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    Luoyang, Luoyang Governor’s Office.

    Close to quitting time after official duties were finished.

    A fragrance said to bring peace to body and mind lingered faintly in the office.

    “This time, try kneading the shoulders a bit harder.”

    “Yes, Governor, sir!”

    At the Luoyang Governor’s words, lying face down on the massage table set up in one corner of the office, the professional masseur began vigorously stimulating the acupoints on his shoulders.

    “Ooh, that’s good! Very good!”

    The Luoyang Governor grinned from ear to ear, enjoying the bliss as if he had arrived in paradise.

    “Do you know how difficult a path this old man had to walk to reach this position?”

    The professional masseur shook his head.

    “How could a lowly being like me dare to know the affairs of the state? I have merely heard through the grapevine that countless lofty figures wish to ascend to the position of Luoyang Governor.”

    “Right. That’s precisely it. This position is the very one that all the highest-ranking officials dream of!”

    There was not an ounce of exaggeration or falsehood in the Luoyang Governor’s words.

    The position of Luoyang Governor held the least power and influence among all the governors in the Central Plains.

    But at the same time, it was the position that the highest-ranking officials envied the most and the one everyone wanted to attain.

    “Indeed! This lowly one may not know much else, but I do know a thing or two about massage. Just by giving a massage like this, I can tell that people of greatness are born with different bone structures and acupoints from the very start!”

    “Hahaha! It’s blatant flattery, but I’ll accept it just for today!”

    The Luoyang Governor was still happy every single day, even though it had been several months since his appointment.

    The actual ruler of Luoyang was the Luoyang Sword House, so the position of governor was nearly a figurehead, but that was the charm of this position.

    ‘I heard there was some incident at the Dragon-Pheonix Branch stadium construction site, but the Sword House will handle it well.’

    Simply entrusting everything to the Luoyang Sword House, receiving everything that could be received from them, and enjoying all the pleasures that could be enjoyed as a high-ranking official.

    That was why the competition for the position of Luoyang Governor was so fierce.

    “Go-Governor, sir!”

    The office door swung open without warning.

    “What is it?!”

    “Urgent news!”

    The Luoyang Governor was about to lash out in anger but held back after seeing the civil official’s pale face.

    Lying down, receiving the massage, the Luoyang Governor’s face gradually lost color as he listened to the report conveyed to his ears.

    “Y-you, leave at once!”

    The top-class masseur sent from the reception hall at the request of the Luoyang Sword House’s Foreign Bureau was immediately dismissed.

    “Is that report true?!”

    “How could there be any doubt?!”

    Although he said that, the Luoyang Governor knew well that no one here was insane enough to joke about such a serious matter.

    He just needed a moment to accept the reality.

    “The Eldest Young Master? The Eldest Young Master of the Luoyang Sword House visited North Mang Mountain? And he’s visiting the clans one by one…?”

    Sitting on the massage table in his undergarments, he trembled and bit his nails.

    “This is a big deal. It’s no ordinary matter. For such a thing to occur already during my term…”

    Although the Luoyang Governor seemed somewhat lacking for a high-ranking official, he was by no means incompetent.

    Wasn’t the position of Luoyang Governor one that required at least the minimum qualifications of serving the Empire for a long time without leaving a single flaw in one’s career?

    His mind was spinning.

    “I don’t know what that Eldest Young Master fellow is thinking, but it’s insanity. Does he even realize what he’s doing?”

    Using the Sixteen Clans to flaunt his prestige and influence?

    It was a crazy thing to do.

    He shuddered.

    “Then it’s a deal! There must be some massive deal! A deal that can shake up this Luoyang! This is a natural disaster! A natural disaster!”

    Indeed, befitting someone who had risen to the position of Luoyang Governor by possessing self-preservation skills that vied for the top in the Central Plains, his grasp of the situation was astonishingly quick.

    “Summon all my close aides at once! No one should be allowed to leave the office!”

    The civil official rolled out of the office and ran.

    “But just what is that Eldest Young Master fellow thinking?”

    The Luoyang Governor trembled from head to toe.

    “The Sixteen Clans! The Sixteen Clans! If he swings them around as he pleases without going through the proper procedures, the price of that extravagance alone would be unimaginable, let alone before any deal…!”

    ***

    Luoyang Government Office.

    A middle-aged man was running through the government office like a madman.

    “Out of my way!”

    A scholar who collided with him fell, scattering documents, but he paid no heed.

    ‘Father calmly let the Sword House’s Eldest Young Master into the house…!’

    He was none other than the fourth son of the Kong Clan.

    ‘I must inform Eldest Brother in the Capital of this fact at once…!’

    Whether his senile father was trying to intervene in the Luoyang Sword House’s succession battle or making a reckless move to return as the clan head, it was none of his concern.

    His job was to inform the main house in the Capital of this fact as quickly as possible.

    And he wasn’t the only one running at that moment.

    “Move aside! Everyone, move aside!”

    Other members of the Sixteen Clans were also running with their eyebrows fluttering to relay this information to the main houses in the Capital.

    What Eldest Young Master Yeon So-hyeon had done was merely a visit without an invitation, but its repercussions were growing unimaginably like a snowball.

    ***

    Luoyang, North Mang Mountain, Gongsun Clan, Guest Lodge.

    Dozens of butlers and maids were visiting each guest room, politely informing the guests.

    “The master has an earnest request for the guests to refrain from going outside from this hour and to remain indoors until further notice.”

    Although it was expressed as a request in the form of a notice, it was effectively an order.

    Thus, it became difficult to find anyone coming or going on the vast mansion grounds.

    ***

    Central Garden.

    “Oh-ho?”

    Gongsun Nakang flicked his bright red tongue.

    “Did I, Gongsun Nakang, hear correctly? Did you just say that the Eldest Young Master is prepared to pay the price?”

