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    Luoyang Sword House.

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

    “Just as we predicted!”

    A small cheer rang out in the Grand Assembly Hall.

    Chuckling heartily, Elder Hahu exhaled smoke with great gusto.

    “Information has come in confirming that the mansion the Eldest Young Master visited indeed belongs to the Kong Clan!”

    An elder mixed in among the group of scholars shouted.

    “The potential scenarios the Eldest Young Master could carry out with the Kong Clan are nearly finished being prepared!”

    “Excellent! Good!”

    Elder Hahu nodded his head, expressing his satisfaction.

    His exaggerated, grandiose gestures and shouting were unwittingly instilling confidence in the scholars of the Grand Assembly Hall.

    “Everything is proceeding well!”

    Turning around slightly, he asked another elder in a low voice.

    “But why is the information delivery so delayed? Wasn’t the Daseollang Guild fully cooperating with our operation?”

    The person he addressed was Elder Ahn, who was responsible for the Daseollang Guild.

    “Of course. The Daseollang Guild is sparing no resources and exerting its full strength for this operation.”

    Perhaps because of the subtly provocative tone, or because Elder Ahn’s lineage was from Jiangnan…

    “The Daseollang Guild is also currently seeking the cause of the delay, so please have a little patience.”

    Showing an agitated demeanor instead of his usual composure, Elder Ahn pushed up his glasses and turned his eyes back to the confidential documents.

    “…What the hell is going on?”

    Observing Elder Ahn’s appearance with his brows tightly furrowed, Elder Hahu gave a small nod and turned his attention to what he could do.

    Delusional notions that everything would smoothly unfold at the actual site were the domain of immature scholars who considered themselves heaven’s gift to the world.

    “Good! Then next, it’s time to start crafting our response scenarios based on the potential scenarios!”

    A resounding answer shook the Grand Assembly Hall.

    ***

    Luoyang, North Mang Mountain.

    A bustling street near the checkpoint.

    “What did you say…?!”

    Elder Kang, who had been dispatched to the scene by the 2nd Young Master’s side, jumped up.

    “What did you just say?!”

    “Oh my goodness…!”

    As his voice rose, the other party hurriedly scanned the surroundings and hunched down, waving his hands in protest.

    “Elder, sir…! Please lower your voice. If the clan finds out I’m having this conversation with you, my head won’t remain attached…!”

    The value of an informant within the Capital’s Sixteen Clans was so precious it couldn’t possibly be converted into mere gold.

    “S-sorry.”

    Coming to his senses with a start, the elder fake-coughed and hid his body back in the building’s shadow.

    “But is that true?”

    The butler of the Kong Clan, hiding his body across from him, nodded.

    “Why would I risk this danger to spout nonsense to the face of a Sword House elder?”

    He gently reiterated the information he had confirmed to Elder Kang.

    “The Sword House’s Eldest Young Master definitely visited our Kong Clan bearing an invitation personally written by the previous Clan Head.”

    With a disgruntled expression, Elder Kang incessantly stroked his white beard.

    “The Eldest Young Master didn’t request the visit, but received an invitation…?”

    “That’s right…! I saw with my own eyes the previous Clan Head personally coming out to the main gate to welcome the Eldest Young Master.”

    What the hell was going on?

    Elder Kang shook his head to regain his senses for now.

    Once the information was delivered, analysis would be handled through collective intelligence at the Grand Assembly Hall.

    His role was to gather information at the scene, and he needed to focus on that now.

    “Then, was it the same at the Hwang Clan that the Eldest Young Master headed to after leaving the Kong Clan? He entered with a prior invitation from the Hwang Clan?”

    “I can’t be certain as it’s another clan’s affairs, but…”

    The Kong Clan’s butler shook his head.

    “From what I’ve heard, he entered the Hwang Clan without an invitation.”

    At those words, the elder’s mind momentarily went blank.

    “…Without an invitation?”

    In response to his reaction, the Kong Clan’s butler sighed.

    Because he himself had shown the same reaction when he heard that story from the Hwang Clan’s butler.

