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Jaya, Chowbeng, Ysabel, you are welcome, and Happy New Year to you too. Sky ... DongBin, looks like they are still in Luoyang for the foreseeable future. I agree with you though, it's been a long episode. Anyway, break's over, no more extra/longer than usual post starting from now on.

Book 16 Chapter 10 - Reluctant Parting

The three stood side by side on the bridge, looking towards the east, the winding river extended as far as their eyes could see. The bright night sky, under the moon and the stars, illuminated row after row of buildings on both sides of the river, brimming with rich layers of serene beauty, as picturesque as a dream.

Not wishing to disturb the residents of the nearby buildings, who were still in deep slumber, Ba Fenghan spoke in low voice, "Kou Zhong, aren't you underestimating the enemy too much? How come you don't seem to take Li Shimin seriously? In my opinion, among the warlords vying for supremacy, both in terms of personality and the strength they possess, he is second only to Li Mi before his battle against Yuwen Huaji; perhaps he is even better than that.”

Xu Ziling nodded, "I had never heard Li Shimin suffers defeat,” he said.

Immensely proud of himself, Kou Zhong said, "The so-called sending down the troops, dispatching bravery, based on my currently weak strength, I would be a fool to shake him openly.”

Ba Fenghan and Xu Zilling immediately burst into laughter.

Cursing and swearing, the former said, "Go to your Niang! 'Sending down the troops, dispatching bravery'. Others are ‘sending up the troops, dispatching a scheme', you insist on turning it upside down, so that it becomes out of place. If the troops are not brave, they would be defeated without any battle.”

Kou Zhong laughed together with the other two. Half a day later, he said in low voice, "Li kid basically does not have time to deal with me.”

"How could you say that?” Xu Ziling asked.

Kou Zhong replied, "The self-proclaimed Hegemon of Western Qin Xue Ju and his superb martial art master son Xue Renguo are secretly striking their gongs and beating their drums in preparation to attack to the east toward Chang'An; and Liu Wuzhou might take this opportunity to attack Taiyuan, to rattle his Li Family's foundation. Under these circumstances, how could that Li kid still have time to worry about me?”

Emotionally moved, Ba Fenghan said, "These troops and horses from two different roads are difficult to ward off. I hear among Xue Ju's subordinates there is one great general by the name of Zong Luohou, with unmatched heroism and bravery, expert in using Guan saber [I believe it refers to Guan Yu from the Three Kingdoms]; very formidable.”

Sneering, Xu Ziling said, "Zhong Shao can play his abacus any way he wants, but unfortunately nobody knew when it would happen. That guy Li Shimin still has plenty of time to try to kill us first.”

With a card up his sleeve, Kou Zhong said, "You can try to guess: when that Li kid slipped away just now, where do you think he was going?”

The two were stumped by him; they were unable to respond.

High-spirited, Kou Zhong said, "He went to see Wang Shichong.”

The two nodded in agreement, and could not help admiring him for his outstanding ability and wisdom.

Kou Zhong explained, "Good or bad, currently I can be considered a man from Wang Shichong's camp. Li kid wanted to remove me, he simply has to call out to Wang Shichong, to sound out what he thinks about it. Last time Wang Shichong agreed to put the city under curfew, simply because he did not expect he would be drawn into the dispute involving the Jade Annulus of He Clan; he wanted to declare his innocence, but also because he did not believe that in the Jade Annulus of He Clan's matter, before the water recedes, the rocks appear, Shi Feixuan would kill me.”

Ba Fenghan said, "Since Wang Shichong is an old fox, he might already see through your wild ambition. Maybe he is using Li Shimin to eliminate you.”

Smiling, Kou Zhong said, "If you had spoken those words yesterday, I really did not dare to contradict you. But after giving it a lot of thoughts, I know that Wang Shichong already weighed the pros and cons, and he won't dare to touch me before Li Mi is defeated. Right now he still needs to protect me!”

Puzzled, Ba Fenghan asked, "How could you have such confidence?”

Pleased, Kou Zhong replied, "First of all, because of Zhai Jiao. Currently I am the middleman, only through me would Wang Shichong obtain valuable intelligence on Li Mi's main force, from Zhai Rang's old unit who are still loyal to him.”

Ba Fenghan nodded and said, "This is enough reason for Wang Shichong to treat you like pearl or jewel, which he has to protect with great care. And what's the other reason?”

Kou Zhong replied, "The day after tomorrow is Rong Fengxiang's birthday feast. Wang Shichong will attend. This will give Shen Luoyan an opportunity to assassinate him. Since Wang Shichong is a man who cherishes his life, without me, the chief imperial strategic adviser and ultimate martial art master, by his side giving him direction, he would not dare to tread into this pulling-a-snake-from-its-hole dangerous scheme.”

