Xu Ziling laughed hoarsely and said, "I want to ask Miss a question first. If his opponent was a virtuous and benevolent ruler, would Li Shimin abandon his desire to strive for the world?”
Not only Shi Feixuan was not offended, she found it very interesting instead. "I did not expect Xu Xiong to be an eloquent scholar,” she said, "But returning to the original topic, where exactly is the Jade Annulus of He Clan?”
Xu Ziling dejectedly replied, "To be honest with you, if the Jade Annulus of He Clan is in my hands, perhaps I would really return it to you. Unfortunately the Jade Annulus of He Clan is finished!”
Shi Feixuan's jade countenance did not show the least bit of emotion; she quietly looked at him for half a day. Finally she sighed tenderly and said, "Unexpectedly, two secrets, which for thousands of years have passed through countless venerable forebears, sages and scholars exhausting their thoughts to penetrate without any result, the first being the ‘Secret to Long Life', and the second being the Jade Annulus of He Clan, had both been uncovered by you. If this is not fate, I don't know what it is.”
Greatly astonished, Xu Ziling said, "So just like that, and you understand what I am saying?”
Shi Feixuan spoke tenderly, "As early as when we met for the first time at the bridgehead, I have already sensed it, nevertheless it was hard to believe, and only now I can verify; what else can I say? Even if I kill you, this matter cannot be mended.”
Xu Ziling asked in surprise, "Is it just my imagination? Miss does not seem to care about the Jade Annulus of He Clan's existence or demise.”
Shi Feixuan replied indifferently, "Everything in the world has its own purpose. The Jade Annulus of He Clan was this kind of rare, strange object that had its destiny to transmit qi, it would not have come around with the slightest amount of effort. Xu Xiong, please leave!”
She was willing to let him go, Xu Ziling should have wiped his forehead and hasten to leave, yet this moment it looked like he would rather receive a beating or a hard lesson from her. With a rueful smile he saluted and turned around.
But after walking in the rain for five, six steps, he could not help stopping and asked, "Could Miss reveal in details: why did you fake an injury that night and let us off?”
Shi Feixuan's tranquil and elegant voice came from behind, "Because Feixuan started to feel compassion on you. Is this answer forthcoming enough?”
Xu Ziling laughed involuntarily; he continued walking leisurely.
Shi Feixuan looked intently at his proud-and-aloof, above-the-crowd, back, all the way until he disappeared in the depth of the forest before she regained her gaze.
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong urged his horse to gallop out of the Imperial City; another thorn seemed to grow in his heart, giving him a gloomy mood, and it was hard to divert himself from loneliness.
What troubled him most was Wang Shichong's timidity [orig. afraid of the head, terrified of the tail]. The originally flawless plans have become neither soup nor water, so that he did not know whether to laugh or to cry.
Wang Shichong himself was a top-ranking martial art master. With him in full alert, plus Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling by his side to protect him, feigning injury under assassin's attack ought to be an easy matter.
Although based on his current insight Kou Zhong did not think too highly of Shen Luoyan's martial art skill, but he was quite wary toward her cunning and resourcefulness.
Were it not for a freak combination of many factors, plus fate and happenstance, perhaps they, two brothers, would have been killed under her hands long ago.
Therefore, troops disposition must be freely and effortlessly [orig. as the arm moves the finger]; otherwise, even if Sun Wu were reborn, Wu Hou resurrected, there would be nothing that they could do.
While thinking to this point, he already turned toward the Heavenly Street.
The House of Dong Restaurant towered by the bridgehead, together with the other three multistory building, they set each other off nicely.
Pedestrians and carriages flowed in an endless stream along the Heavenly Street. On the River ships and boats also coming and going continuously. The drizzle added some kind of hard-to-describe endless-entanglement atmosphere and charm.
It was still half a sichen away from the wu hour [noon].
Would Xiao Ling be able to rush back in time to join him for the meeting?
While thinking about it, he already passed the Tianjin Bridge and galloped toward the south gate.