    “Believe it or not, it can’t be helped.”

    “No, it’s not that I don’t believe you…”

    Just how many people in the Central Plains could possibly come and go among the Capital’s Sixteen Clans without an appointment or invitation?

    “That’s the extent of what I know for now. Well then.”

    As soon as the Kong Clan’s butler had divulged everything he knew, he hurriedly left.

    “…He entered without an invitation?”

    Knowing how dangerous it was to pass on information like this, the elder couldn’t stop him from disappearing in a flash.

    ‘Just what the hell is going on?’

    Discerning the authenticity of the information would have to be done through subsequent additional investigations.

    Right now, he sought out the Daseollang Guild’s messenger to deliver the primary information he had obtained.

    “Where’s the messenger?”

    A warrior who emerged from the darkness shook his head.

    “Not here yet.”

    Before the elder could explode in anger, the warrior hastily continued.

    “Instead, an intelligence agent from the Daseollang Guild is standing by to personally receive and deliver the information.”

    At those words, the elder swallowed the profanities that had risen to his throat.

    “…Good, as expected of the Daseollang Guild. They handle matters thoroughly.”

    ***

    Luoyang, Daseollang Guild Headquarters.

    A supervisor roughly slammed his desk.

    “What the hell is happening to the messengers?!”

    His office was in utter chaos, no different from a pigsty, with people coming and going to grasp the situation.

    “The current whereabouts of the messengers are under investigation!”

    “I’ve been hearing ‘under investigation’ since an hour ago! Are you actually working?! What about the response? How is the response progressing?!”

    Another employee answered.

    “Notification of the alert level being raised to Level 2 has been disseminated to all branches!”

    Hastily checking the notes, she shouted.

    “As per headquarters’ directive, all messengers are being withdrawn! Instead, intelligence agents from headquarters are being deployed to respond to the unknown situation!”

    The supervisor gritted his teeth.

    “Dispatch more high-level investigators!”

    ***

    An intelligence agent from the Daseollang Guild, carrying a tube of information from North Mang Mountain, was in the midst of swiftly passing through a narrow alley.

    “Ugh!”

    Although he had received a warning and was traveling while even employing lightfoot skills, that instead proved to be his undoing.

    Failing to notice the silk thread suspended in midair, his body spun around once and crashed straight into the ground.

    ‘A trap?!’

    Like the martial artist he was, having undergone professional training, he managed to execute a falling technique in that brief, unprepared moment.

    But that was all.

    Amidst the impact that felt like it would shatter his entire body, as he somehow tried to respond, a dull blow was dealt to the back of his head.

    “Urk!”

    Collapsing again, in the information agent’s blurring vision, figures emerged like ghosts from various corners of the alley.

    “Dragon marking confirmed. It’s indeed an intelligence agent from the Daseollang Guild.”

    That was the last voice he remembered before completely losing consciousness.

    ***

    Another intelligence agent from the Daseollang Guild was traveling along the main road, blending in among ordinary people.

    “…Mmph?!”

    What assailed that information agent were those carrying a funeral bier, dressed in hemp clothing.

    Before he could properly react, his carotid artery was mercilessly constricted by a thick, water-soaked hemp cord, and he lost consciousness with his eyes rolled back.

    Those dressed in hemp clothing tossed the agent into the funeral bier and left the scene as if nothing had happened.

    On the streets of Luoyang, where throngs of people came and went, no one sensed anything amiss.

    ***

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

    “Damn it…!”

    The Daseollang Guild’s supervisor, Elder Ahn, roughly threw the note that had just been delivered.

    But since it was merely a scrap of paper, it simply fluttered weakly in the air.

    “I must return to the Daseollang Guild!”

    As Elder Ahn abruptly stood up and began moving, surrounded by a group of intelligence agents, Elder Hahu shouted toward him.

    “Shouldn’t you at least explain what’s going on before leaving your seat?!”

    Elder Ahn shouted irritably without even stopping.

    “I’ll be right back!”

