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    Chapter 3: Laying the Groundwork (2)

    Elder Yeom called out the names of those who were to join him inside Wongak Pavilion.

    It was Elder Yeom himself, Yeom Baek-ha, and the warrior chief who would guard Yeom Baek-ha.

    Despite Jung-ah saying that everyone was welcome to enter, Elder Yeom decided on bringing only the essential personnel, insisting, “There’s no need for family to inconvenience each other.”

    It was the veteran soldier himself who stopped Yeom Baek-ha as she was about to mention his absence to her father.

    “Miss.”

    In the midst of the bustling procession led by the maids of Wongak Pavilion, the veteran soldier quickly spoke up.

    “Taking this old man, who has spent his life immersed in military strategy, into Wongak Pavilion, which is akin to the Eldest Young Master’s inner chamber, would be seen as provocation unless specifically invited.”

    “But…”

    The veteran soldier quickly interjected, cutting off Yeom Baek-ha’s words.

    “The Lord isn’t taking you inside merely to show the Eldest Young Master a patient.”

    Beneath his long eyebrows, the deep gaze of the veteran soldier met Yeom Baek-ha’s eyes.

    “The most important reason is that you are the Lord’s ‘successor.'”

    “!”

    Yeom Baek-ha felt as if lightning had coursed down her spine.

    As one of the maids approached with a smile, the veteran soldier chuckled and handed over the reins of his donkey to her.

    “Veteran soldier…”

    Without looking back at Yeom Baek-ha, the veteran soldier let the maid lead him away by the donkey.

    ‘I am Father’s successor…’

    It was a thought she had never entertained before.

    She had always believed that her duty as a daughter was to marry a husband chosen by her father and bear a child before her own life ended.

    But the veteran soldier, who was like an extension of her father’s arm, had said:

    ‘Yeom Baek-ha is Father’s successor.’

    That must surely reflect her father’s intentions.

    Her spine straightened, and the thought of facing someone she had always admired cleared her mind of any previous timidity.

    With renewed vigor, her steps towards her father, who was waiting just in front of the main gate, became more determined.

    As Elder Yeom and his party disappeared into Wongak Pavilion under the guidance of Head Maid Jung-ah, a special task force member guarding the main gate let out a sigh without realizing it.

    “It’s intense.”

    He nodded in agreement to a colleague’s comment.

    “Indeed.”

    The calm yet intense aura of Elder Yeom, still vivid in his eyes, lingered.

    “Yeom Kwak-chu, no, Elder Yeom seems to be growing endlessly stronger.”

    A colleague, wiping away sweat discreetly, chuckled.

    “That’s what you’d expect from the chief martial artist of the main house.”

    Everyone nodded slightly in agreement.

    A former training mate of Elder Yeom glanced at his own right hand.

    “Would I have become like him if this right hand had remained?”

    The high-quality prosthetic hand provided by the council clattered.

    Then, a colleague teased him.

    “Even if you had another hand, I doubt you’d reach his level.”

    “What?!”

    At that moment, a maid rushed out and said,

    “Lady Jung-ah says no chit-chat while on duty.”

    After delivering the message, she bowed her head slightly and disappeared back into Wongak Pavilion.

    The group shared a resigned smile at her words.

    “Does Miss Jung-ah have clairvoyance or what?”

    Chastened, one of the colleagues replied through a whispered transmission.

    ‘If one can be with Elder Yeom, it must refer to the talent of a martial artist like Miss Jung-ah.’

    Another colleague joined the whispered conversation.

    ‘For a woman who has not held a sword for long to master Flashing Shadow Instant…’

    ‘In a few years, maybe even sooner, she’ll be among the masters.’

    ‘Could she be another genius emerging from the main house, following in the footsteps of Lady Yi Gong-nyeo, known as “Seamless as Heaven’s Garment”…!’

    Despite the time it took to calm the frightened White Tiger due to the formidable barrier-like formation created by the forest surrounding Wongak Pavilion, they finally managed to enter the forest path.

    “What an incredible formation…”

    Yeom Baek-ha’s words slipped out unintentionally, to which Head Maid Jung-ah simply smiled and continued to lead the way.

    ‘There’s no sign of a Life Gate.’

