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    Luoyang Sword House.

    2nd Young Master’s Faction, Grand Assembly Hall.

    Elder Hahu remained motionless, unable to even think about lighting the fresh folding fan he was biting.

    ‘No need to panic.’

    Elder Son and the Jiangnan thugs had recently been bafflingly outmaneuvered by the Eldest Young Master.

    But that was only an extremely small fraction of the forces the 2nd Young Master’s faction possessed.

    As an actual example, hadn’t the outcome been entirely different when the 2nd Young Master’s faction had exerted its full strength before?

    Back then, they had surely emerged victorious.

    ‘We permitted the Eldest Young Master’s release from seclusion. However…’

    Instead, hadn’t they succeeded in reclaiming his most threatening asset, the ‘House’s Seal’?

    ‘This time is no different.’

    This time too, just like then, the 2nd Young Master faction’s practically full might was being deployed here.

    All their power was being concentrated.

    ‘Right. It’s no different from then.’

    Right now, they had merely seen the opponent’s opening move, and the grand game was only just beginning.

    He had simply been momentarily shaken in his composure by the ‘North Mang Mountain’ card the opponent had abruptly pulled out.

    Just then, a scholar spoke to him.

    “Elder Hahu. All the elders have gathered.”

    Puffing on his folding fan with the ‘three-fire-true-qi’ technique, Elder Hahu turned to face the assembly.

    ‘As long as we respond calmly, we’ll be victorious this time too.’

    His usual self-assured smile returned to his lips.

    ***

    Luoyang Sword House.

    Elder’s Hall, Grand Assembly Hall.

    Though sitting alone with no one engaging him in conversation, Elder Son wasn’t dwelling on any sense of isolation or loneliness.

    Eyes closed, mustering his concentration, he was merely reflecting on all that had transpired thus far.

    ‘Where did it go wrong…?’

    The Eldest Young Master had undoubtedly been swept up in their scheme, ultimately relinquishing his most powerful weapon, the Family Head’s Seal.

    But things had been different ever since.

    In the process of carrying out the joint venture with the 4th Young Master, the Eldest Young Master had deftly evaded every obstacle.

    Not even once had he given them a proper victory.

    The finger tapping on his folded arms came to a halt.

    ‘…Could it be?’

    What if the Eldest Young Master had lulled them into complacency by relinquishing the Family Head’s Seal?

    What if he had instead deceived them through the unavoidable surrender of the Family Head’s Seal?

    And by doing so, induced only his allies to deploy forces sufficient to contend with them during the most vulnerable point, the early stages of the joint venture?

    At that moment, a bead of cold sweat trickled down his forehead.

    “It’s completely empty today!”

    The booming remark of the Elder’s Hall Master shattered the state of extreme concentration he had been maintaining.

    “Come on, everyone! Buck up! I’m the busiest and most exhausted person here!”

    With the declaration of the session’s opening, the ‘ominous delusion’ about the Eldest Young Master was pushed out of Elder Son’s mind.

    ‘It’s a notion based on an assumption atop an assumption to begin with. No need to consider it more seriously.’

    Right now, he had all the proxy forms from his fellow faction elders.

    It was an unprecedented situation where he couldn’t consult with anyone.

    It was a time to focus wholly on the Elder’s Assembly.

    ***

    A little earlier.

    Luoyang, North Mang Mountain.

    Entrance to the ultra-luxurious residential district, checkpoint.

    “Affiliation?”

    The Emei Sect’s proctor hurriedly answered.

    “Ah, Emei Sect.”

    “Identification?”

    As the other party’s sharp gaze swept the inside of the carriage, the proctor hastily rummaged through her robes and handed over her clan badge and the Emei Sect’s identification documents.

    The other nuns in the carriage did the same.

    “Hmm…”

    Though it was likely a sound the other party had uttered without any particular meaning, the proctor’s heart sank.

    “Ou-our superior is Lady Sanggwan, ri-riding in the carriage ahead. S-so Lady Sanggwan will vouch for our identities.”