Sighing in admiration, Be Fenghan said, "It is indeed dispatching bravery and dispatching a scheme. Whoever underestimate you, Kou Zhong, will one day regret it.”

Remaining tranquil and calm, Kou Zhong said, "In my opinion, Wang Shichong may readily agree to join hands with Li kid to deal with me, but they must wait for Li Mi's defeat before commencing the operation. At that time, he and I might lay our cards on the table. If I am willing to be used by him, there won't be any problem. Otherwise, he might set a trap to eliminate me when I do not guard against him. This is called ‘the birds are over, the bow is put away', a famous lesson throughout all ages that Bai Lao Fuzi [old master/teacher, see Book 1 Chapter 1] taught us.”

Xu Ziling joined in, "But with Li Shimin's ability and wisdom, he ought to be able to see that Wang Shichong is helpless against you; perhaps he had another operation in place. Supposing right now you are found dead on the street, even if Zhuge Liang came back to life, he wouldn't be able to guess which party did it.”

Kou Zhong giggled and said, "As long as Li kid does not dare to assemble the crowd to besiege me openly, why would I be afraid? If I, Kou Zhong, am that easy to kill, God knows how many times I would have died!”

It was indeed an inalienable fact.

Muttering to himself, Ba Fenghan said, "Although currently you are able to secretly influence so many things controlling the situation of the Central Plains, I still don't understand why you have so much confidence in vying over the world?”

Taking a deep breath, Kou Zhong said, "The key is the ‘Duke Yang Treasure'. If I can't find it, I will have no choice but to kill this vying-over-the-world desire, go to the great desert to pass happy days with you galloping over the prairie, or perhaps do business in illegal salt trading, leading a befuddled existence [orig. as if drunk] of the second half of my life.”

Ba Fenghan did not understand, "Even if you have treasure and weapons, you don't have territory, you even lack troops and horses; how could you challenge those with deep and solid foundation like the Li Clan?”

Kou Zhong's eyes flashed with cold light; he spoke heavily, "It all goes back to the problem of dispatching bravery and dispatching a scheme. If Li Mi is defeated, the Li Clan will become target of a multitude of arrows. As long as I can scheme to frustrate Du Fuwei, I will have a chance to use the Flying Horse Ranch and Jingling as the center, establish my power, then at the same time expand to the north and south. To the south make alliance with Xiao Xian and the Song Clan, to the north win over Dou Jiande and Liu Wuzhou. If Wang Shichong is still able to hold the Li Clan to the west, there will come a day this land under the heavens will be inside my, Kou Zhong's bag.”

Ba Fenghan sighed and said, "Such a difficult and complex matter, only you, Zhong Shaoye [young master] can feel that it is easily achievable. Just thinking about it is giving me headache.”

Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, "I also have only 50% confidence. But if Xiao Ling is willing to help me, I will have 100% confidence.”

Xu Ziling spoke indifferently, "What you have already said, you must not renege. Otherwise, how can you win the world's trust?”

Smiling apologetically, Kou Zhong said, "Xu Ye, please calm down. I was only expressing my feeling, and spoke without thinking the matter through. Xu Ye agreed to accompany me on the treasure hunt, I already shed tears of gratitude!”

Xu Ziling changed the subject, "Although currently I am extremely resentful toward Li Jing, but from the beginning I never thought of him as someone who'd betray friend to seek glory. Let alone we must remember one other thing that might divulge our secret: perhaps Li kid found out from Li Xiuning that we have the ability to disguise ourselves and change our appearance.”

When the Four Big Bandits attacked the Flying Horse Ranch in the past, Shen Luoyan and Li Tianfan were plotting against Li Xiuning, Kou Zhong intervened to help her. At that time he was wearing Lu Miaozi's masks to conceal his true identity [see first few chapters of Book 10].

"How could I forget?” Kou Zhong said, "Hence I deliberately asked Li Jing, and he admitted with his own mouth.”

"What did he say, exactly?” Xu Ziling asked.

Kou Zhong pondered for half a day, and then replied, "That time his answer was very strange; something like ‘just consider that I did mention it'. But at that time I was already burning with anger that I could not think straight, so I hatefully scolded him some more. Never mind! Why do we care if he did it or not? He has become Li Shimin's hunting dog anyway; there will come a day I might meet head-on with him. All those brotherhood and friendship won't worth a penny.”

Ba Fenghan felt another headache coming; he said, "There are a lot of things that it would be better if we do not think about it too much. The greatest worry in life is that we have too much to think.”

Deeply concerned, Xu Ziling asked, "How's your injury? While it's not dawn yet, we'd better take advantage of this time to work together to heal your injury!”

Smiling ruefully, Ba Fenghan said, "By all means, no! This moment powerful enemies are lurking everywhere, any one of us lose any power could possibly bring unforeseen disaster.”

Sighing, Xu Ziling said, "I still feel that you are afraid that if you are completely recovered, you won't have any reason to leave immediately.”