    The door slammed roughly behind him.

    “Hmm.”

    Elder Hahu picked up the note that Elder Ahn had thrown.

    ‘Urgent. Machinations targeting the Daseollang Guild from an unidentified intelligence organization are underway. Upper-level directives needed.’

    ***

    A command safe house located somewhere in Luoyang.

    All the windows of the house were blocked, engulfing the interior in darkness.

    “The Daseollang Guild has withdrawn all its agents and is replacing them with the Sword House’s warriors as messengers.”

    It was a precise, swift, and even shrewd decision by Elder Ahn.

    “As expected of the renowned Daseollang Guild. Fast, aren’t they?”

    Se-ah, the Crescent Moon Pavilion Mistress who received the report, smiled as she exhaled a long trail of smoke.

    “Have all our field agents withdraw. We can’t touch the Sword House’s warriors and cause friction with the Sword House’s intelligence departments.”

    The smoke she exhaled shone white, reflected by the lantern.

    “Are you ordering the operation to be aborted?”

    She waved the long-stemmed pipe in her hand.

    “No. The operation has practically succeeded already.”

    Her commander nodded.

    “We’ve already been able to ‘abduct’ more Daseollang Guild agents than we had aimed for.”

    “Understood.”

    After nodding to show his comprehension, the Crescent Moon Pavilion agent vacated his seat to deliver the orders.

    “Commander.”

    Se-ah sat in her chair, crossing her legs in the opposite direction.

    “As my lord commanded, extract every bit of information you can squeeze out of them.”

    “Yes, ma’am!”

    Her one remaining eye in the darkness traced an alluring arc.

    “Now then, go ahead and keep resisting.”

    She chuckled.

    “The more fiercely you resist, the more your massive frame will inevitably be exposed above the water’s surface.”

    ***

    Luoyang Sword House, Supreme Council Meeting.

    “So you’re saying that’s all the information you have on this Crescent Moon Pavilion Mistress person?”

    At a committee member’s words, the high-level agent from the organization dispatched to the Luoyang Sword House’s intelligence department bowed his head.

    “Unfortunately, that’s correct. To begin with, until recently, Crescent Moon Pavilion itself was nothing more than a common information broker in Luoyang…”

    “You should have conducted a proper investigation even after they were granted the Sword House Associate status by the 4th Young Master!”

    The new male committee member barked.

    The high-level agent, kneeling on one knee, lowered his head even deeper.

    “A preliminary investigation was completed according to procedure. An in-depth investigation was underway, but…”

    Another committee member took over.

    “Still, you’re saying this is all the information you have on this Se-ah person?”

    “We’ve identified her family background and confirmed that she’s a blood relative of the Eldest Young Master’s Chief Maid. …My apologies.”

    “The process of her rising as a self-made information broker in Luoyang is somewhat known, but her prior history is unclear.”

    “Yes, that’s correct.”

    Shortly after the high-level agent withdrew, the female committee member sighed.

    “I’m truly curious about the identity of this Crescent Moon Pavilion Mistress person. The current Crescent Moon Pavilion is not merely a rapidly growing information broker.”

    “Engaging in an intelligence war with the 2nd Young Master’s Daseollang Guild. That clearly exceeds the realm of an information broker.”

    “We should now consider it an intelligence organization in its own right.”

    The gazes of the new male and female committee members turned toward the cavern where the chairman was.

    “This Crescent Moon Pavilion organization also began rapidly growing after meeting the Eldest Young Master.”

    “Should we assume the Eldest Young Master is behind this organization as well?”

    The chairman smiled faintly.

    “It seems you can now start to grasp the Eldest Young Master’s influence from his traces.”

    “…”

    “…”

    The two new committee members fell silent in shock.

    “Let’s wait and see about the past of this Crescent Moon Pavilion Mistress person. Now that the main house’s intelligence department has officially begun investigating, they’ll soon find a lead at least. More importantly…”

    The chairman unfolded a newly arrived note.

    “The Eldest Young Master has already visited a fourth clan without an invitation.”

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