At a stretch Kou Zhong passed three mule carts and two horse-drawn carriages. He was having so much fun.
Galloping along downtown area like this, when he was still in Yangzhou in the past, all he could do was watching other people with envy; who would have thought that now he also had the opportunity to enjoy the same experience.
This moment he saw on the pedestrian lane to his left a group of beautiful non-Han women wearing beautiful damask silk clothing of all kinds of color and style, walking toward him, greeting him with their eyes, and even throwing amorous glances toward him.
Kou Zhong immediately displayed his snow-white and neat teeth, and flashed his brilliant smile in return, inciting their pretty eyes to shine as they burst into tender laughter.
Kou Zhong was greatly amused; he showed off by spurring his horse to full speed. But as he passed two riders, fast as lightning, an alarm suddenly went off in his heart.
A barely visible dark shadow shot out from the pedestrian lane to his right, diagonally cutting through the gap between a galloping horse-drawn carriage and a walking mule cart, coming straight toward him with astonishing speed and accuracy. By the time Kou Zhong perceived the dark shadow to be a long, shiny hair, it already entered the horse's right nostril.
The most brilliant aspect of this sneak attack was that it utilized the two vehicles as a cover. By the time the target was aware of the attack, it was already too late to react.
If the hair's target was Kou Zhong's person, he would definitely be able to dodge the attack in timely manner; however, this time it was his horse that was hit by the sneak attack.
The horse neighed in pain, reared on its hind legs, and fell down to the right. Following the horse, Kou Zhong was thrown forward that his head and face were covered in dirt. Springing up, he leaped over the carriages, dashing toward the direction of the secret projectile, his heart flew into rage.
Traffic on the street was immediately thrown into confusion, everybody scrambled away as they cast sidelong glances toward him.
After struggling for a moment, the horse crawled back up. Obviously, this strand of hair was meant to play a trick, without any real intention to harm the horse.
But Kou Zhong was in high spirit when it happened, so he was angry of losing face.
His toes pushed on the top of a carriage, which happened to travel along the carriage lane across the street from his side of the pedestrian lane, and borrowing the reaction force, he shot up just in time to catch a glimpse of a graceful woman's back side, which disappeared into a side lane. This woman was wearing red warrior outfit, so it was a highly-visible target.
Kou Zhong abruptly raised a mouthful of true qi. Unable to deal with the shock, he leaped overhead the passers-by toward the roof of a general store to pursue the enemy. These days, it was the first time he had to suffer such a loss of face in public; no matter what, he could not swallow this resentment.
In the distance, the alluring red shadow flashing and disappearing over the roof, as if it was enticing him to pursue her.
By now Kou Zhong was both very skillful and very daring; knowing well that it might be a trap, he remained calm without any fear, as he pursued at full speed.
In one breath, they passed over a dozen buildings. When he dropped down to the ground to cross a side street, the woman suddenly appeared ahead of him.
Shaken, Kou Zhong abruptly halted his step and said in astonishment, "It's you!”
Surprisingly, it was Hong Funu [red brush lady], who snatched Li Jing away from Susu's hands.
Perhaps Hong Funu liked the color red very much, because not only the whisk in her hand was blood red like it was on fire, which ‘vying to be the most glamorous' against her red clothing, she was wearing an alternating red and white flowers hairpin on her jet-black and shiny hair. Combined with her icy flesh and jade bones, not only she did not look tacky at all, she appeared extraordinarily cool, elegant and graceful instead.
For some unknown reason, the fire in Kou Zhong's heart disappeared for the most part. While he was musing inwardly on which woman, if she was wearing red clothes, would look better than she, Hong Funu let out a cold laugh and said, "This time I played a trick to lure you here, purely because of personal gratitude and grudges; it has nothing to do with Qin Wang, so you don't have to worry that anybody else will be involved.”
Kou Zhong took a step forward, and asked with a frown, "What gratitude and grudges is there between you and me?”