    She babbled on about things the other party hadn’t even asked.

    “Lady Sanggwan is the daughter of the Sichuan Provincial Governor, her identity is certain…”

    “That’ll do.”

    Cutting her off, the other party returned the identification documents.

    “Thank you for cooperating with the inspection.”

    Though the identification documents were practically tossed back, the proctor didn’t dare entertain any thought of protest.

    Because…

    ‘Th-the Imperial Army!’

    Indeed.

    The other party was a soldier of the Imperial Household.

    Even without the morning sun, the armor made of glittering silver flood dragon scales shone brightly.

    The plentiful plume on the helmet, intertwined with gold and violet threads, fluttered in the wind.

    In addition to the sword symbolizing his clan, there was undoubtedly an imperially bestowed sword hanging from the sword belt at his waist.

    Based on those characteristics, the proctor deduced their identities from her memories.

    ‘…The Second Imperial Guards Brigade, under the direct command of the Central Plains’s Imperial Household.’

    The sight of the Imperial Guards Brigade soldiers, crisply coming together after completing inspections at each carriage, was intimidating enough on its own.

    The last to be inspected was the brigade commander, who had been riding an armored warhorse.

    “Thank you for your cooperation!”

    Dismounting from the armored warhorse, he clasped his hands and bowed to Yeon Hyeon.

    “Open the main gate!”

    At his command, the barricade blocking the road at the checkpoint shifted to open a path.

    In truth, it was closer in form to the entrance of a fortress than a checkpoint.

    “Pass through!”

    As he shouted and signaled with his hand, the procession carrying the Eldest Young Master Yeon So-hyeon began moving again.

    Thus, they entered the North Mang Mountain area, surrounded by stone walls as high as ramparts.

    “…Wh-where exactly is this place? It’s guarded not by Luoyang’s security forces or government troops, but the Imperial Army?”

    As one of the warrior nuns asked in a trembling voice, an administrative nun replied while rubbing her sweat-drenched hands.

    “Haven’t you heard? This is none other than North Mang Mountain.”

    The mouth of the warrior nun who had asked the question fell open.

    “N-North Mang Mountain? The North Mang Mountain where the villas of the Capital’s Sixteen Clans are located?”

    At the mention of the Capital’s Sixteen Clans, everyone fell silent under the weight of those words.

    “…That’s right.”

    The proctor spoke while gazing out the window.

    “The Imperial Clans of Merit that have upheld the Imperial Throne for generations from the closest proximity.”

    Each wall surrounding the mansions visible outside the window was practically a small rampart, and from inside the carriage, their end was not even in sight.

    “It’s said that the retired power brokers of those sixteen clans spend their twilight years on this North Mang Mountain, known for having the best feng shui in the Central Plains, and when their lifespan is exhausted, they are enshrined in the ancestral halls of the North Mang Mountain mansions along with their forebears.”

    An administrative nun uttered the most famous saying about the Capital’s Sixteen Clans.

    “…Though owning not a single merchant group, the continent’s wealth flows to them; though having not a single personal guard, the Imperial authority protects them.”

    The procession was moving.

    Yet the towering walls of the first mansion they had encountered had not even revealed their entrance.

    “Does the Eldest Young Master of the Luoyang Sword House normally associate with such people?”

    The proctor shook her head at the warrior nun’s question.

    “Impossible. Unless one is the Family Head of the Sword House, that is an implausible notion.”

    No matter how much the Luoyang Sword House was called the foremost clan in the world, they were the supreme political power clans that served the Emperor from the closest proximity.

    “Simply coming here to visit doesn’t mean one can meet them… No, then…?”

    Her voice trailed off.

    “…A prior arrangement?”

    ***

    Luoyang Sword House.

    2nd Young Master’s Faction, Grand Assembly Hall.

    There was no way the 2nd Young Master’s faction elders wouldn’t make the same conjecture as the proctor.

    “Here! It’s here!”