Having a brainwave, Kou Zhong said, "I get it! You want to steer clear of that Tujue beauty.”

Ba Fenghan opened his right palm; surprisingly, there was that shiny hairpin that Ba Dai'er returned to him.

He raised his right arm, and then, under the blank stare of the two boys, he threw the hairpin into the river. It sank and disappeared without stirring up half a ripple.

Ba Fenghan spoke indifferently, "Almost dawn!”

※ ※ ※

The three galloped out of town at top speed. After passing through a sparse forest northwest of the city, they climbed a dirt slope, and reined their horses to stop.

Surrounded by hills all around, there was a quiet small lake lay on the grassland ahead. The bluish green waves and the crystal-clear water rippled in front of the forest, the dawn mist was still floating above the green and lush surface of the water. The three felt their spirit aroused.

Pointing to the poetic and picturesque scenery ahead with his whip, Kou Zhong let out a long laughter and said, "If we did not insist on sending you off for a while, we would not know there is such a good place nearby.”

Ba Fenghan jumped down the horse, taking out a heavy-looking money purse, he tied it onto Kou Zhong's saddle and said with a smile, "There are at least fifty ingots of gold weighing one tael each in this purse. This is called ‘before the three armies [i.e. upper, middle and lower army, or right, center and left] move, the army provisions precede'. Just consider it my, Ba Fenghan's, small contribution to Kou Huang's [emperor] finance.”

Kou Zhong did not decline; delighted, he said, "Between us, brothers, there is no need to mention a lot of rubbish; in short, I, Kou Zhong, appreciate your kindness! You'd better put on your mask, so that to the people pursuing you, Ba Fenghan has disappeared.”

Shaking his head, Ba Fenghan said, "Changing my face is not enough. When I get to the nearest town, I'll change clothes, put my weapon away, and disguise myself as an ordinary traveling merchant. This way I will fool people's eyes and ears better.”

Xu Ziling said, "If it weren't for Ba Dai'er, who could make you, Ba Fenghan, hiding your true colors with thousand ways, a hundred plans?”

Ba Fenghan flew back onto his horse. After turning his head around to scan the area, he sighed and said, "From this moment onwards, I will no longer think of her, and I do not wish to see her again.”

After staring deeply into the two boys' eyes, he fixed his gaze forward, and spoke in heavy tone, "We'll part here. I don't know whether we will see each other again. Two brothers, please take good care of yourselves!”

He squeezed the horse's belly with his legs, the steed neighed and moved its four legs, galloping down the slope, and disappearing behind a cloud of dust.

The two boys followed him with their eyes. Without even looking back he galloped through the forest and the prairie, sometimes hidden from their sight, until finally he turned into a small dot, and vanished in a dense wood in the distance.

Only then did Kou Zhong breathe a sigh of relief. "Nobody's following him!” he said.

Xu Ziling nodded in agreement.

The two urged their horses to turn around, and then rode back slowly down the slope.

Kou Zhong repeatedly exhaled to clear his heavy heart filled with the sadness of separation. "Separated in life and death, unexpectedly could be this depressing,” he spoke in agony, "Niang is dead, Ba Fenghan is gone, this is all very difficult, yet nothing we could do about it. Were it not for that poniang [reminder: woman, in derogatory way] Ba Dai'er, perhaps Ol' Ba would still be with us for a while longer.”

Noticing Xu Ziling's pensive look, as if he did not hear what he said, Kou Zhong asked in surprise, "What's on your mind? Are you surprised that no one is following us? Actually, this is to be expected. Just think, who would want to provoke us now without thinking three times over first?”

Xu Ziling shook his head, "I suddenly remember Su Jie,” he said, "My heart is not happy.”

Kou Zhong's countenance changed, "Don't scare me!” he said.

Xu Ziling sighed and said, "Perhaps it was because I saw Li Jing again! After killing Yuwen Huaji, I am going to look for Su Jie, I want to see how Xiang Yushan is treating her. Humph!”

Kou Zhong was deep in thought for half a day. Finally he said, "I think it's time for you to see Wang Shichong!”

Showing disdain on his face, Xu Ziling shook his head and said, "Today I do not wish to see that kind of person. You go back first! I want to ride for a while. Somehow I feel a bit depressed.”

Kou Zhong was stunned, "It's not fire-deviation sign, is it?” he asked.

Xu Ziling laughed and scolded him, "Fire-deviation your @$$! You go your road through Yangguan [fig. wide open road/bright future], I go my single-log bridge [fig. difficult path]. Don't forget at noon Song Lu is waiting for us for a feast at the House of Dong. Now get lost; go see your Wang Shichong and Dong Shuni Mei!” Finished speaking he urged his horse to gallop away.

Kou Zhong stared blankly for half a day. Finally he smiled wryly, shook his head, and then returned to the city.

※ ※ ※

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