Kou Zhong and Yun Yuzhen were back inside the carriage, Bu Tianzhi was still responsible for driving it; they were heading back toward the Imperial City.
Yun Yuzhen spoke in low voice, "What do you think of this man, Song Jingang?”
Frowning, Kou Zhong said, "You were the one who introduced us, yet you are asking me?”
Yun Yuzhen crossly said, "I was only following Xiao Dangjia's order!”
Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Beautiful Shifu needs not take it seriously; in my opinion, in the future this Song Jingang will become a formidable opponent to Li Shimin. This game of contending over the world is becoming more and more interesting. Humph! Liu Wuzhou certainly has too much commitment toward the Tujues, otherwise they would not have abandoned the Li kid and help them instead.”
Yun Yuzhen said, "This is perhaps the ‘faraway relative resulted in distant relation' logic. Liu Wuzhou and the others are sustaining the militia north of Xinjiang; they all received nobility title from the Tujue, and have become their vassals. Li Yuan, on the other hand, has always been a bit far from them, hence the Tujues do not trust him too much.”
Pondering deeply, Kou Zhong said, "Why didn't Song Jingang mention Liang Shi at all? He is Liu Wuzhou's martial brother; both are martial art masters and leading figures of Ying Yang Pai. According to reason, they should share the same interests and advance or retreat together.”
Sneering, Yun Yuzhen said, "Even brothers can turned against each other and become enemies. Weren't Du Fuwei and Fu Gongyou at each other throat? And now they are still suspicious and jealous of each other. I hear Li Shimin and the Crown Prince Li Jiancheng are also estranged brothers. Anything involving the imperial throne, all proper human relationships are not worth a penny.”
Kou Zhong reminisced about the time Du Fuwei wanted to make him his son, yet he did not mention Fu Gongyou at all. It appeared that he did not have any regard of him.
Recalling that Yun Yuzhen was widely known as intelligence expert, he smiled and said, "If in the future I stage an uprising, would Beautiful Shifu be willing to throw your full support at me?”
Casting him a sidelong glance, Yun Yuzhen sighed and said, "How about we talk when the time comes? You don't know how much troubles are in my heart nowadays!”
Intuitively Kou Zhong knew that she was troubled over a man-woman relationship, hence he did not dare to continue asking. Without thinking, he said, "There are several martial art masters from the Dugu Family who have not made their appearance at all. For example, that Dugu Ba seems to disappear without any trace. I wonder if you knew where they are?”
Dispirited and downcast, Yun Yuzhen replied, "How do I know? We're here! Get off the carriage!”
※ ※ ※
The boat carrying Xu and Ba, two men, was moored under a small bridged. Shrouded by the misty rain, unless someone was on a boat passing through under the bridge, or perhaps was intentionally looking, no one would find them there.
If this were a principal waterway like the Luo River, their small boat would definitely be an eyesore. But they were currently at a small tributary leading to the Luo Canal, located along the Pleasant Lane at the southwestern part of the city.
The boat they saw earlier was moored at a small pier behind a courtyard right at the edge of the stream. On the pier, there were three other canopied fast boats.
In Luoyang, waterways connected the entire city; traveling by water was more convenient, not to mention faster, than traveling by carts and horses or walking on land.
Ba Fenghan peered at the back door of the courtyard, which, at this time, was tightly closed. He said in heavy voice, "I have confidence that I will be able to kill Tuli.”
Stunned, Xu Ziling said, "How can you say that? Based on what I've seen just now, at best you two are evenly matched, both men share the limelight.”
Shaking his head, Ba Fenghan said, "That's how it appeared. Didn't you feel that when you were facing Shi Feixuan last night, you gave out far beyond your usual level of performance?”
Shaken, Xu Ziling said, "I have never really thought about it. But now that you mention it, it seemed to be the case.”
Ba Fenghan's eyes were flashing with spirited light. His voice brimming with yearning, he said, "This is precisely the wonderful usage of the Jade Annulus of He Clan; it enables us to break through and beyond the limitation of our former physical capability. Now all we need is a challenge and an opportunity to temper ourselves, and then we will be able to start bringing out our hidden capability, and turn it into reality. Right now Luoyang is teeming with crouching tigers, hidden dragons, plus we are surrounded by the enemies on all sides; is there any place under the heavens better than here to train our martial art skill?”