Hong Funu's beautiful eyes shot fierce and harsh look, but the tone of her voice was extraordinarily calm. She replied slowly, "Were it not for you, two guys, deliberately distorting the truth [orig. inverting black and white] and did not distinguish right from wrong, my Fujun [lit. husband lord] would not have sighed long and short, and being miserable and depressed all day. Considering the current virtuous cause, if you can get back on the right path, it is not too late. Otherwise, don't blame me for being ruthless.”
Kou Zhong felt a big headache coming.
Just by looking at her skill in using her beautiful hair as a secret projectile a moment ago, he knew that her name was not in vain. In terms of internal strength, technique, and eyesight, she has reached the realm of top-notch martial art master.
Upon self-inspection, Kou Zhong had to admit that he could not do it, while she succeeded in just one strike.
He was not really afraid of her, simply because he had never had a chance to face concealed weapon before.
The biggest problem was that no matter how he loathed Li Jing, he would never have the heart to kill this beautiful and alluring, tender wife of his, who came to deal with him. With the exception of Wanwan, it was usually very easy for him to be softhearted toward women.
In this kind of situation, the opponent was going all out to attack him, while he was having misgivings in his heart; naturally he would be greatly disadvantaged.
Hong Funu thought that he was contemplating her advice seriously, hence she waited patiently; she would never imagine that what's going on in his mind was a completely different thing.
It was quite half a day later that Kou Zhong sighed and asked, "How did Madame meet Li Jing?”
Hong Funu crossly said, "You answer my question first.”
Kou Zhong dispiritedly replied, "I don't want to fight with you.”
Hong Funu's jade countenance turned cold; she spoke heavily, "In that case you are obstinately clinging to your course, obstinately persisting in going about things the
wrong way, but everybody has his own aspiration. I would like to ask: who does not think that what he is doing is the most proper thing?”
Murderous aura flashed through Hong Funu's eyes. She spoke slowly, word-by-word, "If not for considering that you were once my Fujun's brothers, I would have made my move early on to kill you. Right or wrong, we can always argue about it. But merely the fact that you stole the Jade Annulus of He Clan is already a capital offense that is difficult to forgive.”
Under her as-sharp-as-double-edged-sword gaze, Kou Zhong did not yield the slightest bit; he spoke heavily, "This time you are looking for me, is Li Jing aware of it?”
Hong Funu's eyes revealed a pained look; raising her whisk, she shouted tenderly, "En garde!”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud while floating back.
He only withdrew for half a zhang back when he suddenly realized that because he did not have the heart to fight, he had made a very serious mistake.
Tian Ce Fu's [Heavenly Policy Mansion] number one martial art master was really not equal to any ordinary person.
※ ※ ※
The city gate in sight, Xu Ziling spurred the horse to full speed so that he would not be late for the appointment.
Toward the chivalrous and passionate hero Song Lu, he has always had high esteem, and after all, he was the uncle of Song Shidao.
He had never imagined that Song Shidao was a man with deep passion and heavy righteousness.
Because of his own humble background, he had never had any favorable impression toward the children and disciples of prominent school and large and influential family. But Song Lu and Song Shidao changed his mind.
Song Yuzhi was also a good woman, unfortunately …
While he was thinking about these things, a dozen or so riders coming straight ahead side by side with each other, forming a horizontal line, practically blocking the road.
Xu Ziling promptly reined his horse. Turned out they were Tuoba Yu, martial brother and sister, plus a group of Tujue martial art masters. Every one of them looked grave, with thick murderous intent on their faces.
Xu Ziling groaned inwardly. This moment it was already too late for him to evade. Without any better option he urged his horse to forge ahead.
END OF BOOK 16
 Sun Wu, also known as Sun Tzu (c. 500 BC, dates of birth and death uncertain), general, strategist and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period (700-475 BC), believed to be the author of the ‘Art of War', one of the seven Military Classics of ancient China.
 Wu Hou [Marquis of ZhongWu], aka Zhuge Liang (181 - 234), courtesy name Kongming, was a chancellor (or prime minister) of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period. He is recognized as the most accomplished strategist of his era, comparable to Sun Tzu.