitely be a nightmare. Finally, he confided, "Those waterwheels in the underground chamber are the sole source of driving force of this lantern pavilion. At three quarters past Chouchu, someone will engage the waterwheels with the shaft bearing to provide driving force for the pivotal spindle. If the shaft bearing malfunctions, the lantern pavilion will lost its driving power and be fully disabled."
"Where's the shaft bearing? How do I destroy it?" This was the only thing Zhang Xiaojing cared about.
"The shaft bearing is fixed on the ceiling of the temple. Because it is designed to pass driving power by turning, it is made of cold-rolled steel, which means it cannot be destroyed quickly." Mao Shun twisted his head around and tossed Zhang Xiaojing a glance. "But I have to tell you, this method would only disable the lantern pavilion. It won't deactivate those Fierceflame bombs inside the pivotal spindle."
Zhang Xiaojing went somewhat fidgety. Craftsmen like this old man always had to long-windedly talk about the cause and effect of things instead of going straight to the point. His tone grew rough. "Then what do you suggest I should do?"
"There is but one way." Mao Shun inhaled deeply and painfully closed his eyes. "Sizes of the teeth of the shaft bearing and those of the cogwheels supposed to engage with the shaft bearing were all calculated beforehand. If the shaft bearing is tilted to a certain angle, the passage of driving power would be twisted, and over time the pivotal spindle would be broken, the mountain tallow inside leaking out. In that case, the worst-case scenario would be a fire, and there wouldn't be any explosion."
"You mean just like making a piece of furniture, once a tenon slides out of its mortise, the structure would not only be unable to withstand any weight but also fall apart?"
"More or less."
"Then how do I tilt it?"
Mao Shun said, "When I was designing this lantern pavilion, the biggest concern of mine was that the passing of driving power would go uneven and eventually cause the pivotal spindle to break under the torque force. In order to prevent that from happening, I integrated the shaft bearing with the whole roof of the temple, which means that the whole roof is its holder, and it won't move an inch as long as the roof remains still. Alas, this is very difficult, very difficult……" His voice trailed away to nothing as he lapsed into rumination.
Zhang Xiaojing said blandly, "Then I'll just destroy the roof with it." Mao Shun was stunned. His thinking had been centered around the shaft bearing itself all along. It had never crossed his mind that this forthright man would come up with such a rough idea.