Xu Ziling looked down at the raindrops falling into the river and became part of the river itself. Nodding his head, he said, "We are like an open river; each time we fought, it was like a blowing storm that made the river water even richer. Thinking about it, my heart is moved.”
"Someone's out!” Ba Fenghan said.
Actually, Xu Ziling was already alerted; hastily he hid his body while keeping his eyes on the rear wall of the courtyard.
Two figured leaped over the wall and landed on one of the fast boats, quickly untied the rope, and sped away in the other direction.
It was Xu Ziling's careful thinking; he moored the small boat at the other end of the stream leading toward the Luo River, otherwise this moment they would have been found by the enemy. The possibility that the enemy would go to the city center was, of course, the highest.
Following the boat sailing far away with his eyes, Ba Fenghan laughed cheerfully, "This time we are lucky that without even trying we found Qu Ao's temporary hideout. No wonder the smell of snow lotus herb was very strong; it is the Tiele people's panacea of treating any injury.”
Xu Ziling also recognized the man and woman just now as Qu Ao's second disciple Hua Lingzi and third disciple Genggehu'er; he also thought that it was such a coincidence. "I wonder which of them was injured?” he asked in surprise.
"They can always buy the medicine without anybody sustaining any injury!” Ba Fenghan replied, "This is called ‘before it rains, bind around with silk' [idiom from Book of Songs]; one must make adequate preparation.”
Seeing Ba Fenghan's eyes were flashing with spirited light, Xu Ziling asked, "Is Fenghan Xiong thinking of charging inside and making a big kill?”
Smiling, Ba Fenghan said, "Ziling really know how to read my mind. Just think: who are the people inside, actually? How's their strength? We have no idea at all. This kind of charging inside the dragon pool or tiger den is extremely stimulating; it is sending my excitement to the roof! Whether we can become martial art master of Ning Daoqi, Bi Xuan, Fu Cailin, or the likes, we only have to look at the present!”
The two suddenly had warning signs in their hearts, so they turned around to look at the stream leading toward the Luo River.
Amidst the drizzling rain, a fast boat was rapidly approaching; other than one person sitting at the stern steering the boat, a man with his long hair draped over his shoulders, was standing on the bow. His face and eyes looked sinister; he had broad shoulders, slim waist, and long legs. His outward appearance was powerful and ferocious, bordering to terrifying.
Xu Ziling quickly withdrew his internal energy to dim his eyes. Although they were nearly thirty zhang away, he was afraid his eyes might arouse the other party's alertness. Lowering his voice, he said, "It's Dugu Ba; Dugu Clan's first-class master, Dugu Feng's younger brother.”
Astonished, Ba Fenghan said, "Isn't the Dugu Clan in cahoots with Li Mi? How could they collude with Tiele people in secret? Let's go!”
Xu Ziling was thinking about the time when they were leaving Xingyang, Dugu Ba was taking advantage when Shen Luoyan's mind was in turmoil by hiding inside a pile of snow and launching a sneak attack, which succeeded, and then he sexually assaulted Shen Luoyan, until finally Xu Ziling also launched a sneak attack and succeeded in injuring him. Hearing Ba Fenghan, he was awakened from his reverie, "What?” he asked.
Ba Fenghan already struck his palm against the surface of the river, creating a splash of water, which sprayed everywhere.
Like an arrow the small boat cut through the water surface, slipped out from under the bridge, and sped forward to meet Dugu Ba's fast boat.
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong jumped off the carriage. When he looked back and waved to take his leave from Bu Tianzhi, the latter flicked a crumpled ball of paper toward him.
Kou Zhong continued on in astonishment, while the carriage turned around and left.
While walking toward the middle gate of the Imperial City, he examined the paper Bu Tianzhi gave him. Other than the place and time of their secret meeting, there was nothing else. He could not help feeling apprehensive.
Bu Tianzhi clearly wanted to conceal the fact that he had secret communication with him from Yun Yuzhen. What exactly was going on?
But deep in his heart he knew that Bu Tianzhi did not mean him any harm.
Upon entering the Imperial City, the Captain of the Guards took him to the Shangshu Mansion. He had to wait a long time before someone brought him to the main hall. As soon as he stepped inside, he was stunned.
He saw Wang Shichong was sitting at the host position on an elevated platform at the southern end of the hall, while about a dozen seats, which were distributed equally on both sides, were full. [Translator's note: the character I translated as ‘seat' could also mean banquet table; therefore, it is possible that these people were sitting on separate tables, one person per ‘banquet' table.]