    Although she was as familiar with military texts as she was with the scriptures, this terrifying formation seemed impossible to decipher, let alone find a Life Gate.

    She had no choice but to follow Jung-ah, who guided them along the path that was laid out.

    Even if she had brought the veteran soldier, known for his mastery in military strategy, she doubted he could find a Life Gate here.

    ‘Miss, did you notice those maids?’

    Responding to the warrior chief’s mental message, Yeom Baek-ha, unable to send mental messages herself, merely nodded slightly.

    All the maids following Jung-ah in Wongak Pavilion were carrying swords.

    Although Yeom Baek-ha, who could not use internal energy, was practically raised in a military family, she could roughly estimate the maids’ skills.

    The warrior chief’s mental message continued.

    ‘All of them are skilled enough to apply for any decent swordsmanship division in the main house within a few years.’

    Yeom Baek-ha swallowed her thoughts.

    Why would the Eldest Young Master keep such skilled warriors as maids?

    Before she could ponder further, the forest ended, and they were greeted by the scenic beauty of Wongak Pavilion, resembling a heavenly landscape.

    However, neither Yeom Baek-ha nor the warrior chief paid any attention to the beautiful scenery.

    “Are the gifts being properly sorted?”

    “Poetry, calligraphy, and paintings go this way, please.”

    “Senior maid, the gifts from the general’s house…”

    Dozens of maids were skillfully handling the accumulating gifts.

    And all these maids were armed with swords.

    ‘…All of them are warriors of similar skill. Especially those in maid uniforms.’

    After a brief pause, the warrior chief continued his mental message.

    ‘…They are at least on par with, if not superior to, the warriors in our swordsmanship division. Estimating their numbers roughly, they are about twice ours, making their total force comparable to a decent swordsmanship division.’

    Indeed, the Eldest Young Master already possessed a force equivalent to his own private swordsmanship division.

    ‘As you know, Miss, the primary purpose of the main house’s swordsmanship divisions is to overcome the individual shortcomings of its members through collective tactics.’

    The warrior chief massaged his tense neck as he continued his mental message.

    ‘However, if my assessment is correct, the individual qualities of these maids surpass the usual standards expected of a typical swordsmanship division.’

    This meant that one of Elder Yeom’s most significant assets in negotiating with the Eldest Young Master—the swordsmanship division known as the war advisory council—had lost its luster.

    Yeom Baek-ha clenched her eyes shut.

    * * *

    The outcomes Elder Yeom could achieve through negotiations with the Eldest Young Master were as follows:

    Ideally, his daughter would receive treatment without any political repercussions. However, to Yeom Baek-ha, such an outcome seemed impossible.

    ‘If Father had such a brilliant strategy, he wouldn’t appear so grave.’

    Even in the best-case scenario, the situation would unfold as follows:

    He would secure a promise to treat his daughter and leave her in Wongak Pavilion. For a complete cure, she would need to be treated during unpredictable seizures, which meant she had to stay within reach.

    However, to outsiders, this would appear as though the daughter was being held hostage by the Eldest Young Master, effectively aligning Elder Yeom with the Eldest Young Master’s faction. Consequently, Elder Yeom’s neutral political stance would shatter, leading to his isolation.

    The troubling part was that this scenario was not the worst-case but the next worst.

    The absolute worst outcome would involve the Eldest Young Master using his daughter as a hostage and manipulating Elder Yeom as a puppet.

    ‘Such a scenario is unthinkable, but…’

    Ultimately, the best realistic outcome for her father, in her opinion, was to become a ‘valued person’ to the Eldest Young Master. Even if other political standings crumbled, as long as they received favorable treatment from the Eldest Young Master’s side, there might be a chance for redemption.

    ‘But to achieve that, Father must be highly valued by the Eldest Young Master…’

    The most significant assets were her father’s position as an elder and the swordsmanship division known as the war advisory council.

    Yet, with the Eldest Young Master effectively owning a swordsmanship division comprised of maids, the value of these assets was diminished.

    Yeom Baek-ha glanced at her father to gauge his mood, but Elder Yeom remained silent, his expression unreadable.

    ‘Father…’

    All that remained were Elder Yeom’s martial prowess, known as the Demonic Martial Annihilation, and his position as an elder. Elder Yeom, one of the top martial artists of the Luoyang Sword House, possessed formidable strength, and as far as she knew, the Eldest Young Master did not yet have such a powerful martial artist at his disposal.