    The friendly title of ‘young master’ was no more.

    Only the former clan head of the Gongsun Clan and the Eldest Young Master of the Luoyang Sword House remained there.

    “Frankly, I, Gongsun Nakang, don’t quite understand. Surely the Eldest Young Master didn’t mistake this North Mang Mountain, these Sixteen Clans, this Gongsun Clan, for some backyard where kind-hearted friends gather to live, right? Of course not. No way.”

    The old man with a ghostly expression spewed words like a flood, revealing the whites of his eyes.

    “I, Gongsun Nakang. I’m not well-versed in the internal affairs of the Sword House, but may I venture a guess?”

    Lowering his words, then raising them.

    It sounded like he was picking and choosing words as he pleased, but it wasn’t picking words; it was the eunuch’s peculiar manner of speech that seemed to devour the other party.

    “The 3rd Young Master’s side must be preoccupied with the construction site issue right now, so is it the 2nd Young Master’s side? Is it to deal a blow to the 2nd Young Master’s side, who are swooping in, taking advantage of the 3rd Young Master’s lack of manpower?”

    Indeed, the fact that he could clearly grasp the complex political landscape of the Luoyang Sword House’s succession battle from his seat made one recall once again what position this man had held in the past.

    “Or was it because you wanted to grandly and flamboyantly announce your return to this Luoyang and the distant Capital? Indeed, indeed. If you came and went from the Sixteen Clans like your own house after such a long seclusion, it would have made for a splendid topic of conversation.”

    His eyeballs trembled, his gaze meandered, and he incessantly observed Yeon So-hyeon’s facial expressions, a sadistic pleasure reflected deep in his eyes whenever there was the slightest change.

    “In fact, the reason doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.”

    He giggled to himself, sputtering saliva as he laughed.

    “However…”

    After laughing like that for a while, he suddenly hardened his countenance as if he had become a completely different person.

    That change in expression alone seemed to press down on the surroundings with a frost-like force.

    He crawled across the table like a creeping figure, shoving his face close to Eldest Young Master Yeon So-hyeon.

    His hot breath swayed Eldest Young Master Yeon So-hyeon’s long eyelashes.

    “If you thought that using the Sixteen Clans through the goodwill built from past ties would be tolerated at a low price, you’re mistaken!”

    The old man growled like a ferocious beast.

    “Regardless of what the old men of the previous clans said, what conditions they accepted, what deal they were satisfied with, it doesn’t matter one bit!”

    He shook his head.

    “No way! You’ve gravely misunderstood. You’ve misunderstood for quite a while!”

    Then, raising his hand like a devil’s foreleg, he pounded on the table.

    “Now then! Present that price to this Gongsun Nakang! Present a deal that will be satisfactory!”

    The price of daring to visit the Gongsun Clan as the tenth clan!

    The price of the wound inflicted on the honor of having lived in the position of ‘one below the sovereign’ for a lifetime, having served the Emperor from the closest proximity for a lifetime!

    “But before that! The Eldest Young Master must remember this clearly!”

    ***

    In front of the Gongsun Clan’s main gate.

    The Eldest Young Master’s procession, waiting in a prepared space on one side of the main road.

    “Defensive formation! Defensive formation!”

    At the head maid’s shout, the maids drew their swords in unison, forming a wall around the carriage.

    The guard captain and his subordinate guards grasped the hilts of their swords, their eyes glinting sharply as they pulled their horses back.

    But as if not seeing the drawn swords or sensing the guards’ spirit, the Second Imperial Guards Brigade approached with disciplined steps.

    “Encirclement formation!”

    Then, with keen movements, they began to surround the Eldest Young Master’s procession in layers.

    “What is the meaning of this?!”

    The brigade commander calmly approached the head maid, who shouted in a sharp tone.

    “A ‘request’ has been made. You all should prepare to withdraw from North Mang Mountain whenever this commander orders it.”

    He spoke as if not seeing the dozens of blades pointed at him.

    “Withdraw? The only one who can give us orders is the Eldest Young Master of the main house!”

    “Is that so?”

    The commander folded his arms.

    “You should also be well aware that the only ones who can point swords at our Imperial Guards are rebels.”

    Beneath the helmet, the commander’s expression was composed, but his chilling gaze was spine-tingling, and the implication of his words was even colder.

    ***

    Luoyang Governor’s Office.

    “Governor, sir! Governor, sir!”

    The civil official barged in, nearly breaking down the door.

    “Wh-what is it this time?!”

    The Luoyang Governor, who had been grasping the situation and deliberating countermeasures with his closest aides, leaped up.

    “A messenger has arrived from North Mang Mountain!”

    “Don’t beat around the bush, convey the messenger’s words at once!”

    Panting roughly, nearly choking on his breath, the civil official took a deep breath and shouted.

    “From now on, no one should leave the office, and all high-ranking officials in Luoyang should be put on standby within the government office. That is the ‘request’!”

    ***

    In the past, none other than the one the ‘Family Head’ of the Luoyang Sword House had called an ‘old monster’ bared his teeth.

    “But Eldest Young Master. You must remember this clearly. If by any chance you fail to pay a price that satisfies me even slightly…”

    A smile-like thing formed as the old monster’s mouth opened wide.

    “The Eldest Young Master will be immediately driven out of North Mang Mountain.”

    Laughter burst out unrestrained from that mouth.

    “If that happens, forget about widely announcing your return; you’ll only become the laughingstock of the entire Luoyang!”

    How could he not be delighted that the Eldest Young Master of the Luoyang Sword House had walked into the trap he had set with his own mouth?!

    His words carried the following meaning:

    ‘If you don’t want to be disgraced, you’ll have to show sincerity to the extent of giving up everything you have!’

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