    An elder pulled out a scroll from a pile of documents.

    “I had investigated just in case something like this happened.”

    With a slightly smug expression, he unfolded the scroll.

    “This is a list of all those who sent congratulatory letters to Wongak Pavilion after the Eldest Young Master ended his seclusion.”

    It was an investigation made possible by the fact that those who had visited to deliver the letters loudly announced their clans and the letter’s sender at the entrance of Wongak Pavilion.

    “Here, grab that end and unroll it!”

    The expressions of those who had initially wondered what kind of scroll it was turned to astonishment.

    The list was so long that it could only be compiled in scroll form.

    “Everyone! Quickly find out which of the Sixteen Clans sent a letter to the Eldest Young Master!”

    Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the list that stretched out longer than a person’s height.

    “Here!”

    A scholar skilled in speed reading pointed to a spot on the list.

    “The Kong Clan! The clan that produced Prime Ministers for three generations!”

    Eternal Teacher, Confucian Classics Remain Here, Hall of Virtue and Benevolence, Grand Synthesis of Sages, Unprecedented Guide for All.

    The Kong Clan was the direct descendant clan of the great teacher, Confucius, referred to by such glorious epithets.

    “Hmm…”

    The elder who had compiled the congratulatory letter list stroked his long beard, recalling his memory.

    “A figure from the Kong Clan who has a connection to the Eldest Young Master…”

    An elder from the Foreign Bureau clapped his hands.

    “I remember! I once heard a rumor that the retired previous Clan Head occasionally spoke of his ties to the Eldest Young Master!”

    “It just had to be the previous Clan Head…!”

    As everyone gulped, Elder Hahu raised his head and looked toward the entrance of the Grand Assembly Hall.

    “Still no news from the site?! We need to confirm whether the clan the Eldest Young Master is visiting is indeed the Kong Clan!”

    Amidst the urgently unfolding situation, a scholar waiting at the entrance shouted, sweating profusely.

    “N-not yet!”

    Other elders nearby shook their heads.

    “Elder Kang would have barely left the main house by now.”

    At those words, Elder Hahu gnashed on his folding fan.

    To begin with, obtaining informants in North Mang Mountain was as difficult as plucking stars from the sky, and it was impossible for an intelligence agent to personally enter and gather information.

    Thus, they had no choice but to directly dispatch an elder to the scene.

    “…For now, under the premise that the Kong Clan is indeed the Eldest Young Master’s planned destination, all we can do is craft potential scenarios.”

    At an elder’s mutter, Elder Hahu raised his head and shouted toward the scholars.

    “You all heard! Begin immediately!”

    Even before he shouted, the astute scholars were already taking action.

    “No matter if it’s one of those Sixteen Clans, as long as we clearly grasp the situation, we can sufficiently intervene on our end as well!”

    ***

    Luoyang Sword House, Supreme Council Meeting.

    “The Kong Clan?!”

    The committee members murmured among themselves.

    Tracking the Eldest Young Master’s movements in real-time through the intelligence departments, the committee members were obtaining faster and more accurate information than anyone else within the Luoyang Sword House.

    “…There was definitely information that the Eldest Young Master was close to the Kong Clan’s previous Clan Head. I remember it now.”

    Hearing the new female committee member’s words, the new male committee member muttered.

    “Did he request a meeting through the Kong Clan members who visited him after ending his seclusion…?”

    “The Eldest Young Master’s connections are truly astounding. At that age, without the backing of his maternal lineage, and while in seclusion at that, he built such a network…”

    Listening to their conversation, a committee member spoke up.

    “The Eldest Young Master requested the meeting. Is that really the case?”

    At his words, the two new committee members expressed their puzzlement.

    “What do you…?”

    “Then are you saying the Eldest Young Master just decided to visit, relying solely on his friendship, without even a request?”

    Another committee member said with a laugh.

    “Why do you think the Kong Clan didn’t take the initiative to send the Eldest Young Master a congratulatory letter along with an invitation?”

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