    ‘There’s still a card to play.’

    But soon after, her hopes were dashed.

    “Here is the Eldest Young Master’s office.”

    It was an ancient-looking hall.

    Guarding the hall was a warrior in the special task force uniform, uniquely armed with five swords. The warrior chief was shocked upon seeing the swords.

    “Five swords… could you be the Life-Stealing Devil Sword?!”

    Yeom Baek-ha was equally astonished.

    “The most ferocious sword of the sword family!”

    The era of the Life-Stealing Devil Sword was long past, but its notoriety was such that even Yeom Baek-ha, still in her prime, recognized the name.

    The middle-aged warrior known as the Life-Stealing Devil Sword neither confirmed nor denied, simply bowing silently to Elder Yeom. Yet, this gesture all but confirmed his identity.

    “…Life-Stealing Devil Sword. You were here?”

    Even Elder Yeom, who had always maintained utmost composure, couldn’t hide a trace of emotion in his voice.

    “Watch your words, Elder Yeom. This is Wongak Pavilion, the abode of the Eldest Young Master.”

    The tone was not one typically used with an elder of Yeom’s standing, but no one dared to challenge the Life-Stealing Devil Sword. After all, this was the demeanor of someone who had been among the top martial artists of the Luoyang Sword House when Elder Yeom was just beginning to make a name for himself.

    “My apologies. I meant no offense. It was merely surprising to encounter a renowned warrior in such an unexpected place.”

    This was the first encounter between Elder Yeom, whose name was revered in the North, and the Life-Stealing Devil Sword, who had a notorious reputation in the South.

    “Is that so? Then let’s consider this meeting as fate.”

    “Indeed.”

    The tension that began to build between the two felt as if it could momentarily lower the temperature of their surroundings.

    The White Tiger quickly retreated, and the warrior chief stepped forward to shield Yeom Baek-ha.

    The entire Wongak Pavilion seemed to plunge into deep silence under the overwhelming aura gradually emanating from the two elite warriors.

    The tense atmosphere, teetering on the brink of explosion, was unexpectedly broken by a low voice.

    “Gatekeeper! Stop fooling around and bring the guests inside.”

    The timing was so impeccable that even the two profound masters, whose levels were hard to discern, involuntarily held their breaths and stepped back.

    Elder Yeom, suppressing a surge of excitement, wore a puzzled expression.

    “…Gatekeeper?”

    At that, the Life-Stealing Devil Sword snapped his head around and, with a brusque attitude, opened the door to the office.

    “Master, the guests have arrived.”

    Throughout this, Jung-ah, who maintained her composure, respectfully bowed towards the inside and announced their arrival, to which a response came from within.

    “Let them in.”

    Elder Yeom, striding forward with his daughter Yeom Baek-ha in his arms, instructed the warrior chief.

    “Wait here.”

    “Yes, my lord.”

    Yeom Baek-ha remained silent, modestly nestled in her father’s embrace.

    As always, Elder Yeom’s embrace felt as secure as his bold steps.

    However, at that moment, she realized.

    The appearance of the Life-Stealing Devil Sword had shattered her father’s reliance on the martial might of his elite warriors.

    What remained was only the value held by the position of an elder in the main family.

    Yeom Baek-ha felt a chill.

    Could the arrangement of those they had encountered have been orchestrated by the Eldest Young Master?

    Was it a deep strategy to confront them, bare and unguarded?

    Without a doubt.

    The figure of Yeon So-hyeon, the Eldest Young Master waiting ahead, was likely incomparable to any adversary her father had faced before.

    A figure more daunting than any opponent Elder Yeom had overcome.

    Yet, she did not close her eyes.

    Determined not to miss the moment her fate would be decided.

    After all, she was the daughter of Elder Yeom and the heir to the Elder of the Great Luoyang Sword House.

    The father and daughter passed through the office entrance, which seemed to yawn open like a monstrous maw, without hesitation.

    At the end of the dark, short corridor stood a boy, with the doors of the office wide open on either side.

    “Welcome.”

    The boy greeted them with a bland smile, deeply etched on his face.

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