Among the six people sitting on the right side, Kou Zhong recognized the ‘Beautiful Barbarian Lady' Ling Longjiao, (Taoist) Priest Ke Feng, the ‘Iron Hook' Chen Changlin, and the one sitting on the head seat of Wang Shichong's right hand side was Ouyang Xiyi, while Lang Feng and Song Mengqiu were sitting at the end seats.
The six people sitting on the other side, it was the first time that Kou Zhong saw them. The two men sitting at the end seats resembled Wang Shichong; so his guess was that the two were his sons.
While Kou Zhong was momentarily stupefied from suddenly encountering this kind of formation, Wang Shichong rose up to his full height and laughed aloud, "Kou Zhong, you arrived just in time; we are discussing the grand plan. Come! Sit down and have some hot tea, and then we'll talk.”
One after another the people raised their cupped fist to salute him. Only that as-cold-as-ice-and-frost Beautiful Barbarian Lady Ling Longjiao looked cold and indifferent toward him; she only nodded slightly as a greeting to him.
Ouyang Xiyi appeared to have an especially favorable impression toward Kou Zhong; beckoning him to come over, he said, "No need to add a seat [or table, see note above], come sit with laofu [old man] here!”
The attendant quickly added an imperial-tutor chair [太师椅] next to this senior martial art master's table and asked Kou Zhong to sit down, and served fragrant tea.
After the commotion died down, Wang Shichong introduced two men in high-ranking military officer attire sitting on the first two seats to his left to Kou Zhong. One was called Zhang Zhenzhou, the other was Yang Gongqing, both were great generals Wang Shichong heavily relied on like his left and right arms; their status was higher than Lang Feng and Song Mengqiu. They have been stationed outside, to defend against militias who rise up against Wang Shichong.
Kou Zhong knew that these two were the real players in Wang Shichong's team; hence he paid particular attention as he scrutinized the two men.
Zhang Zhenzhou was tall and slim, his slender face appeared to be shrewd and full of self-confidence, his demeanor was calm and composed, rarely smiling, his forehead was high and slightly bulging, giving the impression that it contained inexhaustible intelligence. His age appeared to be between thirty-five, thirty-six, and appeared to be a meticulous [orig. not one thread loose] man.
Yang Gongqing was slightly older, medium build, a gentle smile seemed to be eternally etched on his face. His thin eyes gave Kou Zhong impression that he was a shrewd and an extremely deep man. His voice was sharp, and he spoke unhurriedly, yet people felt as if his words sounded continuous and intermittent at the same time.
The two men sitting at the end seats were Wang Xuanying and Wang Xuanshu, they were Wang Shichong's first and second son, respectively. The former had a scar on his face, his bearing and the way he spoke showed that he was a boorish and reckless man; his eyes carried some kind of vicious overtone, so that others were not too impressed. His body build was rather short and stocky, leaning toward slightly fat, making Kou Zhong to guess that he was a man who indulged himself in wine and women; otherwise, given his age, which was still around mid-twenty, he would not have this kind of appearance. It appeared that even if he received Wang Shichong's personal instruction, he would still become like that.
On the other hand, his younger brother had solid build, his face glowing, full of heroic spirit. Although he was not as tall as Kou Zhong, he could still be considered tall like a standing jade. It's just that his childish nature still remained; he needed some more experience before he was able to assume personal responsibility.
The other two persons were Wang Honglie and Wang Xingben; both were Wang Shichong's close relatives. Their outward appearance did not show anything extraordinary.
Therefore, among the people seated, eight were core figures of Wang Shichong's army. Half of those standing were related in one way or another with Wang Shichong. With the exception of Wang Xuanshu, the rest were not people of talent. With nepotism like this, certainly there would be impact, to a certain degree, on the troops' morale.
After tea, Wang Shichong turned to Kou Zhong and said with a laugh, "To be able to see Xiao Xiongdi returned safe and sound, all of us are overjoyed.”
Kou Zhong cursed inwardly; not a word was mentioned about the curfew last night. He laughed and said, "What actually happened that it alarmed Shangshu Daren and ladies and gentlemen here to have a discussion of the grand plan?”
Wang Shichong said, "Huang Gongcuo has just arrived. We are preparing a preemptive attack to inflict total defeat of the Nanhai Pai, so that they would never recover.”
Aghast, Kou Zhong said, "Absolutely not!”
Everybody, including Wang Shichong, was stunned.